Equestrianism: Bartle, the nice guy who can win

Eventing, dressage and training are all the same to Harrogate's all-round success story.
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CHRIS BARTLE is never likely to forget the tumultuous, warm applause that accompanied his lap of honour on Word Perfect II at last year's Badminton Horse Trials. "It was a question of pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming," he said. "Even now I have to remind myself that it really happened."

Fortunately, there have been continuing reminders, the latest of which came yesterday when he was named as the National Personality of the Year in the Spillers Equestrian Awards.

Even before his Badminton victory (achieved at the mature age of 46), Bartle was much sought after as instructor at the Yorkshire Riding Centre, near Harrogate, as dressage coach for the British three-day event team and as a visiting trainer in Australia, the United States and Hong Kong.

There is, however, nothing of the bustling, self-important, globe-trotting man-in-demand about him. Unlike his elder sister, Jane Bartle-Wilson (who has the look of one-who-must- be-obeyed), Chris, the third of the four Bartle offspring, instructs in the manner of the nice-guy-next-door.

The centre was started in 1963 by the Bartles' Belgian mother, Nicole, who had worked for the Resistance during the Second World War. "She's a perfectionist with an obsession for doing everything correctly, which has probably rubbed off on me," Chris said.

His father, an auctioneer and land agent who died last year, gave his support for the project by paying the bills.

Chris is now the managing director of the centre, where he lives with his Canadian wife, Sue (who first arrived there as a student in the 1970s), and their two children.

Riding was confined to the holidays while he was a schoolboy at Ampleforth (the present Cardinal Basil Hume was then Abbot) leaving him to use his own two feet when he represented the college in cross-country running.

Later, he graduated in economics at Bristol University: "I thought it would help me to find employment, but I've since spent my life trying to avoid getting a proper job," he said.

According to Giles Rowsell, the chairman of the British selectors, Bartle is in tune with sports psychology and believes in being committed to goals. He has spectacularly overshot a couple of his own goals as a competitor. In 1984 he had aimed to qualify Wily Trout for the individual dressage final at the Los Angeles Olympics. That mission accomplished (he was 11th of the 12 who qualified) he went on to produce an astonishingly virtuoso performance for a virtual new boy to dressage, finishing sixth - which is the best ever British placing in this discipline.

After his return to eventing, he strove for years to finish among the 20 prizewinners at Badminton. Last year he would happily have settled for a place in the top 10, so there was no pressure on him when he completed the clear show jumping round that was to give him victory over Mark Todd. His previous best place was 25th.

Bartle had bought Word Perfect with the idea of selling him on. Despite initial problems with ditches, however, the horse proved too good to part with. "I was desperate to get someone to buy him who would let me keep the ride," he said.

To this end, he took a video of Blenheim (where Word Perfect finished third in 1996) on one of his jaunts to Hong Kong. There the horse was sold to Adrian and Elaine Cantwell, with Bartle keeping the ride until after next year's Olympic Games in Sydney.

The Cantwells have since shared a couple of major disappointments as well as a great victory. In 1997, during the European Championships at Burghley, horse and rider parted company at the sixth cross-country fence. When close to the obstacle, Word Perfect had spotted a ditch beneath it; he swerved to the left in mid-air while the unfortunate Bartle went to the right.

"Horses are there to make you look like an idiot," a rueful Bartle said. "It was the sort of thing I would have half expected him to do as a novice and I should have ridden him as though I didn't quite trust him. Then it wouldn't have happened."

Every day with horses is, he says, a potential disaster. That point was also illustrated when Word Perfect was injured last August, putting paid to Bartle's indisputable claims for a place on the British team for the World Equestrian Games.

And did our hero look pretty sour after that? Not at all; he turned up to continue his coaching duties for the team with a stoical smile and another of his pocketful of philosophical sayings: "You can guarantee that anybody who has spent a long time with horses will have suffered a similar disappointment." Perhaps we could all learn something from that.

SPILLERS EQUESTRIAN AWARDS (decided on votes cast by readers of Horse & Rider and Pony magazines): National Personality of the Year: C Bartle. International Personality: M Roberts (US) for his contribution to horse welfare. Horse of the Year: One Man. Spillers Diamond Award: R Hobson, veterinary surgeon. Scholarships: G Cranton (show jumping), E Chandler (horse trials) and C Edmonds (dressage).