Robert Oliver – showman, huntsman, gentleman

As a member of the Horse of the Year Show Hall of Fame and winner of The Equestrian of the Year, Robert Oliver is someone who has a beautiful style of riding and has had a huge amount of success in the show ring. In 1977, he broke all records when he won the Cobs, Small Hunter and Hack titles and took reserve in the Hunter Championship at HOYS. He has also been incredibly generous sharing his knowledge and encouraging others, having been one of the judges for the Search for a Star final for 21 years. He has  been on many affiliated panels and judges both at home and abroad. He has written books on conformation and taught many master classes and also been Master of the Ledbury Foxhounds over a period of 10 years and incredibly always hunted his show horses.

He has always had a special place in my heart as he judged when I made the Search for a Star final in my first year showing and also judged my first qualification for the Show Hunter Pony class at HOYS. He was kind enough to say I rode really nicely and he liked my pony adding “I’m a sucker for a grey”; over 20 years later I still remember it vividly and I was excited to get to know the man more.

Why did you choose showing?

I always had ponies at home as a teenager but not show ponies. At aged 12, I was asked by the Eckley’s of the famous Cusop Stud to show some ponies for them.  I was then asked by other local people to show ponies and then, as I got older, I was asked to show a horse or two. In 1972, I was offered a yard in Hereford, where I was born and bred, and a few people sent me some show horses and it took off from there. I have had some amazing owners over the years.

I was always interested in showing from an early age. I liked the preparation involved and the turnout. I have always liked nice things; nice horses and was always interested in showing generally. I showed dogs in my teenage years too.

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

The late Vivien Bishop, Master of the Golden Valley Foxhounds for a long time, when I first went showing said “Keep smiling; there is always another judge and another day.” I always remembered that. I have always been conservative and diplomatic, it’s the way I have been brought up and I have always tried to shrug it off, smile and think there is another day.

If you can go to a big show or two and take notes of the winning horses and riders like how they went about their job, it can be invaluable to someone starting out. If in doubt, ask a professional, they will help you if you approach them in a nice manner.

The worst piece of advice I have been given is to go and tackle a judge, or ask a judge in an unhelpful way, why he has placed a horse a certain way. I have often come out of the ring and been told I should go and tackle the judge; ask them about their decision, but have always stayed well out of that one. As a judge, I have had people ask and if they ask politely then you give an answer but you don’t want to be tackled or abused.

What has been your biggest mistake?

I don’t think it was a mistake as such but I would have loved to have gone into National Hunt racing. In my early years, when I first started producing, I had two or three point to point horses and have always loved racing, still do. With the way National Hunt racing has gone, and the money that is involved, probably/hopefully we would have had a different aspect to everything.

At HOYS one year, I left my Cob in the line-up and turned my back; I didn’t notice him walking to the exit and nearly get let out of the gate. My owners at the time gave me a telling off for that!

Super Ted cantering down the centreline at HOYS

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

It would have to be Super Ted. He really never let me down; he was never lame and never missed a show.  He was a record breaker: won six HOYS and seven RIHS championships as well as the Supremes there  One or two years he was unbeaten. His temperament and character made him very special and he always had a wonderful way of going and behaving.

He was sent to us by Mrs Griffiths who always owned him. She found him in Ireland.

Horse you wish you had/rode? Why?

The late Norman Crow’s Top Notch: a big brown middleweight horse. He was a great character and the most lovely of horses and I would have loved to have had a ride on him.

What has been your hardest day showing?

In the 80s, I remember a terrible, wet day at the Bath and West, it was torrential all day and we were up to our knees in wet and mud. Dual Gold, the lovely middleweight horse of ours, was Champion that day but I remember it being one of the hardest days.  When we got home it was worse than if they had all been hunting all day, everything was saturated in mud and wet and cold.

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

Presence definitely. They have got to be good straight movers and have as correct conformation as possible but I would put presence first. I think a horse with charisma can definitely beat a horse with more “correct” conformation.

