John Cottle: master and commander

Claire Wilson catches up with one of the best known and highest achieving New Zealand show jumping riders, John Cottle

Though destined to be a farmer, John Cottle has had a long and extraordinary show jumping career (Image: Kirstin Ledington)

John Cottle is one of New Zealand’s most highly-regarded riders and trainers, and has had a hand in the careers of many other successful jumpers. I decided to find out more about John and all that he has achieved in the show jumping world!

Tell me about your family – were you all interested in horses?

My father, Jack, rode as a young man and was a very keen, well-respected horseman and cross-country course builder. He rode at gymkhanas, rodeos and also had racehorses. My sister, Kaye, did showing and pony club eventing. But Audrey, my mother, and my brothers, Bill and Max, didn’t ride.

Did you start out at pony club?

I was a farm boy! I would ride around the farm with my dogs, with no saddle, which probably gave me good balance. I occasionally went to Plimmerton Pony Club, where Granny Gray was the chief instructor. But the only things I liked about pony club were the games and the girls. I was just a typical boy, a bit of a cowboy and that is why I enjoyed doing games. My first decent pony was Alamein, who was a top jumper and games pony. I didn’t really get serious about jumping until I moved on to horses.

How did a farm boy become a professional show jumper?

Growing up, I was a mad farmer. Even at school, I leased land and had my own stock. All my school subjects were based around agriculture. I was destined to be a farmer! But I had a horse called Second Mate, who I sold to Japan and he went on to jump at the Montreal Olympics. This connection grew into a coaching and advising role with several Japanese riding clubs. I would spend up to 100 days a year in Japan and, for a number of years, I sold 50-100 horses a year, mainly to Asia. This enabled me to have a big stable of 25 horses at home, with often two trucks going to the shows each weekend. We also had some big sponsors backing us, with Swanndri and then later on, Jeep. So our show jumping team became a big business which took over my earlier plans to be a farmer.

John on Jeep Super Moth (NZHP library)

Who most influenced your riding style?

Colonel Peter Doornbos, an international dressage rider from Holland; Peter Robeson, who was the show jumping bronze medallist at Tokyo Olympics; and [legendary American trainer] George Morris. In the early days, I copied the Australian riders who came to NZ and adopted their flying-legs style! However, after returning from competing in Australia with Hard Case, I had seen some very stylish riders and decided I wanted to ride like that. I worked with Colonel Doornbos and had three lessons a week for six months. In this time, I never jumped a thing! Even in his 70s, he would get on my horses and show me how to ride and train on the flat. I wasn’t born with Mark Todd’s natural talent, but I just wanted to win.

In 1974, Colonel Doornbos was invited to be the Guest of Honour at the Rotterdam International Show, where I won the main class with Rifleman and the Colonel presented the prize. This was one of the highlights of my life!

New Zealand teams seemed to travel overseas more often in those days. Tell me about your first big trip to Europe.

In 1974, my wife Jackie and I headed to England with three Grand Prix horses: Rifleman, Warlock and Miniature. I had instant success, winning major classes, which helped in getting me invited to the big shows. I competed with Rifleman and Warlock at the World Championships at Hickstead, where Warlock was fourth in the Grand Prix. At my second show, I met Peter Robeson who was my hero. He lived near my base and I trained with him regularly, and copied him. I came back to New Zealand in 1975 and bought Red Coat, jumped here, then returned to prepare for the Montreal Olympics. Unfortunately, due to travel sickness, Red Coat died before the Olympics. I did go to two later Games: 1984 Los Angeles with Arturo, and 1988 Seoul with Ups & Downs.

With Arturo, who went to the Los Angeles Olympics (NZHP Library)

You have had countless amazing horses – which was the best?

Monopoly. I have been selected for four Olympics, been to three World Cup Finals, won the Horse of the Year title six times on different horses, the Norwood Gold Cup four times on different horses, the Grand Prix Series 13 times, and I have produced six Olympic horses. Super Moth won 10 Grands Prix in a row, Telegraph won 13 from 15 Grands Prix in a season. But of all of these, Monopoly had the most opportunity to be the best horse I have had, having competed at the highest level for Canada.

A special moment was my winning first and second in the Horse of the Year on Monopoly and Ludo; both were horses we had bred! He was later sold to Beth Underhill and went on to be ranked in the top 20 horses in the world. He features in the Canadian Hall of Fame.

Monopoly: the best of them all (NZHP library)

Tell me more about your family and how they have enjoyed the sport.

Our three boys never really rode seriously on ponies. They were saturated in horses at a young age, so we really tried to encourage other sports at school. Then in their early teens, Andrew and James started to get really keen on riding, William rode a bit but didn’t carry on with it. I struggled to teach them (as is often the case) but they copied my style. However, I made sure they had the best trainers available and they rode many of my good horses.

Andrew won the Young Rider series on Rothschild, and a memorable moment was when he and I jumped off against each other in the Norwood Gold Cup. James also won the Young Rider series with Watch Me, and the Easter Classic. These were great times, having the whole family involved in the sport.

Jackie has hunted and is very good with the horses. I am so lucky because she loves the lifestyle! She is now very busy with her dog accessory and grooming shop in Clevedon, called Poochi.

A special moment after jumping off against son Andrew in the Norwood Gold Cup (NZHP library)

Coaching – is it a chore?

I have had some great coaching moments, including gold with the NZ team at the Youth Olympics in Sydney, bronze at the World Student Games in Aachen and success with many NZ Young Rider Teams both here, in Australia and in Japan. I have also coached extensively in Japan, including the winning Kyoto team at their National Games, and training student jockeys.

When I was competing with a big team, I was more focused on my riding and my horses. But I have come to enjoy teaching more, especially as I have a nice bunch of successful and dedicated students at the moment. I enjoy riding my students’ horses during lessons, as I can get on and show them; it is a very powerful way of teaching and a technique that helped me (in the early days with Colonel Doornbos) and now it is so satisfying for me to be able to pass on to my students, as he did for me.

What does the future hold for you?

I have had a fantastic life with horses. They have taken me all around the world; I have dined with the Queen, met amazing people, made wonderful friends and had a magical time. I am still very passionate about the sport, I am breeding a few horses and I have a couple of nice horses to compete on now.

John and LT Eloquence at the 2016 Horse of the Year Show (Image: KAMPIC / Kerry Marshall)
  • This story was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony magazine