Posted on 22nd November 2021
by Jess Howard
Perhaps you can learn something from Cruiser.
‘The Cruiser’ was my life and soul for 13 wonderful years. From the age of 14 I was graced with every little horse mad child’s dream – a horse so black you could almost see stars glistening in his coat at night, with four matching white socks and a rough diamond shaped star just under his forelock. A real-life Black Beauty, just like Anna Sewell so beautifully described in her books that I pored over under my duvet at night with a torch.
Cruiser was a driving horse, with an illustrious career that spanned internationally for 16 years, and lived in yards that belong to some of the best men and women that international driving has ever seen. He was born in Holland, and although his exact breeding was unknown, it was highly suspected that he was a mixture of Hackney and Gelderlander – both very sought-after driving breeds.
I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Preetha Exell by a mutual friend, who is Boyd Exell’s wife. Boyd Exell is the current FEI World Ranking #1 in driving and has held that title for over a decade with spectacularly good reason. He is a master at work with a team of horses; it is poetry in motion watching him and his team coordinate obstacles that would be considered impossible by most – those horses answer all his questions clearly, confidently, and passionately; they absolutely adore their job.
I was able to briefly ask Preetha some questions about Cruisers early life, as I knew that somewhere along the line Boyd had worked with him. Boyd broke him to harness as a young horse, before he went to Jimmy Jeffries and then latterly George Bowman. Having been involved with driving for much of her younger grooms’ years, my mum was familiar with George, having looked after horses that competed against him many years previously.
Georgina Hunt (nee Frith) owned Cruiser before we bought him and is an extremely successful international and national driving champion in her own right. Her reason for sale was that she had realised that teaching the younger horses the ropes had become a stale pastime for him – he was bored; and he was getting stronger in the mouth. His lust for a job he once loved was fading and Georgina wanted him to have a new life. Cruisers groom Veronica was devastated when he left, and he had been the farriers’ favourite too.
However, he was 16 years old and had never done anything but drive.
Mum bought him unseen just from photos, over the phone. She sent over photos of our yard that we owned at the time to show Georgina where he would live and assured her that he would never leave us. Mum knew what she was taking on having worked so intricately with driving horses for so many years, and hoped that somehow he could have a quieter life hacking out, doing some local shows to keep his brain active and enjoy what was essentially for him, retirement from competition.
Dear Cruiser however, had a whole different ball game.
He arrived around 10pm late one evening and was the last horse on the transporters box. He had come to Lincolnshire from Gatwick, and he threw himself from the top of the ramp with so much force and enthusiasm that I am surprised he didn’t fall over.
On reflection many years later, we often laugh over a cup of tea in the kitchen, about how we all thought that we had made an awful mistake, blindly buying a horse that was so sharp and so high energy, that ‘jumped’ off the ramp when he came home.
He stood like a rock in his stable barely breathing, until he had all his rugs changed, boots off and the door was closed behind him and bolted shut. Only then he took a mouthful of hay. Mum reminds me even now that driving horses must be that well behaved and regimented to keep themselves and handlers safe when driving them – a team of four horses on the end of your reins means manners are drilled into them extensively.
Months passed, he dragged us (politely) up to the field and back every day – I don’t think I have ever walked so fast in my life, he was always on a mission. He was as bold as an Ox about anything suspicious and until the very day he died he always marched towards whatever he was frightened of, to get a really good look at what it was. He was calculated, he was brave, he was polite, but by the grace of God he was strong, and he was absolutely electric.
In my wisdom as a 14 year old girl who loved reading about new stuff, loved horses, but most of was utterly obsessed with Mum’s new horse, I decided to ‘play’ with him, after reading a training book by Richard Maxwell. We wanted to teach him to jump, so I spent hours in the arena at home with him putting carrots on jump blocks and making him wiggle through narrow gaps and knock stuff over and walk over poles and fillers and planks. I taught him to play tig. He would follow me anywhere, carrot or no carrot, and I nurtured this until he followed me over a pole, then a jump, then several jumps. He was always a bit too enthusiastic about the ‘jump’ bit of it and I did end up with a hoof to the leg or arm on multiple occasions but we both enjoyed it and I had a really big pony that would follow me everywhere – what isn’t there to love about that?!
Playing with him in the arena and field helped a wonderful friendship blossom, and this turned into riding him bareback, and riding him bareback turned into riding him completely tack-less. Riding tack-less turned into teaching him tricks such as kiss, please, hug, and his favourite party trick – Spanish walk.
In between the fun, we did teach him to do several other more ‘conventional’ things, although in hindsight had I not forged a friendship based on being ridiculous, I am not sure he would have done the other things with such trust or lived as happily or as long as he did.
