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Heartbreak Hill

Heartbreak Hill

Harry gave his all.  He was more than a horse.  He was a hero.  And how could he not be?  He was a South African Thoroughbred.  

September 1st 2012.  Burghley Horse Trials.  15:44 GMT.
The starter shouts ‘5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Go !’  Paul Hart and his SA-bred Thoroughbred Heartbreak Hill (Rocky Marriage – Boomy Hill), affectionately known as Harry, canter out of the starting pen.  Harry’s head is up, his ears are pricked.  Paul, quiet and composed, stands in the stirrups to take his weight out of the saddle and steers Harry confidently to the first fence.  They clear it with ease and then gallop on past Burghley House to tackle the rest of the course.  It is the moment they’ve been waiting a lifetime for.

In early 2010, Paul and Harry joined the rest of ‘Team SA’ and set off on the long road to the World Equestrian

Heartbreak Hill & Paul Hart

Games.  They endured the stringent South African export regulations, then spent time at a training camp in France, campaigned across Europe and finally completed the last leg of their journey to Kentucky, USA.  An unfortunate fall ended Paul and Harry’s WEG aspirations, but despite his unscheduled dismount in the Salato Wildlife Center water complex, Paul won over the local crowds and equestrian press with his grace and good humour at the mishap.  He gave the audience a bow and even as his horse was brought back and he remounted, he was still smiling to let people know he was fine.  It is this same grace in the face of adversity that has won Paul and Harry hearts the world over.

Instead of packing it in after WEG, friend and sponsor Mike Marsden persuaded Paul to set his sights on the London Olympic Games.  Harry made his way back across the Atlantic and settled into his new digs in Cornwall, where Tamsyn Hutchins took over most of Harry’s exercise and training while Paul commuted to South Africa to meet his riding and teaching commitments back home.  It was tough on the nerves, the resolve and Paul’s financial reserves and the South African equestrian community rallied with fundraisers and all manner of support to keep his campaign going.  Torn between two countries, it was tough to balance time in Europe to acquire sufficient qualification points with keeping the home fires burning and when the selection was made, Alex Peternell (a UK-based South African event rider) was given the initial Olympic nod as he enjoyed a higher rider ranking.  However, Alex’s horse went lame last November and the Olympic baton was passed to Paul.  Efforts were re-doubled.

August approached and preparations were running like clockwork.  Harry was on song, tack was polished, uniforms were readied, bags were packed and it was all systems go.  Then, another blow.  As has been well documented in the local and international press, Alex Peternell managed to purchase and qualify a replacement in the nick of time.  Although they were a relatively inexperienced partnership, Alex still had a higher riding ranking than Paul and he launched an appeal with the Court of Arbitration of Sport to be reinstated as the South African eventing candidate.

It was a high profile and controversial dispute, which split opinion and loyalties right down the middle.  Having already achieved celebrity status and a legion of loyal South African fans for their 2010 expedition to Kentucky, the Olympic incident catapulted Paul and Harry directly into the glare of the international limelight – a pretty uncomfortable place to be when CAS ordered Alex Peternell to be substituted as South Africa’s preferred Olympic candidate.

Despite their inglorious eleventh hour exit, Paul’s graciousness won them universal sympathy and support.  With their customary resolve, Paul and Harry filed away their Olympic hopes and set their sights on the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials instead.  However, their late decision meant that all the slots were already filled and they had to go on the waiting list.  After a nail-biting wait, Paul issued a statement on the 21st of August that they had got in!

It may be worth stressing the enormity of their extraordinary achievement.  Despite humble beginnings, despite the constraints of export protocols, finance, inexperience on the world stage and about a thousand other drawbacks, Paul and Harry made it all the way.  They may not have got to the Olympics, but they got all the way to the starting box at Burghley on the back of hard work, grit and determination.  And an awful lot of support (and at this point I’ve been asked to thank sponsor Mike Marsden and Tamsyn Hutchins in particular).  In the process, they became South African icons who gave courage and inspiration to our entire community back home and Burghley was their chance to prove that dreams do indeed come true.

However, it had been a long and tiring campaign.  Not for nothing is eventing described as ‘Red on the right, white on the left, insanity in the middle !’  With Harry approaching 16 years of age, Paul had resolved to retire Harry and Burghley was to be their last great adventure together.  There were thousands of fans who desperately wanted to see Paul and Harry have their moment in the sun and when that whistle blew, the hearts of thousands of South Africans rode with them.

Six minutes into the cross country round, those thousands of hearts shattered right alongside Paul’s, when Harry’s heart outran his legs.  With no warning and no apparent rhyme or reason, on the grassy galloping stretch between jumps 19 and 20, Harry suffered a fracture to his off fore and had to be euthanized.

If life was fair and one got to choose, how would you like to die ?  It’s one of those nebulous, pie-in-the-sky, 3am-after-a-lot-of-red-wine conversations one has with your friends.  The answers vary from the ‘live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’ variety (younger friends) to the more considered ‘when I’ve seen my kids grow up’, or achieved certain life goals from my more ‘senior’ friends.  What both have in common is that they include you being in control and going out feeling satisfied, having achieved and doing what you love best.
I managed to chat to Paul’s friend and staunch supporter, Suzanne Boswell about the life and times of Heartbreak Hill.  She said Harry was a hot-blooded Thoroughbred through and through – tough, independent and a true competitor.  He always knew he was a special, big time horse destined for great things.  He was a real one person horse who shared an incredible bond with Paul.  She reckons Harry did not want to retire – after a life of high adventure, there is not much fun or dignity in standing around a paddock getting fat.  So she believes Harry may have taken matters into his own hands…

The replays show Paul and Harry galloping around the Burghley course, looking like they’re having the time of their lives.  At fence 19, the Landrover Dairy Farm, they fly up the steps and then two strides on and up over a brush fence.  Harry is alert and his ears are constantly flicking back and forth, waiting for instructions from Paul.

They gallop off through some trees and then the video ends.

It may be fanciful, but I like Suzanne’s analogy.  Having followed Harry’s story and watching the footage of Saturday’s round, it’s a nice thought that the old warrior might have chosen to go out on his own terms.  I am grateful that the last footage should be of him with his blood up, his head high, galloping off to adventure.
CW Anderson wrote “The blood runs hot in the Thoroughbred and the courage runs deep. In the best of them, pride is limitless. This is their heritage and they carry it like a banner. What they have, they use.”  Harry gave his all.

There are very few easy exits, but if there is a choice, then going out doing what you love, with your best friend to see you over the threshold, is perhaps not a bad one.

A holy man of the Lakota tribe fittingly named Crazy Horse, was said to ride into battle unafraid and immortalised the words “Today is a good day to die”.  His words epitomize the philosophy of the Indian people that lives are a circle just as the stars, the moon and the sun are circles.  Our ticket is good for one trip around the orbit and ends on the completion of the journey.  We are born, we live and we die.  In his tribute to Harry, Paul wrote “I loved Harry so and I will miss him so much, he took me places I only dreamed of as a kid.”

We are born, we live and we die.  Saturday, it seems, was a good day to die.

RIP Heartbreak Hill.  1996-2012

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