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

I have never had any luck trying to cover a curb or a tendency towards a curb. That seems to be a universal no.

I don’t mind splints so much though; a blemish that is not too blemishy. They are often caused by horses not being straight movers.

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

If people have any connections with a horse that is showing, it’s a great day out for the whole family. It can be very hands on and the whole family can be involved and even if a member of the family is not so pony orientated there is always so much to do and see at a show. Non-showing people miss out on the whole environment. Plus, if you are lucky enough to be involved with a winner, there is a great celebration too! A lot of people have great parties afterwards.

It can be ‘facey’ but you also find that often the top people, the professionals, tend to have the better horses or they tend to go better than the others. Often not always though. It’s not as ‘facey’ as people think.

What is your favourite show?

Royal Windsor. I am a Royalist and to be in the Queens garden is very special. We have some wonderful photographs from the old days with Windsor Castle in the background and the horse standing out with a championship rosette. It is so special. It is early in the season too so everyone is looking forward to the season ahead.

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

I love our old double bridles and we also couldn’t be without our steam cleaner.

The steam cleaner washes the rugs, equipment, stables and even a muddy horse after a day out hunting.

I start horses in snaffles but then put them into a double bridle fairly early. I put everything into a double and then, if a horse isn’t happy for whatever reason, then we can go down the Pelham line but I am not a lover of Pelhams, I have always kept away from them where possible. The size of a horse’s mouth can effect whether they will take a double bridle but also previous schooling/training can have an impact. Cobs can be stronger and heavier in your hand so you may find a stronger bit or different bridle is needed for a cob.

Who do you most admire in the showing world?

Jayne Ross. She keeps producing the champions. She is dedicated and puts a lot of time and effort into it. She has come through the ranks and makes a very good job of it.

What is the worst trend you are currently seeing?

Horses are over-schooled and shown with less character and less presence than they used to. I like a natural presence and way of going, I like a horse to go courageously. The horses of the 80s and 90s were a lot more forward going than they are now. Judges, riders, shows seem to want a steadier, almost quieter hunter now. I was always told show horses should “look like a lion and ride like a lamb.”

The ponies are very disciplined now. The children are frightened to make a mistake, of striking off on the wrong leg and going down two or three places straight away, so you don’t see a pony come away with any fire or exciting presence anymore. They go beautifully now but are very mechanical.

We have always hunted our show horses to help get that forward way of going. Some will take to it and some won’t though. After a morning or two of hunting, you can tell whether it suits them and will improve their way of going or if they won’t settle, some just simply won’t settle. If a horse has got a bit fed up of showing, half a season hunting can make a lot of difference to them; less pressure and a different attitude.

There are also a lot of overweight show horses. If you look at my good show horses they were always fit and looked well but they have got so fat. Cobs have got ridiculously fat. Some people say mark them down but If I am judging I will simply say something.

I don’t like the trend to use too much makeup and oil. We used to use a bit of baby oil round their noses but I am against all this pig oil covered from head to toe. It’s got out of hand. Use some chalk for whitening a sock, a damp cloth to go over them but I am not a lover of plastering them in head to toe. I wouldn’t mark a horse down for it but I am not a fan.

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

He is already there really but Oliver Hood is an exceptional young lad. He can ride a cob or a hunter or anything. He is grand lad.

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

Cost is the greatest thing and a concern for a lot of people.

The lack of prize money hasn’t altered that much, there are some £1000 championships though now but they are always at the end of the day. If you show at 8am, you have to wait until 8pm at night for the championship, it’s a long old day for the grooms and the horses.

It’s also quite worrying that ride judges have got hurt. Horses have always misbehaved but now judges are told to get off. I think horses maybe don’t get enough work like they used to; they are fresher rather than naughtier.

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

As an all-round horseman that could show a cob or a hack or a hunter and someone who was a diplomat for the showing world.

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1 comment

  1. What a lovely interview and a lovely man. Very sad to hear of his passing. He seemed a really kind fair judge too. I’m sure he will be sadly missed.

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