A racing and showjumping background laid the foundations for one of the best eventing careers of the last century. Catherine Austen picks out the highlights with former Olympic and double world champion Blyth Tait
Being at the “pinnacle” of a sport is a well-worn expression. If there is an achievement, however, that places you at the very top, above all your peers, it must be to be Olympic and world champion simultaneously. In eventing, only two riders have done this. The most recent example is the German phenomenon that is Michael Jung, but Blyth Tait did it first.
The diminutive, quick-witted New Zealander had already finished in top spot in one World Championship – at Stockholm in 1990 on Messiah – when he came across the horse that would give him a second title eight years later and that sporting grail, an individual Olympic gold medal.
Blyth’s father, Bob, saw a chestnut thoroughbred with a white blaze at a Pony Club event in New Zealand. He bought him for NZ$5,000 (equivalent to £1,650 at the time), and sent him to Blyth in Britain. The horse, half-brother to a very successful steeplechaser, had run in trial races but hadn’t made it to the track itself. Bob named him Ready Teddy, dreaming that he’d go to the Olympics and the starter would say, “Ready, Teddy, go!”
Remarkably, Ready Teddy did go to the Olympics – three times – and at the first, Atlanta in 1996, when he was just eight, he and Blyth won gold.
“My overriding memory from Atlanta is how green Ted was,” says Blyth, speaking from his farm in New Zealand. “He never missed a beat on the cross-country, but when he came off the course after finishing he whinnied to his mates as if to say, ‘Oh my God, what was that? That wasn’t what I expected when I got up this morning!’
“I was in the lead overnight, but I didn’t have a fence in hand and Sally Clark [who won silver with Squirrel Hill] jumped clear. I had nothing to spare, but Ted gave me the confidence to ride as though I was training at home.”
The pair jumped clear and into the history books. “It all sounds the stuff of dreams, but really it was,” says Blyth. “I remember standing on the top of the podium with the medal round my neck and thinking, ‘I should be feeling all sorts of elation and highly charged emotions.’ But three-day eventing takes five days – it’s not like you run for 10 seconds and then you’re the Olympic champion – and I had been in the lead after cross-country. I was mightily relieved, because that medal had been mine to lose.
“I also remember wishing that the other people who had been such an influence on me and so supportive behind me could have been on the podium with me. So many people had contributed to it,” he adds.
The Olympic team gold medal is just about the only thing that eluded New Zealand riders in the 1980s and 1990s. Mark Todd and Blyth won three individual golds between them, the team won silver once and bronze twice, and they were team gold medallists at the World Equestrian Games in 1990 and 1998. Mark, Blyth and Andrew Nicholson were the core, with excellent support from the likes of Vaughn Jefferis – world champion in 1994 – Sally Clark, Vicky Latta, Tinks Pottinger and others.
“In our heyday, the talent and depth of the New Zealand riders was extraordinary for such a small country,” says Blyth. “We got on really well and we had a real mutual respect. We were very aware of everybody’s individual strengths and their ability to deliver under pressure.”
Blyth Tait’s love of competition
Blyth, now 59, grew up in Whangarei, north of Auckland. He says: “We were town kids until I turned 10 years old, when we moved to a 10-acre block and got a pony between me and my two older sisters.
“We joined the Pony Club, and I developed a liking for the competitive side of riding. Going to gymkhanas and winning ribbons motivated me more than riding around the farm. It was really Pony Club that got me started.”
That first pony was a grey Welsh Mountain mare called Flash. One day Blyth was trying to jump her at home, and she kept refusing.
“I was getting very frustrated, and my mother was trying to help by giving instructions out of the window,” he says.
“Eventually she told me to come in for lunch and to try again later. I tied Flash up and went into the house, furious. When I came back outside after lunch, Flash had had a foal!”
When his fellow competitors are asked how they thought Blyth had achieved so much in his career, nearly all mentioned his meticulous approach and his clear planning. There was early evidence of this; from the age of 11 he kept a detailed diary of every show he went to, his results, what the entry fee was and how much prize money he won.
He continues: “My father had a background in racehorses, but none of our family knew anything about eventing. When I left school I helped my father with his thoroughbred broodmares and in prepping horses for the track, and by the time I was in my teenage years I was showjumping properly in junior and young rider classes. My first horse was an ex-racehorse called Barbarossa, whom I took to grade A, and then I had an old grand prix horse, Speculate, that someone kindly lent me.
“I had lessons from the showjumper Kathy Kusner, and from George Morris, both of whom taught me to ride in a forward and rhythmic style, which stood me in good stead when I started eventing properly.”
Blyth did well on the national showjumping circuit in New Zealand and won a World Cup Pacific League qualifier. His first trip to England was to showjump, aged 21.
“I brought a young horse called Mainspring over and jumped him, sold him and went home again without setting the world on fire,” he says.
He set up a pre-training business, and his attention turned to eventing when the World Championships went to Gawler in Australia in 1986.
“It was the first time the World Championships had come anywhere near New Zealand, and that they were going to be able to send a team,” Blyth says. “I rode a horse [Rata] that someone made available to me; he was an experienced event horse and I was lucky enough to get selected in the six that travelled.”
