In the 60’s and 70’s, if you were a show jumping enthusiast in either England or North America, there was one equine name that got everybody’s attention. In the days before major league sports took over the cable stations and hockey, baseball, and hockey were shown 24 hours a day, the sport of show jumping, especially, in Great Britain had a following that was second to none. These were the decades when top show jumpers wrote books and “annuals” to the delight of their adoring public, company sponsored show jumpers had their company names as prefixes to horse names, and fans wrote for hairs from horse stars’ tails and manes.
However, out of this stadium full of the tall, long legged equine show jumpers, there emerged an oddball, albeit, an incredibly talented oddball. A pony named Stroller who was 14.1 h.h.; a Connemara / Thoroughbred mix that had been blessed by the gods of genetics and the wizards of wonder with confidence and scope. He could jump as high as the world’s finest despite being much smaller…in many cases eight inches shorter than his closest rivals.
Stroller was born in 1950 and was initially bought in a job lot from Ireland by a dealer and sold to a Ted Cripps for his daughter until he realized that he might just have a gem on his hands. He sold the pony to Ralph Coakes, a farmer near New Milton, who knew a thing or two about horses and the sport of show jumping. In buying the small pony, Ralph Coakes had just hitched his wagon and his daughter Marion’s even bigger wagon to a star that would explode into a supernova for the next 15 years.
Marion had two brothers, John and Douglas, who were members of the British Show Jumping Team but it was she who had the natural riding talent and ability to bring out the best in her pony. Eventually it seemed that graduating to a horse would be the natural thing to do but Marion knew that Stroller had more to give. They challenged the big horses and the big courses and won over and over again. There was nothing that this pair couldn’t tackle and jump whether it was a parallel, a spread, water, a bank or a ditch!
In 1964, this dynamic duo won the Hickstead Derby Trial, a grueling course founded in 1960 by show jumping great Douglas Bunn that tests the best of the best over a course of natural obstacles, a totally different event from the usual colourful stadium jumps. Stroller and Coakes placing second to Seamus Hayes and Goodbye on Derby Day in the actual event. A year later at the age of just 18, Coakes and Stroller won the Ladies World Championship at Hickstead. That same year they won the Queen Elizabeth Cup at the Royal International and won it again six years later.
Three years later Stroller was to show what he was really made of when he fought back from a stumble down the big Hickstead bank and achieved the only clear round out of 44 horse and rider teams. Stroller placed second in the Derby in 1968 and third in 1970.
In the 1970 Hamburg, Germany Derby, Coakes recalls: “When we sailed over the last fence, having completed the only clear round of the day, the crowd of 25,000 went crazy. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We had completed the 50th clear round ever achieved on the course — and it was the first by a woman rider.” Amazingly, Stroller was 20 years old at the time!
Stroller also helped Great Britain win three Nations’ Cups, the World team Championships and the President’s Cup.
However, despite their wins in regular show jumping classes, Stroller was also a force to be reckoned with in the Puissance classes when height becomes the test for the best. How could this little pony compete against the big guns? He did in 1967 at the Antwerp show and cleared the wall at 6ft 8 in. and dislodged a brick when the height went to 6ft. 10 inches to win the class together with the great Alwin Schockemöhle on Athlet, a puissance specialist.
At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, Stroller and Coakes enjoyed their greatest triumph followed by almost near tragedy. In the individual medal competition, they placed second behind American super rider William Steinkraus with Snowbound after going clean in round one and having eight faults in round two. Sadly, troubled by a split and a decayed upper tooth, Stroller was not in top form for the team competition and had the only refusal in his life. He then fell after a second refusal and was eliminated on time. However, the British public still loved their pony and Coakes was named Sportswoman of the Year. In winning this silver medal, she won the first individual silver by a woman at the Olympic Games and Stroller is the only pony to ever have competed in an Olympics.
With bad luck behind him Stroller went on to win the Wills Hickstead Gold Medal for points gained in major classes consecutively from 1967 – 1969. He was also leading show jumper of the year in 1970 and took a first in the Hickstead British Championship a year later.
Stroller was retired and enjoyed 15 years of relaxed living before he died at the ripe old age of 36 in 1986. He is buried at Barton-on-Sea Golf Club, New Milton, Hampshire, England, the golf course having bought the Coakes’ Farm for expansion. There is a marker on the course showing his grave.
Coakes recalls, “I went to see Stroller that morning and he wasn’t well. I am sure that he knew his time had come and he waited to say a final goodbye. We had a bond that was that close.”
Stroller and Coakes won 61 international competitions, and he is a British Horse Society Hall of Fame Laureate.
When we think of top show jumpers like Hickstead, Big Ben, Milton and Idle Dice, we are remembering horses with height on their side. Stroller, a pony, was in a class all by himself and they don’t make them like him anymore.