Ride the Horse, Not the X-Rays: This ‘Unsellable’ Horse Went to the Olympics

Ride the Horse, Not the X-Rays: This ‘Unsellable’ Horse Went to the Olympics

By Cheryl Witty-Castillo

If you take a look at Asih’s passport, you get a glimpse of a horse who’s seen it all, including the 2012 Olympic Games in London. From Burghley to Badminton, Asih, called “The Champ,” has one very impressive resume. 

But the CV doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Despite his eventing success, Asih is a horse who never sold. His x-rays as a youngster were troubling, and he never “passed” a vetting due to kissing spine and a navicular bone problem. After gaining some experience at the 2* level, his owner Victoire von Shoen gave him to a young rider who rode him in the 3*. Although he performed well, his x-rays continued to scare potential clients away. Then, when Asih was 16, Victoire came across an advert in Horse and Hound. South African rider Alexander Peternell was looking for a ride for the Olympics in London. The horse Alexander had qualified with had sustained a tendon injury, and there was no way he would be healed in time for the Games. 

Why not Asih? He’s still fit, Victoire thought. Vetting issues aside, she knew her horse had what it takes to perform at the top level, and he loved doing his job. 

Time was running short. To make the new team work, Alexander had to register Asih under his name as a joint owner so Asih would be registered with his federation. Then, without even meeting in person, Victoire sent Asih to Alexander. They had just six months to qualify him and get ready for the Olympics. 

When Heart Matters Most

Chatting with Victoire and Alexander, one thing is clear right off the bat: they both really love this horse. You can hear it in their voices, and in their laughter when talking about Asih’s personality and antics. Still, Alexander admits that, on paper, this situation wasn’t ideal. “I think, if you ask any professional rider, would they take a 16-year-old, teenaged horse, who at that stage wasn’t really that successful at what is now considered 4* competition, and take that on as a top ride, they probably wouldn’t be that interested. But it was my chance to compete at the London Olympics, so I took it and never looked back. For his owner and for me, it was a fantastic journey.” 

Asih's passport via Olivia Johnson's Facebook post.

Asih and Alexander competed together until Asih finally retired at age 20. “I called him my old soldier, because he always performed. I think the biggest thing for him is that he physically found the dressage phase very difficult. It didn’t come naturally for him, so I knew how much he hated it. He still tried, which I always appreciated. But in cross country and show jumping, he was just phenomenal. He found it very easy, and he’s just so intelligent. Always easy to work with. I would supply a problem to him, and I could feel him working it out. He would never throw in the towel and say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’”

Although the Olympics and the World Games were remarkable memories for Alexander, his favorite moment with Asih came at the final fence of Badminton, their last event together. “I knew his career was nearly complete, and we were coming to the last fence. I said, ‘Come on old boy, this the last one.’  I didn’t realize that I’d said it out loud, and everyone who was close by spectating at the time heard me and laughed. But it was our last jump, and we jumped a double clear.  

Asih and Alexander at Badminton Horse Trials.

“For me, it’s a wonderful memory," Alexander says. "He gave me his all. He didn’t have to jump clear; I didn’t even expect him to jump clear. He always put his heart into doing his job. And I think, for me, that moment sums him up. Right to the last, he gave me his all. I’ll always remember him for that.”

Talent, Strength, and Soundness

The x-rays, which had been a red flag for buyers in Asih’s younger days, were never a concern for Alexander. “As a professional rider and producer of horses, I think that people get too hung up on x-rays and clinical vetting. If a horse is competing at 4/5*, to be at that level, they have to be pretty fit and sound and strong. If a horse has competed consistently at that level, he is sound. Obviously all horses have things that you have to address, improve on, take care of, and maintain. Just like any top athlete. You can’t tell me that every top athlete is an absolute perfect specimen of a human being.”  

Alexander and Asih at their final Badminton appearance together.

