You’ve had some massive highs and massive lows over the last decade. An Olympic medal at London, winning multiple Burghleys and then Badminton.. but also your serious fall, and the fallout with Equestrian Sport New Zealand. That’s a pretty big emotional roller coaster. How do you cope with that?
There’s always more bad times than good, and I’ve always been able to pick myself up and carry on. You’ve got to make the most of the very good times when you’ve got them, because you know there’s going to be some very bad times too.
Badminton, obviously winning that was the highlight of your career. Did it seem like that win was never going to happen?
I was very near to it a few times, and in my mind I was probably thinking my days of winning, especially with the injury, were over. It was amazing. When you live in England you realise Badminton is a unique competition, I still have English people come up to me and tell me, well done at Badminton. Even when I won Burghley with Avebury for the third time in a row, a month later, it’s history. But Badminton’s magic, it gets to a bigger audience.
It was the first event I ever went to, when I came to England. I asked Toddy if he needed a groom, and he went on to win it. I thought it was very easy, you just turn up with your horse and win it just like Mark had done. A hundred years later I find out it’s not so easy.
You had what was it, 36 or 37 goes at it?
There were a lot more goes than what they say. The ones I add up are only the times I finished. There’s a lot I didn’t finish and I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many of those there are!
Did you do anything different the time you won?
I’ve been working with the German event riders, walking cross-country with them at big events, and Badminton was the first time I did this. I must say I did feel a bit of a twerp sitting in the press tent with Ingrid [Klimke] and Michael Jung in front of me, and no-one had cottoned on until Ingrid told them all I’d walked the course with them. I think the press thought she was joking. It was good. I like being involved with the riders. They give me a lot of respect. To walk a cross-country course at an event like that with Michael Jung and Ingrid and have them come and tell me where they are jumping each jump, they want to know what I’m doing, and then to watch Michael and he’s changed his mind on two of the fences and doing it the way I’ve done it, you get a big buzz out of that. Even though I’m riding and he’s the main danger… and so then to win it, and win it in the show jumping, was amazing.
What was going on in your head in that show jumping warm-up?
It’s very much you’ve got to do your bit and stick to your game plan. The show jumping coach for ESNZ, Luis Alvarez Cervera, was my man, I got him the job with them, and since I had my problem with ESNZ he said he would resign, but I told him don’t be crazy, it’s a good job and it’s worth a lot of money. He wanted to help me as well but I didn’t want him to be torn left and right so I got a mate of mine Stephen Smith, the son of Harvey Smith to help. He has a system and we’ve been running through that system. He barely said anything to me in the warm-up. He’s not the sort of man anyone would mess with, nobody bullies him off the practice jump, and it makes it all an easy smooth thing.
What would be your advice for riders new to Badminton?
Self-belief. You have to really believe in yourself. I’ve never had lots of lessons. In the beginning, I didn’t have the money to pay for them and besides, I always think I’d be a very difficult pupil, even now. You have to be confident in what you’re doing, even if you’re doing it wrong. You’re better off to be doing it wrong but positively, and then you know if something’s not working – try this other thing. I’ve gone through my career watching other riders.You try to pick up different things. I think copy-learning is how I learn best.
I see the younger riders now and they’re lost without their trainers. At the end of the day, when you walk into the start box, you’re on your own. When you go into the dressage arena, you’re on your own.
Nowadays you even see the trainer take the earpiece off them as they head over to the dressage arena and at the show jumping warmup to send them into the ring. And the coach has been counting strides for them at the practice fence. That’s like having a little kiddy with the bicycle training wheels on it and taking the training wheels off and saying now go onto the motorway and see how you get on. But that’s the modern world, isn’t it?
So what makes a good student?
Someone who really tries.
What are you like as a coach?
I don’t coach a lot, but I’ve always had working pupils. Some of them have gone on to win gold medals. I think they learn more about life in general and making a living out of horses here. The majority of the ones who have carried on make a living out of being event riders, and that’s hard to do. They don’t come from wealthy backgrounds.
