The Tale of the Little Giant.

6 Jul

                                                    THE LITTLE GIANT

 

Ted Cripps was a butcher. He was a good man, a loving father and he was hell bent on buying a present for his daughter, Sally. She wanted a pony—and if a pony Sally wanted, then a Pony Sally would get.

Ted contacted a Sussex horse dealer called Tommy Grantham and arranged to come and see him with a view to assessing whether Tommy had a pony at the right price. As luck would have it, Tommy had just imported a job lot of livestock from Ireland and sure enough among more the impressive equines transported across the Irish Sea was a Bay pony — just perfect for a wee girl.

Whatsmore, the little pony was a crossbreed – coming from a cross of a thoroughbred horse and Connemara Pony—and as such he would not be too expensive with a pedigree like that. He had been gelded, was small and so was just right for Sally.

Ted and Tommy shook hands and struck a deal.

When Sally saw her Pony, she was delighted.

However, the problem with little girls is that they grow up, and over time, Sally outgrew her pony and the decision was taken to sell the little horse who was by now 8 years old.

In the interim Sally had entered some junior jumping competitions with the pony and had done quite well. The Pony was a good little jumper and Ted was confident of selling him on to a good family.

Eventually a buyer was found — a Mr Coakes who was a farmer from Hampshire.

He too had a daughter (Marion) who was learning to ride just like her older brothers both of whom very good horsemen, and so he was now in the market for a small pony for his little girl.

Mr Coakes bought the little pony from Ted and off he went with a new pony in the family and a delighted Marion.

Ralph Coakes had taught his sons, John and Douglas, to ride brilliantly—so much so that they both made the British Junior Show jumping team. He hoped that he could also teach his daughter Marion to ride just as well, and he saw the little pony as being a significant step in that direction.

Sure enough, Marion turned out to be a superb naturally gifted horsewoman and soon mastered the pony well, achieving very good results when she jumped the pony in competition.

However, just as Sally had outgrown the child’s pony, so did Marion and the time came for Ralph to broach the notion that the little pony should be sold once again and that Marion should move on to a fully sized horse for future events – especially if she wanted to take show jumping seriously.

Except there was a problem with Ralph’s plan – and that problem was Marion!

By this time she had become very fond of the little pony. She believed that there was something special about the little horse and made it plain that she did not want him sold at all. Even when well-known horsey types came to look the pony over with a view to buying, Marion insisted that any sale was completely against her wishes.

Eventually, Ralph Coakes, being a dad first and foremost, relented and allowed his daughter to keep her pony against his better judgement………….. And the rest as they say is………………. history!

I remember growing up in the West End of Glasgow in a tenement. We lived on the top floor in a big flat on Hyndland Road which I can still see in my mind’s eye to this day.

It is funny how things stick in a child’s mind…… with the inevitability that the child becomes an adult and the same things are lodged in that same mind over 40 or so years later.

I remember when we got our first television…. A Granada TV set with a circular knob which you turned to change the channel…… of which there were only two.

You turned the dial to number 3 for BBC1 and to 21 for ITV…… that was it!

Then I remember when that set was replaced by the first colour set—again a Granada—-and by this time the circular dial was gone. Instead it was replaced by four push in buttons for BBC1, BBC2 and ITV1 with a fourth button nominally for ITV2 which of course did not exist.

The first colour set arrived in our house in the first week of March 1971 – I know this because it was bought just in time for the fight of the century between the reigning heavyweight champion of the world ( Joe Frazier ) and the self-styled “Undisputed, undefeated, Greatest heavyweight boxer of ALL time” the irrepressible Mohamed Ali!

By 1971, I was hooked on sport on the TV.

I watched the European Cup Final of 1967 on the old black and white TV as I did the fabulous World Cup of 1970 from Mexico. The same year I watched avidly as John Newcombe won the men’s singles at Wimbledon, while Margaret Court lifted the women’s crown. The following year I watched as a funny looking wee Mexican American lifted the Claret Jug at the British Open.

By 1970, if there was sport on the TV I was there for my ringside seat so to speak no matter what the sport.

A big factor in leading me to this state of sporting addiction was the 1968 Olympic Games from Mexico City, full of Dick Fosbury and his famous flop over the high jump and the black sprinters from the USA with their black power salutes and all that kind of thing.

We in Britain had seen nothing like it.

We liked our sport very reserved— all boat race, and strawberries at Wimbledon with Dan Maskell saying things like “Oh I say!” and everyone thought that was just fine. It was the way it was……. Especially on the BBC.

