Morgan and Gus – Triumph over adversity!

THM exclusive with Christopher Hector

Photos DigiShots, Roslyn Neave, Stefano Secchi

If you thought Morgan Barbançon was some sort of little rich girl, getting plonked on made ponies, think again. Morgan is a serious player, okay she obviously has financial backing, but she is no dolly rider, she has paid her dues with some of the world’s best trainers and along the way created her own training philosophy. Oh yeah, if you thought her current frontline, Sir Donnerhall II was a push button get on and ride, think again, Morgan made the horse, starting as a six year old, and then she and her family brought the stallion back from what the vets had decided was a career, even life, ending injury.

It’s a fascinating, and heart warming, story…

Morgan has been on a high ever since Doha last March, where in a split decision she finished second in the freestyle, but left Qatar with new found confidence in her stallion, Sir Donnerhall II.

I caught up with her in Göteborg, at the World Cup final, but had already been impressed with her show in Qatar.

“I think Doha was once of the best feelings I’ve had with my horse since I’ve had him. He is improving, it’s not yet perfect, it is far from being perfect – dressage is only about improving, trying to reach perfection, but I must say the horse has improved so, so much, especially in the piaffe, which was never his strong point. He is never going to piaffe for a ten, or a nine, but he can easily piaffe for a seven, seven and a half, but the rest is so nice with him. He is really starting to give his all now. He’s feeling great here in Göteborg, so touch wood, we’ll see how the Grand Prix goes tomorrow, but I have a really, really nice feeling.”

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I was watching you warm up and compete in Doha, and I was thinking, it is difficult because the horse has so much scope, so much to give, but he hasn’t got that quite under control yet, the changes are huge then oh oh, he has got a bit tangled…

“It is all about keeping him together, that’s the key, and keeping him fresh. Happy, fresh and together. If I have him under his weight, really collected and connected, I can ride the changes as big as I want them and he just won’t lose them anymore, but if I lose him in the corner, and I have him a little bit long at the start of the diagonal, then I’m screwed. Then I don’t reach the end with those big changes, I have no chance. With him, it’s all about the preparation in every single corner. Once he is in the corner, and I have him connected, under himself, then okay, I’m going, and I can ride those big huge one tempi, even twos, and he’ll just go through. It’s the same in the extended, if he’s there, then he goes and it is mega.”

“It’s very difficult to ride him, in the sense that he is always on a fine line, it can quickly drop to terrible, but just as quickly to mega in one second as well. It’s all about the preparation, it’s nice, he is really expressive which can go with you or against you. I don’t know how to explain it, he won’t allow you to make any mistakes, he’s not going to help you, that’s why I say it is key that you have everything well prepared. The thing is I know him with my eyes closed, I have been riding him since he was six. I took him over after he won the bronze medal at the six year old World Championships. So he is self-made, he is my first self-made Grand Prix horse, so I know him inside out.”

“I know the mistake is going to happen before it happens. In Doha, I started the one tempis, and I felt him taking over and getting longer and I had no chance of getting him back together. That’s why I try to focus as much as I can, on preparing the exercise, because once I’m in it, it is very difficult to fix it. It’s a good thing, because when he has a good exercise, it is good from the beginning to the end. It’s not like it starts good and it ends bad, or starts bad and ends good, it is not a half an half with him, it’s all bad, or all good.”

I don’t think he has any halves does he?

“No, he doesn’t have any halves, it’s all good or bad with him.”

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Without being rude to Painted Black, Sir Donnerhall is a rather different style of horse…

“He is so different and that’s what I love about my horses, every single one of them is not the same, at all. I have from lazy to super hot, to very naughty to very sweet, to willing to work to not willing to work. All of my horses are different people. They all have their own habits, and their own ways, their own warm-ups – I cannot warm them up the same way.”

Painted Black – horse of a lifetime

“Okay, Painted was the horse of a life time, he brought me where I never thought I could go, and he’s taught me everything. He taught me how to ride the horses I have now. With PB there was something between him and me. I love this horse to bits, he is always going to have a special place in my heart. But Gus, the stallion I have here…”

Gus!?