At 15 I took him to Pony Club camp, where he did dressage, a drill ride, showjumped, a spot of cross country, mounted games, fancy dress, polocrosse and god only knows what else. He was scared and he was unsure a lot of the time but his well-founded manners, good grace and our new pact as best pals meant he embraced it all and had a good go. Cross country was never our greatest discipline, the extra foliage on some of the fences often caught Cruiser by surprise…that said he would jump anything out hunting provided I was brave enough to stick my backside far enough into the saddle to sit what was often an almighty rocket launch. In fact, he was an absolute master on the hunting field, and I say to this day that had he not driven, with some proper training he could have been a superb and very impressive hunter indeed.
In the Spring of 2009, I was approached about riding for my local Pony Club branch at Royal Windsor as part of the celebration of the Pony Clubs 80th Anniversary and DAKS 30th year of sponsorship at Windsor. The charities it aided were Air Ambulance and also the Royal British Legion and we would be tasked with presenting HRH Prince Phillip with a cheque after riding through Windsor Park into the main arena at the prestigious horse show. We said a very enthusiastic ‘yes please!’ and along with 3 others from our branch, made tracks to Royal Ascot for training, then the Guards Polo grounds and then onto Royal Windsor. Out of over one hundred horses attending the ride, Cruiser was elected to be up at the front with the Household Cavalry due to his impeccable manners and the fact that he could easily and professionally cope with the atmosphere. He also, much to my internal pride was a similar colour and stature to a lot of the cavalry horses. I have never been so proud in my life.
Cruiser’s ownership was emotionally handed over to me a couple of years later by mum, whose reasoning lay around the feeling that Cruiser had never really been ‘hers’. I had effectively pinched him by playing with him so much when he arrived, and we had forged a bond that was unmatched to anything else.
We continued to play, experiment, jump, hunt and generally enjoy each other’s company. He had a new lease of life and as long as his body let him, he was making the most of it. I remember having to give him a fortnight off one winter during the hunting season as he was so fit, neither me or my friend that occasionally rode him could stop him from disappearing across every bit of grass he hit out hacking. He loose jumped up to 1.20m at 20 years old, and his last day out hunting was Christmas Eve 2014 – he was 22 years old. Not bad for a horse with a career as hard and as fast as he had had before!
As I became older, I moved away to do my training and BHS stages, but Cruiser remained a constant in my life. He had a couple of years where he didn’t do a great deal of work and was semi-retired. He had suffered an injury to the annular ligament in one back leg, and his recurrent thrush; a contributing factor to his retirement from international sport, was rearing its ugly head at every available opportunity, making him grouchy and sore. Whenever I had the opportunity to do so I would tack him up and hack quietly to the beach, which was only a stones throw away, and let him swim in the sea. He would stand still and let the waves plummet into him up to his shoulders knowingly letting them soothe what was becoming an old and tired body. He had started to trip, and fell over a couple of times too, leaving big holes in his knees and an unfortunate event where he also managed to stand on his tongue too.
I had a really difficult decision to make. He was nearing 25 years old at this stage and his body was beginning to show its age. He had recurrent thrush, he had arthritis, he couldn’t work at the speed his brain wanted to work at and he was miserable as hell. He also had to have 6 teeth removed at Rainbow Equine Hospital, and during the ordeal had lost a good percentage of his body weight. I made a decision to retire him fully and a family friend offered to have him at hers on livery to live out with others so that he had company.
This lasted about 6 months before he went through a fence. Then another fence, and another fence. He became an irritatingly persistent door kicker, wood chewer and annihilated anything else he could get his teeth into including a huge foam cushion nailed to the inside of his door to stop him from kicking it. Alongside these irritating and destructive habits he had also previously developed a knack for picking up and throwing plastic buckets and climbing over stable doors at high speed.
He was 27 years old by this time, bored, furious, and feeling fabulous. He had had his holiday, thank you very much, and would like something to do! So back into work he came!
He spent a few months being led from other horses that I was working with, before I started to ride him again. Mum bought herself another horse, an older chap called Chester, and they became riding pals given that they moved at the same pace.
Cruisers body wasn’t up for his antics, and he very unfortunately ruptured a tendon one day on the beach. Although the injury itself wasn’t all that bad, he caused a secondary problem by chewing his legs while on box rest, which was akin to them being effectively de-gloved. He suffered from photosensitivity during the summer months which made it even worse, and he ended up in a state of rehabilitation for several months. The vet gave him the all clear to begin work again later that year, and Cruiser moved home to my parents to see out the rest of his days. He continued to kick the door, climb out of his stable on a regular basis and demand work until his heart made the decision for us all and laid him to rest on the 25th June 2020.
We had 3 wonderful months spent together during the lockdown of 2020 at home and since then I have been able to reflect on what a remarkable animal he was, but more importantly what a wonderful friend he had become to me too. He taught me more life lessons than I care to imagine about love, patience, respect, and responsibility. Not to mention thinking outside of the box to keep him entertained. He cemented what I feel not many people truly get to experience any more which is a true deep love for horses and an active interest in how they tick.
International driving horse, Pony Club pony, Showjumper, Hunter, Polocrosse player, Trick horse, Natural Horsemanship horse, honorary Household Cavalry horse.
My best friend.
So tell me again, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
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