A late starter who took an unorthodox route into eventing, the five-star event rider’s life experiences nonetheless prepared him well. Pippa Roome meets him
Alex Bragg is proof that you don’t have to tread the beaten path through under-21 teams to make it as an event rider.
When his peers were collecting junior medals, he was an apprentice farrier and semi-professional rugby player. When they were taking tentative steps beyond the young rider bubble, he was a newly-wed with a baby on the way. When they were trying their first five-stars in their mid-twenties, he was unable to get a horse on the bit.
“I don’t think if you’d seen me ride 15 years ago, you’d ever have imagined I’d be going round a five-star – I was pretty bad,” he laughs. “I had these massive shoulders and neck, from playing rugby, and I rode like a silverback gorilla, going down the centre line with my elbows out.
“My wife Simmone and I spent hours out in the field, her trying to teach me how to get a horse soft. I’d just try to pull its head in – that’s what you did when you played rugby, you made stuff happen. She’d get on, wriggle the reins a bit and the horse would go beautifully. I’d get on and he’d look petrified.”
Fast forward 16 years and Alex, now 40, has been British reserve for two European Championships and is seventh in the world rankings.
There is luck in every story, but Alex’s success is surely largely down to the force of his character. He is friendly, eloquent and funny, but also a passionate team-builder and ultra motivated – “this whole ethos about trying to be a better person, trying to have a better life, trying to make our time here the best it possibly can be”, as he puts it, making this sound inspiring rather than cheesy.
He adds: “I guess it’s all because we’re just driven to be better. That’s always the thing I say to the children and our team – I’d rather you try something new and maybe make a mistake, than be afraid of failing and just stay still.
“Everyone has come along that journey together and I’m proud for all of us. That’s where our Team Bragg was born from. Coming from rugby, a team sport, I realised you can’t do everything by yourself.”
Alex’s father was a “huge horse enthusiast”.
“He’d go to the sales and buy the cheapest pony, because we had no money, and then we would try to ride it,” explains Alex, who tried mounted games – making it to Horse of the Year Show with the West Somerset branch of the Pony Club – and horseball.
“My dad’s passion was showjumping so he said, ‘Why don’t we have a go at that?’ So he bought this horse that was chucking everyone off and stopping. We got that one jumping quite well.
“Then we got offered other naughty horses, so Dad sort of pimped me out to fix people’s horses. I jumped some grands prix as a 14 or 15-year-old, which was great experience. We didn’t have much knowledge – it was more determination that got us there.”
Gradually, though, the shine wore off riding and Alex quit the sport.
“It’s a lot of pressure riding naughty horses all the time – it was such hard work and I just wasn’t really enjoying it.”
Alex Bragg: life as a farrier
Around the same time, the family’s farrier, Andy Manners, offered to take school-leaver Alex on as his apprentice.
“I loved being around horses, I enjoy being outside and I could potentially be my own boss, which was a great incentive,” says Alex. “I was very good at maths and science and could see myself going into engineering or architecture, but I’m so glad I became a farrier.”
Andy became a great friend – he was Alex’s best man – and the young apprentice learnt life skills.
“I was very shy as a young lad and driving round to different yards, meeting lots of people, brought me out of my shell,” Alex explains. “I learnt how to communicate, how to make that awkwardness when you first meet people disappear.
“That stood me in great stead for being my own boss, being successful in business, being braver about approaching potential owners and sponsors.”
Alex’s competitive instincts were met by rugby, with a busy schedule combining farriery and training, playing first at Clevedon and then in the Academy at Bristol.
“My body ached all the time, but I loved it,” he says. “I didn’t want to ride again or marry a horsey girl.”
That’s when fate intervened. Alex was shoeing on a DIY yard and had accumulated all the liveries except Simmone, who was stubbornly sticking to her old farrier.
“After 18 months of not wanting to speak to me, she offered me a cup of tea. We went out for a drink and three months later I asked her to marry me,” says Alex.