Maskell was THE voice of tennis. Kenneth Wolstenhome the voice of football, Harry Carpenter the voice of boxing, and Henry Longhurst was the voice of golf.

There was one other “voice” who always commentated on his chosen sport and he was Raymond Brooks Ward and the sport was Show Jumping.

Living in a flat in Glasgow I knew more about lunar research and the lost tribes of the Incas than I did about horses – whether that was racing them, jumping them or getting them to pull a horse and cart.

However, I did know that show jumping was on the telly fairly often and had a few characters like Harvey Smith who made an otherwise boring sport bearable.

However, the only time I can ever really remember getting in any way excited about show jumping was when the crowd at the Empire Pool Wembley, or Hickstead or wherever would go berserk and Raymond Brooks Ward would announce “ That cheer tells you that here comes Marion Coakes——- and Stroller!”

Yes here was the farmer’s daughter and her child’s pony taking on big Harvey, David Broom and all the other big guns of the show jumping world …….. and as often as not the wee pony beat them out of sight despite being dwarfed by far bigger horses…… or should I say proper horses!

Whatever chemistry or magic there was between young Marion and her Bay pony, she somehow managed to get the 14.1 hands high Stroller up and over the hugest of fences and round the course better than anyone else who just happened to be  seated on a pure thoroughbred standing 16 hands or more .

From the time that Ralph Coakes said that the pony should be sold so that Marion could progress to seniors’ show jumping from junior show jumping, Marion insisted that she could beat all comers on the little pony.

There are photos of her sitting on Stroller and it is clear that other big thoroughbreds of the day stood a full head and neck above her little pony who she believed could get over the same big fences as these giants. And somehow or other, the little crossbreed would indeed get over the fences and outdo them all.

The diminutive Stroller and Marion won the Hickstead Derby Trial in 1964, and nearly captured the Derby itself, finishing second to the great Seamus Hayes and his great horse Goodbye.

For those not familiar with the significance of Hickstead in show jumping terms, it is undoubtedly the most famous and demanding show jumping course and event in the world. It includes a big tiring course which incorporates a front on exit down the famous Derby Bank — an incredibly steep bank down which the horses must negotiate by a mixture of running and jumping. Very many of the world’s greatest show jumpers literally fell down the bank, especially when the conditions were wet and slippery.

To win at Hickstead you didn’t just have to be good—- you had to be brilliant!

Unbelievably, when she was just 18 in 1965, Marion Coakes rode Stroller to triumph in the ladies’ World Championship at Hickstead. They beat formidable and experienced opposition in a gruelling three-day contest with the equine world looking on in sheer and utter bewilderment. A girl on a pony winning at Hickstead? It just was not possible.

That same year, Marion and Stroller captured the Queen Elizabeth Cup at the Royal International Horse Show. Again, this was a jaw dropping achievement in this particular world.

It became a show jumping sensation that a child’s bay pony was soaring over big spreads, parallels, banks and ditches better than most of the world’s great horses. Such feats were declared a phenomenon— completely inexplicable.

Most show jumping horses are tall— over 16 hands high (64 inches in height ) whereas Stroller was only 14.1 hands high (57 inches in height)—and are expected to clear level 9 international fences namely fences 4′9″ to 5′0″ in height and 5′0″ to 5′6″ in spread, triple bars to 6′0″,  and water to 13′. For a pony to clear such heights was unheard of — ponies were for junior shows— not this kind of stuff at all!

However, if the show jumping world thought that the little pony was going to stop when pitted against the very best horses ridden by top female pilots then they were in for a shock.

In show jumping terms a Puissance competition is almost the equivalent of the equestrian high jump. The competition involves a maximum of five rounds – an opening round followed by four jump-offs, not against the clock. The first round consists of four to six large single obstacles including the puissance wall, the starting height of which may vary from 1.70 to 1.80 m (5 ft 7 in to 5 ft 11 in) in height. For the jump-offs, in which the fences are raised for each round, there are only two obstacles—a spread fence and the wall—although an optional practice fence is included. In the event of equality after the fifth round, the riders share first prize.

The puissance wall has often become taller than 2 metres (6 ft 7 in).

In 1967 Marion Coakes chose to enter the tiny Stroller in the Puissance competition at an International show being held in Antwerp, Belgium. The little horse cleared all the big fences in the preliminary round and so the course builders started to build up the two fences for the next round. Yet again the little Pony soared over the obstacles—- while many other well-known qualifiers ridden by the best male jumpers in the world fell by the wayside.

