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Runners-Up for the UAG 2023 SA Derby

Jeanne Körber and Callaho Lexington

Text: Amelia Campbell-Horne

Photography: Merlynn Trichardt

HQ couldn’t resist having a quick chat with 2023 Derby Runner-Up Jeanne Körber after her spectacular round (and terrifying moment at the bank!).

HQ: First things first – the bank! Talk us through what happened. 

Jeanne: I think my heart is still in my throat! I thought I had a nice slow approach to give him time to go down, but then the next thing I just felt him launch off! The grass on the bank seemed to give way, so maybe he didn’t feel secure and then just jumped; who knows? I was then trying really hard to look up and stay secure in the saddle when I just felt him leaving the ground (again) too early after just one stride! He is just exceptional; that was a big mistake and could’ve ended very badly for both of us, but he just pricked his ears and tried his heart out to clear it!

HQ: It was incredible! And he so nearly cleared it – what amazing scope! Can you tell us a bit about how your partnership with Lexington came about?

Jeanne: Where do I begin? Obviously, Lexington is out of a very special Fiorella that I produced up to the 1.50m, and then, unfortunately, due to an injury, she couldn’t carry on with her sporting career. While I was still competing with her, Lexington was coming up on auction, and I knew that he was going to be very popular because he was amazing, but he’s also beautiful, and the black horses always seem to go for more money on the auctions. So, I roped in Michael Whitehouse to try and help me buy him at the auction, and when I rode him, I think I only tried him – I didn’t ride any other horses – and knew that that was the horse I wanted.

Michael gave me a hard time saying, “Why did you not try other horses? You should have sat on more of them and just made sure”, and I said to him, “This is the one, and if I can’t have this horse then we look around again, but this is the horse that I want”. We were very lucky to get him that evening. It was a very, very special evening.

HQ: Can you tell us about Callaho Lexington?

Jeanne: Lexington has just been the most giving horse from day one. He never says no; he never spooks at any jumps; he always tries his heart out; and he loves his work. We always joke and laugh because he’s like Mr Perfect. Even if you’re walking on an outride on a loose rein, he is on the bit. He never puts a foot out of place. I think he’s maybe bucked with us three or four times from excitement on an outride, and then literally within split seconds, he’ll be walking on the bit marching as if to say, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to do that”, and so we always giggle at him because he really is Mr Perfect.

He has got the most beautiful personality and nature in the stables. He just loves attention and cuddles and pulls the funniest faces. When you bring carrots, he shows his teeth and his tongue and gives you kisses, and he just is a is a magnificent horse. Even with those pictures of him jumping off the bank, if you look at his expression, he’s just pricking his ears and making a plan. I mean, that could have ended terribly with us both falling, but he just pricked his ears, made a plan and tried his heart out.

It is a privilege to jump a horse like him in the big classes and World Cups because I know I will make it through the finish. If I just give him half a decent ride, he’s going to try his heart out and get through, so yeah, I’m very lucky to have a horse like him.

He’s also absolutely beautiful to ride. On the flat, I could probably ride him in a halter. With the jumping, he gets very strong, and he gets very keen and sometimes actually also quite anxious, but maybe that is because of me as well? I also get very nervous, and I’m not as cool, calm and collected as other riders, and that can make him quite anxious and strong.

HQ: Do you have any tips or tricks for dealing with anxiety?

Jeanne: I work a lot on getting both him and me in calm spaces. Around corners, I try to take deep breaths and talk to him, and that seems to be working. This has been the best year we have had so far, with quite a few podium finishes, and I feel like we still have a lot more to achieve together.

I have also been working with a lady who doesn’t like to be called a life coach but helps me mentally with dealing with stuff in life – family, work and sport. She helps with my riding to try and stay calm and stay focused. Horse riding has got a hell of a lot of highs and lows – the highs are unreal, and you can have an amazing competition, and it can keep you going for six months to a year even, but there are a lot of lows and disappointments too like if you have an injured horse or you have that last pole down in a jump-off with the fastest time. I’ve had that many times; it’s super disappointing, and she’s really helped me with dealing with that and staying positive and focusing on the good things, and it really helps me a lot.

HQ: Any tips for riders planning on doing a Big Derby?

Jeanne: You definitely need to feel like you are sitting on a horse that can do it, one that has the ability to do it and also is brave enough to do it. It’s a very big track; it’s hectic on the rider and the horse and on the day as there’s that added pressure of the crowds and everything that comes with it. It is exhilarating, and it’s exciting and amazing, but it’s also incredibly stressful and creates a lot of anxiety, so I would say you definitely need to put in the work at home building up to Derby.

I would recommend that you go and do the training; you can’t overdo it! Even though Lexington is super brave and has done Derby three times, I think we did three sessions – one with him at Chatan’s place, once at Dunblane, and then once at Bryce McCall’s. At home, we’ve also put up a couple of Derby-type fences. It’s better to do bits of Derby stuff regularly to make sure that you and the horse feel confident and prepared. You don’t want to get into the arena and feel like you could have trained this a bit more or that a bit more. If you feel confident that your horse knows the obstacles and they feel confident, it just makes it much easier on the last day.

With my young horse, Callaho Pica’s Boy, I wasn’t sure if I was going to compete with him, as I did not want to be competing in two arenas. When I realised the 1.30m would be in the main arena, I bought a late entry, but I hadn’t actually done much practice with him. As he’s a younger horse, I would have liked to do four or five Derby training sessions, whereas I only did two sessions, so he was a little bit more anxious. Gonda, my coach, asked how the first class had gone, and I told her that he had spooked at number three, and I made him jump, and that after that, I think I spooked at a few jumps because I felt a little bit under-prepared with him. I would definitely say that you should rather put in the work and the training so that you and your horse can be more confident and not get anxious.

HQ: What would you say are some of the most difficult Derby elements?

Jeanne: Funny you say that… Obviously, in my case, I would now say the bank and the plank! But even before what happened with us yesterday, for me, it would be the bank and the plank because it’s so important to be slow enough to the bank but also keep the momentum so that your horse doesn’t back away and then you have a stop. Then to have the timing right in terms of when they jump off the bank and then looking up at the right moment at the top of the plank, and keeping your balance as best as possible for the horse so that they have the best possible chance of clearing the jump – it’s a lot to think about!

Oh, and another thing to mention about the ‘what happened at the bank’ – Gonda (who has been training me for 22 years) always says “don’t hear what happens behind you”. For example, if you have a pole or have had a bad ride at one jump, don’t think about it, don’t hear it, just focus on the next jump. It seems like such a simple thing, but it is hard to do because you are upset about the pole or you’re upset about the ride, and it can affect the rest of your round, whereas if you keep it together, you can carry on.

Last year I also had the plank down and I managed to keep it together for the rest of the round, so you still end up on the podium, so it’s important not to hear what happens behind you. What happened on Sunday was a bit different as my heart was in my throat, and I was trying to figure out what happened, but we still managed to get ourselves together, take a deep breath and tackle the rest of the track.

Then, I think that the dyke is quite a tricky element because you’ve got to have your horse cantering on the hocks and a little bit balanced. It’s almost the same kind of ride that you want at the balustrade as you don’t want to be off it; you want to be maybe a touch deep to it, but a balanced ride, not like floating into it.

Basically, there are lots of tricky elements, but for me, we’ll be working on the bank!

HQ: Well, congratulations, Jeanne. It was a stunning round, and we hope to see you at the top of the podium next year!