Meet Endurance Rider Dominic Smith

Spring 2023 Magazine – pg.10

Dominic, from Essex, has been an IH member for about 20 years and competes in endurance with his horse, George. Dominic competes George, both barefoot and bitless.

“Endurance will teach you a lot about your horse, yourself… and your ability to endure”

How long have you been an IH Member?

Must be about 20 years

How did you first get involved with horses?

I came into horses aged 14, although with a great grandfather in the Royal Horse Artillery and a great great grandfather in the Lancers it would be lovely to think it’s somehow in the blood.

What would be your horsey childhood memories?

We used to camp at a farm in Cornwall in the 1970’s (didn’t everyone?) and that summer, the farmer’s daughter Gail, allowed me to hop onto one of her ponies called Ricky, when fetching them in from the fields. That was it for me, lessons began at home that year, and I spent the next few years riding Frosty and Rocky, being taught better than I realised at the time. It’s only years later when a horse moves off your leg, that you appreciate quite how good the teacher was.

How did you first hear about Kelly and IH?

Fast forward a few years, to a time when a colleague at work was looking for a sharer for her horse Marley who was stabled at a local yard. This is where I met a friend called Karen who owned a Hartsop Farm horse called Ocean (readers might recall the bay horse with amazing blue eyes and a white face). Karen encouraged me to try out a five-day foundation course, I was absolutely hooked from day one. Hartsop Farm and the Intelligent Horsemanship courses opened up a world of horses for me that I never knew existed.

It is difficult to really remember now just how things felt but being opened up to a world of gentle handling, fun obstacles, groundwork, long lining (human long lining was great fun!) really changed everything for me. So many things to try and recall, the list wouldn’t make the final cut. Advance and retreat (which incidentally works for stray cats that turn up at fields!)  incremental learning, working on horse time not human time, Kelly’s power walks and day one name learning technique.        

Learning about anything from resting or running legs to field latrines. It was on the course where we were practicing tacking up on a barrel, I’m sure that was the unhandled course, where my biggest take away comes from. Whatever the occasion, there was a point where either girth or stirrups were being lowered down. Course tutor Sandra Williams used the word ‘respectfully’. I don’t think I realised at the time, but that one single word at that moment grew and grew. I think about that whenever I’m tacking up, and other times besides.

When did you decide to look for your first own horse?

I reached a point where I wanted to look for a horse of my own. During a visit to Hartsop Farm I spoke to Sandy Vandenberghe about it, and she took me to see her friend Tina. I looked at the 2-year-old Hackney crosses, doing a rather lively display around the barn, and decided against anything so young. We then went out to a paddock and into the field, where a group of about six youngsters cantered over, stopping a few yards short. George stepped forward from the herd and came up to us. There he let me run my hands over him, and pick up his feet, and I guess that is the point at which he bought me. Not long after, the transaction was made with the help of Sandy and Ian, and he was transported to Hartsop Farm for starting, up to trot. I recall Sandy saying that George had plenty of bone, but not having a clue what that meant! George had been a Monty starter the year before (2008?) at Hartpury and turned away again. A horse that comes with your dad’s first name, and your mum’s birthday, it must be in the stars.

George came home, and at the time I was on a small yard with no arena. Life was very much about working in a field or the yard itself. Two years on, in 2011 I had begun short hacks out of the yard. On one occasion the poor boy got spooked and I got injured in an unfortunate incident which was not his fault! I then spent another two years doing much more from the ground, with poles and bags, and bags on poles, flags, gym balls, all that fun stuff! Once I felt we were ready we got back to our hacking, and that progressed into the endurance riding we do now.

Can you tell us how your herd grew?

Sometime in 2012, IH Trainer Jenny Major shared a rehoming story about Dartmoor Hill Ponies. I already had a much older sacral injury (non horsey!), and with the new injuries, I wondered what the future might hold, and if a driving pony would be an option. I ended up taking on a weanling who I called Pan, starting her from scratch, through all the desensitisation work, long lining and eventually backing her. Sadly, small enough jockeys are like gold dust. I went to Dartmoor three times, taking part in, and helping at the unhandled courses that were run by Natalie Torr and Sarah Edwards. The courses were very much run on the basis of Sarah Weston’s – no fear no force. The result of my second and third visits was the addition of my two wild ponies, Auntie and Boy. They are utterly amazing, they bring such magic to the herd, there is no requirement to perform, they’re just here to fulfil their days. That said, something changed in Auntie during those two lockdown years, and except for her face front, touch is welcome everywhere else. Having wild (some will argue feral) ponies in the field really teaches you what is on the inside of your horse. If you begin to see that wild pony is inside your own horse, you really learn to appreciate quite how much your horse is over writing at every interaction, forgiving all our sudden movements and blundering.The herd also includes an Exmoor called Angel who I took on when my dear departed friend Lue, was diagnosed with cancer, we miss you Lue. Also, my Menorcan x Ballaeric Jack, Frances the 16.2 mule. Frances was last to arrive, but wow did she change the herd. She has love in bucketful’s and set about loving everyone into submission.

Please share your journey into endurance riding.

George and I began our endurance career in 2016. (It’s all done in km) We began with the 32k rides, and seven seasons on, we compete at up to 80 km in a single day, and 100 km multi day events. Generally, we travel at a huge, floaty, extended trot that he is well known for, and presumably comes from his Welsh roots. Endurance will teach you a lot about your horse, yourself, the sport and your ability to endure! Relying on others to crew and get you both through brings a real team spirit to what at other times feels like a very solo act, when you’re occasionally out of course with not a soul in sight.

The 2022 season saw George win us the male rider trophy for the second time, and in his first veteran year at 18 years, he won the national veteran horse trophy. We compete barefoot and bitless. He was bitted for a very short time, but it just didn’t suit us. Although this year we rode in a colourful sidepull, almost all his successful 2,725 km to date has been done in our trusty black Dually with the sheepskin noseband that we are often recognised for (now that’s a lovely feeling!). At 18 years old, he has never been shod, and competes on a variety of terrain on feet that I learned to trim myself (thanking Pan and Angel for providing the practice feet!). I have found that the key lesson in endurance is to truly ride your own ride. It is easy to be carried along with others when your own ride plan works best – stick to what you know works for you as a horse rider combination, perhaps a valuable lesson for life in general!

Sandy once said, “You’ve got a horse for life there”. Now there’s a thing!

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