Australia’s latest rising eventing star had his start as a dressage horse in New Zealand, and still has Kiwi connections.
Underdiscussion, ridden by Australia’s Christopher Burton to a classy win in the 2-star class at the Tattersalls International Horse Trials in Ireland earlier this month, was bought as a three-year-old in Australia and produced by New Zealand dressage trainer and rider Christine Weal. Despite being challenged by his quirks “every step of the way”, Weal has retained an interest in the horse as part of a syndicate.
By the German Hanoverian stallion Lanthan, a son of Lombard, Underdiscussion has a further Kiwi connection in that his thoroughbred dam, the Mighty Kingdom mare Surabaya, is out of a New Zealand bred mare, In The Cup, by the French-bred In the Purple, a son of Right Royal V.
Weal bought Underdiscussion – who was bred at Remi Stud in Queensland and originally named Remi Lethal Weapon – as a three-year-old, and soon discovered that “Mel”, as he is known at home, appeared to be barely broken in: ” … as I found out when I tried to ride him when he arrived in NZ,” Weal says.
“I was looking for horses for a client and he showed me a little bit of quality that interested me. We never saw him ridden and now I know why, as he has a special, quirky brain that could have gone either way. I did see this as a little bit of a challenge, though,” said Weal, who is based in Te Awamutu and runs Future International Sporthorses.
“I spent a lot of time with him and he proved a challenge to train. He was extremely spooky, hot and insecure in his life which showed not only when he was ridden but also in the paddock or box as well.”
Weal says she learned a lot about training horses from this one black beauty, more than nearly all the other horses she has trained, “and I’ve trained a few!” she says.
“Every day was a learning curve – and survival – for us both. Every movement was a drama and he would run backwards so fast and over whatever behind him that you nearly went off the front!
“I put him in every situation I could to try to help him see that the world wasn’t such a bad place. He taught me a lot about how to do things differently and think outside the square.
“We would walk for miles as I long reined him over the farm day after day to give him more confidence in the hope it would make him braver,” Weal said.
This training encouraged Mel to trust her, no matter what situation he was in.
“As a five year old I didn’t think his movement was going to be good enough, although he was improving in his training. I thought I might sell him, but the trouble was I couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t hurt someone.”
Weal went to Germany that winter to train at PSI (Paul Schockemohle’s Performance Sales International), and worked with Dr Ulf Moller.
“Ulf is one of the best riders of young horses in the world and he taught he me a lot, especially about riding difficult horses, like Sandro Hit was when he came to him.
“I came home and decided that I had to make this horse into something as I had nothing else and Mel was it. So I would see if Ulf’s methods worked – hence why Mel now has several gears in the trot, especially an extended trot to die for now.
“It made him into a different horse and as he went up through the grades I learned to love his quirkiness. We stopped trying to make Mel fit in with what worked for us and we compromised on a lot of things to keep him happy and settled.
“He had the same paddock and routine and a box that he could watch both sides of the farm from for many years. He was on the Development Squad for dressage and won a lot on his way up though the grades.”
Weal also did some showing with Mel, and won the Rider of the Year title at the New Zealand Horse of the Year show in 1996 with him.
Throughout his dressage training, Underdiscussion had always jumped, which helped settle him. In fact, when they placed second in the medium class at the World Dressage Challenge in 2006, they’d jumped around the cross-country course the day before.
“People must have thought I was crazy but it worked for him. The international judges always loved him and at the 2009 Horse of the Year he won and placed second at Open Medium. The next day eventer Donna Smith rode him to second in the CNC* Novice (at the Horse of the Year show).”
Smith, who was based at Weal’s property at the time, had started eventing Mel, but with little jump training as he was still competing in dressage.
“Looking back he was thrown in at the deep end but because he ran on trust he always had a go, and I always loved watching him compete,” Weal says.
“Because he went up the eventing grades a little too fast – he won the Intermediate CCI3* at Puhinui in December of 2009 – and because of his quirkiness, I had to take a step back with him as his mind wasn’t coping. He went back to doing dressage for nearly six months and I did a lot of free jumping with him, which I think did him the world of good and brought him back to normal.”
It was during the next year’s Horse of the Year show in March 2010 that it was suggested by Zoe Gray that her friend, Aussie visitor rider Chris Burton, might suit Mel.
“I was really struggling with the thought of having to sell him. He was my best friend and it was hard to let go of him,” Weal said, “but at the same time I knew he wasn’t a Grand Prix dressage horse and always had a great jumping technique.
“Burto tried him early the next morning on the way to the airport – much to everyone’s disgust, as it was a very early start for the people he was on holiday with!
“Mel loved him and went amazingly for him. It was one of those moments that you think ‘this is meant to be’ and the right thing for the horse no matter how hard it would be to let him go.
“As I loved him so much it was very hard for me to part with him which is why I’ve keep a share in him. He still holds a special place in my heart and I really believe in him.
“I competed Landro in the Sydney CDI and flew Mel over to Burto at the same time to show the other investors what they had bought (hoping they were happy!) and to show Burto his secret weapon … the extended trot and all the advanced dressage movements.
“It was fun to see him getting such a kick out of what he could do on him – he was like a little kid in a candy store. Even now he loves to show him off in the warm-up arena.
“I’ve been over to Australia to watch him compete and it’s been interesting being on the other side and being an owner. It’s much more nerve-wracking than I thought! But I couldn’t have a better rider on him.
“Burto has has done a super job and I’m so glad he gets a thrill from riding him. We still talk about the training as he is ‘a complicated soul’ that needs understanding and I don’t want him making the same mistakes I did.
“You need to plan his week to compensate for his brain, which Burto seems to have sorted out now, and he really loves the horse which makes me very happy. Burto has done a lot of work over the winter on his cross-country, and this all seems to be paying off now, with him being far more confident and not being so strong on course.”
Weal is planning to travel to Europe to watch Mel at either Aachen, or at Blenheim, where a start in the three-star division is planned.
“I’m very excited about seeing him again.”