Racing chaos at Cheltenham: A personal view

March 15, 2012

The great Monty Roberts has been a formative influence on my thinking, not just about horse management but also about human leadership. I was reminded of the links between the two at events at the Cheltenham festival this year

Tudor Rickards

I did not attend the spring festival of horse-racing at Cheltenham. I didn’t even watch transmissions of its races live, but later saw news bulletins about one race which produced headlines for the wrong reasons.

The Queen Mother Champion Chase

The billed highlight of the day was the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The Telegraph’s perspective focused on the tight finish in which the favourite lost narrowly. Read more carefully, the account [in synopsis below] also mentioned the serious accident at the start of the race:

One split second of confusion at a badly dolled-off final fence left Irish jockey Andrew Lynch in tears and Sizing Europe’s two-mile title defence in tatters following a dramatic Queen Mother Champion Chase, won by Finian’s Rainbow at Cheltenham on Wednesday [March 14th, 2012]. When Wishfull Thinking fell at the fence on the first circuit, smashing through the running rail – firing Richard Johnson into the ground and injuring a photographer in the melee – it changed this championship contest at a stroke.

Sizing Europe had been enjoying a nice run in behind, but was left alone out in front much earlier than Lynch had wanted. Finian’s Rainbow and Barry Geraghty drew closer but after clearing what had become the final obstacle, both Lynch and Geraghty were suddenly confronted with a fence that was dolled off just on the inside, where the injured Johnson lay on the landing side.
Both jockeys veered sharply right, and then right again, when it dawned on them that the fence would be by-passed completely. In a hard-fought finish, Finian’s Rainbow got the better of Sizing Europe to win, but clearly indecision had marred the closing stages of a gripping battle.

The second story

The second story, was [in the real-time radio broadcast] the potential serious injuries to a jockey Richard Johnson, to a photographer, and to spectators at the final fence of the first circuit. Richard Johnson was still in harms way beneath the ‘dolled-of’ fence as the race neared completion. The Telegraph added:

Curiously, there was no stewards inquiry, and officials were quick to dismiss the incident. Paul Barton, the stipendiary steward, told reporters the bypass procedures had been implemented correctly.

Monty-Roberts and intelligent horsemanship

Monty Roberts, the great equine specialist, made an impression on the Queen Mother at his skills in helping spooked race-horses calm down and perform to their capabilities. His ‘controversial’ ideas contributed to the movement to reduce abuse of horses including excessive use of the whip (still a contentious issue this year). He would have been distressed, but not particularly surprised at the events at Cheltenham yesterday in the Queen Mother Champion Chase


Image of Monty Roberts, Martin Clunes and Kelly Marks is from the Gloucester Mercury

Martin Clunes, Horsepower and Leaders we deserve

August 23, 2010
In thanks for her encouragement to write the b...

Image via Wikipedia

ITV 1 Review by Tudor Rickards

Martin Clunes and a lot of horses share top-billing in ITV’s Horsepower mini-series. The first hour left me wondering what Richard Dawkins or David Attenborough might have made of it all.

They would undoubtedly have admired the beauty of the creatures on display, including the greater Clunes, an apparently gentle beast with a capacity to love  horses great and small, and a natural and endearing manner when confronted by humans.  Dawkins Attenborough and Clunes are high priests of an ancient cult, members of which worship the majesty of nature.  Dawkins and Attenborough are on the scientific wing, Clunes more towards the scientology end.

Mysteries of the horse-human bond

In the programme, Martin gets to visit a lot of locations scattered around the world to witness to marvels and neo-religious mysteries of the horse-human bond. He meets other high-priests, including the incomparable Monty Roberts, the original horse-whisperer, and another charismatic whose work with horses has also charmed millions of humans including, according to legend, the Queen and The Queen Mother, some years ago.

The mysterious capacity of large potentially dangerous animals to charm shone through the programme.   Ismene Brown of the artsdesk perceptively noted this by combining her review of Horsepower with one of a programme of mountain gorillas.

I’ve been charmed by horses, and by the possibility that the horse-human relationship can teach us about human-human relationships.  Monty Roberts, and his English associate Kelly Marks have both made contributions to the idea of trust-based leadership.  The horse, they argue, is a flight animal, and needs a leader to reduce the anxiety genetically inbred to escape predators.  The language of leadership is beyond rational communication and speaks to that deep need.  Which is maybe how charismatics have such a hold over their human followers, who get the leaders they need (if not deserve).

Love yourself first

So charmed I was, to have been witness to the programme. I particularly liked the scene in which Martin plus psychologically damaged horse was penned up and scrutinised by a group of apparently friendly psychoanalysts outside the railings.  The message: the horse won’t love you more until you love yourself more.  Translate to human/human relationships as you wish. I may have mistranslated a bit, as I missed the start of the scene for a comfort break.

Which reminds me. None of the horses in the programme peed or dumped steaming loads of uknownwhat.  Now that’s interesting.

