Geoff Billington: producing horses, never giving up and keeping fit in the bedroom

  • This week’s showjumping guest editor, Geoff Billington, discusses being the wrong shape, his allergy to horses and still riding aged 61…

    Q: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

    A: Well apart from ‘don’t ever eat yellow snow’, it would have to be to never give up — something John Whitaker always stands by. You would rarely see John retiring a horse in the arena; if he’s paid the entry fee he will make the most of it.

    Q: What is the most common issue you come across when teaching?

    A: I hate seeing riders blame their horse when it is the rider’s fault — as a rider you have to be honest with yourself. If I’m teaching and it is something I see I will always pull the rider up on it. Usually horses will do something wrong for a reason — in general horses want to please. If you have a good horse and things suddenly start going wrong, you need to sit back and think what your horse is trying to tell you. It is important to listen to your horse.

    Q: I am on the search for a showjumper, what do you look for in a horse?

    A: The three things I mainly look for are scope, carefulness and temperament. I often prefer blood horses — I’ve only got little stumps for legs so I can’t be needing to kick too much! I always take an interest in the horse’s breeding and who it is sired by as I believe you can tell a lot about a horse’s temperament by the stallion. My final decision would not be swung by who the stallion is, but it is always worth looking at.

    Q: I’ve just bought a young horse to bring on myself. How do you produce your young showjumpers?

    A: Always teach the horse to jump well first before running it fast against the clock. A young horse should be able to go in a nice rhythm and good balance — then at the end of the day, if he doesn’t turn out to be much good you’ve still got a nice horse to ride and can probably sell easily. If you buy a horse who has been produced by a professional, it will always have been trained correctly.

    Q: What is your favourite British venue and why?

    A: Indoor it would have to Olympia — the count down to Christmas makes the atmosphere unbeatable. I was also hugely impressed with the new Liverpool show, which had a similar feel and was a great New Year party — it is a show that will get better and better.
    My favourite outdoor show is definitely Hickstead. Having won the Derby there in 2007 and ridden in numerous Nations Cups there, I have a lot of happy memories at the venue. It is not an easy arena to ride in — with undulations — but I’ve been riding there since I was 15, so I know it well.

    Continued below…

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    Q: Who is the best horse you have ever ridden?

    A: Without doubt It’s Otto was the best horse I’ve ever ridden — he had an abundance of scope, was very brave and wanted to do the job. He took me to two Olympics, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, plus World and European Championships. He was put down in 2009 aged 23 and is buried at home with us.
    More recently, it would be a horse called Upper Cut, who I rode from 2010 until 2014 when he retired. He would give you everything he had and had a huge heart. He probably jumped fences he wasn’t supposed to be capable of jumping — he was an out and out trier.

    Q: Which rider do you most admire?

    A: I have grown up with the likes of John and Michael Whitaker, Nick Skelton and Robert Smith and I will always continue to admire them. But out of the modern day showjumpers, it would have to be both Scott Brash and Ben Maher — they are the ultra professionals. I also have huge respect for Austrian rider Hugo Simon, who is still competing aged 73!

    Q: How did you first getting into showjumping?

    A: My parents were not into horses, but when I was about six my dad sat me on a pony in a field one day, then I started going to the local riding school aged nine. Once I was there I saw the girl to boy ratio and that was me hooked! Once I had left school, all I wanted to do was horses — I have no idea why because I get really bad hay fever and I’m actually allergic to horses. I started out as a groom for Joe Pullen. I then started picking up more rides on his horses — including Talk Of The North, who I made my first British team appearance on aged 19.

    Q: What is your best achievement in your showjumping career?

    A: Having ridden at the Olympics and on the British team rank highly and it is nice to have the history to look back on and the great memories. However, my latest achievement would have to be still being able to ride competitively aged 61.

    Q: Are there any elements of your riding you’ve always had to work hard on?

    A: Yes, because I have always been completely the wrong shape for a showjumper! Someone once told me I looked like an upside down triangle — short legs and a belly. I’ve never dieted or done any other exercise (apart from having plenty of sex!) and I do like a drink — but I think I am lucky and have good natural balance on a horse.

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