Interview with John Goodwin - Heavy Horse Musical Drive - New Forest Show

Interview with John Goodwin – Heavy Horse Musical Drive

Striking Faces Blog / New Forest Show/ John Goodwin / Heavy Horse Musical Drive

Each year at the New Forest Show, The Heavy Horse Musical Drive is one of the most magnificent and popular events. Sixteen pairs of Shire horses perform a display of equine excellence and a perfectly timed drive around the arena to the sound of music. So, what is the Heavy Horse Musical Drive? It began in the 1950s by Colonel Mike Ansell who decided that the main arena audience at The Horse of The Year Show should be treated to a spectacle whilst the ground was being harrowed between show jumping classes. Instead of tractors, which traditionally evened out the surface after each class, Ansell came up with the idea of using teams of heavy horses which would harrow the ground as they circled the arena to music.

Many years later the display team is still enchanting the crowds up and down the country although they no longer harrow the turf, but enthral the audiences with their delightful displays.
To gain a greater insight into just what the teams do – we spoke to John Goodwin who won the Heavy Horse Turnout Championship in 2017 at The New Forest Show

John is based on his farm at the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, and his grooms come from Dorset and the New Forest to join the team for the shows.

There are four Shires horses in John’s yard and three are currently in the Show Team: Sidney is the oldest at 16 years old. He is the most successful turnout horse of his generation, with over 300 county show wins in his career – an extraordinary achievement for such an outstanding Shire. Oscar is John’s quirky Single horse; he is 9 and competes in the Single class, as well as being in the pair and the team. Dizzy B is the youngest member of the team at 6. He leads the team – a big accomplishment for such a young horse, as they have to be brave, bold and confident enough to go out on their own at the front of the team. All three are around 18 hands high. John’s handsome baby, Henry, should hopefully join the team next year as a 4-year-old.

John has been working with horses for most of his life: “I worked in racing when I left school, and also produced light horses with my sister. I started with the Shires when I was in my 30’s, firstly helping my father at ploughing matches, and soon I was ploughing myself. Alongside a very successful career in ploughing, I started showing Shires, firstly with an agricultural turnout, and then, in 2000, I had the opportunity to move into the trade turnout world when Capespan offered to sponsor me, and I have not looked back since. After the sponsorship from Capespan came to an end, I was subsequently sponsored by Co-Operative Funeralcare, and after four very rewarding years with them, I am now showing under my own name, whilst searching for a new commercial partner. Sponsorship of a heavy horse team is the ideal way to get the name of a company into the ring of all the major county shows in England, in front of tens of thousands of people over a season, and if anyone reading this is interested in sponsoring the team I would be pleased to hear from them!”

Having a Shire horse yard and a working farm is, undoubtedly, hard work but John’s dedication and his passion for his horses is evident. “I enjoy producing and developing young horses and seeing how good they can become, and testing them against other turnouts. I am always assessing and evaluating both their and my performance, and striving to improve with each class”.

The John Goodwin team usually attend between 20 and 30 shows a year. This includes County Shows such as the New Forest Show, steam rallies and other events. Occasionally, weddings and funerals feature in their schedule.

When the competing season ends, John is back on his farm. The older horses usually have a holiday until just after Christmas, and then training starts for the new season and the first event, which is the National Shire Horse Show held in March.

The HHMD is put together by Elspeth Ross and David Lawless of Waldburg Shires. A few weeks before the show each team is sent a plan of the moves for the drive, and each driver has to learn their position and the moves required of them. The teams all arrive at the New Forest Show on the Monday before the show starts and start to practice – firstly on foot and then with the horses. They will practice the moves until they are foot perfect. On the first morning of the show the drivers will walk through the drive again to make sure everyone is ready, and then it’s off into the ring! The drive is usually composed of the same drivers each year, although new, young drivers are always welcomed by the teams.

When John’s team is not performing in the main arena, they work all day at a show. Depending on performance times, they can start work as early as 5 or 6am. The horses have to be fed, mucked out and groomed, their legs need to be washed to keep the feather on their legs clean and white, and their manes and tails have to be plaited. The harness and dray must also be immaculate, even if it is wet and muddy. After each class, the horses have to be made comfortable and if there is a second performance the harness and dray have to be cleaned again. After the second performance, the whole process starts again and continues until the horses are put to bed for the night. On returning from each show the horses will get a day or two off, and the grooms go back to their day jobs -one is a veterinary nurse, one is an archaeologist and two work with light horses.

“My most memorable New Forest Show was the year I won the Supreme Harness Championship with my old horses Jim and Sport. We won the Heavy Horse Turnout Championship, which qualified us to compete in the Supreme Harness Championship against the best of all the other driven horses at the show – the best of the coaching, the hackneys, the private driving etc. The Supreme is decided on a public vote, and that year the crowd voted for us! The other memorable year is the 2007 show, where the entire showground became a mud bath. After a valiant attempt at the HHMD, the conditions were against us, and so on safety grounds we abandoned the drive. The next day we all went into the main ring in hand – 32 heavy horses – to meet the public. We will always try to put on a show where we can!”

Sidney, Johns most decorated horse also has a film career! He has appeared in many fantastic movies, including two Sherlock Holmes films; “Robin Hood”, (where he was driven by Russell Crowe) “Snow White” and “The Huntsman”, “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “A Little Chaos”. John himself had a small role in “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where he played the treacherous coachman who delivered Jack Sparrow into enemy hands. Last year he also appeared in “Emmerdale”, where he was one of the Southampton Dingles who were shown heading to Zak’s wedding in a pony and trap.

The Musical Drive of the Heavy Horses is unique and a spectacle to behold – other shows have similar smaller displays, but watching 16 pairs of horses in the ring, performing perfectly in time to the military style drill music is extraordinary. It’s a great opportunity to see how versatile and agile heavy horses can be, and how skilled the drivers are as they criss cross and circle around the area.

The New Forest Show is proud to have the Heavy Horse Musical Drive every year – it’s certainly a crowd stopper and a magnificent display of horsemanship. Look out for John and the team this year – no doubt they will be trotting around the arena and thrilling the crowds !