Life continued at “rocket fuel speed”. On 1 April, Alex returned from a long day of farriery to find Simmone had made dinner.
“She was not a great chef – she once tried to make cheese on toast by turning the toaster on its side and putting the bread and cheese in at the same time,” says Alex. “So I didn’t know how much food poisoning I might get.
“So I’m sitting at the table and she says, ‘I’ve got you a present.’ I open it and it’s a pregnancy test. I look at it and say, ‘Whose is this?’ And she says, ‘Of course it’s mine, who else would I get to wee on that and then give it to you as a gift?’ Because it’s 1 April, I’m like, ‘Is this serious?’”
She was. Ellouise was on her way and this led Alex back to riding because Simmone asked Alex to ride her eventer, Rothko, while she was pregnant. The field sessions followed and then Simmone suggested Alex ride Rothko in an event, a novice at Stockland Lovell.
“I’d never done cross-county and I loved it. I thought I was really fast, until I saw the video Simmone took of me doing a hack canter across the brow of the hill,” he says.
Two more daughters followed – Ellouise is now 16, Sienna 13 and Florence 10 – and they all ride.
“They’re different, but they’re all determined and very loving,” says Alex. “They’re so grown up, but they cry when we go away and when we come back – they come running up with arms open wide, crying their eyes out.
“We love having them around,” he adds. “Hopefully that relationship will continue forever because they’re really good people. We’re proud of them.”
Stepping up to be a professional event rider
THE jump from amateur to professional rider followed Alex’s first CCI3* (now CCI4*-L) at Blenheim 2009.
“I said to Simmone, ‘How are these people always at the top of the leaderboard?’ With a bit of research, I realised these guys are the ones with a team of horses, the professionals. So then I said, ‘We need to start a business.’
“We didn’t start a horse business because I wanted to work with horses for a living – I earned way more money as a farrier – but because I realised if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have enough time in the saddle to be competitive.”
Alex’s route had been unorthodox, but his experiences had fitted him for the job.
“You see so many talented people who never really achieve their best because they can’t handle pressure and I already knew how to deal with pressure,” he says.
“The business side is a priority and I had that experience with shoeing. If you get the business right, you have a foundation to build a solid team of horses to challenge at the top of the sport.
“Being good with numbers is very helpful, as is the mindset of maths and science. Every challenge needs a solution, whether it’s to do with horses or business.”
Alex has continually improved his Somerset base of 11 years, where facilities include an irrigated cross-country schooling field. The couple also lease a yard up the road which belongs to his top horse Zagreb’s owners, the Ellicotts, where his daughters’ mounts live and the Braggs have half a dozen liveries.
Philip and Sally Ellicott’s Zagreb (Rhett) is the stable superstar, with five top-five finishes at five-star. Bought when Sally and her mother wanted a horse with Alex while he was still an amateur, Zagreb has shown both class and the tolerance to put up with an inexperienced rider.
“He deserves all of the results he gets. He has such a lovely attitude, he’s so enthusiastic, so friendly, he’s got so much heart and spirit,” says Alex.
With Zagreb now 17, Alex has a string waiting behind him.
“Until you get to the top level, you don’t really know what it takes to be competitive there,” he says. “You look back at the horses we thought were amazing in the past and actually, they were amazing to achieve what they did. The talent we have now is phenomenal and you need that.”
King Of The Mill made his five-star debut at Pau and should suit Badminton and Burghley because he’s a “real galloper”. Then there are the four-star mares Hester and Quindiva, and Ardeo Premier was fourth in the Le Lion seven-year-old championships last autumn.
A senior championship is among Alex’s ambitions and, ultimately, to be world number one.
“To do that, you need a team of five-star horses and to be winning five-stars,” he says. “I’ve come fairly close a few times and if you keep putting yourself in the mix, one day it’s going to be your day.”
Alex Bragg: farrier, rugby player, father of three, five-star winner. It has a nice ring to it.
Ref: 21 January 2021
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