It was perhaps inevitable Samantha McIntosh would find herself drawn back to Europe, where she’s spent nearly all of her working life. Though she enjoyed immensely spending a few years based back in New Zealand, since April 2015 she has been based at the stables Haras de la Becassiere, in La Teste de Buch, south of Bordeaux.
Sam’s enjoying the more permanent base, after moving about from Belgium, to Germany and then spending four months in Holland. The yard, which is owned by Frenchwoman Joelle Cairaschi-Dagut, isn’t flashy or super-modern, but it’s lovely and very horse-friendly, with plenty of space. There is a large grass arena, a big outdoor sand arena and a forest across the road with meandering tracks to trot and canter through. And the mild climate, being similar to that of New Zealand, means the horses can be worked outside nearly all year-round.
Most excitingly for Sam, she’s built up a small string of quality horses. As well as the talented mare Estina, who was so successful for Sam here in New Zealand, she’s acquired Check In, a stallion by Cordalme Z with some pretty impressive credentials. Gilbert Bockmann bred the stallion and competed him up to 4* level. Check In was bought for Sam to ride by her sponsor Mitch and Kate Plaw, who also own Estina.
“I think this horse is right up there,” says Sam. “He’s pretty awesome – he’s scopey, he’s careful, he’s brave.”
The words, coming from Samantha, bear weight. She chooses her words carefully and isn’t prone to exaggeration. She also knows a good horse when she sits on one, having ridden at the Olympics, two World Equestrian Games and five European Championships. She finished 13th in the Las Vegas World Cup final on Royal Discovery, was 11th at the WEG in Jerez on Fleche Rouge, and was 17th at the WEG in Aachen with Loxley.
Besides Estina and Check In, there are three horses owned by Joelle: Vesper Lynn, a mare by Va Vite (Heartbreaker); Dakota, a mare by Cardento, and Carique, by Carinjo. Completing the team is the extremely pretty grey New Zealand-bred Franks Road (Lansing) owned by Sam, her mum Penny Stevenson and Mitch Plaw.
It’s a small team, which suits Sam, who says her key to coaxing the best out of horses is getting to know their characters and capabilities intimately. “I like to have time to do them properly, so if I want to go in the forest for an hour with a horse, I can do that. Or sometimes they might need riding twice, if you’re working through a particular issue.”
So it’s not a case of 20 minutes in draw reins, then?
“Not so much,” she smiles wryly. “I don’t like rushing them through just to get numbers done. For me it’s more about quality than quantity.”
Since returning to Europe, Sam says there’s been a ‘slow progression’ going on with her horses. “It all comes down to horse power,” she explains. “The sport has moved forward in leaps and bounds since I was last there, so I’m playing catch-up a little bit. There are more riders and tougher competition. You can have a 1.60m Grand Prix with 60 horses in it, and probably 45 of them could win it. It’s hard and fast and there is no getting a ribbon for rails down. You can jump double clear rounds at full speed and you might only place 11th or 12th. The courses are super-technical now, because there are just so many good horses.”
Growing up with horses
Samantha’s stylishness over a fence was probably inherited – she’s the daughter of two top show jumpers, Penny Stevenson and Colin McIntosh. Colin represented New Zealand at the Seoul Olympics and Penny also jumped to Grand Prix level.
Sam (42) was born in Kaikohe, and says there was always a pony in the paddock, but she was never pushed; the decision to ride was entirely hers. “Growing up in those days without too many TV channels or ipads you spent more time outside than inside, so the chances are you’d probably go out and ride more than anything else,” she recalls.
“I was always keen, but I wasn’t very bold when I was smaller. I don’t think I ever jumped in a pony Grand Prix. I did have one little thought that I might go eventing when I was on ponies, and it was all fun and games until people kept overtaking me on the cross-country and I realised it was probably not my thing! I moved on to horses when I was 14 because it seemed logical and I bought a few ex-racehorses off the track and played around with them for a few years.”
The opportunity to ride in Europe first came about through a close family friend, Marianne Kessler, from Switzerland. At 17, Sam headed overseas, basing herself with Marianne initially, and then later working for Thomas Fuchs and Marcus Mandli. Thomas is still a good friend and Sam calls on him occasionally for a bit of training and advice if needed.
Sam says her technique is a bit of a mixture – not totally forward-seat in the American style, but not totally European, either. “I thing it’s a result of my Kiwi upbringing and lots of years in Germany, as well as being a female. I can’t ride a big, slow, cold horse or ride a horse with its head stuck to its chest. I try not to ride through strength – it’s just finding your own system that works for you.
“I did start off doing a lot of show hunter in the early days on my ponies, so that probably gave me a good base, plus being around my parents was a big help. You see that a lot nowadays, with the children of international riders, they are just incredible – 16-year-olds winning Grands Prix and riding like 25-year-olds. Their careers are super-managed and they are pushed and put on the right horses, so they basically have no backward experiences along the way.”
From Kiwi to Bulgarian and back
When Sam was in her early 20s, she made a brave decision to change her nationality to follow her dream. Sam was working for Gunter Orschel’s stable in Aach, Germany, as he put together Bulgaria’s first international show jumping team, aiming for the Sydney Olympics – but first he had to persuade Sam to take Bulgarian nationality.