Feng Shui, Well-being and Horse sense. Dawn’s Recipe for Business Success

June 7, 2008

Dawn Gibbins is an inspirational and pioneering business leader. Will her unusual philosophy for business success help change our ideas of leadership development?

Some years ago, a coach-load of business executives leave the lecture rooms of Manchester Business school and head for the Staffordshire home and riding stables of Dawn Gibbins. They are about to take part in one of Dawn’s experiments in personal development and business leadership. The Media has got wind of the story, and proceedings receive international coverage via Sky News and BBC TV and radio broadcasts.

The demonstration is being conducted by Kelly Marks, another charismatic and pioneering leader, who will be encouraging the executives to consider the implications for business of the way they communicate with horses.

Whether deliberately or otherwise, the media had formed a view that business bosses were going to tame wild stallions.

Dawn’s style attracts press coverage

To say that the Media had got wind of the event makes it sound too unplanned.

As someone who had become involved from the Business School, I suspected that our attempts to interest the press had gained extra impetus from somewhere. Dawn’s efforts, coupled with the added cachet through the presence of Kelly Marks. Once she had learned that we were looking for somewhere for the event, she had agreed to help, and had then done so with customary enthusiasm and commitment.

The Flowcrete story

Dawn’s business success makes an interesting and well-documented story of charismatic and service-oriented leadership.

Flowcrete, which has its headquarters in Sandbach, Cheshire, UK, was founded in 1982 by father and daughter team of Peter Gibbins, and his daughter Dawn Gibbins, MBE, Flowcrete’s current Chairman. Today, [May 2008] Flowcrete is a multi-million pound international business, with 30 offices and 12 manufacturing plants across the globe employing 350 people with sales of more than £44 million in 2007.

The Story behind the Story

There is a story behind the story. The infant company suffered a tragedy when Peter died perhaps from exposure to industrial chemicals Dawn vowed to build a company based on risk-free technical processes. Her vision was to be important in creating Flowcrete’s international reputation as an innovative and ethical outfit.

Dawn was always well-aware that her marketing skills were insufficient to create a new business. Like most successful entrepreneurs she searched widely, and chose her management team people wisely …including Mark Greaves who became an invaluable business partner, and eventually her husband.

According to the business textbooks, she was demonstrating the virtues of distributed leadership.

Portrait of a charismatic leader

Dawn offers a particularly interesting portrait of a charismatic leader. Her public persona is captured in press reports which emphasise her high-impact high-voltage performances. Her appeal in front of the press cameras undoubtedly contributed to marketability, as evidenced by such awards as the Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year in 2002. Other awards recognise tangible achievements to industry and her charity work.

Her own descriptions suggest she is comfortable in the role of a corporate free spirit, requiring the settling influences of husband Mark Greaves. In terms of one of her enthusiasms, Mark exercises the calming influence and horse sense without which Dawn might go charging around rather too impulsively.

Her promotional talents bring to mind great the great business show-biz promoters. Edison and Coco Chanel a century ago, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey today.

The try it out approach

Little wonder that the executives to the Kelly Marks demonstration found the experience so rewarding. The insights from Kelly on influence and communication in the riding stables, were topped off with an impromptu seminar with Dawn which ranged from topics as diverse as business leadership, trust-free horse management, water divining, and the ancient art of Feng Shui.

What’s unique, what’s important?

Dawn is on the far-side of some psychometric scales. She is about as extraverted as a Madonna or a Richard Branson. This contributes to her media appeal, but from time to time, the more emollient approach of husband Mark is needed so as “not to frighten the horses” (or bank managers, or business clients).

Dawn’s corporate approach appears to have been driven by personal experiences. Her father’s death resulted from his exposure to hazardous industrial processes, and left her with a belief that prevailing coating technology must be replaced with more benign processes and materials. The belief translated into a powerful vision which guided Flowcrete’s subsequent innovations and success.

Flowcrete becomes part of RPM

In 2008, Flowcrete became part of a multinational American organization RPM, although retaining its current management team, with Mark Greaves continuing as group managing director.

Dawn was quoted as saying

“Flowcrete has been a central part of my life for 25 years but I am glad it is being transferred into the ownership of such an entrepreneurial company as RPM, under a deal that gives the company a platform for growth, stability and success.”

For whatever reason, one of England’s more colourful entrepreneurs is now moving into a new phase in her life. It is unlikely to be one without plenty of surprises and business creativity.

A presentation of Dawn Gibbins: Going with the Flow

The following was prepared for MBA leadership studies, and for Dawn Gibbins’ 50th Birthday Celebrations, June 14th, 2008. Acknowledgements to our ‘moles’ at Flowcrete for some of the most personal images.

Cheltenham Revives the Carrot Stick and Whip Debate

March 14, 2008


The annual Cheltenham festival produced another debate on the use of the whip in horse racing. Does it have anything to offer on the question of carrots, sticks, and motivational leadership for humans?

