An unbridled fiesta of hippophilia

Notebook: For not a few people, it turns out, the Horse of the Year Show is a melody as much as a sporting event
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For not a few people, it turns out, the Horse of the Year Show is a melody as much as a sporting event. Just mention the name and they're off: diddle ee diddle ee, diddle iddle iddle ee, diddle oo, diddle oo, diddle iddle iddle oo..., the BBC's galloping theme tune having drummed itself into the synapses during show-jumping's years of celebrity, when the Puissance and the clear round were household words and pretty much any couch potato could tell you who the country's top riders were.

For not a few people, it turns out, the Horse of the Year Show is a melody as much as a sporting event. Just mention the name and they're off: diddle ee diddle ee, diddle iddle iddle ee, diddle oo, diddle oo, diddle iddle iddle oo..., the BBC's galloping theme tune having drummed itself into the synapses during show-jumping's years of celebrity, when the Puissance and the clear round were household words and pretty much any couch potato could tell you who the country's top riders were.

It's a faintly melancholy air for show-jumping fans these days, since the BBC dropped its coverage of the Horse of the Year Show some time ago - a self-evidently perverse decision for the sort of people making their way out to Wembley Arena all this week to take part in this unbridled fiesta of hippophilia. These days the noises which were once familiar to a general public - the amplified plumminess of the commentators, the lovely melodic clonk as a rail parts company from its fence, the communal intake of breath as a hoof clips another - are largely the preserve of enthusiasts again.

Walking round the trade stands and stalls which are as much a part of the show's appeal as the events in the arena it's pretty clear that I'm out of my depth. I now have proof that there is a world in which the phrase "Greater poop-scoopability" is deemed to be a come-on, and I know with absolute conviction that I do not belong there. Nor am I in the market for a Rambo Turnout rug, a kind of equine anorak. Or a Looney Tunes Saddle Pad. Or herbal feed mixes (though I am tempted to buy a kilo of Moody Mare, on the off chance that it might work for humans).

I can't even begin to understand the principles by which the Simpson Refractories Mountain and Moorland Pony of the Year is judged - since a positively lubricious little roan loses out in an early round to quite lumpy-looking beasts. And while I know there are people whose eyes will mist over when they read the paean to the horse which serves as epigraph to the programme ("Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride, Friendship without envy, or Beauty without vanity?") I'm not one of them.

Inside the arena, though, it's quite difficult not to come over a bit horsey. Sheer osmosis would account for a bit of this, since you are surrounded by such concentrations of adoration that it is difficult not to absorb some of it. But there is also something genuinely beautiful about the spectacle of so much muscle and bone being coaxed quite so high into the air.

And my process of conversion is further assisted by Judy Ross, who is helping to man the Show-jumping Supporters Club stall. She confirms that it is a quiet year for the show - many of the top international riders have been distracted by a rival event in Sydney. But she also points out that it remains a prestige event for younger riders, since the qualification process is intense. Someone competing at the Senior Newcomers level will have had to deliver at least four double clear rounds in competition in the previous year just to get into the second round, which sifts hundreds of competitors down to a final 20. It isn't surprising, then, that T-shirts listing every competing horse are one of the hot items at the merchandise stall.

Judy Ross also offers some financial perspective on the value of that lovingly curry-combed horse-flesh. Some of these horses don't just look like a cherished Stradivarius, with their violin curves and varnished gleam, they cost nearly as much too - £500,000 to over £1m. At the moment most British riders import their mounts, the Germans having cornered the market in horses that are good at going up rather than going fast, but British-bred horses are slowly becoming more common, perhaps because that vast initial outlay is never likely to be recouped through prize money alone. A successful horse's earnings don't stop when he retires to spend more time with the fillies.

When I return to the arena for the Woodpecker Shavings Trophy I look on with more respect and am soon "oohing" with the best of them as the timer ticks inexorably away. The combination of race and sudden-death obstacles is so compelling, in fact, that I find myself wondering why someone hasn't snapped up the broadcasting rights.