The decision caused Sam much anguish, but it allowed her to compete at all the major championships. “In the years I rode for Bulgaria, I was on top of the sport, just driving from big show to big show. We had really fancy horses and the money to campaign them – it was a great time.”
Eventually, the arrangement came to its natural conclusion and the horses were sold. Sam left the Orschels’ yard amicably, and returned to ride for New Zealand. When she came home a few years later, she was starting from scratch without a top horse and thought she’d be based back in Cambridge permanently. She relished the chance to work with young horses and to teach, neither of which she’d had much time for in the past.
“There is a gutsy, talented little bunch of kids here – they astounded me with their courage,” she says. “It’s nice to see a few of my former students going on to jump in Grands Prix and win classes. Kiwi riders grow up hooning around and looking after their own horses, so they learn a bit more horsemanship early on,” Sam says. “I do think it’s an advantage, although there comes a time when education needs to run parallel to that.”
After just three years back home though, Sam was ready to tackle the international scene again. “I think everyone has to choose the path that’s best for them and for me that’s to be in Europe. If you want to get on top of the game, you need to be in it. It’s another world. That’s not being derogatory about the sport in New Zealand – but it’s just an island, with the same horses and the same riders every week. Over there, you can go to a different country for a show every week and have different horses and riders to compete against.”
It’s hard work with a lot of driving, and pretty much seven days a week intense labour, but Sam is happy with her decision. “I think horses are hard work wherever you are, if you want to do it properly – that’s how it is.”
Sam’s rather relaxed and pragmatic personality has clearly served her well in the cut-throat world of international show jumping, where she’s had top horses sold out from underneath her more than once. She’s uncomplaining, and grateful to her owners, both past and current. Speaking about the sale of her former top horse Fleche Rouge to Holland, reportedly for a record sum, Sam shrugs. “She was a real championship horse, a machine. It was horrible to lose her, but it is part of it all – it wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last. Horses become worth too much money and the risk is too high. You get to a point where you have to be serious about it.”
A bit of give and take
Sam seems able to get the best out of tricky horses and her mare Estina was a talented but somewhat unruly individual when Sam took over the ride five years ago. Sam always admired the mare’s character, although it was a long road to establish communication! Now, says Sam, she is one of the sweetest horses to have around.
“She’s a difficult little thing, but she’s brave and very tough,” says Sam. “I had plenty of rounds where I had to go out just to school, not to win classes, to make progress and she’s still a brat in the practice ring. She’s not afraid of other horses, but she just doesn’t like it, so now I warm her up without jumping – we basically just trot and canter around and go in the ring. It’s pretty funny, but if I do the practice jump, she’s all over the place.
“It’s just about getting to know the horse’s character, where you can push and where you can’t. Sometimes you need to be the boss, but sometimes you need to let them be the boss. It’s a compromise. I don’t try to dominate the horses that don’t want to be dominated, but I try to find a path towards the same goal.”
You are very stylish – do you like fashion?
I think most girls do! I do like nice things, but I’m also happy to rummage around in the garden and get muddy and I go into town in shorts and jandals as well. I’m lucky because I’ve been sponsored by Animo for close to 10 years. I was one of their first sponsored riders and they’ve stuck with me all the way through, no matter where I’ve been in the world.
What’s your career highlight?
If I had to pick one it would have been the WEG in Aachen, because riding into the stadium under floodlights, with 60,000 people, the air was just electric. But there have been heaps of amazing shows – there is probably a list as long as your arm of highlights and a list as long as your arm of lowlights on the contra side of it!
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
Good horses getting sold has been the worst thing, as it sets you back a few years in your career each time and takes you off the path that you might be on. I would also say the years away from home as well, but that goes hand in hand with being able to go to great shows.
How would you describe yourself as a rider?
I’m pretty relaxed. I definitely have the competitive streak, but I try to balance it out with being able to produce the horses. Horses need time and mileage. I’ve been lucky that the owners I’ve had most of my life have just let me produce the horses and when I think they’re ready then we go out and try to win.
Do you think New Zealand-bred horses are on a par with European horses?
There is no reason why they can’t be – for as long as my career has been going there have been New Zealand horses that have gone and done great stuff overseas, gone to the Olympics and won Grands Prix, and they were just good old Gisborne-breds. The problem is the top end of the pool here keeps getting depleted by horses getting sold and riders going away.
What do you do when you’re not doing horses?
Wash and sleep! Horses are pretty much most of what I do – I really love riding. I still enjoy going away and I used to enjoy going skiing when I lived close to the mountains and seeing bits of different sports.
Do you do anything else to keep fit?
Not really, but there are always bags of feed to carry and boxes to muck out and maintenance around the stables. I keep myself pretty busy.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
What’s your favourite food and drink?
A nice glass of south Otago pinot noir. I like all sorts of food, so nothing in particular: I like sushi, Italian, salad out of the garden and the odd meat pie!
Who is your favourite horse, past or present, not in your stable?
Molly Malone, the grey that the young Irish guy Bertram Allen has been doing so well on. He’s taken the world by storm and I think his mare is fantastic – she just gets the job done.