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The story of Woodmount Magic

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Magic first came to me in 1986 as a thoroughbred weanling, at just six months of age. In those days Manu and I lived in Tasmania and were developing ‘Woodmount Equestrian Centre’.  My main focus was the foundation training of racehorses, as well as eventing and coaching and teaching at the University.

Local thoroughbred breeder, Peter Burleigh, sent Magic along with three other weanlings to  me to look after and then start under-saddle a couple of years down the track. From the very moment they got off the truck and ran across the paddock, I was stunned by the loose, athletic movement of one of them, which later turned out to be Woodmount Magic. In later years, the British eventing dressage coach, Emile Faurie, was quoted as saying that Magic was the best moving thoroughbred in the UK when he was imported there by Tim Collins.

Once he began his foundation training, Woodmount Magic proved to be a very different horse to ride compared to any other I had experienced. He had the most supple, smooth back to ride in all paces with very elegant knee and hock action. I decided then and there that he would be my future three-day-event horse to replace Woodmount Kinetic and Woodmount Enterprise when they retired. I approached Magic’s owner, Peter Burleigh to purchase him, but there was no way I could ever afford him. Peter said the horse is ‘bred in the purple’, meaning that he was bred well enough to be a Melbourne Cup winner. However, Peter said that if he didn’t turn out to be a racehorse, he would consider me purchasing him. I decided that I needed to apply for an owner-trainer license in horse racing so that I could at least train him myself and keep him in my world. As an owner-trainer of racehorses I had seven starts with Magic. His racing name was Tower of Magic.

At the time, I had a few other racehorses at my centre that I was pre-training, and so I would do trackwork with Magic and the others. The one thing that really stood out to me was that for every ten strides that the longest striding horse took, Magic could cover the same ground in only nine strides. He had an enormous gallop.

With that kind of gallop, Magic really was a stayer, in the true sense of the word and unfortunately the longest race in Tasmania was nowhere near long enough for Magic to show his true ability. Plus, at that time you had to start with sprint races which Magic came hopelessly last in most of them. In fact, I was once held up by the racing stewards and sat down in a big round table in a darkish room and asked why my horse was so slow?  The implication was that it was bad for the punters. I said I couldn’t see the problem because surely, they would all know not bet on the horse that came last each time.

One time I was standing in the stadium with my grooms, Jo Hughes and Zoe Daniel (now an member of the Australian Parliament and former brilliant journalist), watching Magic once again come hopelessly last. I turned to them and said, “Hasn’t he got the most beautiful gallop you’ve ever seen?” which likely suggested that I was unmoved by him coming last.  Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that I was overheard by his owner, Peter Burleigh and the comment didn’t go down well. So, Peter said he was taking the horse from me and giving him to a proper racehorse trainer. I asked Peter if I could choose the trainer for him and he gave me the okay, so off the horse went to Michael Trinder. I liked this trainer very much not only has a top-class trainer but also as a very decent human being. Michael’s jockeys and grooms all loved riding Magic because he was so light and adjustable. Unsurprisingly they all believed it was his temperament, but I knew that the vast amount of it was due to his training. Nevertheless, Magic still never won a race with Michael either and Michael agreed the races were just too short for him. So I offered to buy Magic, and in the end Peter gave him to me in exchange for the breaking in of another racehorse (about $300.00 at the time).

During Magic’s time in training, he was always without exception extremely calm and easy to train, despite the fact that he was still a stallion and despite his breeding: his grandfathers on both sides were full brothers and sons of the famous Star Kingdom. The Star Kingdom line had a reputation for being very difficult and ‘hot’. In my world, ‘hot’ simply means sensitive, and therefore you have to take extra care in training lightness to the aids. It means you have to be quick to release any pressures and you have to prioritise self-carriage in every gait, speed and line.

Coincidentally, when I purchased Magic, we had just moved to Victoria and were settling into the Clonbinane Valley where we began the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre.  As my future event horse, Magic’s training now shifted to dressage, showjumping and cross-country, and he excelled in all 3 disciplines. In fact, Magic won all the way through to Advanced level in just 12 outings which I think was something of a record.  His dressage was very sharp, and he was the first horse at the North-East Dressage Championships to achieve 80%.

After placing third, at Melbourne, three-day-event, the organisers of Wandin, one day event asked me if I had a horse suitable be lent to guest rider and kiwi, Vaughn Jeffries, who was the World Champion at the time. Wandin Horse Trials was the richest one-day event in Australia and was superbly run by the Anker family. Vaughn came out to the AEBC to have a test ride on Magic and gave the go-ahead and then subsequently won the Wandin Horse Trials. Vaughn commented to me and has repeated it since to others that Magic was the best trained horse he had ever ridden.

