Heart to heart with Airthrey Highlander

We thought it was about time someone asked the four-legged superstars of the equine world the secrets of their success. This time, it's Grand Prix dressage (and jumping) star Airthrey Highlander

Let's dance: Strutting my stuff with Bill Noble
Let’s dance: Strutting my stuff with Bill Noble

We BOW to you, Your Mightiness! Such excitement! But isn’t it appropriate that the most important dressage horse in the world is interviewed (at last!) by the world’s most important magazine? Do you agree – and do you think you’re going to enjoy it?

I do agree (but why has it taken you so long?) and I WILL enjoy it because I always enjoy talking to people. I’m a very social horse.

That’s a relief. Before we continue, did you get our opening pun? (Everyone knows your nickname is Bowie!). By the way – is that Bowie as in ‘bow to you’, or Bowie, as in ‘bow and arrow’? And where did it come from?

Yes I got your clever pun; I am a clever horse It’s pronounced Bowie as in ‘bow and arrow’ and I am called that because Mother is fixated on David Bowie. 

Please tell us about your parents.

Well, I have Mother, and then I have my horse parents, Mum and Dad. Dad was Glendevon Commander, a full Clydesdale stallion. I never got to meet him because me and Mum moved away before I was born. Mum was a TB called It’s About Time – everyone called her Matilda, though. She could be a bit cranky and uncooperative at times so sometimes I heard Mother calling her other names as well.

As a horse of two halves (so to speak), are you more Clydesdale and Scottish or more thoroughbred and English in your approach to life?

That depends on what I am doing. If I see my feed bin coming, my thoroughbred half comes out. If I see my saddle coming, then my Clydesdale half comes out and I come into the yard much slower. I might even actually plod.

Bowing down to His Royal Billness (Image: Libby Law)
Bowing down to His Royal Billness (Image: Libby Law)

Tell us about your staff. Let’s start with Bill Noble. What’s your opinion of him? And does he have any bad habits?

Bill has been on my staff now for six years. He’s actually pretty good. But… he can be a bit annoying. Like when he arrives to ride me at the same time the sparrows get up in the morning. I am not a morning person and it makes my breakfast late. Oh, and he is always running late too (except in the early mornings). I have spent many wasted minutes standing tacked up in the yard when I could have been grazing in my paddock. Sigh. I call him His Royal Billness.

How about his daughter, Anya?

I’m still getting to know Anya. She was living in Dunedin until very recently but is now back in the Waikato. I think we are going to get on fine. She’s not as bossy as HRB, His Royal Billness.

On form with my new jockette, Anaya Noble (Image: Libby Law)
On form with my new jockette, Anaya Noble (Image: Libby Law)

And your actual owner, Linda Moughan?

That would be Mother. She does quite a good job. Could be a bit snappier with the meal deliveries and she seriously needs to stop buying me ‘pretty’ covers. I need MANLY covers. But I do appreciate that I get to live outdoors 24/7 and she doesn’t wrap me in cotton wool. That would be itchy.

How did you begin your competition career?

I started as a show jumper/show hunter when I was four and was ridden by David Nickalls. My first competition was at Cambridge Lodge and I was excellent in the 60cm class. After that, I just went higher and higher, right up to Grand Prix. It was so easy!

Grand Prix show jumping at the Taupo Christmas Classic with David Nickalls
Grand Prix show jumping at the Taupo Christmas Classic with David Nickalls

Then why the switch to dressage, Bowie? Surely Grand Prix jumping was more exciting?

When I was at a show in Taupo as a 7YO, I hurt myself in the stable overnight. Big hurt. I had a whole year off from doing anything. It was pretty boring. I needed lots of vet work and when they finally decided I might be okay, Mother decided that I should take it easy for a start and do a bit of dressage instead of jumping. The plan was, that if I stayed sound doing dressage, I could go jumping again. Well! I was just too clever being all flash as a dressage horse (I always did like to show off) so Mother decided I didn’t need to go back jumping. I still jump at home and at the odd practice day and I am still fabulous at it, by the way

We’re wondering… isn’t it bit unusual for a horse to be at Grand Prix level in both those disciplines?

Maybe, but I always had the best jockeys. My current one (Anya) is coming along nicely too.

Did you start off with introductory-level dressage competitions or did Bill throw you in at the deep end?

David did a bit of dressage with me. He didn’t like it much. When I was four I won the Waikato Champs Level 1 title. It was my first rug . Then I did a Level 2 test and a Level 3 test and that was the end of my early dressage career. Four years later, in comes Bill and after eight months we did a Prix St Georges, then three months later we did the CDI Grand Prix at HOY. I was excellent and came fourth. If His Royal Billness had been more on to it, we could have done even better…

Did you come up against any ‘breed-bigotry’in the dressage world?

At first I think the judges weren’t quite sure what to do with me, but as my work got more established  I started getting the marks I deserved. The crowd has always been supportive because I think people like the fact I am not your usual dressage horse and lots of them have horses just like me (well, not as handsome, obviously) and I think I have proved you don’t need to be expensive or imported to play in the big boys’ sandpit

What are your favouriteand least fave dressage movements and why?

I LOVE the flying changes because that is the ultimate show-off move. Piaffe sucks. It’s like,‘keep moving but don’t move forward.’ Who thought that up?

Has there ever been an occasion in the dressage or jumping arena, that you’d really rather forget?

No. I have always been fabulous. Except for the time in my first Prix St Georges in the canter pirouette I managed to change legs, trot, passage and take up half the arena. Funnily, Bill was pleased with my effort in that test. Weirdo!

Do you have any bad habits, Bowie?

I have no bad habits. None. I cannot be responsible for people who insist on putting their feet under mine. Also, why would people leave gear and covers on the fence if I wasn’t meant to taste-test them?

Dressage ponies CAN gallop!
Dressage ponies CAN gallop!

Do you have a horse hero – or is that a silly question for someone so famous?

I don’t even come close to the horses who went to war for this country. They are proper heroes. We should remember them always.

That’s so true, Bowie; almost a whole generation of horses lost in battle. Luckily, lots of young people are learning about them these days, and paying them tribute. Speaking of young, do you have any babies?

Yep, got kids, a few still here at home but most have gone to new ‘Mothers’. A lot of them are doing all right too – eventers, jumpers, hunters, dressage queens. Secretly I would like to compete against one of the kids one day or at least do a Pas de Deux as a demo. Maybe a dual jump too.

Facebook pages, fan clubs, armies of admirers, a big family… whoa! We’re just so glad you could spare us some time. Well… do you even know what spare time is? And if you have any, what do you do with it?

I actually get a fair bit of spare time. Mother does most of my PR work, so that takes the pressure off me. I get at least one day a week off that I spend standing on my hill, surveying my kingdom, checking up on the kids, oh and the mares…

One last little question: is there anything you haven’t already done that you’d really like to try some day?

Polocrosse! I reckon I would be a good Number 3 horse as a blocker. I mean, who is going to ride ME off? Pfffft! Or barrel racing – that looks like fun!

A good use for an arena, actually
A good use for an arena, actually

*This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of PONIES! magazine