In his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the writer Philip K Dick imagined a world in which all animals had become a luxury item - not just top-class show-jumping horses. Only the fabulously wealthy could afford real animals, while everyone else had to make do with simulations. Dick's premonition didn't include another possibility - that the world of status beast and underworld power projection would eventually overlap. He didn't exactly need to, I guess, since the idea of men with big, ferocious dogs isn't exactly science fiction. But there's still something wonderfully dystopian and futuristic about the latest gangster accessory in the Paris suburbs.

Apparently you're barely dressed in the banlieues these days unless you're carrying a Barbary ape on one arm, which can be unleashed at your opponent when business negotiations turn sour. "Now the authorities have cracked down on pitbulls and the rest, apes look like becoming the new weapon of choice," one police officer was reported as saying. The monkeys are smuggled in from North Africa and can change hands for up to £300 - once they've been trained to attack on command.

Naturally, it won't be long before we get what one might reasonably call a hairy arms war. Barbary apes today, full-grown baboons tomorrow and then, one dark day, some neighbourhood Napoleon is going to turn up with a silver-backed gorilla - the simian equivalent of an anti-tank rocket. The police will then have to train a crack squad of chimpanzees in response, and the makers of gangster films will be obliged to rethink many of the genre's canonical scenes. "Don't be a fool, kid," the grizzled police lieutenant will say, setting aside his police-issue proboscis monkey as a gesture of peaceful intentions, "Put the Bonobo down before someone gets hurt." A Mexican stand-off will presumably consist of two jittery men threatening to throw enraged capuchin monkeys at each others' heads. The only consolation is that it's going to be very difficult for anyone to go about with a concealed weapon - and very funny if anyone's foolish enough to try.

* When Dick's novel was filmed, as Blade Runner, one of its most distinctive design features was a landscape in which advertising had spread to cover every available surface. Even the sky wasn't inviolate - as blimps passed overhead projecting commercials down into the narrow canyons left between the urban billboards. A few months ago the Council for the Preservation of Rural England gloomily warned that we were in for something similar after the Government had adjusted the rules governing the control of billboards in the countryside.

The changes are due to come into effect next year but, driving down the M1 the other day I couldn't help wondering if the thin edge of the wedge is beginning to show itself. The borders of the motorway have always lured the amateur signmaker - banners urging you to "Put British Pork on the end of your fork", for instance, or hand-painted billboards announcing local agricultural fairs. North of Watford a local pub cheekily declares the excellence of its real ales on a large blue sign protruding through a hedge, audaciously close to the motorway information boards.

But now the multinationals seem to be getting in on the act, too. A little south of Leeds, a poster in a field on the northbound side of the carriageway urges motorists to seek out the nearest McDonald's, while just north of Junction 18 heading south there's a similar billboard promoting a nearby Holiday Inn. When I ring the Environment Department to check on the legal status of these new arrivals I'm assured that a rural free-for-all hasn't broken out. Nor is it the case that putting your poster on a flatbed truck gets you round the rules - a parked vehicle becomes an advertising site as soon as its wheels stop rolling.

So, either a couple of farmers are pushing their luck or local authorities, unlike the thousands of consumers roaring by every hour, are looking the other way. There were murmurs, when the regulation adjustments were announced, that the idea came up after a Downing Street farming summit as a way of opening up new sources of revenue, but the obvious hazards of this alternative to agricultural subsidy are suggested by a more devout bit of advertising just north of Daventry.

Someone has stuck a large crucifix covered with reflective material next to the southbound carriageway (in pious contravention, as it happens, of new rules on retroflective material). Obviously this site delivers a very high OTS - or Opportunity To See, one of the advertising industry's measures of media value. One can only hope it doesn't also usher a distracted driver into the presence of the Lord sooner than the Lord had bargained for.

Comments