They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but how many of us are guilty of doing that with horses? World Horse Welfare’s plea to riders not to underestimate the potential of ‘gypsy cobs’ should strike a chord with everyone looking for a new horse, or thinking of parting with one they own in favour of a flashier model.

The recession means that more animals than ever are being dumped, fly grazed, sent from auction to auction or advertised as ‘free to good home’ – which often results in them meeting the same fate. For some, euthanasia is the kindest answer, but others could have a real future if more riders opened their eyes and minds.

Dylis, who is looking for a home through the Blue Cross re-homing scheme. Photograph courtesy of Blue Cross.
Dylis, who is looking for a home through the Blue Cross re-homing scheme.
Photograph courtesy of Blue Cross.

You’re dreaming of dressage? Then you need a warmblood with flashy paces. You want to do endurance? Then you’ve just got to have an Arab. Except…you don’t. Unless, of course, you’re REALLY going to be heading down the centre line at top level or striving for the ultimate long distance challenges.

It isn’t just a case of avoiding stereotypes, it’s about being realistic. It could also be about being safe, responsible and making sure you don’t send a lovely horse on a downward spiral.

Choosing the right horse for the job doesn’t just mean looking at blueblood pedigrees and impressive competition records and/or potential. It means finding a horse that you’re happy to see looking over the door or in the field each day and who puts a smile on your face every time you set off to ride him or her. It doesn’t mean, as a despairing dressage trainer friend bemoans, buying a big, powerful, sensitive horse who reacts quicker than you do and needs a management and schooling routine that the average rider with work and/or family commitments can’t provide.

Last week, my dressage trainer friend roped me in to write for her at a local affiliated dressage venue. She judged the Prelim and Novice classes and many competitors entered both.

Two riders, both 40-something ladies, stick in my mind. One rode a big, fully clipped chestnut warmblood, complete with expensive dressage saddle, de rigeur white dressage saddlecloth and a bridle that probably cost more than most of us earn in a week. The other was mounted on an unclipped, hairy cob equipped with a synthetic saddle.

The lady who looked the biz also looked miserable. So did her horse. She was frightened to let him go forward and her insecurity passed down the reins, resulting in him being stiff and resistant. Her marks reflected this.

The little cob, on the other hand, pinged round in a lovely rhythm and the smile on his rider’s face at her final salute said it all. She won the Prelim class with 68 per cent and scored 62 per cent in the affiliated Novice.

That pony will, no doubt, have a long and happy career. I do hope the lady with the warmblood gets help finding her confidence or sells her horse to someone who can gel with him. I also hope she doesn’t go off and buy another from the same mould.

‘Ordinary’ horses and ponies can do extraordinary things with the right people. This is Redwings Master Blaster, alias Pongo, who was taken in by Redwings Horse Sanctuary and has reached the dizzy heights of showing at the Royal International Horse Show with young rider Rosie Wilson.

Rosie Wilson on Redwings Master Blaster. Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Henderson.
Rosie Wilson on Redwings Master Blaster.
Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Henderson.

So, rather than judging that book by its cover, look at every horse as a blank page. Writing your story together could be the most satisfying thing you’ve ever done.

And do remember that the equine charities who pick up so many of the pieces are always looking for homes where horses and ponies can do a job, whether that be as a hack or a potential competition animal. If you’re on the lookout, don’t just look at the adverts, look at websites such as World Horse Welfare and Blue Cross.