For me, Magic was the culmination of my massive shift in learning about horse training with an understanding of cognition and learning theory. I guess I was becoming a better rider anyway, but certainly understanding how to achieve light aids in acceleration, deceleration, and turning really made Magic stand out. He never ever competed or was trained in anything other than a normal snaffle. Yes, he was like a Mercedes to ride in the cross country. You only need to sit up and he would shorten instantly, squeeze and he would gallop on explosively.

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On some occasions, I would bring him home from an event, even during a three-day event after the dressage phase, and he would serve a mare. He generally served around 20 mares a year. I taught him very good groundwork as well, which made him calm, safe and obedient, so serving mares was totally uncomplicated and calm. I occasionally practised my dressage test in the paddocks where I kept the broodmares, and so he learned to stay focused on the training, regardless of the circumstances.

Woodmount Magic was one of the most outstanding horses in our country at that time in the early 90’s. Eddie Stibbe from the Netherlands offered me $60,000.00 for Magic but, I refused to sell him. Then in the following year at the Melbourne 3-Day Event where Magic was now in the Advanced section, Tim Collins from the UK saw Magic there and offered to buy Magic. I said I wouldn’t sell him for anything less than $100,000.00 thinking that would be impossible. In fact, I never imagined that I really would sell Magic as he was so much a part of our family. However, moving to Victoria from Tasmania meant that we had a monstrous bank loan. So when Tim offered to buy him for six figures straight after Melbourne three day event I said to Manu “well he probably won’t pass the vet check anyway”, because the vet check was the day after the showjumping at Melbourne three day event, and 1995 was a very dry Spring and the roads & tracks and steeplechase were very hard going.  Amazingly, Magic passed the vet check with flying colours. I phoned Manu and said, “you won’t believe this, but I have just sold Magic”.

In some ways, selling Magic was the worst thing I ever did because he was such a wonderful horse and such a huge part of our lives, we all loved him so much. Manuela rode him and occasionally schooled him and I kept him in the field with her dressage horse, Woodmount Cabaret. Even the kids could ride him to and from the paddock. I certainly would never have parted with him if we didn’t have such big financial commitments and a young family to provide for.

Selling Magic was something of a national record. He was the first sport horse in Australia to be sold for six figures, and the first Australian trained stallion in equestrian sport to be sold to Europe.

For me, Magic was the first proof that you can train a horse from scratch to go into snaffle, even if he is a serving stallion bred to be hot and hypersensitive. In a very real sense, Magic taught me the practical reality of understanding learning theory. While everybody saw him as just a calm easy tempered stallion, the truth was that so much of it was nurture over-riding nature. Throughout his training I could see potential problems that might erupt owing to his hypersensitivities, so I improved my awareness and tact and it made me so much sharper as a trainer.

Tim arranged that I would fly with Magic to Shannon airport in Ireland along with 39 other thoroughbred ‘shuttle’ stallions. Tim would meet me there and we would travel by truck across the Irish sea to Somerset in the UK. So off we went with 40 stallions, including Danehill and Royal Sovereign and many other of the world’s most famous sires. It was a long journey in a DC 10 in December, 1995. In those days, the 40 stallions were in the cargo hold surrounded only by plywood stalls just below wither height. My job was to look after one row of four stallions including Magic, and there were 11 other grooms looking after the others plus one vet who had enough sedative for only half a dozen horses, if needed!

We went the long way from Melbourne to Ireland,  first  to Sydney, then Auckland,  Honolulu, New York and finally to Ireland. Just before we began the descent to Shannon, the flight became increasingly turbulent and the pilot came to speak with me and the other 11 grooms and explained that there was a hurricane over the Irish Sea and suggested we should land in Amsterdam instead. It sounded like a sensible idea to me, but one of the Irish grooms who was keen to get back home, said to me “Listen laddie, it’s the Hurricanes they don’t tell you about, those are the bad ones”. The Irish logic completely baffled me, but not the other go rooms so I was out-voted and we flew through what seemed like a tumble dryer, with stallions going upwards on all four legs and then thumping down again on the deck of the gutted DC 10. I began to wonder if something was telling me I shouldn’t be selling Magic. The windows of DC-10 were blocked out so we could never tell how much more of this we needed to endure. Not one of the stallions broke free, but many started double barrelling the flimsy plywood surrounds.

At last, we finally landed and now faced the icy winds of the Irish storm. These stallions all had summer coats  and soon started shivering as they disembarked, one by one.  I was very pleased to meet Tim, Magic’s new owner on the Shannon airport tarmac.  We loaded Magic onto the truck and off we went to stay at Mark Barry’s (Irish event rider) beautiful family castle near Limerick. We stayed for a week until the Irish sea settled down and the ferry could sail across to the UK.

Magic never competed in the UK, however he had quite a career as a stallion. He was a once in a lifetime kind of horse and one we will always remember and talk about for years to come.


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