50 greatest horses of all time

Mark Hedges and Kate Green pay tribute to the 50 greatest equines to have touched British culture.

This week, the Queen has named her favourite horses for our sister publication Horse & Hound. It’s a fascinating piece, and inspired us to look back at this list from September 2015, which included the horse which is perhaps her majesty’s most famous steed of all time: Burmese. 

1. Arkle (steeplechaser)

Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Arkle, with jockey Pat Taaffe, trainer Tom Draper and the horse’s owner,Anne Duchess of Westminster at the 1965 Spring at the RDS.

The late racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan called him a ‘freak of nature’ and handicappers had two weighting systems—for when he was running and when he wasn’t but the fame of ‘Himself’ stretched far beyond his hat-trick of Cheltenham Gold Cups (1964–66) and 1964 Irish Grand National victory.

Stamps and tea towels were emblazoned with his image, songs were written (‘Look behind you Willie Robinson, man what are you about?’), the slogan ‘Arkle for President’ was painted on a Dublin wall and letters addressed to ‘Arkle, Ireland’ always made it to his stable door.

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2. Red Rum (steeplechaser)

Galloping on the Southport sands may have been the key to car dealer Ginger McCain’s training of Red Rum, because the three-time Grand National winner (1973, 1974 and 1977)—he also finished second twice—had poor feet. In retirement, he opened supermarkets, switched on the Blackpool Illuminations and appeared on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year broadcast—a public survey of the best-known horse in 2007 had 45% naming ‘Rummy’, ahead of Black Beauty (33%) and Shergar (23%).

3. Frankel (flat racehorse)

The Thoroughbred of the millennium, unbeaten in 14 races of all the horses trained by the charismatic Sir Henry Cecil, by then dying of cancer, the best was unquestionably saved for last. Mind-blowing performances rolled in one after the other, none more spectacular than his victory in the 2,000 Guineas in 2011.

4. Charisma (eventer)

The lanky New Zealander Mark Todd and the ‘fat, hairy pony’ became legends, winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals for New Zealand in 1984 and 1988, by which time ‘Podge’ was 16. The pair had a great bond—the horse would follow his rider around like a dog. The only horse to have opened the Commonwealth Games.

5. Milton (showjumper)

The dazzling grey, the sport’s first millionaire in prize money, floated over fences like a mythical creature from Narnia in a dream partnership with brilliant Yorkshire horseman John Whitaker, winning medals galore and two World Cup finals.

6. Valegro (dressage)

For years, Britain was the underdog in dressage, but all that changed when Charlotte Dujardin—‘the girl with the dancing horse’ and the cobby little bay-roan Valegro arrived. The Olympic, world and two-time European champions have broken every record, but, best of all, ‘Blueberry’ has a delightful temperament and adores the lap of honour.

7. Warrior (war horse)

The extraordinary survival of Gen Jack Seely’s horse in the mud and misery of the First World War — he subsequently ran in point-to-points — mirrors that of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse hero, Joey. ‘The horse the Germans couldn’t kill’ was given a post-humous PDSA Dickin Medal in 2014; Brough Scott has written a book about the horse’s extraordinary life.

8. Desert Orchid (steeplechaser)

The powerful grey that liked to take hair-raising leaps from outside the wings had a huge fan club. His 34 victories included the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup and four King George VI Chases.

9. Priceless (eventer)

Brilliant cross-country horse that was described as taking corners like a motorbike and never once refused. Ridden by Ginny Holgate (now Elliot), he won Badminton, Burghley, world and European titles, plus two Olympic medals in 1984.

10. Pirata (polo pony)

Played 13 high-goal seasons consecutively from 1998 with Argentine brothers Matias and Pablo MacDonough; the former says: ‘He had a lot of courage and a big heart. On him, I always felt very confident.’

11. Foxhunter (showjumper)

He and Sir Harry Llewellyn won 78 international competitions and captured public imagination with the only British gold medal at the 1952 Olympics.

13. Eclipse (flat racehorse)

‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ went the saying. Studies show that virtually all modern racehorses are descended from this sensational 18th-century stallion.

14. Nijinsky (flat racehorse)

Galloped into the history books under the legendary Lester Piggott in 1970 by winning the British Triple Crown, a feat that no horse has achieved since.

15. Golden Miller (steeplechaser)

He not only won five Cheltenham Gold Cups, but, in 1934, the Grand National, too. He ground down his opponents with his relentless pace.

