When 2020 took a nosedive, the British number one hit a low point. But after life-changing surgery and with some serious horsepower in his stable, Ben has Tokyo back in his sights, as Jennifer Donald finds out
“Be careful what you wish for,” says Ben Maher, reflecting on a tumultuous 2020 in this exclusive Horse & Hound interview. “I went from getting on a plane 50 weeks of the year, wishing I could get a day off at home, to suddenly being at home for 50 weeks!
“I now know that isn’t what I like to do, but maybe there’s a compromise.”
Ben chose to ride out the viral storm from his base in Florida and attended just a handful of North American shows last year.
But not even a pandemic could halt the meteoric success of the Olympic gold medallist and his wonder horse, Explosion W (Ginger), as he won the world’s richest prize, the $500,000 (£369,032) AIG grand prix in New York in September.
But this was in stark contrast to the previous year when Ben, who turns 38 this week, competed at more than 40 different shows in 16 countries across three continents. It’s little surprise that this arduous lifestyle had taken its toll.
“I’d had a couple of bad falls and in the end it catches up with you – 2019 was pretty heavy and I was struggling with my back a lot,” explains Ben.
“Riding wasn’t at all comfortable, but it was the best place to be. Through the European Championships in 2019 [where Ben won team bronze and individual silver], I struggled with simple things like putting my boots on and walking the course. You get tired of fighting that all the time.”
Back surgery was key
In January last year, Ben underwent life-changing surgery in the UK before returning to America, and the enforced downtime allowed him to recuperate fully ahead of what was supposed to be an Olympic year.
“I feel like a new person, it’s incredible,” reveals Ben, who credits the help he received from the World Class Programme funded by UK Sport and the National Lottery for physio Jennie Owst, who worked with him at shows before the operation and these days continues her therapy via Zoom.
“At times during 2019 I needed her help purely to be able to get on a horse,” explains Ben. “I was in the gym within about 10 days of the operation, building up my strength. Initially, I appreciated a few weeks off and some of my horses needed the rest, but by mid-February I was itching to go again. But when I got back in the saddle, I wasn’t ready; I felt good in myself, but I didn’t feel in balance with the horse. So I pushed myself to get ready to show, then Covid hit and everything stopped.
“Of course, that’s been frustrating for everybody. I’m disappointed that I lost the momentum I’d had with Explosion and, with a horse like that, you don’t want to miss a year. But maybe this is the difference between him making up into a 17-year-old still enjoying the sport or not – time will tell.”
Fighting back from a low point
With nearly all sport – including the Olympics for which Ben was hotly tipped for a medal – postponed or cancelled, he reveals he hit a low point.
“There were moments during the summer when I lost sight of what was going on, I guess we were all getting a bit stale,” he says. “As a rider, we work back from goals so when someone takes all the goals away, it breaks the training programme and I found the uncertainty hard.
“But then the big class in New York went ahead and we won and that gave the whole team a lift,” he says, admitting to feeling surprisingly nervous beforehand. “You start to get back on horses and feel excited again. I appreciate every part of the sport, but that gave me a taste of the life we were used to and I definitely appreciate what we do a lot more now.”
Headlines in recent years have naturally surrounded the now 12-year-old Explosion, officially ranked the best horse in the world in 2019 and now in the ownership of Pamela Wright and Charlotte Rossetter after they stepped in 14 months ago to ensure Ben kept the ride.
But there are many more cogs in motion and Ben has established a formidable stable of potential superstars, thanks to some passionate supporters who generously make their horses available to fly the British flag.
Ben’s exciting future equine stars
Jane Clark, who previously owned the great mare Cella, now has five horses with Ben, including the exciting 11-year-old mare Concona, who has solid team credentials.
“She’s really special,” says Ben, brimming with enthusiasm. “She actually contributed to me winning the Global Tour in 2019 and she jumped the Nations Cup in Dublin to help us stay in the super league.
“So hopefully she and Explosion can help each other out. Explosion is exceptional, but Concona is a great horse who will come out of the shadows this year.”
There’s also Ben’s Rio Olympic partner Tic Tac who, at the age of 18, “actually feels more game now than he did three years ago”, 14-year-old Madame X and the 10-year-old Plot Blue mare Ginger-Blue, a real rising star.
“She’s had a year off just at the wrong time for getting the experience, but she’ll catch up,” says Ben. “Everyone gets forgotten a bit because of Explosion, but he’s only as good as the team around him.”
Also causing ripples of excitement is his new seven-year-old stallion Point Break, a Swedish-bred son of Action-Breaker and a big winner in young horse classes with breeder Anders Lagergreen. He was bought by Pamela Wright and Charlotte Rossetter who, before investing in Ben and Explosion, had had no involvement in showjumping.
“Even though we haven’t done a lot of shows, we’ve become good friends over the past 12 months,” says Ben. “Point Break looked very special and they were keen to add him for the future. Hopefully they can enjoy him and Explosion more this year.”
Back in action in Florida
Despite the heavy cloud of uncertainty hanging over the sport, Ben is currently enjoying a return to action in the 13-week Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) in Florida, where he is based with his fiancée and fellow competitor Sophie Gracida.
“I’m very fortunate that it’s a home from home for me now,” says Ben. “My horses are a bit everywhere – Jane Clark has her own farm so I ride her horses out of there. Pretty much all of my other horses and everything else is run out of Sophie’s parents’ stables, who are actually next-door neighbours with Jane. Then Poden Farms have their own stable just the other side of the village.”
Having been in the fold of Poden Farms for several years training young British talent Emily Moffitt, now a successful five-star level rider, Ben’s role has changed – although he’s quick to stress that, contrary to rumours, they haven’t parted ways.
“Emily needed to come back to the UK to be with her family last year and continue some training, so she had a different summer to me,” he explains. “But now she’s back in America with her best horses and we’ve picked up where we left off.
“But Poden is now set up to be self-managed with Emily at the helm, so my role is very different from three years ago.”
Ben has built his own business into a vast and impressive enterprise of around 30 horses, with two assistant trainers, and he has benefited from a newly drafted-in dressage coach. Among the pupils in their training programme are up-and-coming British talent Flo Norris and US actress turned showjumper Mary Kate Olsen. Ben’s Hertfordshire home remains the hub, and he has long been supported by supergroom Cormac Kenny who looks after Explosion.
“It’s a big operation, but I have a lot of people working for me and it runs as smoothly as it can,” says Ben. “My most important role is with the competition horses, but I still oversee everything. As I’m away a lot, much of the training is taken on in-house and I rely on a huge team. Although Cormac hasn’t competed to the top level, he knows the ins and outs of how the horses are jumping. So I have a lot of eyes and ears on the floor.”
Setting new goals
It’s the million-dollar question in uncertain times, but with the Olympics, Europeans and a rejuvenated Global Champions Tour (GCT) back in the calendar for 2021, what will be Ben’s goals?
“I would say that contesting two championships in a year is probably not ideal, but I do have the horsepower to do so if I’m lucky enough to be selected,” he ponders. “I am taking Explosion out for a couple of classes at WEF – he needs to gain a bit of momentum, so I have to be conscious we don’t hold him back too long for the Olympics. Then between April and the end of July, I’ll select some GCT Shows as that format really brings out the best in him and then on to Tokyo, hopefully.”
After unsettling times, Ben’s life appears to be back in kilter and, with body and soul reinvigorated, these could be exciting new beginnings.
“I usually love this time of year and I’m really looking forward to working with these amazing horses,” he says. “But with the world as it is, jumping horses over a few fences seems a bit irrelevant right now – everyone just needs to stay safe.”
Ref: 28 January 2021
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