David Tatlow: the diamond finder

David Tatlow riding at RIHS

The king of the show ring: no set of interview about showing mentors would be complete without this legend. Son of Harry, therefore a descendant of showing royalty, he is a five times British champion point to point rider as well as top show rider, producer and all-round horseman. He has been President of the Show Horse Association and is a top judge too. He has won multiple Horse of the Year Show titles, producing young horses he sourced in Ireland, and features in the HOYS Hall of Fame. He is known, although not always liked, for being outspoken but his record means he is unanimously respected; he knows who he is and he knows what he likes. As a first interview, I must say I was nervous but he was warm and welcoming and seemed to enjoy talking about his experiences and the good and bad of the showing world. 

Why did you choose showing? 

My father was very high up in showing and had many, very good show horses including some of the great show hunters of all time: Mighty Atom, Beau Jest, Waving Bee, Beauvelair owned by Horace Cooper. A lot of very good hacks: the best I ever saw, I think, was Royal Command for Colonel Coutts as well as lovely hacks for Margaret de Beaumont. It seemed a natural progression for me to start in show ponies, go into pony club, pony club teams and then start riding show horses.

There was a period of time when Dad had got a little bit too old and I was a little bit too young. There was a year, or a couple of years, where we overlapped: he was just past his best and I hadn’t quite come to be good enough. It wasn’t a quieter period on the yard but I think some of the horses just missed a little bit for that time. It was at that time that the great Royal Command was about and I was desperate to start riding him. I was doing everything with him at home but Dad was still hanging onto his career in the ring.

I didn’t find it difficult to have the pressure of such a talented father though. Dad didn’t ever teach us anything and we very much had to fend for ourselves! In fact, my brother, Roy, had a wonderful saying “The best thing that Dad ever did for us was nothing.” But, he was there to watch and was a figurehead, so consequently when “Harry Tatlow’s son David” came along, I did have that second name before I had even made my own name. It didn’t do any harm.

What is the best piece of advice you got early on and from who?

Somebody said to me “You must remember on your way up the ladder to be careful who you step on because you might want them when you come back down the ladder.” I took that very much to heart and thought it was a very sound piece of advice. I wish a lot of other people had been given that advice. You see some of the young ones coming in and they get a bit cocky and they get a bit stroppy, and they think they invented the horse and you feel they want knocking down a peg or two. I always tried hard to remember that saying in life, not just in showing.

Showing is subjective: it’s one person’s opinion and the difficulty of that opinion is that, when you are young, you think that your opinion is always the one that matters and it isn’t. The older you get the more you realise that it isn’t.

What has been your biggest mistake?

I have repeated one mistake throughout my life and that is to put the passion of horses in front of business. Consequently, I have had a fantastic career with horses and have made no money! Horses have always been a pleasure and I consider myself to have had a very lucky career, injury-wise, I have been riding horses from when I was 5 or 6 to only just recently, including 20 years of racing, and I have never broken a bone in my body. If I could do it all over again, I would love to but still wouldn’t make any money!

One little regret that creeps into my mind though, is from my time in the Warwickshire Pony Club. The DC was the fantastic Colonel Brackenbury, who was responsible for starting the very first one day event in this country. He got Colonel Frank Weldon (who had the great Kilbarry) and Major Laurence Rook (who had the great Starlight), both British Olympic team members to come to our Pony Club camp as our instructors. Wow! How can you get that! They did try and encourage me to go to train with Bertie Hill who was one of my great heroes; I worshipped every word he ever said, he was great judge and a great horseman. We weren’t a wealthy family and Mum and Dad weren’t in a position to be able to send me but in hindsight, I wish I had gone, who knows what that would have led me to. 

I don’t regret my varied experience in equestrianism though, it has certainly helped me with my showing and judging. People use the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”, but I think I mastered some.

David Tatlow hunting with family

Favourite horse you have had/ridden? Why? What made him/her special?

I have so often been asked this and I just don’t have one favourite. I have always got very close to the horses that are very difficult and horses that like me. I have had horses that have won 10 or 15 classes for me that I haven’t got particularly close to and horses that have won nothing for me that have become real friends.

