Kauto Star is the greatest steeplechaser of his generation. His impressive competitive record includes 31 placings in 36 starts accumulating a record breaking £2million in prize money; the first horse in jumps racing to do so. During the course of his seven year career the versatile horse's victories came over distances ranging from two miles to three miles six furlongs. He won steeplechasing's blue riband event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, twice; the Betfair Chase four times and he made history on Boxing Day 2011 when he won the King George VI Chase for the fifth time at the age of 12.
Rumours began to circulate that the wonder horse would retire following this record breaking victory while at the top of his game; after all, he surely had nothing left to prove. However, his adoring and perhaps misguided fans demanded one more Gold Cup. His owner and trainer debated and, it appears, caved in to public demand. The great horse ran his final race in March 2012 when he attempted to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the third time. It was a sad end to a glittering career when, clearly never travelling and following a number of uncharacteristic jumping errors, Kauto Star was pulled up. His overdue retirement was announced later that day by his owner.
But what would retirement hold for such a legend? Kauto could not be retired to stud as unlike the stars of flat racing, jumps horses are routinely gelded. After all he had achieved it seemed an insult to downgrade and take him point-to-pointing. He was fit, healthy and sound with potentially many years of useful life left; pottering around forgotten in a field was clearly out of the question too. What about dressage? Ridiculous; scoffed his fans. Kauto in a tutu, they cried! After all his years of macho galloping and exuberant jumping, where would be the challenge in mincing about like an equine ballerina?
Yogi Breisner, trainer of the British eventing team, thought otherwise and following extensive discussion with the horse's owner and trainer, Kauto Star began learning a new trade.
Dressage requires a completely different regime to racing. He will no longer live on a bustling yard with over 100 other inmates and his pace of life will be considerably slower. Much of his work will be done by himself in contrast to a racing yard where horses work as a string; whether it be hacking out, schooling or working on the gallops. He will develop a closer relationship with his rider as she will be the one grooming him, feeding him, schooling him and handling him each day.
When work begins, different muscle groups are used. A dressage horse requires muscle over his topline and much of his work involves repetition and strengthening exercises. Luckily for Kauto, he has pretty good confirmation for dressage which is unusual in a thoroughbred. He has quite a short, well set-on neck and is not too long in the back. He also has a very bright, inquisitive personality. He is also very sharp and inclined to boil over which is a facet of his nature he will have to learn to control as overexcitement has no place in the dressage arena and will lose marks by the bucket-full.
As for the work involved in effecting the transformation from racehorse to dressage horse; there are no tutus in evidence which should come as a relief to the sceptics. A racehorse learns to gallop fast in a straight line, usually around a left-handed racetrack. He also learns to jump imposing fences at speed. When more speed is required, the jockey will pull back on the reins and bump up and down on the horse's back, urging him forward with his hands and whip in a finish.
The dressage horse has to learn to negotiate balanced, accurate circles on both reins, he is never required to gallop, he has to learn to use his hindquarters to balance himself and his rider rather than sticking out his neck. He learns to work in self-carriage with a supple bend around his rider's inside leg. He is required to wear different tack, his rider sits in a totally different position with a completely alien centre of gravity to what he's used to. Every aid he receives from his rider will have a new meaning and will feel different because of his rider's totally different riding position. He will learn to change smoothly from one pace to the next, to move sideways, backwards and to stand perfectly still when asked. He will effectively be expected to make the transformation from super-fit, lean, mean racing machine to supple, relaxed, balanced equine gymnast – not easy, even for a wonder-horse!
Kauto Star loves his new job! He has yet to make his competitive debut but he did make an appearance at Newbury racecourse earlier this year where he strutted his stuff in the parade to the delight and surprise of his many fans. Kauto is only a few months into his training but is already making great progress and I shall be watching out for his competition debut with interest.
Just Google "Kauto Star dressage" and check out the video: what better advert could there be for the rehabilitation of racehorse charities?!
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