Even Jonty Evans, he worked for me for two years and I told him to go off on his own. He wasn’t confident to do it, but I told him at least you’ll find out and then if you can’t make a living, you go and be the accountant your father wants you to be. I feel very proud of them when I see them out there. They may not be winning everything that’s going, but they’re surviving and they’re doing something they’re passionate about, which in life, now that I’m a bit older, I appreciate.
Who have you been most inspired by?
Mohammad Ali. I used to just love listening to him talk before his fights. In his early days, I used to listen to his chat beforehand on the radio, and the way he used to be able to back it up in the ring was unbelievable. I said this to a journalist once before, when I competed with Nereo at the World Games in Kentucky in 2010, in the men’s toilets, they had lots of little sayings and I found those were very, very helpful. There were three lines of the sayings on the wall, things like, “It’s not what you do today, it’s what you’ve done all the days before.” Those sorts of things. I did think of nicking them…I could have picked the three of them up and carried them out, but no, I refrained.
Has anything changed in your riding and training since your accident?
I’m nowhere near as strong in my arms, and I’m not as strong in my legs, but that evens out. I know I’m not as strong, I used to be able to ride some horses that would pull pretty hard, those ones, maybe they would be all right with me now, I’m not sure. I did give a couple of my horses to Oliver Townend that I found they were feeling a bit too strong for me, and their technique was a bit too jarring for me.
Does your surgeon consider that you’ve got a fully recovery?
Yeah, for what I had, as far as he’s concerned. He comes to some of my events now. I’ve had a couple of decent falls too, since then. After that one with Qwanza at Burghley, he texted me: ‘I see you’ve still trying to test out my handiwork’. Why she tried to do one stride in a two-stride distance, I don’t know. And she’s only little. When I felt her leave the ground, I thought for a moment it was going to be a lot worse than it was.
So you’ll just keep going?
It’s tough for my family. Very, very tough. Most people wouldn’t realise. A lot of people think that I just chipped a bone in my neck or something and it just had to heal. It wasn’t quite like that. I’m probably very selfish to be riding, actually. But they understand I still feel like I’m good at what I do. I feel it’s important in life that you do things when you can.
And you don’t have any problems motivating yourself to get out of bed and ride 10 or 15 horses?
That side of it is as easy as can be, though I have cut down on the number of horses I have.
I’m lucky to be able to get up in the mornings and have a job I absolutely love doing, whereas a lot of people get up in the mornings and fight with the traffic to go to an office that they don’t really want to go to. I have no problem getting up in the morning and riding all day long.
But the driving, I find hard work now. I don’t go to as many events. I’m nearly just as happy to stick in England to be honest. It’s probably my age more than anything. I don’t feel I have to be chasing world ranking points.
That goal of an individual title, Olympic or World Champion…?
That’s gone. Well and truly gone.
Yet you stay motivated? Do you think that comes from the way you were brought up in New Zealand?
it was never really drilled into us, but we all work really hard. You don’t have to be ‘motivated’ to do it. When something needs to be done you just get on and do it. It’s not going to do itself.
I’ve always been self-motivated. I came to England when I was 18 and I worked at racing stables and rode horses at lunch time. I didn’t need someone to tell me to work that one hard, I wanted to get the results. I took whatever I was given to ride, and made the most of it. You have to be determined to make it work.
Where you homesick to start with in England?
I hated it. Hated everything. It was February, it was freezing cold, I knew no-one. But I couldn’t leave, as had spent all my money getting this horse over there, and I had to sell it first. The crazy thing was it was a five-year-old I’d got off the racetrack, it had never evented, and I hadn’t been cross-country jumping on it. And I took it to England as an event horse. Now I think about it, it was just crazy. If one of my children had come up with that hare-brained idea, I’d say, are you off your head? Putting all my money into flying this horse to the other side of the world to be an event horse. But it ended up being good! I sold it, and it went to Holland and ended up representing Holland at the European Champs a few years later.