According to Alexander, riders have to realize that, the higher the level you go, the narrower the margin becomes for the horse to stay sound and perform. You have to take every horse in consideration. You look at the physique, temperament, and metabolism. Some horses are capable of the work, even if clinically they don’t have the best x-rays, while other horses will have the best x-rays and never stay sound or be able to do the work. Success is a combination of the horse’s natural conformation, your management and training, and vet care. And sometimes? Just pure luck. 

Every buyer wants to find a magic horse - the horse that you can take to a vet and they will say, ‘That horse is going to stay sound forever!’. But unfortunately, that horse doesn’t exist. 

What does that mean for those of us looking to buy a new horse? Do stories like Asih’s mean pre-purchase exams and x-rays are a waste of time and money? 

Information Is Powerful, But Not Predictive

Like anything related to horses, there’s no easy answer. 

Victoire says she doesn’t x-ray horses before she buys, but she has over thirty-five years of experience, so that’s not necessarily the recommendation she gives to other buyers, especially if they are amateurs. She encourages clients to get thorough pre-purchase exams on their own for their peace of mind, and so they know what they are getting into. “I think as an amateur, you are not always an expert or even confident in your own abilities to manage things, so you will have to believe someone else, maybe your trainer or your vet.” 

Alexander agrees, particularly when it comes to insuring the new purchase. “For the amateur, it’s more about taking a bath for the insurance company. Horses are so expensive to maintain, so for amateurs especially, insurance is a lifeline. As a professional, I always advise an amateur to have a horse vetted. After the vet passes the horse, the client and I will both know in good conscience that the horse is sound at purchase.” 

Looking Beyond the Pre-Purchase 

While acknowledging that vetting is an important step, Alexander says a horse’s conformation isn’t the only thing to consider. Every rider needs to be realistic about what he or she wants to achieve with their horse. “If you are an amateur who is competing at .80m or .90m, you don’t necessarily need a horse that is competing in the 1.20m classes. Although that horse competing at 1.20s might make you look like a superstar, you might not need a 1.20 horse. I think it’s more about the temperament, capability, and trainability of the horse to do the job you want him to do. It’s no good having a superstar horse if it’s too sharp and too wild for you to ride, even if it looks amazing with your trainer. It’s not the horse for you.” 

"You can’t tell me that every top athlete is an absolute perfect specimen of a human being.”  

He continues, “Do you want to always win big at the amateur level, but not be able to load your horse or groom your horse or tack your horse up on your own? Or, do you want to have a horse that maybe doesn’t win every single time, but you love going to the yard every day to spend time with your horse. Going out hacking with your friends, having fun. If you are looking for a horse you can enjoy and bond with, that’s important. That is when you need a professional who you know and who knows you, who can help you find the right horse.”

Do we overlook potentially life-changing horses like Asih because of pre-purchase exams and x-rays? Probably so. But that doesn’t mean every rider is in the position to throw caution to the wind. If you have the experience and are confident in your ability to manage problems down the road, you might be in a good position to let instinct override what you see on an x-ray and take a risk on a horse. If not? There’s nothing wrong with taking a more conservative approach. 

Either way, buying a horse is an emotional process and, Alexander notes, shouldn’t be rushed. For both the amateur and the professional, there’s no harm in getting a second (or third) opinion. No matter who you are, taking your time, recognizing your own limitations, and seeking out the advice of other experts can help you make the best decision. 

At the end of the day, both Alexander and Victoire agree: horses are always a gamble. While you can make educated guesses based on talking to your vet, there are plenty of things you just can’t see or predict on x-rays. That’s horses. You will never have a truly safe bet. So, you should find a horse you fall in love with and feel ready (and able) to commit to, for better or for worse. 

According to Victoire, “Most good things in life are a risk. Having kids as well! But, if you have a passion for horses, you have to go for it. I’ve had a passion for horses from childhood on, and sometimes you have to follow your passions. I once read something along the lines of, ‘If a horse moves your heart, makes your heart beat faster, buy it.’” 

Photos courtesy of Will Baxter.

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Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo

Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.