Blind faith in a former racehorse | With Heart

FORMER racehorse Heavenly Pun might be a long way from the Flemington straight on Derby Day.

In his new life, he pairs with Riding for the Disabled dressage rider Chris Hall at the Riverside Equestrian Centre as they prepare to compete in dressage events.

Heavenly Pun was no slouch during his racing career, highlighted by his fifth placing in the 2004 Victoria Derby.

The son of Distorted Humour won six races from his 31 starts and collected more than $250,000 in prize money.

Quantong woman Margaret Howard bought the horse from the syndicate which raced him.

“The people who raced him retired him because he had a bowed tendon and they needed a home for him,” she said.

She trains Hall, and Heavenly Pun – or Benny to his owner and rider – twice a week as part of the Horsham Riding for the Disabled program. 

The aim is to get the pair to a competition.

“Chris has been having lessons with me for more than 10 years on other horses so, when his old one got beyond it, he started riding this one,” she said.

“He loves him now – he sort of looks after him.”

The relationship works both ways, with Benny able to sense when Chris has made a mistake.

“Benny looks after him,” Howard said. 

“I think horses know when they’ve got somebody on who has a disability, and, if he ever does anything wrong, he’ll just stop and let Chris get his balance again.”

“Can you imagine what it would be like to ride around on a horse with your eyes closed? I couldn’t do it.” - Margaret Howard

Hall is an accomplished rider, having competed at more than 17 RDA national competitions.

He said riding horses came naturally to him.

“It’s the excitement and the thrill of riding,” he said. 

“Just being on a horse – that’s the main thing.”

He has been a long-time member of RDA in Stawell and Horsham. 

He said his thirst for competition motivated his interest in dressage. 

“I was too bored doing the games at RDA. All they do is obstacle courses,” he said.

“I like more of a challenege, like the canter – that’s a challenge.”

He said competitions pitted him against riders with a range of disabilities, which could sometimes place him at a disadvantage when he competed against people with sight.

The horse’s former trainer Heath Conners had no idea where Benny – or Punny as he was known at the stables – had ended up as a 12-year-old.

“That’s fantastic because he was a lovely horse,” he said.

Chris Hall with Benny.

Chris Hall with Benny.

Conners said he was pleased Heavenly Pun had improved his temperament since his racing days.

“He always wanted to get into trouble when he was a colt. He was really naughty but he had stacks of ability,” he said.

“He won one day at Caulfield when there was a loose horse.

“He ended up on the outside rail coming down the straight because the loose horse ended up on the inside rail.

“He won and it was incredible.”

“He always wanted to get into trouble when he was a colt. He was really naughty but he had stacks of ability.'' - Benny's former trainer Heath Conners

During dressage tests, Howard stands in the middle of the arena and calls the markers out so Hall knows where he is.

“He remembers the test but I call the markers for him so he knows where he is,” she said.

Hall said this, along with his natural feel for the course, allowed him to know when to enter the next phase.

“Margaret calls the letters three times to let me know when it’s a transition,” he said.

Hall’s mother Liz Hall said her son had had several falls during his career but always managed to get back on a horse.

“One time, a horse took off and it went ‘whoosh’ to the corner of the arena and it pulled up right in the corner,” she said. 

“He fell off and he was lying on the ground winded and he said ‘gee the ground comes up awfully quick when you can’t see’.”

Howard said she felt RDA gave Hall a great sense of freedom and achievement.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to ride around on a horse with your eyes closed? I couldn’t do it,” she said. 

Hall said while the decision about when they went to a competition together would ultimately rest with Howard, his connection with the horse built with every ride.

“We’re getting more confident to take him to a competition,” he said.

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