The Cheltenham festival is one of the year’s racing highlights in the UK. It is sometimes described as Ireland’s greatest racing event, so powerful an influence is exercised there from horses, trainers, and above all punters, from across the Irish Sea. It tends to coincide with parliamentary matters, and MPs often wrestle with split loyalties attracting their attention.

This year the festival suffered from the storms sweeping the South of England. Wednesday’s racing was completely postponed, which at least helped politicians keep their minds on Alistair Darling’s budget, about which enough has already been said.

Katchitt’s Triumph

One the previous day, Katchitt won the Champion Hurdle, a rare British success in recent years in a race where has been a frequent success for the Irish in recent times. Much scatological mirth over name. General agreement that the horse needed ‘firm’ handling. The controversial Robert Thornton was considered the ideal jockey for such a horse. Katchitt, and jockey Robert Thornton are pivotal figures in our story.

The race was described in The Times on line

Tom Scudamore had set a strong pace on Osana … under pressure a long way out but rallied to all his jockey’s urgings and was closing again at the line. Katchit, though, is an implacable opponent and, understandably, has a special place in his jockey’s heart. “He’s not the classiest horse in the world but he gives you everything,” Thornton said. “If they were all like him, this would be an easy job.”

Thornton was leading jockey here last year and is repeating his routine of refusing to have his long fair hair cut until after the meeting. His liaison with King is now one of the strongest in racing and the trainer insists that he “would not swap him for any other stable jockey”. Things, though, have not always been so cordial. Both previously worked for the late David Nicholson, where King was an authoritarian assistant and Thornton a rebellious young conditional jockey. “I was a snotty-nosed kid,” Thornton conceded, with King adding: “We didn’t speak much in those days but I think we have both grown up for the better.”

The Guardian [Wednesday march 12th, 2008] picked up on the debate on use of the whip:

Robert Thornton rode two winners at Cheltenham … and received two consecutive four and three-day bans for his excessive use of the whip only hours after a top-level summit aimed at stamping out the practice … New shock-absorbing crops are in use but it was conceded that horses can still be harmed if the whip is abused, and there appears to be a real desire across racing to improve the sport’s animal-welfare image … [although] the disqualification of horses was ruled out as a possible punishment by the representatives of the racing fraternity who attended yesterday’s meeting, and Thornton’s status as a double winner still stood despite his breach of the rules.

I had trouble finding it mentioned at all in most accounts in the sports and racing press. The issue warranted two lines in The Scotsman’s report

…Thornton’s battling display did not go unnoticed by the stewards, who suspended him for three days for using his whip in the incorrect place

The Times article above was as concise on the matter:

Thornton acquired whip bans, totalling seven days, on both his winners yesterday, though neither horse was needlessly berated.

The Great Whip Debate

It turns out that a debate is developing again around the use of the whip in horse-racing. I came across this topic some years ago through the contributions of champion jockey Kelly Marks and her company Intelligent Horsemanship, and her mentor Monty Roberts at Manchester Business School. These were influential to us in the development of a managerial concept of Trust based Leadership, in which a leader operates ‘by invitation’.

Trust-based leadership has elements of earlier concepts such as people-centred leadership. It adds a notion of influence through invitational means, rather than transactional ones such as sticks and carrots. The connection to the horse-whip debate is clear.

A recent textbook account can be found in Dilemmas of Leadership.

The debate is a highly emotive one. In her books, Kelly Marks tells of prejudice against the idea of whipless horse-training, as much as the idea of female jockeys like herself competing against men.

The charismatic Monty Roberts is much in demand around the world for help with thoroughbreds showing remedial tendencies. But owners and others still see him as something of a curiosity for such bizarre ideas by owners and riders. His reputation as a horse-whisperer works both for him and against him in the campaign for pain-free horse training.

At Cheltenham, the debate was rekindled with advocates of banning the whip including former champion jockey Johnnie Francome, now a racing pundit and best-selling author who probably dislikes being described as a sort of Dick Francis. Francome argued that a month’s trial would demonstrate that racing could be as exciting, as demanding of skill, as fast, and less stressful to the horses. He also admits that as a jockey ten years ago he would have been opposed to it, and that almost all the jockeys will go on opposing it until they tried out racing without whips. He mutters darkly about the dinosaurs in charge of the sport.

Meanwhile, at the Jurassic headquarters of horse racing, plans are being examined for whips that can not cause such evident after-effects on horses. (‘Pain-free whips’?).


Implications for organizational leaders are clear. Our posts have suggested how bullying by dictatorial methods can be one way to produce nodding donkeys in organisations or in political cadres.

The same level of intensity of debate whirls around issues of bullying, and the rights of parents to smack children (abuse, or a valuable aid to discipline and development?).

Francome’s suggestion of a trial period of whip-free racing seems sensible, but probably too dangerous a threat to established thinking to be a favourite runner at the moment.