I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog for the Horse & Hound website for the 2018 season. It’s probably the only time in my life I’ve been excited to be asked to write a number of words — it certainly wasn’t something I’d have done willingly when I was at school. However, I’m genuinely looking forward to keeping you up to date with everything throughout the year.
For the lucky ones that don’t know much about me, I’ve ridden quite a few horses in my time and was lucky enough to win a silver medal at the Young Rider Europeans in Austria in 2002 and finished 13th individually at the Senior Europeans at Blenheim in 2005. All of that was on board my old coloured horse, Park Pilot, or Zippy as he’s known at home, who my parents bred. He’s happily retired now in his 20s at home and he owes me nothing as he made my career and gave me my team call ups. I’ve ridden around Badminton and Burghley six times and completed my first Burghley when I was 18-years-old which seems like rather a long time ago now.
My parents were good horse people and did it professionally so it was inevitable that it would be a career choice for me to follow suit in. I’ve always been fiercely competitive from a young age too and just wanted to win anything and everything, no matter how big or small, which also helped. I think I’d have died trying to win an egg and spoon race. This clearly hasn’t changed that much — I had a close shave with cardiac arrest when I was that determined to win the dad’s race at my daughter’s school sports day a couple of years ago.
For those of you that do know me or have heard the rumours, yes, I was the one that got sent lots of horses that had usually been in the naughty corner at some point in their lives for various reasons. And if I was to describe myself when I was younger, I was probably like 95% of the horses I got sent put together — either bred to do it, had plenty of ability but ungenuine or just not very submissive. Little did I realise as I got older, all I needed was what they did. Having a sense of right and wrong and learning the simple fact that if you just behave yourself, life is so much easier and people are so much nicer to you.
A lot of people think I’m quite hard on horses to make them turn corners. But the truth is my horses actually have a very easy life. I don’t school my horses often, they hack a lot and will often jump ditches and natural obstacles while they are out hacking. They find that far more educational than going round in circles 24/7. The days I do go in the school, I have an objective and if I achieve it within 20 minutes I’ll give them a pat and put them out in the field or back to bed. People have gone mad with having lesson after lesson, week in, week out or going schooling. Yes three-, four- and five-year-olds need the education and experience of going out and about to see things, but once they are at a level, the foundations should be built on at home.
Since 2013/14, life has been much quieter for me on the eventing front. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had to undergo treatment for a while. I couldn’t be as competitive as I always had been — at some events I felt that bad I was struggling to breathe around the cross-country. Some of the treatment I was on didn’t help me with my weight either so I got very self-conscious about that. Most of the top horses I had at the time were reaching retirement point through old age or old injuries, which as many people know in horses, is depressing enough anyway. I had reached a very low career point which felt like a black hole for a long time. You certainly work out who your real friends are in those times though, that’s for sure. You learn who’s rowing with you and who’s drilling holes in the boat and trying to rock it.
2017 has been one of the most significant years in my life so far because I actually found contentment which was the starting point to me getting better in so many ways. I always needed the adrenaline rush before. I got that either from eventing, winning or other things that I probably shouldn’t have been doing. This messed me up for a long time.
Having children changed everything for me and made me realise that there was so much more to life, and I got my adrenaline and happiness just from being a father. Doing the school runs or taking my daughter to gymnastics and swimming or my son pony riding was where I found the most satisfaction I’d ever had. I want to be a good father and husband and that is my main goal in life now and will be for the rest of my life. It doesn’t matter to me now if I have a bad ride, bad day or if something goes wrong. When I walk back in through the front door, I shut the day behind me and I have my family around me who keep me in a very good place.
When I got good news health-wise it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I don’t think the fear of the word cancer ever goes away though. But with this in mind and me generally just being in a much better place mentally and in life, I got my competitiveness back. I knew I wanted to ride at top level again so I gave myself a good kick up the arse to want to get some horses running back up the levels.