By the fourth round, the Puissance wall had been raised to 6ft 8 inches and the remaining competitors were Alwin Schockemöhle on Athlet, a great puissance specialist, and Marion Coakes on the diminutive pony.

Schockemöhle cleared the wall at 6ft 8in, showing why he and his horse were specialists at this event. However, to the amazement of all, the teenage girl also steered her little horse over the huge wall and with one round to go she was still in the competition.

For the final round, the organisers decided to raise the height of the wall to 6ft 10 inches and at that height not even the great German could get his specialist horse over without dislodging the top layer of bricks. That wall towered over Stroller’s head. When Marion Coakes and her little pony strode forward to jump they nearly made it — but by the time the little horse had landed on the other side one solitary brick had become dislodged.

Notwithstanding that failure, the unthinkable had happened — a child’s pony had just won an International Puissance event sharing the first prize with a horse which was regarded as amongst the best in the world at this event.

This was nothing short of a miracle!

However, the Stroller story was only just beginning and such was the incredulity at the little horse’s feats that the TV had to be on hand to capture what could barely be described.

At the 1967 Hickstead Derby the teenage girl from Hampshire and the tiny pony took on all comers—male and female—from all around the world—- and WON!

Stroller was the only entrant in the finals out of 44 international starters to achieve a clear round, keeping his feet in a stumble and slither down the big Bank.

Marion would later recall: “When we sailed over the last fence, having completed the only clear round of the day, the crowd of 25,000 went crazy. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We had completed the 50th clear round ever achieved on the Hickstead course — and it was the first ever by a woman rider.”

Not only that, it was the first ever clear round by a rider on what was officially classed as a pony as opposed to a horse! A feat that has never been repeated by any other pony to this day.

Stroller’s greatest triumph, and near tragedy, was in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The idea of picking a girl on a pony for the Olympics was sort of crazy but the little pony could simply not be ignored and so Marion and the pony she had refused to sell found themselves on the way to Mexico.

This was way beyond the dreams and aspirations of Ralph Coakes who thought that he had merely bought his daughter a training pony several years before.

In Mexico there were altitude problems, but Stroller was also suffering a decayed and split upper tooth. It was decided to give him painkillers and steam inhalations rather than risk an extraction just before the contest.

Despite this, Stroller bravely jumped clear in the first round of the individual contest, and picked up eight faults in the second round over a huge course. America’s Bill Steinkraus and Snowbound took the gold medal with four faults, but no one else in the field could better Stroller’s round and so Marion and her pony had won the silver medal.

Marion and the little horse were now national heroes.

The partnership of Marion and Stroller would win the Wills Hickstead Gold Medal, for points gained in major show jumping events during the course of the show jumping year, for five consecutive years from 1965 to 1970, and in all the pair would win 61 International show jumping events. 

However, for me and other members of my family ( and no doubt millions of others ) who had absolutely no interest in show jumping whatsoever it wasn’t just the winning record of the little pony and its rider that was captivating—it was the way it was done.

Three things have to be noted.

The first is that being smaller than all the other horses in the field, the wee pony had to take more strides between the fences and when he jumped, he had a habit of flicking his tail up in the air and tucking his hind legs up close to his rump to ensure that he could clear the big spreads.

Second is that whatever Stroller lacked in height and stature, the Pony made up for in sheer confidence heart and unbridled bravery. It appeared that there was no fence of any height or description which the wee pony would not try to jump! In all competitions over a prolonged period, he only ever refused to jump a fence once – and that was in the team competition at the Olympics when he was clearly under the weather because of the damaged tooth. Stroller was as brave as could be and seemed to launch himself at and over any obstacle no matter how high it appeared.

However, the most important and exciting thing to see would be when Stroller would be in a final jump off against the bigger horses which was to be conducted against the clock.

In many cases Raymond Brooks Ward would describe the jump off courses being assembled with huge spreads, and high double and triple sets of bars to negotiate.

Clearly these should have been easier to negotiate for the bigger horses and their riders, and with their longer strides it could be argued that negotiating round a big big course would take less effort for these big guys. However against the clock – such courses were right up Stroller’s street!

Picture a big horse getting up speed to jump a big set of bars. It speeds up, approaches, jumps, lands and its momentum takes it forward by quite a few steps before the rider can start to turn towards the next jump. All of that took time— and in a jump off against the clock you didn’t have the luxury of time if you wanted to win.

