So many Olympic equestrians come from deeply horsey backgrounds; they are sons, daughters or grandchildren of former elite riders and grew up on farms, presented with their first ponies almost before they could walk.
But not Jonelle Price. Nobody in her family was even remotely interested in horses. In fact her mother, Lesley, is scared of them. But she has always been Jonelle’s number-one supporter, followed closely by the rest of the family. All are immensely proud of what their utterly single-minded, hard-working daughter and sister has achieved.
Jonelle was about nine and the family was living in Motueka when she first caught the horse bug. As Lesley recalls: “A friend of hers had two ponies, and she asked Jonelle if she’d like to ride one. Jonelle asked me and I said, ‘Yeah that will be fine,’ never knowing what it would lead to.”
Lesley thought this might just be a five-minute wonder, and encouraged her youngest daughter to take up ballet as well. “I sent her to dancing classes, but she only went once, and I was told not to bring her back. She just wasn’t interested.”
Pony club was mentioned, and eventually, Lesley rather reluctantly agreed. “She had to fight me every step of the way to get that far down the track. But everyone at pony club supported her knowing I was a little bit anti. With time, I accepted this was not a passing phase and she was in for the long haul and I would support her.”
It was inevitable that Jonelle would want a pony of her own and after some time Lesley gave in to that too, and Dom was purchased. He served her well and when his time with Jonelle finished there was some debate about whether she would go onto a hack or stay on a pony. “As you can imagine, she wasn’t a big girl for her age. We ended up buying a hack called Final Surge.”
By this stage Lesley was the treasurer of the pony club but says she still was fairly clueless about horses. “I didn’t know if they were trotting or galloping, but I was doing the motherly support thing. Bookwork is more my forte.”
Right from the beginning, Jonelle had to go to work and earn half of the money the horses cost. “She was therefore out working when very young. She mowed lawns, looked after three children before and after school, did other babysitting and delivered papers. She was always prepared to work hard; she was a good hard worker right from an early age.”
Lesley also worked hard to help her daughter’s horse passion: she did the farrier’s bookwork, for example, so Jonelle got her horse shod in return.
Meeting Mr Right
Lesley laughs when she recalls Jonelle and husband Tim’s first meeting, which was when Jonelle was about 15. “We went down to McLeans Island from Motueka for an event. Tim was also competing. He and Jonelle were about the same age, and they struck up a friendship. We went home and then he started ringing up.
“I remember asking Jonelle, ‘What’s he ringing up for?’ She was more interested in horses than boys!” Lesley also recalls her prediction at the time. “I don’t know what made me say it but I said to a friend of mine, I think she will marry him.”
It wasn’t romance right from the start however. “They were mates for years before becoming a couple when Jonelle was 21.”
Jonelle was a top student academically, and Lesley was keen for her to get a degree. “But she wouldn’t go to university without the horse. So we made a deal she would go to uni and we would shift to Christchurch so she could pursue her sport too.”
But Jonelle’s law studies lasted just a year before she threw it in for a career with horses. Lesley didn’t stand in her way.
“I’ve always supported Jonelle but probably in different ways from other parents. A lot of them are there, putting horse gear on and off, but I’m too scared of the horses, and Jonelle and I are too alike. We’d end up having those classic mother-and-daughter rows. If I did suggest what she should do, she would tell me where to go very sharply. I learned early on it was far better to get the back numbers and do the other mundane jobs that needed to be done.”
Lesley acknowledges that at times it was hard for Jonelle. “If she wanted it she had to work for it and she knew that. I think that is what has set up her motivation and her attitude. That is what has got her there, it’s not just the gift of being a natural athlete.”
All professional sports people have immense focus, and Lesley says there is also a degree of being self-centred. “It’s a case of, ‘This is where I am going, it doesn’t matter about anything else, this is my focus.’
“Ever since she was a little girl she always wanted to be like Mark Todd. She wanted to go to the Olympics, just like Mark.” And now she has won a medal with Mark, as part of the bronze medal team at London 2012, and with a bit of luck, is on track to win another one. Lesley says Mark has been a big influence on Jonelle. “They are good mates. Toddy has always been a help to the younger ones. I remember her going up and staying with him and Carolyn when she was in the North Island for competitions.”
A nervous spectator
Lesley feels she has been very blessed to have had the opportunity to watch Jonelle ride at Burghley, Badminton, Blenheim, Luhmuhlen, and other prestigious events including the 2014 World Equestrian Games and the 2012 London Olympics.
Does watching your precious daughter jump terrifying fences at speed make a mother nervous? You bet. As Lesley says: “That’s an understatement! I do watch, well most of it, I think. Dressage, I don’t honestly know what is going on. I couldn’t say, ‘Well that was a lovely extended trot but see, I do know the right words’.”
Show jumping for Lesley is the worst phase to watch. “You’ve got through those first two phases and if you are in a good position, everything hangs on jumping those show jumps. So that’s more nerve wracking for me.”
At Jonelle’s first Badminton, Lesley got particularly nervous. “Pippa Funnell rode two horses and she fell off them both at the same fence. I thought, ‘Here’s this woman who is the best in the world, and she fell off, so there is no way that Jonelle can get over that jump.’ I was an absolute cot-case. But she did it!” [The fence in question was the upright gates into the infamous Huntsman’s Close].
“I like to be at the finish of the cross country. I just really want to give her a big hug and tell her well done.”
She doesn’t take a hands-on approach, however. “Jonelle’s crew do a fantastic job at the finish, so I tend to stand back and let them get on with it.”
Lesley isn’t going to Rio, but she and one of Jonelle’s brothers have a trip to England planned soon afterwards, so they can attend both Burghley and Blenheim.
So like many thousands of New Zealand eventing fans, she’ll be watching the Olympics unfold in the wee small hours from her television set.
“I have never been able to come up with the answer of which is the worse, being there or not being there. I just don’t know.”
“Yes, I will cry if she wins a medal but I will be crying well before that, no matter what happens. I don’t cry because I am scared, but it is so emotional, I am so proud, and I know what it has cost her, what she has given up, how much hard work she has put into it.”
Well done Lesley, you deserve a medal as well.