Fortunately I have some great loyal owners who have supported me for a long time in Sir John Peace and Charlotte Cole. I owe an awful lot to them. Sir John and my mother-in-law Christine have always tried to mentor me in the best way they could and have helped me a lot over the years. Charlotte has been the same and always trusted my judgment whenever I have approached her with potential new horses. Between them they have some very exciting horses for the future. I am also extremely fortunate to have some exciting new owners join the team who have some talented young horses that I can’t wait to produce through the levels. Plus I will continue to ride for my other owners who have supported me by giving me the chance to ride their lovely horses. I’m very lucky to have the support of so many great people and you couldn’t wish for a nicer bunch of people.
Having a good team of people at home is crucial too. I think I’m actually lucky in this day and age to find such a good bunch of staff. I have two guys who do a lot of the physical work around the yard — they can fix things, drive the tractor and are also good with the horses. I’ve got a girl who has worked for my family for nearly 20 years that is great with the horses on the floor and another girl who can lunge, hack and brush them all properly. My working rider Alex Hill is a decent jockey too which makes a huge difference. She’s been dealt some pretty tough hands in life and deserves a break so she will help to compete some of the horses this year and try and build a career for herself eventing.
I’ve got a great team of sponsors behind me this year. Some of them like TRM and Devoucoux have supported me for many years and Fairfax & Favor, Eurobale and Bomber Bits have kindly offered me their support for the future too. I’m looking forward to working with all of them this year and am pleased to have supporters on board.
The younger horses have stayed in work over the winter while the older ones had a holiday in the field — some with us at the yard at home and some of the others went home for the winter to spend some time with their owners. It was great fun turning eight old advanced horses out in a field together all by myself, much to the horror of the girls on the yard. As they were all so sceptical about the idea, I thought it best just to crack on and get the job done while they were all preoccupied.
Having survived, they came back in between Christmas and New Year to start getting fit. It was as eventful bringing them back in as it was turning them out after I had yet again another bright idea. Considering most of them decided they were now feral after a couple of months out, my chances of them just following me in while leading one of them back to the yard were slim. They decided to wish some of the residents of the village a happy New Year first by paying them a visit to their back gardens. All was good after delivering a few bottles of wine later.
The young ones thought they’d also had a few months holiday after a few easy days over Christmas and New Year. They seemed to have had their own competition going on to see who could bury me first when landing from a fence or trying to jump me clean out the saddle. Again all was fine for me after a trip to the chiropractor.
Fundraising is also going to be a big part of 2018 for me. People have always helped me along the way, so I really wanted to give something back. At the same time it was also important to me to raise awareness of testicular and male cancers along with depression and mental health issues. The number of people suffering is constantly on the rise and is not something people openly want to talk about, especially men. I think it’s important people know that there’s help out there should they need it. For that reason, all prize money I win during this season is being donated to two charities; Orchid-Cancer and Mind. Even though I didn’t expect the fundraising to start until the spring, Janette Baker, the owner of two lovely dressage horses my wife Victoria and I have had in for schooling since last year, very kindly offered to donate all prize money won from their BD (British Dressage) winnings over the winter to the two chosen charities.
I was a little sceptical to say the least about doing dressage over the winter. I was dragged by Victoria kicking and screaming at first and I think people were also actually shocked to see me out there doing it. My stipulation was that the venue had to have a good canteen and an indoor if I was to do it in December, but to be honest, I actually enjoyed it and it was good for the horse I’ve been riding. He has been a bit misunderstood in his time so we have a mutual understanding.
For me now, the next few months are about getting myself fit for the spring and shedding a few stone for various reasons that will be revealed later on. I’ve started the “If it looks good don’t eat it” diet and power plate training, which is hard work but all worth it in the long run. The horses are hacking too and will be going on the vibrating floor before their fitness work steps up a level.
I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year and I’m looking forward to you all getting to know me a little bit better. I’m hoping I can keep you entertained with this blog and share with you a true insight into the world of eventing and preparing event horses for different levels.