However, Marion Coakes ( later to become Marion Mould ) was an expert horsewoman and as often as not she knew that her pony could go faster round such a course than any of these big guys with their expert riders.

So there I would be, maybe with my Irish Grandad, watching a sport I had no real interest in just to see if this girl come woman could beat the Harvey Smiths, David Brooms and the Schockemöhle’s of this world on their great big horses at the Horse of the year show on BBC1.

I remember quite clearly shouting “ Go On” at the telly as she would begin the timed jump off and start round the course.

Stroller was a wee Jimmy Johnstone of a horse who could twist and turn in an instant! Not for him the notion of landing and taking a few strides before turning—Oh No! Somehow the wee pony would take off round the course at speed and as he jumped Marion would steer him in such a way that he was already turning as he landed.

Tight, tight turns and cutting impossible corners – often jumping the fences at odd almost diagonal angles and immediately turning on a sixpence meant that the wee horse flew round the arena making the big horses look like lumbering Clydesdales. Such competitions always brought a few moments of amazing excitement as you waited to see if the wee pony could go clear and get round faster than the big guys!

And very often they did just that— with the crowd in the arena and in front of the telly going berserk!

In this way, Marion Mould – the once teenage Marion Coakes — and Stroller —her training pony —–defied belief.

In 1968 she had almost repeated her triumph at Hickstead when she came second and in 1970 she would be third. For a number of years the wee pony would be the most consistent international jumper in the world.

In 1970, when he had reached the grand age of twenty years old, Stroller won the title of leading jumper at the horse of the year show and more importantly won the prestigious Hamburg Derby……. Arguably the second most prestigious and difficult event after Hickstead.

In 1971 the little horse won the British Show jumping Derby at Hickstead before eventually retiring.

Show jumping had changed in the course of the Stroller story. Many of the horses were sponsored and now bore names which contained the names of the sponsor as a prefix. So you had Horses called “Sony this” and “Sanyo that” and so on.

However, Marion insisted throughout that Stroller was simply Stroller and would always remain so.

In due course Marion Mould would find another horse, and would win The Queen Elizabeth Cup again on her mount Elizabeth Anne.

However, Elizabeth Anne was a proper horse and neither Marion nor anyone else could ever find another pony or another Stroller. Not only that, it was evident from early on the little pony would only jump as it could if piloted by Marion.

Eventually, she went on to write a book and called it “ Stroller and me” – the very title telling you who she saw as the most important member of the partnership!

Any interest I ever had in show jumping waned after Stroller’s retirement. As I say I know nothing of horses and other than the odd pony trek in my youth I have never ridden at all.

However, for a period in the late sixties and the early seventies I followed this most alien of sports simply because I was watching what seemed to be the impossible, the unbelievable sight of a girl on a wee pony take on the best in the world and win.

My old granddad would stare at the telly and shout “ Jeez The wee horse is over—the wee horse is over” and neither of us could scarcely believe it!

Coverage of sport on TV is very different today and I regret that.

Gone are the days when some sport or other — football aside— would be the main family offering on the BBC of an evening. Whether it used to be Athletics, or Show Jumping, Speedway or whatever, there used to be a sense of awe about watching sportsmen and women achieve their goals and seemingly perform out of their skin.

The Story of the teenage girl and her pony was straight out of a magic book, as if they had been sprinkled with fairy dust or something.

I always thought of them as the underdog, the wee guys, with all the odds stacked against them when competing against these far bigger horses. Maybe that is why the story of Stroller the pony has always stayed with me.

Stroller lived till he was 36 years old eventually dying of a heart attack.

The little cross breed pony was buried somewhere at Barton-on-Sea Golf Club, New Milton, Hampshire, England —-which is perhaps a strange place to bury a show jumping pony.

I don’t know what persuaded Ralph Coakes to allow his daughter to keep a  small pony instead of moving her on to a full size horse, and I don’t know how that Daughter was able to get the little horse to achieve what seemed like physically impossible in a show jumping ring.

All I do know, is that great sporting stories start with a child’s dream and just sometimes those dreams come true for the very few.

And sometimes – just sometimes—the world comes across a little sporting Giant who brings a thrill that can still be remembered over 40 years later!

 

Stroller – The Little Giant.

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2 Responses to “The Tale of the Little Giant.”

  1. zoyler July 7, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    I remember them well but in Ireland er had Tommy Wade on his little pony Dundrum who actually won a puissance at the Horse of the Year Show and I remember that from the camera shot from the far side of the wall you could not see their approach!

  2. Gospino January 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    Stroller was incredible. Great article.

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