Sadly Rata died of a heart attack while hacking out on the eve of competition at Gawler.
“I’d never experienced anything like that and it was a terrible shock – I felt like I’d never get over it,” Blyth says. “But in some ways, because I’d got that close and been exposed to that level when I was fairly inexperienced, it whetted my appetite.”
After Gawler, he discovered the horse that would really set him on the eventing path – or rather rediscovered him. Blyth had backed Messiah, who was bred by a family friend, Carole Byles, as a three-year-old. But Blyth then made his first trip to England to showjump, and therefore the “precocious, confident character” was sent to Penny Stevenson and Colin McIntosh to showjump. They produced him to grade B, but he was probably too forward-going to be a top showjumper and after Gawler it was suggested that he tried eventing with Blyth.
Messiah immediately took to the game in 1987, and by the end of 1988 he had achieved good enough results to make a crack at the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990 a realistic prospect.
Blyth, by then 28, “sold everything that wasn’t nailed down” and moved to Britain in May 1989 with the intention of staying only until after Stockholm. Very good placings at their first couple of international events meant that, in the spring of 1990, Badminton was the target.
To the surprise of pretty much everyone except Blyth, they finished second to Nicola McIrvine and Middle Road.
“I didn’t just go to England to learn, although I knew that would be part of the process – I went to win,” he says.
The pair were duly selected for the New Zealand team for Stockholm, alongside Mark Todd, Andrew Nicholson and Andrew Scott. They went, and they won – team and individual gold. Had Blyth really thought it was possible that he would become world champion as a one-horse rider barely three years after starting in the sport?
He replies: “Naivety is incredible when you’re inexperienced. My theory was, I’d been second at Badminton that spring, and Nicola had won, and she wasn’t selected on the British team – so in my mind, that meant I was going to win!
“I went in full of confidence. I had the utmost faith in Messiah; he was phenomenal across the country and the tougher the course, the better it was for him. He was really fast, being a full thoroughbred, and a real quality horse, although he was quite volatile. But he was capable of a good test, and I think at the World Games he was in the top 10 after the dressage. I thought I just had to do my job. After that, you lose a few competitions, then a few more, and you realise it doesn’t always quite go according to plan.”
That early showjumping experience meant that that phase, so often an event rider’s Achilles heel, held no fears for Blyth.
Mary King, many of whose career highlights happened at the same time as Blyth’s, says: “He was a beautiful showjumping rider, and that carried through to his cross-country riding. As well as being brave and fast, he was so accurate and gave his horses every confidence to jump well.”
It is fascinating to realise how small a team of horses Blyth had at any one time. At first it was just Messiah, then, when Blyth made the decision after Stockholm to remain in the UK, he added Ricochet, who was 11 when Blyth bought him. Another New Zealand thoroughbred, he finished fifth at Burghley, second at Badminton and won Punchestown and two Scottish Open Championships at Thirlestane. As Messiah – who, despite a shockingly bad dressage test at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, managed to win the individual bronze medal as well as team silver – wound down, up came a mare called Delta.
“If I think of her ability now, it’s mind-blowing to think of a horse that can jump like that,” says Blyth. “She was like a pogo stick. There was nothing that she couldn’t do cross-country-wise. She was only little, but my God, she had scope. At the time, I didn’t know what I had, but if I had her now I’d just be so confident. She very rarely touched a rail – but having said that, I finished second at Burghley [in 1992] because I knocked the triple bar down.”
Delta also finished second at Badminton in 1994. Blyth was second three times at Badminton; it was one of very few major events to elude him. He took the Burghley title twice – first in 1998, with Chesterfield, and again in 2001 with Ready Teddy.
“I have a really soft spot for Chesterfield,” says Blyth. “He came to me in sad circumstances; his young rider, Melissa Bradley, was killed in a car accident, and her parents asked me to ride the horse. He probably lacked the brilliance or the technique of some of my better horses, but he was the most genuine and kind horse, and he just tried and tried and tried, and that took him a long way.
“The attitude of horses is just as important as the physical attributes, because if they don’t give you 110% you’re always left a bit short. But he always did.”
Blyth achieved something rare at Burghley in 1998; he finished first and second. His runner-up, Aspyring, also won Bramham, Boekelo and Luhmühlen, and was yet another New Zealand-bred thoroughbred.
“I have a background in racing, so I had access and experience with thoroughbreds and therefore I could source them,” he explains. “We didn’t have a breeding programme in New Zealand for sport horses. I clicked with thoroughbreds because they were suitable for my frame – I’m only small. They are athletic, light, quick-moving and quick-thinking, which really suited me.”
Andrew Nicholson says: “Blyth was very clear about the sort of horse he could win on and could have utmost confidence on. His horses were thoroughbreds and he could manage and play to their strengths. And he was very clever at reading the whole game plan. If Blyth told me to take a certain route through a fence, even if I’d walked it a different way and was down at the start, I would take his advice. His mind for detail and his understanding of eventing was unbelievable,” says Andrew.
“We never shied away from being competitive with each other, and that made each of us raise our game. That won us medals.”
