The equestrian, and eventing world in particular, were deeply saddened by the news of the loss of Avebury last year. The 16 year old grey gelding owned by Rosemary and Mark Barlow was put down on Tuesday 7th September 2016 as a tumour in his jaw became increasingly threatening. When the news emerged scores of articles and stories took the front pages of magazines, blogs and social media celebrating Avebury’s incredible career and life. The gelding held records with his Kiwi rider, Andrew Nicholson, as the only horse to consecutively win at Land Rover Burghley and Barbury Castle. A month on, what was it that made this horse so special? How was he able to achieve the impossible and create such an impressive, and probably unbeatable, reputation amongst the eventing world?
Beginning with a look at the basics of genetics, it appears that Avebury benefitted from an ancestry possessing the concoction of skills necessary to create the perfect event horse. He was sired by Jumbo, an elite graded Sports Horse Breeding stallion and advanced level eventer. When Andrew Nicholson took this stallion on at seven years old, they won the Young Horse Trophy at Le Lion D’Angers and a year later completed CCI 3* Boekelo, placing 15th. Jumbo later competed in both show jumping, with William Funnell, and dressage with Lizzie Murray, with whom he won the Combined Training Championship at Blenheim in 1997. Jumbo himself was born out of a well renowned pair, Skippy and Betty. Betty competed in various levels of show jumping showing a huge amount of talent. It is clear therefore that Avebury’s paternal relatives performed to a high level in all three disciplines of eventing, a trait which certainly passed down to him. The gelding’s maternal side was also not short of competitive success, though within the racing sphere. Avebury’s mother, Bairn Free, came from a long line of successful racehorses including the American, Bairn, the Irish Rustling, the Canadian Northern Baby and the French Rusticaro. Though these horses were not record-breaking, they were bold, agile and fast, both across the flat and over fences – a highly sought-after skill for producing good event horses.
Despite these impressive bloodlines, Avebury was originally sold by Andrew as a show jumper, but his wife Wiggy, saw his potential and took him on herself at six years old. Competing for the first time in the pre-novice competition at West Wilts, the pair finished on their dressage score of 32.90 to come in 6th overall. A very impressive start for a young horse, and perhaps a pre-cursor to his later success. Throughout 2006 Wiggy took Avebury to eleven different competitions before handing the ride over to her husband in 2007, where his success continued. At their first event, Andrew and Avebury came up trumps, winning the CCI 1* Tattersalls in 2007.
Andrew took the grey to 32 FEI competitions, of which his lowest placing was his third competition at Gatcombe, when he finished in a still respectable, 39th place. Avebury returned several times, placing 6thin 2013 and 1st in 2014. Throughout their ten years competing together, the pair took first place at every possible FEI level, and accumulated a staggering 2,113 British Eventing points in total. However, it was the records this extremely special grey broke that really set him apart. With Andrew aboard, Avebury became the first horse to win at Barbury Castle in four consecutive years: 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, and, perhaps for which he is best known, was crowned the winner of the CCI 4* Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Hailed as one of the most difficult three day events along with Badminton Horse Trials, Burghley tests riders and horses to the limit and a win here is often the highlight of a rider’s career.
How did he do it then? Well, by looking at his scores for each of his Burghley wins it seems consistency is definitely the key. Throughout the three years, his dressage score remained in the low 40s – 2012: 41.0, 2013: 42.3 and 2014: 40.5. Having a low dressage score is always a confidence boost going into the cross country and records show that many winners of Burghley and other eventing weekends began the competition with a good, low dressage score. When it came to cross country, Avebury’s racing heritage certainly helped him: with a total of 6.4 time faults and 0 jumping faults across all three years, it is clear to see how talented the grey gelding was across the country. A brave horse, with plenty of scope and great stamina is essential in completing a testing track such as Burghley. Every eventing rider will understand the difficulty of finding a horse who can excel in all three disciplines, who can be poised and graceful in the dressage, bold and fast in the cross country and still careful and composed enough to jump clear on the last day. Andrew Nicholson therefore certainly found a one in a million horse with Avebury as between 2012 and 2014, they incurred just four jumping penalties and two time faults in Sunday’s jumping, an astonishing feat. Retired in April 2016, Avebury has left a record that many will attempt to break, though only time will tell if he will ever be defeated.
Whilst we pay tribute to this incredible horse, we must recognise also the role of his loving rider, for Andrew himself holds the record for the most Burghley appearances, at last count, he has completed a staggering thirty-four times. Furthermore, he, together with Sir Mark Todd, are the only two Kiwis to have participated in six Olympic games, only missing two since 1984. This combination of horse and rider have put their names to the trophies of many, many competitions throughout their careers.
It is clear that Avebury’s success was the product of genetics, high quality training and world class horsemanship – a horse perfectly engineered for the world of eventing and a wonderful horseman, definitely a match to be reckoned with, and one that will be remembered for ever. More than this however was Avebury’s own spirit and love of the sport in which he was so special. No-one who ever saw him in the ring at Burghley, with the winners rug on his back, could ever doubt that this is what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be, making Burghley his own forever.