Close-up with Clarke

Eventer extraordinaire Clarke Johnstone shares a few secrets

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Clarke and Balmoral Sensation (Image: Jan Sutherland)

Kiwi eventer Clarke Johnstone was just 23 when he won a team bronze medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games with his beautiful NZ thoroughbred Orient Express. He is now aiming for his first Olympic selection, vying for one of just four spots on the team for Rio.

Clarke was born in Dunedin, and started riding when he was 12, encouraged by his younger sister Grace. His first pony, Spike, only lasted a couple of months though, before Clarke blew his tendon galloping all over his family’s 1800-acre hill country farm!

As a young gun on Synergy
As a young gun on Synergy

Clarke was madly competitive from the start, and with his dun pony Synergy he was second at Pony Club Eventing Champs in the DC section when the pony was just six and Clarke was 16. They also made the Talent ID Squad. Clarke then went on to become the world’s youngest-ever winner of a World Cup qualifier at Kihikihi in 2007, with his first hack Oakley Vision, when he was just 19.

After winning the FEI World Cup Series in 2011 with his beloved Orient Express, Clarke took several horses over to England, with the goal of making the 2012 London Olympics.

Sadly, all of his top horses were injured, and Clarke came back to New Zealand to rebuild. He’s now built up an exciting new team, with the superstar Balmoral Sensation at the helm.

When did you first start riding?

When I was 12.

Who was your first pony?

My first really competitive pony was a grey mare called Winters Promise. I actually stole the ride on her off my sister and we competed up to Training level eventing and 1m show jumping and were quite successful together. She was a very beautiful pony with a lot of thoroughbred blood and some Arab. 

Were you a hard worker at school?

I worked hard enough to get the marks I wanted to achieve, but horses were really the first priority!

If you didn’t do horses, what would you have done for a career?

I probably would have studied to be an architect. I was really interested in that profession when I was at school, and still am, but the degree was not offered in Otago where I grew up. To study at Wellington or Auckland would probably have meant stopping or at least cutting back on my riding, which I didn’t want to do. 

You were lucky enough to be selected for the last World Equestrian Games – what was that like?

I was 23 so pretty young to be riding at that level and I absolutely loved the WEG experience. I probably didn’t really realise at the time what an achievement it was to get to WEG at such a young age, but I have certainly learned since. To ride on a team with Mark Todd and Andrew Nicholson was an incredible – but hopefully not a once-in-a-lifetime – opportunity! The best thing was the team atmosphere. We all got on really well and it was a great supportive environment.

Clarke's proudest moment in his career to date, on the podium at the 2010 World Equestrian Games
Clarke’s proudest moment in his career to date, on the podium at the 2010 World Equestrian Games

Who is your favourite champion from a previous WEG?

I was a bit obsessed with Totilas (the gold-medal winning dressage horse). I had watched him at Aachen and I tried to stalk him in the warm-ups at WEG whenever I could, so I was thrilled when he won the dressage. I even got to ride Blue (Orient Express) in the same arena as him once, although I’m not sure that I was meant to be there!

Who is your favourite horse?

Orient Express retains a special place in Clarke's heart
Orient Express retains a special place in Clarke’s heart

Orient Express, the horse I rode at WEG, was my favourite horse of all time. He really put me on the map internationally and was just the most lovely-natured, easy horse. People say a good horse is always a bit quirky but he was a definite exception to this as he had a very easy personality.

Who is your naughtiest horse?

I haven’t got any really naughty horses, thankfully! Although Balmoral Sensation is pretty cheeky to bring back into work after his winter break. But it’s more playful than really naughty – he bucks and squeals and carries on a bit when he feels like it.

Do you have any other pets?

I have a tortoiseshell cat called Coby who I got from the SPCA. 

Do you get nervous when you compete?

At big events I do get nervous, but not badly.

Who is your eventing idol?

Mark Todd and Michael Jung. They are both just so, so good at what they do. They make it look easy.

What’s the biggest fence you’ve ever jumped?

The Cottesmore Leap (a HUGE ditch and brush fence) at Burghley on Incognito. It is the biggest cross-country jump in the world and is truly terrifying!

What’s your most embarrassing moment eventing?

Getting lost on the cross-country course at the Rotorua horse trial, but not realising it at the time. I jumped all of the right jumps, just not in the right order – a take-your-own-line cross-country! I thought my course was pretty good though 🙂

What do you do for fun when you’re not riding?

I like skiing in the winter and going somewhere with water in the summer.

Balmoral Sensation ('Ritchie') doesn't always look so innocent! (Image: Libby Law)
Balmoral Sensation (‘Ritchie’) doesn’t always look so innocent! (Image: Libby Law)