For the joy of horses

At age 77, New Zealand's Joy Oliver is the oldest event rider in the world to still be competing at 95cm level

Joy and Cool Jazz competing at Hunua (Image: Libby Law)

There’s a familiar sight on cross-country day at horse trials around the northern circuit in New Zealand. Wearing her trademark black-and-white stripes, a rider almost guaranteed to come home clear, bang under time, with a huge smile on her face, and a big pat for her lovely grey thoroughbred.

It’s not until she takes her helmet off that you might notice there’s something a little different about Joy Oliver. At 77 years old, she is officially the oldest rider in the world to still be eventing at 95cm level. And as anyone who knows Joy knows for sure – she’s not just there to make up the numbers. She’s still fiercely competitive; she and 19-year-old Cool Jazz are frequently in the top five or six in their class.

Joy and Grady at home in Tauranga (image: Ross Brown)

Dressage is not really their forte, but in good, old-fashioned Kiwi eventing style, Joy and her beloved ‘Grady’ only very rarely have a jumping or cross-country penalty.

The pair of them are treasured by the eventing community, and Joy says the sense of family and camaraderie in the sport that is one of the reasons she keeps coming back.

“I love the fact that I can compete on equal terms with people young enough to be my grandchildren… or even great-grandchildren,” she says. “But it’s the social side I really love. I’ve met people from all sorts of occupations that I would never have met if it wasn’t for horses.

“I love how we all sit around in the trucks in the evenings together, drinking wine and telling stories, and if something does happen, we all rally around and help each other.”

Sharing a moment with Grady at Te Rapa (Image: www.takethemoment.co.nz)

Though Joy competed to Intermediate in the past, and had some 1.05m level runs with Grady a few seasons ago, she is very happy now at 95cm.

“I don’t feel I have to win, but I do like to do reasonably well,” she says. “I’ve got no desire to go higher again; it’s just as big a buzz to go around clear as it ever was.

“I’m enjoying it: I’ve done five three-day events, I’ve got as far as Intermediate, and now it’s just pure pleasure. Besides, I’ve still got 80cm and 65cm level to look forward to!”

The ever-modest Joy says she’s not really aware of her icon status among her fellow riders. “But if I can inspire people to keep going or to take it up again, I’d be very happy.”

Joy and Grady doing what they do best (Image: Kampic)

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though; Joy has had two major health problems in recent years, overcoming bowel cancer in 2016 and then a heart valve replacement, which left her unable to compete for 17 months. 

But horses, of course, were part of the journey back to health. “They give me motivation,” she says. “If you live on your own, they’re a reason to get up in the morning and get on with it.”

Joy takes care of her 10-acre block on the outskirts of Tauranga more or less single-handedly; as well as Grady and his retired paddock mate Hal, she has sheep, a few cattle and pigs.

A lifetime with horses

Joy was riding by the age of three on the family farm in the Wairarapa, where draught horses were used rather than tractors. She and her siblings rode more than 5km each way to school and back, and as floats or horse trucks were unheard of back then, Joy would ride along the roads to the local sports days to compete, and would even trek around 45km to Masterton to stay with her uncle in order to go to pony club rallies.

Riding to Sunday School on one of the farm hacks as a toddler (image supplied)
A young Joy on Fernhill Robin (image: supplied)

“It was safe back then,” she says. “Everybody had a lot more animal sense.”

The family farm was in rugged country, so simply doing the stock work kept the horses fit and no doubt contributed hugely to Joy’s own balance and seat as a rider. “We had no flats – it was all hills. And we’d find logs and ditches and banks to jump, that was our cross-country training on the farm.”

Joy started eventing in her mid teens, and competed at the Pony Club Teams Eventing Champs in 1956 and 1958; at the latter, her Wairarapa team was third while Joy was fourth individually in the DC class. “In those days, the faster you went on cross-country, the more bonus points you got,” she recalls with a grin. 

After leaving school, Joy took a break from horses; she joined the Air Force as a driver, became an officer, and shifted frequently, including working in Australia for more than a year. She felt she couldn’t do justice to horses during this period of her life: “I don’t see the point if you don’t have the time to put into them.”

But the love of riding never, ever went away. In 1985, Joy was living in Tauranga and her 65-year-old aunt invited her to join her on a trek to Gisborne.

“We had a horse each, and a pack horse, and rode 20km a day, staying in woolsheds at night. It took us six weeks to get to Gisborne and back.”

And that was it, Joy was hooked again. Her first horse as a returning adult rider in her 40s was a half-TB, half-pony named Charlie Brown. She joined the local adult ride and did a bit of hunting, all in a stock saddle, “and then I really started to get back into it.”

She teamed up with her first real eventer, Lawson, when he was rising eight. “He wasn’t pretty, but he was the sort of horse that had presence. He made you look again,” she says. 

They started horse trialling together, and at each level, when it started to feel easy, they’d move up to the next grade. Joy did her first three-day event at Pukekohe at the age of 50, she and Lawson finishing in 20th place in the Novice class.

Joy and Lawson into the water at the Pukekohe Three-day Event (image: supplied)

Lawson ended up graded Intermediate on points, under the old system, and they had a few starts at that level, but when he began to struggle with a bog spavin (hock inflammation) they moved back to the Open Novice classes.

“He was 20 when I finally retired him – his vision was going a bit,” says Joy. But the much-loved Lawson had pride of place on her property until his death six years ago, aged 29.

Joy’s next horse was a TB called Just Beau: “He was quite good but only jumped when he wanted to” and after that she had Jock. “I fell off him and broke both my arms. He wasn’t that suitable really, but it didn’t put me off!” 

A small committee of friends then helped Joy choose her next horse, Hal, who was half thoroughbred and out of a pony mare, and the pair formed a great partnership. “I’d only just bought him when we decided to go the 50th jubilee of the pony club eventing champs, in Palmerston North, so he had to learn to be an eventer in about three months.”

Champs that year included a Masters division: “We had a ball riding in our team of geriatrics!”

But eventually Hal became unsound, so it was time to look for another horse: enter Grady.

The 15.3hh TB by Flying Pegasus was then rising 10, and although a former racehorse might not be the first choice of mount for a rider nearly 70, he and Joy clicked immediately. They have now clocked up more than 50 events together, finishing in the top 10 in 35 of them. 

“There’s only been five I haven’t finished – twice from falling off, one from a missed jump, one from jumping the wrong jump, and just once I withdrew because it was so wet.”

Age is but a number

We contacted the National Federations of the major eventing nations to ask the age of the oldest current registered rider, and what level they were competing at:

Australia: Vivien Fuller of South Australia turns 70 this year, and competes at 95cm level.

Great Britain: The oldest rider is 69, competing at 90cm level

USA: The oldest rider is a man aged 77, competing at 90cm level

  • This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. June-July 2019 is out now everywhere great magazines are sold