A last major triumph
Chesterfield gave Blyth a team bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 – the team medals then were a separate competition to the individual, which Ready Teddy won. In total, Ready Teddy competed at three Olympics – Atlanta, Sydney and Athens – and two World Equestrian Games, and his versatility was proved by wins as diverse in track and format as Punchestown, Chatsworth, Gatcombe, Pratoni and Scarvagh.
Other good horses included Welton Envoy, who won the CCI5* at Kentucky in 2000, and 2004 Punchestown winner Eze. That Punchestown success in the now-CCI4*-L class – Ready Teddy also took the CCI4*-S – was to be Blyth’s last major triumph.
He and his long-term partner Paul O’Brien retired back to New Zealand at the end of that season, where Blyth indulged a lifelong passion for racing by breeding racehorses – including dual Group One winner Nashville – and prepping yearlings for the sales. He kept an involvement with eventing, acting as manager of the national team for the 2008 Olympics, but didn’t compete.
However, one October morning in 2010, he was working on the farm when he received a phone call. It was a gang of his old eventing friends, including Zara Tindall and Dan Jocelyn, who were partying hard at Boekelo.
“They said, ‘We miss you, Blyth; it’s the Tuesday night party at Boekelo and you should be here,’” he remembers. “They kept passing the phone to other people, and I thought, ‘God, I really am missing that.’”
By the following spring, he was back in Gloucestershire and back in the game.
He says: “I only came back with the intention of a short-term foray, not really with any plans to make a career out of it again.”
Although the horse he brought with him from New Zealand, Santos, turned out to have kissing spines, a nice novice, Bear Necessity V, came along, and somehow he found himself staying for another eight years.
In 2018 he rode at the Tryon World Equestrian Games, 32 years after he was first selected for a championship, and then returned home. He intended to event a couple of horses back in New Zealand, but a head injury incurred in a fall last spring, and then a minor heart attack in winter, persuaded him it was time to hang up his boots.
He says: “One of my strengths in my career was my planning. I always produced my horses through in a progression so I had a couple of top horses and some coming through. Second time round I didn’t approach it like that; I didn’t have the same long-term plans nor the same strength of horse power. Bear Necessity was a lovely horse and finished in the top 15 at Badminton and Burghley, but he had originally been his owner’s hunter.
“I didn’t have the same type of horses I had had first time round, and it wasn’t the same as going in with the confidence that you have from knowing that your preparation is spot-on and that your horse is absolutely ready.
“But I enjoyed it, I had some good results and no regrets. I’ll never completely walk away from eventing, but it’s time to stop putting in the hard yards as a rider. I’m walking away healthy, happy and with fond memories.”
Another string to Blyth Tait’s eventing bow
In recent years Blyth has turned his hand to cross-country course-design, and has designed tracks at Burgham and Barbury in the UK. He is supposed to be designing the two-star and three-star tracks at the New Zealand national championships next year, and also at the same level at the Sydney Three-Day Event in Australia.
“I don’t really want to make a major career out of course-designing, but it’s a good way to supplement what I’m doing, to stay in the sport and to keep my eye in, and to keep current with the international scene and friends,” he says.
Blyth also has three horses to showjump – two of his ex- eventers, Havanna and Xanthus, and Billy Sparky, a mare bred by the Funnells.
“But that’s just for pleasure, and if it rains, I’m going home,” he jokes.
What’s Blyth Tait like?
Blyth is universally popular. His focused approach to his sport is balanced by kindness, a love of parties and a relentlessly positive attitude.
“Blyth is great,” says Mark Todd. “He was meticulous in his planning, a very good all-round horseman – his horses were always fit, sound and looked fantastic – and a natural lightweight in the saddle. Everything he does, he does thoroughly and well. He’s a really nice guy; easy-going, good to be on a team with and great at a party, where he loved climbing tent poles and getting his kit off!”
Mary King remarks on his intelligence. “I always thought he was almost too clever to be an event rider!” she says. “I remember going to Northern Ireland to do some teaching with him, and we were doing crosswords on the plane. I’ve always liked doing them, but he was so much better at them than me.”
Ready Teddy is one of the best event horses in history; he had both enormous talent and longevity in the sport.
“I was careful after Atlanta to consolidate what Ted had learnt and took him to Punchestown instead of Badminton,” says Blyth. “He was still very young and you can’t take them for granted, no matter how talented they are.
“Hindsight only magnifies the amount of talent Ted had. He was very careful, super-fast, very brave and keen, and could really move for a thoroughbred. Yes, his temperament was a little volatile on the big stage after Atlanta, but at home he was sweet and easy, snaffle-mouthed and lovely to hack. He was such an athlete and so trainable; you didn’t have to tell him anything twice and he never looked for a way out.
“He would be just as competitive if he was around now, without a doubt.”
Blyth Tait’s career in numbers
1 Olympic individual gold
4 world golds: 2 individual and 2 team
1 Kentucky win
3 runner-up prizes at Badminton
1st and 2nd at Burghley in 1998
8 the age of Ready Teddy when he was 1996 Olympic champion
Ref Horse & Hound; 27 August 2020