One of my great favourites was a pony called Nutmeg. I over-faced my daughter, Loraine, dramatically, when she was young. When my wife and I split, Loraine chose to stay with me which was fantastic as she is the greatest thing in my life. Sadly, I over-faced her and she had a couple of tumbles, hurt her shoulder and was going to pack up riding. My great friend, jockey Bill Smith, said he had this pony and I said I don’t want it, a little later he told me again and I repeated that I didn’t want it. One day, shortly after, a horsebox arrived and out of the lorry came Nutmeg. Loraine got on and we went for this long ride, I walked myself into utter exhaustion and something just clicked and away we went. Loraine would follow me over anything on Nutmeg: any obstacle, timber, wire, gates, as long as it wasn’t a hedge because she didn’t like not being able to see through or over them. So we avoided the hedges and he got Loraine going and I was always very, very grateful for that pony. If I had to pick one, Nutmeg would be close to my favourite ever.

I have always got on with the trickier horses but only if they were good enough and worth the battle. An Italian gentleman called Dr Sparno contacted me and said he wanted me to have two horses. One big grey horse which he thought was really, really good and a chestnut horse that was very difficult and he didn’t know what to do with (he even said the chestnut horse may need shooting!) After having the horses for a period of time, I contacted him and said “The grey horse is useless but the difficult one is getting better and is unbelievably talented.” That difficult, chestnut horse was Lucinda Green’s first Badminton winner, Be Fair. He could rear and rear, stand on his hindlegs and walk but he was so talented and conquering these difficult horses is so satisfying when they go on to succeed like him.

I have always loved horses and dogs more than people. If I had a confrontation with a member of the human race, it didn’t worry me but if I had a confrontation with a horse or a dog it did and I set my stall out to put it right. I have had some great equine friends.

Horse you wish you had/rode? Why?

If I could have one horse back again that I didn’t ride too much, it would be the great Royal Command. He was the greatest hack I have ever seen or ever will see but he sadly went wrong in his feet in the end. He won a lot with Dad but I feel he should have won everything, forever!

What has been your hardest day showing?

The one day that will always bug me was at the Horse of the Year Show. I had a horse called Otterpoint who had won the Hunter championship the previous year and had won the heavyweight hunter the year before that so he was going for his third win on the trot. He was called in top and gave the judge a beautiful ride but then the conformation lady said he was lame. There was no way, in my opinion, that he was lame. I felt it was a political decision and it has irked me from that day and will irk me until the day I go to my grave. I have always believed that the lady wanted another horse to win and that was that.

People have accused me of being a bad loser but I think good losers are fools!

David Tatlow at HOYs
Photo courtesy of Anthony Reynolds

When looking for a show horse – what do you look for?

There was a period in my career when Dad had retired and I was starting up and all I was getting was second class material: not good enough to win with or very difficult. I heard about this show in Ireland called Dublin, and I thought it was about time I went and had a rummage round and see what I could do. I don’t know what I was thinking I was going to do because I didn’t have any money to buy horses in Ireland but I went and looked. I was determined that there was such a wealth of talent of young show horses there that I had to go. That’s what started me buying Irish horses and it’s been hugely successful for me.  I have won a huge number of classes at the Horse of the Year Show with 3 or 4-year-old horses that I bought from Ireland. The Irish horses just gave me the edge I needed. If you go to buy a horse in England, you probably have a choice of 25 or 30 three year olds, in Ireland you have a choice of a thousand. Of that thousand, there are probably 100 decent ones, 50 you can’t afford, so you have to learn to find the backward horse, the underprepared for the sale day horse, try and spot the diamond in the rough. They say self-praise is faint praise but my record speaks for itself, I have been able to find a lot of diamonds in the rough.

When looking for a show horse, I start off with the front leg; I am a front leg fanatic. If it is back at the knee, got a long cannon bone,  got no bone, or very long pasterns I am gone. If that criteria comes right, you then have to think long and hard because it is not just a question of “Do you like it?” The horse has got to have the charisma that a judge or perspective purchaser will like it. If the horse can’t stand still and be admired by me then I am inclined to move on.

Eye is very important to me: honesty of eye. I love a horse that will look at me when I go into a stable and say “Hello, hello mate, nice to see you.”  Not one that scowls and goes to the back of the box.

I have never been fanatical about a topline because I have always felt that the limbs come from the mother and the topline can come from the manger. A young horse can often have a plain head but you hardly ever see an old horse with a plain head because the body matures to meet the head. If you are looking for a horse with size, if it has a small head you are not going to get size.