“Sir Donnerhall II is too long so we call him Gus, you know the fat little funny mouse in Cinderella? He reminds me of him…”

But he’s not fat, he’s really leggy and elegant…

“That’s why, it is the total opposite but he reminds me of the mouse because he is extremely clumsy, EXTREMELY clumsy. My horses are not horses for us, they are human beings. We spend a lot of time with them, that’s why I can tell you he makes me think of Gus, because even if he is a beautiful stallion, imposing and handsome but I know him so well that I know he is not what he looks, he’s clumsy, he’s friendly, he loves to play and he is a big wuss. Not with riding, when you are on him, he is not scared of anything, but when he is in hand, a little mouse will scare him – oh my god, mummy take me in your arms, I’m really scared.

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He’s a bit big to take into your arms…

“I know, but if I could, I would, I love him so much, and he’s got that special place in my heart, because he had a really big accident in Falsterbo in 2013, where we thought that night, we have to put him down. He got stuck in the box actually. So he went to the clinic, he was operated on, and they told us, he will never be a sports horse again. He would be good for the field. But I am extremely stubborn, and when you tell me no, I say yes, I’ll try. So I tried to ride him again, and tried trot him out, and he was a mess at the start, and I thought to myself, maybe they are right, but with the equitrainer, and the spa, and the physios and the riding, and all the support the family gave him, we slowly started getting him back in shape and trotting and cantering. Then it was the changes, oh my god, his left hind leg was so weak that he couldn’t jump through.”

“Then I started trying to ride him more and more and I managed. Then I said, okay, I am going to start him in small tour. I couldn’t ride a pirouette, pirouette was always a hassle. Okay, I’ll go home and I will work on it, and slowly it got better. He got Limes Disease twice! So he was out for a long time but we never gave up on him.”

“He actually really picked up the work in January 2016, that’s when he really started working properly and he went to his first Grand Prix in July, 2016. He’s a fighter.”

“It was a mess the first Grand Prixs, then I got really badly injured, stuck in the stirrup and got dragged, so I was a little bit out for a while. I still kept on riding but I didn’t want to show. Then we gave him a little break, then we started working again, getting everything back together.”

“We qualified for the 2018 World Cup finals, which was a huge achievement for us, especially with a horse that was supposed to be put down in 2013. He has a big story behind him that nobody really talks about, which I find really sad because he deserves it. They don’t know what this horse went through… he can’t piaffe, he can’t this and that – just remember what happened to him, and you will realise how amazing it is that this horse is here right now, doing what he is doing.”

“Also for us, the family, for not giving up on him, because it would have been easier when he comes back from the clinic, okay never a sports horse again, fine, go in the field, make babies. Voila. But no, we didn’t give up on him. We knew he would do it. Many times I was told, he’ll never be a Grand Prix horse. He will be a Grand Prix horse, it might take a bit of time, but he will be. So he has a big place in my heart.”

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What drove you to be a dressage rider?

“I love the sport. I love riding and I love my horses more than anything. My mother was a rider, and my father was a rider, they both stopped, but maybe it is in the genes, this passion because from a very little girl, I don’t remember my life without horses. I never played with Barbies, I never played with dolls, I only had horses – I had a collection of 200 little horses and played always with the horses. Even in school, they got worried about me, because I would put stuff in my mouth, and reins, and have the other kids trot me round. Seriously. Like I would take wheelbarrows and a harness, and put my little sister in the wheelbarrow and carry her around. I destroyed my parents garden because I pulled out all the chairs in the garden, and with all the brooms and every stick I could find, I would make myself a jumping course, so I would do the jumping – and then I was into three day eventing – so I would ride a dressage test, and I would go in the woods and jump some tree trunks, run through the water… crazy.”

“I got my first pony when I was six years old.  A little Welsh pony, he was blind in one eye, a blue eye and a black eye, half blind. It was a pony at the Pony Club, he was so beautiful that I fell in love with him but he was extremely naughty. I would fall from him three or four times a day because he would stop, turnaround, because he was scared of everything, he couldn’t see. The club estimated that the pony was too dangerous to have because he would throw all the kids off like this, he’s too dangerous, so they wanted to sell the pony. I wouldn’t have it because I loved the pony, and my mother fell in love with the pony, so we bought the pony. And that was the story of my first pony.”

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Where were you living at the time?

“Geneva, I grew up in Geneva. I was five years in Germany and that’s when I started riding horses with Jean (Bemelmans), I was thirteen when I went there. Then when I was eighteen I was done with my IB (International Baccalaureate). I went to the International School in Geneva, so I was flying or driving up and down every weekend, every weekend from when I was ten years old until I was eighteen because I still had to go to school during the week because I had the normal life of a normal student until I was eighteen.”

“Then I moved to Holland where I stopped my studies for a year and a half to prepare for the Games. I was nineteen when I went to the Games. It was amazing, it was the experience of a lifetime. I will always remember it, so young to have the chance to do it, with a horse that carried me around – it was fantastic. Now I’ve moved back to Geneva where I am building up my own business there, around horses of course.”

The horse that took the teenager to the Games – Painted Black

But you train with Dorothee Schneider in Germany…

“She’s four hours away. Every two weeks I go for a few days, train with a few horses, then I come home, and she flies over as well, so that we can train with all the horses. And I see her at the shows…”

She is such a cool professional…

“I love her, she is really cool, and I get along super well with her. We really have the same philosophy of riding, the way of riding and how we see our horses.”

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It must have been a bit of a change for you, coming out of (stage whisper) Holland…

“You know I’m the type, I learn everywhere I go. Everybody has their own ways, everybody has their own methods, if you look at every single rider riding here, there not two riding the same way. I’ve learned from many mega trainers, from Jean to Anky to Andreas… and even though I change course some times, it was important for me to find my own way. I think I’ve found a mix-match between all the trainers I have had and took all the positive out of each of them and I built my own riding now.”

“I know exactly what I am looking for in a horse but I had the chance with Andreas to learn a lot, riding many types of horses, which I think is a strong point in a rider, to be able to ride all types of horses and not specially one type. I think at one point it was now time to fly with my own wings and build my own place.”

“I have a little stable in Geneva, next to the Lake, where it is beautiful, a beautiful view of the mountains which I really really missed during those years in Holland which is really flat, nothing. And I love skiing and it allows me to go skiing, and I am close to my sister. It’s my little place where I have a beautiful outdoor, indoor, twelve boxes, walker, tons and tons of paddocks.”

“I have my little routine. I start teaching, I have some students over there that I am going to start following on the shows as well, try and combine that they come with me to certain shows. I want to develop a little bit the dressage in this area of Switzerland, and try to make dressage well-known as much as I can. I’m a little girl with big dreams.”

I was saying to Jean today which language do you use?

“I speak German with him.”

I’ve been told German is the best language for equestrian instruction because there are more words, more subtleties, to describe what is happening…

“That’s true, I had never thought about it, but now you say it, that’s true. I speak six languages fluently but I don’t remember all of it sometimes. When I have a phone call in French and English, and speaking in French for my dad, and Spanish to my mum, then Jean turns up and I start speaking German, then I see some Dutch friends and jump to Dutch. I really jump from one to the other, it’s like riding, it’s gymnastics.”

4 thoughts on “Morgan and Gus – Triumph over adversity!

  1. Very interesting. Thank you Chris.

    I remember meeting her with her charming parents in Denmark many years ago. I think she was a young rider.

    I am so happy that she has developed into the rider she has, and is still so very passionate about Dressage

  2. Very interesting, indeed!
    Best wishes for the horse, the rider and «The Horse Magazine».
    Henrique Salles da Fonseca
    (Lisbon – Portugal)

  3. “Even in school, they got worried about me, because I would put stuff in my mouth, and reins, and have the other kids trot me round. Seriously. Like I would take wheelbarrows and a harness, and put my little sister in the wheelbarrow and carry her around. I destroyed my parents garden because I pulled out all the chairs in the garden, and with all the brooms and every stick I could find, I would make myself a jumping course, so I would do the jumping – and then I was into three day eventing – so I would ride a dressage test, and I would go in the woods and jump some tree trunks, run through the water… crazy.”

    Ok, I love her already! She’s clearly one of us.

  4. Very nice article. But is the Limas disease mentioned the same as Lyme’s disease?