And you stayed?
Well I came back here first. The man I was working for, Stanley Powell, said to me, if you go back to New Zealand, after a month you’ll want to come back. I said no way. But sure enough, I think it was three weeks, and I changed my mind. Two months later I was back in England again with another horse.
You stopped hating it?
It took me four years to stop hating it. The breakthrough came in the fourth year, when I stayed for the whole winter, and learned to cope with the cold a bit more. You start to realise the weather isn’t that bad and you wean yourself off the homesick bit.
Do your children ride?
Lily is doing events that I’m in sometimes, she’s got a very smart pony. Wiggy teaches her. She looks very very good, and the other professional riders come and watch her and that’s quite touching when you see very good riders hear her name on the loudspeaker and make an effort to come and watch. She rides Quanza and Jet Set at home, and she can make them look very smart on the flat.
And Zach, he wants to be an All Black. He rides as well. But his biggest worry is that he’s frightened the New Zealand selectors won’t notice him. That’s what he told us, he figures he needs to come out here when he’s 15 to be spotted. He plays at school, he’s in a good team… he’s obsessive with it. I played when I was young, but then the riding took over, because I could make money out of it.
Are there any thoughts about moving back to New Zealand or having a place here?
We’re looking for an estate… we thought perhaps a golf course that we could develop into an equestrian place! Haha no, while we’re doing what we are doing in England, it’s the place to be for that. Long term, when I finish competing, it’s a possibility. The children seem to like New Zealand, Wiggy likes it… but we’re not looking to buy places at the moment.
I don’t know how much more there is to say about the whole Team NZ debacle. You’ve obviously made peace with it though. But have you met the new High Performance manager Graeme Thom?
I’d met him years ago. He did come and speak to me after about a month in the job. He was very keen to meet up with me but I didn’t want to waste his time until he had the full facts, and I wanted his assurance that he was the boss. In the beginning he told me he was the boss, but I said I disagreed, and best he found out. He had to come back to me and say he wasn’t the boss, he was the third in line so I said, now there’s no use you talking to me. And then oddly enough, he then resigned just after that! And now he’s got himself back in there. I say hello to him at competitions but that’s as far as it goes.
What do you think about the recent changes to the Olympic format, such as three members to a team with no drop score?
I think that’s the way forward. What other sport at an Olympic Games can someone perform and not actually finish? Can one of the relay swimmers sink to the bottom and still win a medal? It’s always seemed very odd to me. Surely a team event is a team event. When one is a disregarded score, there are no team tactics. Now with this new way, team management will have to do their job. And the competitors are going to have to listen to them. If you have three of the best riders in the world in your team, and they know they all have to get round, and the time is very difficult to get int the cross-country, what are those three riders going to do? Are they going to get around at speed and risk a run-out, or get time faults that may cost them an individual medal, but might get them a team medal? They’re going to have to make a decision. To me, that’s what a team event is. Look at London, five riders and two disregarded scores – that was a Mickey Mouse show.
I think there are far too many people on the payroll in management, at least now they are going to have to do something at the cutting edge of it.
Five quick questions
Your best horse: Nereo
Your biggest achievement: winning Badminton
Your best quality: Communicating with people. Haha. No? Okay, my best quality is being happy to work.
Your biggest goal: To enjoy every day.
Your biggest regret: Riding Cillnabradden Evo at Gatcombe [where he had the accident]. Going so fast at that last fence. I shouldn’t have been riding that horse, it was a bad horse. I mean it was a winner, but it could also fall and every single time it fell it was bad. So it was the law of averages really, you don’t always get away with it. And also I was going very fast. I did go through a stage of going a bit too quick, to be sure.
- This article was first published in the January 2018 issue of NZ Horse & Pony