All these things you learn over a period of time. I once remarked that there is only one way to learn to be a judge and that is by signing cheques. You get better or you go broke!  If you put your money down to buy horses and it doesn’t work out then you only have yourself to blame. You then need to find out why it didn’t work out, whether it was bad luck or bad purchasing. Always look and learn.

If it is a very weak horse and is a little cow hocked, you know that that can strengthen. But if it is very long through its pasterns, front or behind, it is going to put excessive wear on the joints. Long pasterns go hand in hand with windgalls, six to twelve months down the line. Look for now but also later.

 Conformation faults can be very personal – which do you hate most? Which don’t bother you so much?

Sickle hocks don’t lie easy with me and you can’t have curbs in showing. A bad front leg is deplorable to see with a red rosette unless the second one is even worse!

Splints are a bone of contention with some people. I have a huge respect for, possibly our best conformation judge in England, David Walters but he is fanatical about clean horses. He breaks out in a rash if he sees a splint but I would rather have a splint on a good front leg than no splint on a bad one. Everybody comes up with theories about splints but I don’t think anyone really knows what causes a splint. Years and years ago, when rugs had those big, leather rollers, a lot of horses had splints on the inside of their off-fore because when you undid the straps, the big brass buckle would swing down and clump the leg there, causing a splint! Most splints are caused by some sort of blow in my opinion. Not always though, you can have young horses in the field with no shoes on that can put up splints on a perfectly good front leg and some families are even prone to splints.

Image of a horse front leg showing a splint near the knee. Not great for show horse.

What do you wish non-showing people knew about showing?

There are a lot of really lovely people in showing. I have had some fantastic owners and met other people’s owners who were utterly charming. You have owners who want to buy their success and some people are obnoxious but there are a lot of lovely people in the showing world. Loraine met a lot of lovely people through her show pony and exhibiting days and it is lovely to see her children/my grandchildren now great mates with her mate’s children that is probably one of the nicer sides. The camaraderie is jolly nice.

What is your favourite show?

I love the Great Yorkshire Show.

I loved the Royal Show: the people that allowed the Royal show to be disbanded should be ashamed to the core of their boots. To think, the Royal Show had travelled around England for all those years and then the fat cats came along and ruined it: a true shame.

What piece of equipment would you not want to do without?

Double Bridle.

You ride a horse and he will tell you ten minutes in whether he is ready for a double bridle or not. You can ride him for another three weeks and he can still be telling you he is not ready. He will tell you when he has got comfort in his balance and in his mouth. You need to make sure it fits properly: you need to make sure the bridoon is in a high enough place so that he doesn’t lift his tongue over it and the weymouth shouldn’t be clanking on his molars. Sometimes you go into a jointed Pelham if the horse isn’t ready for two bits but I wouldn’t want to be without my double bridle.

I believe in letting a horse stand in a tongue grid for quite a long time before you start breaking as they need to get used to having something in their mouth that they can’t get their tongue on top of. Getting the tongue over the bit is a bad habit and it is only caused by lack of diligence from the man on the ground, it shouldn’t happen. Horses are not born to put their tongue under or over the bit, they have to be put in a position where they accept their tongue sits below the bit. Once they learn to put it over, it becomes a habit.  Teaching horses good habits takes endless time, teaching bad habits takes seconds, I wish I knew why. But you must teach and not force a horse to do anything. If you force they will rebel against it. If you strap a horse’s mouth shut tight, all he will want to do is force it open.

Who do you most admire in the showing world?

I have a huge admiration for Jane McHugh. She was a great producer of horses and I loved the fact that she could produce everything: cobs, hacks, hunters, Arabs. She was only a tiny lady but very strong.

My father always encouraged me to watch Harold Clemensen, a north country gentleman. When I was at Great Yorkshire, I wasn’t allowed to go to bed until he had finished riding all his horses. He was the first man I saw who put both reins of a double bridle through a running martingale. On one occasion, I was seen doing it and someone came up to me and said “You’ve got your martingale on wrong” and I said “If it’s good enough for Harold Clemenson, it is good enough for me.”

What is the worst trend you are currently seeing?