16. Stroller (showjumper)

The only pony to have competed at the Olympics, he could have limbo-ed under the enormous fences he took on with such gusto. The astonishing 14.2hh won a silver medal with Marion Coakes at the 1968 Mexico Olympics at the age of 18.

17. Sam (eventer)

The alliance of this unremarkable-looking but genuine horse and the extraordinary talents of his German rider Michael Jung has rewritten eventing history: they’re the first pair to hold Olympic, world and European titles simultaneously.

18. Brigadier Gerard (flat racehorse)

Named after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero, he won 13 Group 1 races in the 1970s and was beaten once in 18 starts.

19. Kauto Star (steeplechaser)

One of the most charismatic steeplechasers of the modern era, whose spectacular—if occasionally erratic jumping thrilled and alarmed in equal measure. Sadly, the record five-time King George VI Chase and two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner died recently after an accident in retirement.

20. Sefton (cavalry horse)

Gallant Household Cavalry horse that miraculously survived the IRA bombings in Hyde Park in 1982; he underwent eight hours of surgery, becoming a national symbol of defiance against terrorism.

21. Cornishman V (eventer)

The tall bay horse and his slight blonde rider Mary Gordon Watson inspired generations of Pony Clubbers, winning Olympic team gold in Munich (the horse also won gold under Richard Meade in Mexico) plus world and European titles. Ridden by John Oaksey, he jumped a car for the film Dead Cert.

22. Mill Reef (flat racehorse)

A beautiful mover that glided over the turf, his temperament was quiet enough for Clare Balding, his trainer’s two-year-old daughter, to sit on him unattended and was probably what saved him when he broke his leg. Had a record six successive Group 1 wins in the early 1970s, plus the Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and lives on through successful progeny.

23. Dancing Brave (flat racehorse)

The boss of his generation, he won eight of his 10 starts between 1985 and 1986, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and was a prolific sire.

24. Chesney (polo pony)

The most sought-after pony of the 1980s, synonymous with Mexican 10-goaler Carlos Gracida, and winner of the Best Playing Pony award at the British Open Gold Cup three times. Rich patrons reputedly offered huge sums, but owner David Jamison turned them down.

25. Sea The Stars (flat racehorse)

‘This is one of the greats,’ whispered jockey Mick Kinane to trainer John Oxx after winning the 2009 Epsom Derby. Although the colt never won by huge margins, he took six Group 1 races on the trot, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

26. Avebury (eventer)

Charming grey named after a World Heritage Site, bred and ridden by crack Kiwi horseman Andrew Nicholson. They made history with a third consecutive Burghley victory in 2014.

27. Aldaniti (steeplechaser)

Produced the most tear-jerking Grand National win in history in 1981. Horse and jockey, Bob Champion, had been written off, the former with injury and the latter with cancer. Their story was made into the film Champions, starring John Hurt.

28. Boomerang (showjumper)

The most successful horse in the history of the Hickstead Derby, winning four times in succession (1976–79) with magical Irish rider Eddie Macken.

29. Hello Sanctos (showjumper)

Brilliant horse that was instrumental in Britain’s team gold medal at the London Olympic Games. His numerous wins have elevated his young rider, Scott Brash, to world number one status. The pair will have a crack at the €1 million Rolex Grand Slam at Spruce Meadows, Canada, this month.

30. Mister Softee (showjumper)

Popular chestnut ridden by household name David Broome; they won European titles in 1967 and 1969 and a bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics.

31. Istabraq (hurdler)

A fluent jumper with a potent turn of foot, he was sent to Aidan O’Brien, the up-and-coming trainer of the time, and, after his 1998 debut at Punchestown, was sent out favourite for every race he lined up for. Won three Champion Hurdles.

32. Whistlejacket (icon)

The Marquess of Rockingham’s celebrated racehorse makes the list for his heart-stopping image in the National Gallery; Stubbs’s 1762 painting is a lifesize work on the scale usually reserved for kings.

33. The Poacher (eventer)

Richard Meade with his steed and individual gold medal at the 1972 Munch Olympic Games, Friday 1st September 1972.

When Richard Meade won Badminton on him in 1970, he had asked friends to holloa halfway round to keep the horse interested. The only horse to have won Great and Little Badminton (with owner Capt Martin Whiteley in 1965), he was the backbone of British teams in a golden era, securing medals galore, including gold at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.

