A horse walks into a pub, takes a seat at the bar and asks the bartender for a drink. The barman pours him a pint and asks, “Why the long face?”
There are long faces aplenty at Vilamoura Equestrian Centre where riders from eighteen different countries – including Poland, Japan, Ukraine, and China – and their mounts have come to test their skills to the limit in the 2023 Portuguese Atlantic Tour.
For six weeks the centre plays host to some of the world’s most talented and aspirational combinations in a festival of show jumping.
If you don’t know much about show jumping allow me to enlighten you a little.
Horses are – in general – large, dangerous at both ends, and uncomfortable in the middle. Okay, it’s a cliche, but it’s true.
And how do I know this? Well, I know this from experience, because I once bought an equestrian centre in Devon for the sole purpose of feeding my daughter Rosanna’s obsession with horses, and providing the facilities for her to coax the brutes over planks, water, IEDs and other obstacles.
I love horses – I even once owned one myself. He was named Billy No Mates, and I had oodles of fun hunting him and competing in distance events, such as the Man V Horse.
And the reason I acquired him was that he had been bought for my daughter, Rosanna, to show jump. But around five minutes after he’d been unloaded from the lorry and taken into the school, he demonstrated that he enjoyed jumping as much as Morrissey enjoys writing cheerful songs.
And before you go all woke about hunting, I saw a fox only once in eight years, and it scarpered the instant it saw my hip flask glint in a rare appearance of Devonian winter sunshine. Hunting was a good excuse to gallop around the countryside and get drunk. And hunting stalwart Kirstie Allsop occasionally hosted the meet of the East Devon Hunt from her estate in Broadhembury. Her bacon butties and generous libations always guaranteed a good start to the day.
I’ve not had the opportunity to watch Rosanna show jump for several years because I live in Marbella and she lives in Devon, so I was delighted to be able to spend a few days with her near Faro, on the Algarve in Portugal. She’s here with two six-year-olds, and – truth be told – they’re a bit of a handful, the mare, Billy Zsa Zsa, in particular.
Now, it may come as a surprise to you to learn that horses are not actually that intelligent. While evolution has taken humans from the discovery of fire to the invention of smart phones, Viagra, and online everything, evolution has taken horses… well, precisely nowhere.
And that’s a good thing, because if it had, you would never get a saddle onto them or a piece of metal into their mouths. And they would take one look at a jump and say, “you want to go over that mate, you’re on your own!’
To give you an example of this, the Red Arrow aerobatic display team once flew over Billy and me at 200 feet and he didn’t
bat an eyelid. But half an hour later when we encountered a discarded pen top on a village street, he refused to pass it and threatened to hurl me into the oncoming traffic. So, to get the things to jump around a course of coloured and intentionally frightening perpendicular objects – particularly when there’s a perfectly good way to circumvent them without needing to jump anything – requires a considerable amount of bottle.
And I’m very proud to say that my daughter has done well. She’s mainly competed in classes for six-year-old horses, and this has guaranteed a sort of level playing field. For example, today she followed one of the UK’s top riders, Laura Renwick, and they both finished with one fence down (that’s called four faults, by the way). Her goal in being here is to gain experience, both for herself and for her horses, in order to progress up the ranks back home under Blighty’s leaden skies.
But everyone has a different objective.
There is a lot of cash to be won here, and her coach, Justin’s twenty-year-old son Ollie Tuff, came very close the collecting a huge amount of wedge in Sunday’s Grand Prix, before rolling a pole on the last fence in the jump off. But even with this, he made enough to keep him in whatever he wants to be kept in for a considerable amount of time.
And there’s more to this than prize money. At the top level, with every notch on your horse’s bedpost, its value increases significantly. Some of these beasts are worth more than houses.
So, what’s it like on the show ground? Well, we’ve been here for almost ten days and have had the opportunity to appraise both the lifestyle and the daily doings of people who have dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of getting a horse to jump over a fence.
I’d describe it as a cross between a farm, a zoo and Sueto squatter camp. Except – with regard to the latter – the tin shanty shacks are replaced by hydraulically extended horse lorries. The bits that the horses aren’t transported in is called “the living”, and this has all mod cons, including air con (not necessary here at this time of year) shower, toilet, luxurious dining, relaxing and sleeping areas and… and … and.
And life on the show ground is never dull. There’s never a day that goes by without a loose horse galloping through camp or a dog fight breaking out – usually both. Dogs are allowed to roam free, and are constantly on the look out for food, affection – and on frequent occasions – trouble.
Naturally there are several bars, cafes and restaurants. The food’s good, and the manager of the tented emporium we usually eat in even managed to screen the Italy against Ireland match on Saturday.
Horsey folk do tend to be a little cliquey, but sometimes they escape into town, mingle with normal people, and let their hair down.
And with all of this – the only long faces tend to belong to the beings with four legs.
I really can’t wait until the next tour.