I remember years ago, my father said to me that “the worst thing that has happened is the live-in horsebox.” We all used to go and congregate in the members, all have a drink there at the end of the day, and grievances were thrashed out. “Your horse was lucky today” “My horse should have beaten yours” and we chatted it out over a drink. Now, everyone goes back to their lorry, moans and groans in there and little sores fester. Things have become a little clan-ish: there is the Walker clan, the Oliver clan, the Webber clan…. I wish that that was not the case.

Who do you see being a big winner in the future?

The problem is that the show ring is much more financially backed now so talent is not the only factor involved. Some riders are extremely lucky to have wealthy owners behind them and so do well. One wealthy owner on the circuit is quite a jealous lady, I think she buys horses just so no-one else can have them!

There is nobody better in the pony world at the moment than Alice Homer, my granddaughter. She is particularly good: showing, jumping and hunting. At 17, she is really very good, I don’t know anyone else as good at her age. Although, there is a lovely, young  girl called Poppy Carter, who rides show ponies but I haven’t seen her do any jumping.

I can’t see many of the young riders continuing and making a career of it though. One of the great problems with children today is that parent’s buy them an old, rosette winner which teaches them nothing. When that rosette winner gets too old, they haven’t got a clue how to bring on a young horse. Alice has four young horses on the yard at the moment, there are not many young people with that. Bringing on young horses is the making of young riders.

What are your concerns for the future of the showing world?

It’s very difficult being a show secretary at the moment. If you get appointed as a show secretary, your job is to select the judges. You don’t know anybody so you get a book and pick names from the book. Some of the names shouldn’t be in the book, in my opinion, and I think the standard of judging is going to be a problem unless some of the societies are prepared to address it. Sometimes members of the society are best friends of judges who are not very good and even some of the assessors just don’t know enough to be able to assess. There are judges that you wouldn’t give your chequebook to buy you a horse.

I used to be an adjudicator for the Hunter Improvement Society and on one occasion a top rider came for an assessment who was horrendous. The assessors sat round a table and one lady on the panel was saying how lovely she was, how beautifully spoken she was and what a pleasure she was to talk to. I sat there open mouthed. She didn’t know the first thing about limbs and I just had to say something. Then another panellist said “Thank goodness you said something. I wasn’t impressed either.” Sadly, she came back the next year and was just as bad.  Her father was very angry at me for failing her but I said he should be ashamed to let his daughter go for assessment with such a lack of knowledge for two years running. The rider, to her great credit, thanked me for speaking up as she didn’t realise she didn’t know enough and she worked to get better.

Things have changed dramatically in showing over the last decade, where you have an awful lot of people who have been granted a judge’s badge who are really not very proficient and not good enough on conformation. They might know if a horse moves in its trot; they might know if a horse moves without dishing but they just aren’t good enough on conformation overall. I have seen some horrendous decisions made in the pony classes over the last five or six years since my granddaughter has been involved in it.

Judging is a thankless task because you can only really please one person, the winner. I think that it is very important that a judge should know a reason for their decisions and so many of them are not able to engage themselves in a conversation to say why they wanted that decision as opposed to another. To have the knowledge is not an age thing, it’s an experience thing.

I don’t see people competing and judging as a problem. There are some people who are stronger characters than others and I think it is a weakness to lack integrity. Bertie Hill was a strong character, if he was judging and he had three of his own horses in the class, it wouldn’t worry me. If they were the best three they would be the top three and if they were the worst three they would be at the bottom of the line. I have never had a problem judging, even my friends, I judge horses and not people. I dislike judges that judge people and not horses and I dislike owners who set out to win classes outside the ring. Some victories are not deserved but also people shouldn’t look at their horses through rose coloured glasses.

How would you like to be remembered? What would you like to be remembered for?

I said earlier that self-praise is faint praise but I have to say that I feel that I have been able to achieve a huge amount in the equestrian world. To have been able to train racehorses up to Grade 1, to have ridden Point to Pointing to the standard I did, to produce show horse year after year; all new ones, to have been able to go out and buy the raw material and to have been able to pass that knowledge on buying and conformation onto my daughter and, now my granddaughter. I would like to be remembered as a bloody good, all-round horseman.

You may also like

1 comment

  1. David is one of the best horseman I must say .always listen to old school andYou will learn a lot . He is so right In Saying the judges are judging the people and not the horses these days . David best of luck your a good horseman ..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *