World Champion Allstar B might command much of the spotlight in Ros Canter’s Lincolnshire, England, yard, but stablemate Zenshera (Guidam—Telvera, Matterhorn), known at home as “Alfie,” has quietly racked up an impressive record at the top level. In 2019, he carried Canter to fifth place at the Pau CCI5*-L (France), her first five-star back after having baby Ziggy. We went behind the scenes to find out more about the unassuming but ultra-competitive apple of Canter’s eye.
• He wasn’t an obvious champion.
In fact, the 15.3-hand Dutch Warmblood gelding had flunked out of his early career as a show jumper, and Canter, then doing 10 days’ work experience at the Dutch yard he came from, was given the chance to ride him almost as an afterthought.
“He was the first one they put me on, probably because he didn’t really have a job to do,” said Canter. “They’d tried show jumping him, but he was a very forward-thinking youngster and kept forgetting to pick his back feet up because he was busy thinking about the next fence; he never quite remembered that he was only halfway over the one he was jumping, so he was a bit clumsy!”
In despair over the youngster’s job prospects, breeder Jan Morsink decided to break the gelding to harness.
“Carriage driving is a hobby of his, and actually, Alfie was about to be sent away to be a carriage horse, and then I came along,” said Canter “Someone came to try him that week, and one girl rode him quite well. She picked him up into an outline, and it was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, maybe there’s something better there.’ But because she’d done that, he grabbed hold of the bit and galloped through the jumping, and it all ended in disaster.”
Ultimately, Morsink offered Alfie to Canter to produce and sell, but before too long, she’d made up her mind. He was staying put at her family’s Lincolnshire farm. She bought him for less than £5,000, and even now, he remains entirely in the Canter family’s ownership.
• He’s the consummate nice guy.
“He’s everybody’s best friend,” said Canter, as Alfie politely nudged her for another carrot. “He’s just genuinely nice. My sisters have children, and they can pat him and groom him and walk under his legs; he’s a very kind person. You could send him to a Riding for the Disabled stable tomorrow, and he’d do the job brilliantly.”
• His equine friendships are just as important to him as his human ones.
“He gets on with everybody, and he loves living out in the field with his friends. He gets quite upset if anyone leaves, even if there’s another one left in with him; he’s always looking for them. He has an ability to make horses get on, too. He’s just one of life’s nice people, really,” said Canter, who lets Alfie enjoy 24/7 turnout time unless the winter ground gets too boggy.
“It seems to suit him really well; he knows he comes in for breakfast time and dinner time, and he waits at the gate and walks in without a headcollar on. He finds his food and then walks himself back out again,” she said.
• Despite his sociable nature, he’s learned to stay focused at competitions—but it wasn’t always that way.
“In the early days, he was renowned for his whinny. He used to chat a lot at events,” said Canter. “He still does at home, and he can sound like a stallion if he’s left on the lorry on his own. But as he’s getting older, he’s much more settled. He’s 100 percent easy; you could take him out and walk him anywhere and know you’d always be safe.”
• He’s incredibly consistent.
Alfie has 27 international runs under his belt since making his debut at Weston Park (England) in 2011, and disregarding a rider tumble at Great Meadow (Virginia) in 2016 and a withdrawal before cross-country at Bramham (England) in 2014, he’s gone clear in all of them. Twenty-five spotless international cross-country runs would be impressive at any level, but five of those have been recorded at five-star, and he’s never finished outside the top 10 at the level. After making his debut at Luhmühlen (Germany) in 2017, where he finished ninth, he made his first trip down to the south of France, finishing seventh at Pau. The twisty, turny, immensely tricky Pierre Michelet track has certainly been a happy hunting ground for him since—he was fifth in both 2018 and 2019, and he squeezed in a return to Germany, too, finishing third in the five-star in 2018.
When it came to making her return to the top level after her maternity leave, Canter knew there wasn’t a better horse for the job—despite his one negligible shortcoming.
“He’s such an honest horse, and he turns easily, and he comes back easily, and I don’t have to set him up too much, so from that point of view, he’s great. He just doesn’t have the gallop. You get out onto the racecourse, and you think, ‘Right, now we can go’, and we don’t go any faster,” Canter explained. “I just have to be chugging away the whole time—he just doesn’t take me. It’s really hard if you have to slow down because it takes quite a while to get back up again. I’ve got used to it now, though. The first time I came [to Pau] I was slogging away at Minute 2, and so I slowed down thinking, ‘I’ve got all this way to go, and he’s already tired,’ but he wasn’t getting tired; he’s just level in his rhythm, and he doesn’t get any faster. But you know what? We didn’t buy him ever thinking he’d go around something like this, and I can live with a few time faults. I wouldn’t want to be on any other horse coming back.”
• It wasn’t until he found his forever home that he truly gained confidence in his surroundings.
“As a young horse he was a bit of a stress-head,” said Canter. “He was a box-walker, and he cribbed a bit, and it took quite a long time for him to settle. But now he’s been with us for nearly eight years, and he’s just part of the furniture, really.”
With home comforts come unusual routines, and Alfie has his set in stone.
“He knows where his stable is, and he can bring himself in and out without a headcollar. He’d never run away; he’s very safe. He’s quite a busy person by nature, but in the last year particularly, he’s almost become lazy; he’s got old man status now,” said Canter with a laugh.
Alfie’s early confidence wobbles brought with them a tendency to turn his nose up at his dinner. “He’s still a bit picky about hard feed,” explained Canter, “but he eats a lot more now and looks much better for it.”
• He loves treats—so much so that they have to be rationed.
“He’s not allowed them at home, otherwise he spends his whole life looking for them! He’ll literally sniff you head-to-toe looking for something,” said Canter. To circumvent the issue, Alfie gets his favorite, carrots, in his manger at competitions.
• The 16-year-old is such a professional that his work life is structured around allowing him as much downtime as possible.
“He definitely knows his job nowadays, and he has a good holiday after a big event,” said Canter. “He’s not a horse that needs to be kept going all the time. We just try to look after him the best we can, building him up for the big ones and letting him down the rest of the time.”
That method has allowed Canter to strike the balance for Alfie, who isn’t always the most straightforward character to coax a performance out of.
“He’s definitely got a pony brain; he can be a bit stubborn sometimes,” Canter said with a laugh. “He can occasionally be a bit lazy in his body but bright in his mind, so we have to work to switch that around. But there’s no malice in him at all.”