34. Ready Teddy (eventer)

Irrepressible chestnut whose sensational jumping won him Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics aged only eight. With New Zealander Blyth Tait, he won the world title in 1998 and Burghley in 2001 and once managed to climb out of his stable.

35. Totilas (dressage)

Record-breaking, extravagant-moving black stallion that lifted dressage to a different meridian with Dutch rider Edward Gal until 2010, when he was sensationally sold to Germany for millions. He dramatically lost form with a new rider and has now been retired after a humiliating European Championships.

36. Dawn Run (top racing mare)

Who doesn’t feel goosebumps at the memory of Sir Peter O’Sullevan shouting hoarsely ‘The mare’s beginning to get up’? The only horse to have landed the Champion Hurdle/Cheltenham Gold Cup double, in 1984/1986.

37. Best Mate (steeplechaser)

Handsome, athletic bay gelding forever associated with National Hunt’s great double act, Henrietta Knight and her late husband, Terry Biddlecombe. Picture-perfect to look at, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. His ashes are buried beside the finishing post.

38. Lastic (showjumper)

The grey gelding on which a reluctant Nick Skelton broke the British showjumping high-jump record, by clearing 7ft 7in at Olympia in 1978.

39. Ryan’s Son (showjumper)

John Whitaker’s old-fashioned Irish heavyweight had a distinctive white blaze, a swishing tail and a habit of bucking violently after the last fence that was beloved by the public.

40. Burmese (cavalry horse)

Queen Elizabeth II rides Burmese during the Trooping of the Colour ceremony at Buckingham Palace in June, 1985.

The Queen’s favourite cavalry horse; the black mare was given to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Queen rode Burmese at Trooping the Colour 18 times consecutively (1969–86) and comforted her when a member of the crowd fired six blank shots in 1981.

41. Warrior (film star)

Brilliant eventer that won Badminton and Burghley, but found real stardom when he and Jane Holderness-Roddam were stunt doubles for Tatum O’Neal and Arizona Pie in the 1978 film International Velvet.

42. Merely A Monarch (multi-discipline)

Versatile equine shortlisted for championships in all three Olympic disciplines, but is held up as the perfect stamp of eventer. With Anneli Drummond-Hay, he won the first Burghley in 1961, Badminton in 1962 and a showjumping Grand Prix just months later.

43. Sceptre (flat racehorse)

The only horse to win four Classics outright (in 1902)—an incredible achievement for any horse. Even more remarkably, her owner, Robert Sievier, a serial womaniser and bankrupt, ran her in unsuitable races simply to refuel his pockets.

44. Nashwan (Flat racehorse)

His name means ‘joy’ in Arabic and that’s what he brought during a stressful period for his wheelchair-bound trainer Maj Dick Hern. A favourite of jockey Willie Carson, he completed a unique sweep of the big races in 1989.

45. Dutch Courage (dressage)

Back in British dressage’s non-descript days, Jennie Loriston-Clarke’s stallion salvaged honour with our first medal in the sport, bronze, at the 1978 World Championships at Goodwood. His legacy lives on through successful progeny.

46. Persian War (hurdler)

The triple Champion Hurdler (1968–1970) was one of the greats despite a catalogue of misfortunes, which included losing two teeth in one race and knocking himself out on the back of a hurdle in another.

47. Night Nurse (hurdler)

The dual Champion Hurdler was a front runner as tough and brave as a lion. In nine seasons, he won 32 of his 64 races over jumps, earning more than £130,000—a lot of money for the 1970s.

48. Uffington White Horse

50 greatest horses of all time

Matisse would be proud: the prhistoric Uffington White Horse, which was created from chalk-filled trenches.

Like a giant, prehistoric Matisse, the 374ft-Bronze Age white horse that leaps across an escarpment on the Berkshire Downs is one of our most uplifting landmarks and has launched a multitude of pub signs.

49. Columbus (eventer)

The Queen’s home-bred, rangy, accident-prone grey was deemed too strong for Princess Anne, but Mark Phillips, who won Badminton on him in 1974, describes him as the best he’s ever ridden.

50. Shergar (flat racehorse)

Spawned one of the great mysteries, up there with Lord Lucan. The colt won the 1981 Derby by a record 10 lengths, but, tragically, was kidnapped in 1983, never to be seen again.

This article was originally published in September 2015