Pro riders, owners, their horses and now their lawyers.

Mark Jung and La Biosthetique-Sam on their way to the individual gold medal at WEG
Mark Jung and La Biosthetique-Sam on their way to the individual gold medal at WEG.

After the euphoria that surrounded the World Equestrian Games and the spellbinding, or nail biting, performances by champions such as Moorlands Totilas and La Biosthetique-Sam FBW, the fallout has started. Because, guess what? For the owners, this is the best time for them to sell. For the riders? They may suddenly find themselves without their “partner”, a horse that has become to many like a member of their families.

Peter Atkins and "Henny"
Peter Atkins and "Henny"

First, Totilas was sold to Paul Schockemöhle, to the shock of rider Edward Gal, who stated at the Games that the horse was not for sale. Next, Sam was removed from Michael Jung’s barn (allegedly without his knowledge) by his majority owner Sabine Kreuter,  (Sam was, at least temporarily, returned to Jung on November 18). And now there’s a dispute between Peter Atkins and Linda Martin about the ownership and future of event horse Henry Jota Hampton (Henny) after Martin removed Henny from Atkin’s barn (Henny has also been returned, by court order to Atkins, pending review of the case).

Totilas with Edward Gal.Equestrians worldwide are in mourning over the dissolution of partnerships that created such magical results. Totilas energized and inspired the world of dressage. Would that have been possible without Gal? Jung spent  several years developing Sam and then achieved one of the pinnacles of eventing success by winning the individual gold medal for eventing at WEG. And Atkins reportedly took Henny from a horse that wouldn’t jump a cross rail to a respectable 24th place finish at WEG. The question is, are these the results from a “special” partnership? Or simply good training? And where do the riders stand?

There is no doubt that strong partnerships exists between these riders and horses that are independent of legal ownership. Gal has stated that he would be willing to change nationalities to ride Totilas a the Olympics, for example.

But for even the most accomplished riders the cost of buying and campaigning a horse at the highest levels is beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. On several horse forums I’ve seen estimates that competing at the 4* level of eventing (arguably the least expensive of the equestrian sports) of up to $150,000/year! Unless you have a trust fund in the wings, the only way to be a professional is to have owners, sponsors and syndicates to support you.

So where does that leave the owners? A few are in it for the glory of owning an upper level horse. They enjoy matching up deserving riders with talented horses and that’s enough. But I can’t believe there are many of them out there. For others, the horse is an investment, and a fragile one at that. Every day there is the possibility that a bad step might end a promising career. The temptation — actually, the rational decision — is to sell such a horse at its prime.

Vilifying owners for the decision to sell will only make those able to support the sport less willing to do so in the future.

And what about the horse? In the forums, there is the cry that owners are not putting the horses first, that the rider/trainer has the horse’s best interests at heart. I think we all need to remember that horses don’t care if they reach their “potential.” Totilas was sold to one of the largest breeding operations in the world. If Sam or Henny are sold, they are hardly going to bad homes. Who can say that their next owners/riders won’t treasure them just as much as their current riders?

Unfortunately, this is a “business” where emotion takes a front seat. Riders spend more time with a horse than its owners and often have a special bond. Some of them, like the Jung family are minority owners who will profit financially from a sale but still lose the horse.

Sponsors held reunite Mark Todd with Charisma.
Sponsors held reunite Mark Todd with Charisma.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that a syndicate or a sponsor can buy some of these special horses and return them to “their” rider. That’s what happened when Charisma’s owner decided to sell the horse . . . to anyone except Mark Todd. Todd’s sponsors arranged for the horse to be sold to a fellow eventer, but put up the money so that the horse would be reunited with Todd, who kept the horse until he died at age 30 from a pasture accident.

3 thoughts on “Pro riders, owners, their horses and now their lawyers.

  1. Thank you for offering this important perspective on recent news events. I have been a bit surprised at the vilifying of owners on various forums. I think it is naive to think that owners are just in it for the love of waching a great partnership. I would agree that going and getting the horse without the rider’s knowledge is not cool. But selling top level horses, or even changing their ride, is the perogative of the owner and all sponsored riders know this upfront.

  2. It is a fascinating after-effect of WEG, isn’t it? Who would have expected this? And is it over yet?

    Two things interest me: 1) the difference between the value of geldings and the value of mares and stallions doesn’t seem to make much difference to the situation, although it must to the value of the horse; 2) the relative economy of some nations really rocks the boat. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Germany can afford to buy the best horses from other nations. Will we end up buying our jumpers back from the Saudis? And was it any surprise that a German owner would buy the world’s most valuable horse? The Germany economy is amazing right now. It’s booming!

    I feel for the riders but wonder about the legal terms in the contracts.

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