Britain’s new star showjumper tells Sarah Radford about his impatience to return to the circuit, an embryo breeding programme and scaling the heights with just one horse
You’d be forgiven if you were unfamiliar with the name James Wilson. The 25-year-old only emerged into CSI5* ranks last year, with a comparatively modest pony and young rider career behind him. He has since made a rapid ascent from obscurity to championship contention.
His breakthrough partnership has been with the black mare Imagine De Muze, owned by his partner Heather Larson and her mother Sue. Last June, they were picked for their first five-star Nations Cup squad at La Baule as “fifth man” and then surprised everyone with a brilliant debut at St Gallen a month later, jumping one of only six double clears.
It has, as James puts it, “all happened very quickly”, evolving into “a dream year” when a successful Nations Cup season was reinforced by an even stronger World Cup run, where they jumped consistent clear rounds.
“We were flying,” James recalls. “We were lying 18th in the league and then [the team trainers] said to me, ‘Do you want to carry on with World Cups or do you want to keep her for Nations Cups in the summer? And obviously there is a championship coming up.’ So we agreed to stop and give her a break. We went to Spain for the Sunshine Tour, and then the coronavirus came along.”
For James, who had also been recruited for Global Champions League team the Scandinavian Vikings, it has been a disappointing time to apply the handbrake.
“We were meant to do the Global Champions Tour [GCT] at Mexico and Miami but America’s travel ban came in a week before and we’ve been in limbo ever since,” he says. “I liked the break at first, but now I am done with it, there’s nothing more to achieve at home.”
Soon after this interview, James would head to the Netherlands to get “back up to speed” jumping some two-stars and, if the pandemic restrictions permit, will aim for the World Cup circuit this winter. Next year, he is hoping the GCT will work as a precursor to potential Tokyo selection.
“I have the Olympics as a plan to work towards, but at the end of the day you have to go one show and one grand prix result at a time,” he says. “If I don’t make the team, it’s not going to destroy me. For anyone even to be able to say they are being considered for the Games, that’s huge, isn’t it?”
Lockdown restrictions mean we are speaking, slightly out of both of our comfort zones, over video call (he is not among the lockdown Zoom converts). James is talking from the kitchen table at Hill House Farm, the Somerset base he has shared with Heather for the past four years.
But during lockdown, the promised glamour of the GCT has had to be replaced with more low-key pursuits for the pair during the enforced time out.
“We have been playing table tennis in the kitchen,” he reveals. “Heather bought a net and we moved on to marking it out with tape; it did get quite competitive!”
His set-up in Somerset isn’t too far-flung from James’ Devon roots, although returning to the West Country has been a journey “far away and back again”, incorporating stints in Switzerland and the Netherlands, where he will spend the next three months in an attempt to salvage some competitive outings this season. Overnight success is rarely the real story, and Continental riding jobs have formed part of eight years’ foundation-laying behind his recent form.
Although his family “know horses” and “have a few hunters”, they aren’t “involved in the sport as a platform”, and other than a cousin who events, he is the first to make a career out of it. James didn’t really dip his toe into the showjumping circuit until 148cms, when Jabeena Maslin found him a pony to ride, although the pair’s career highlight was qualifying for a final at Scope.
“It was low-key really; we didn’t have an arena at home to practise in, so I just hacked all the time and had a few lessons and was winging it a bit,” James recalls, “but it gave me a taste for it and made me want to do it better.”
Within a couple of years James dropped out of AS levels, determined to “give showjumping a try” and took a job with Stuart Harvey working with young horses “from the bottom up”. Stuart later found James a job working at Egbert Schep’s breeding and dealing stable in the Netherlands, where Stuart has sourced a lot of his “good ones” – Egbert is best known for selling Big Star as a three-year-old and sold Hello Forever for Stuart to produce – now one of Scott Brash’s five-star grand prix rides.
“There were always good horses coming out of that place and there were just so many, you got to ride and ride,” James explains.
“There was absolutely zero training – you did your own thing, you told them what horses you wanted to take to the shows and you rode three in a class for the 1.10m, 1.20m and 1.30m. It was good preparation for having to make your own decisions later on.”
Stuart was also the catalyst in another significant development – introducing James to Heather, who was also training with him. “Everything moved pretty quickly after that, and I moved in after six months,” James says.
A career-defining move
When he had returned to England and was looking for rides, Heather approached her mother, who agreed to buy two four-year-olds for James to produce, and both sold well.
But the career-defining move came in 2017, when James took over the ride on Imagine De Muze (Coco) after Heather returned from a tour in Spain. Heather no longer rides, even at home, but is responsible for “organising everything”.
“I’d stayed at home as it was meant to be the last year the under-23s were going to be held at Olympia and I had one eight-year-old, Eskola M, whom I still have, that was really nice, and I wanted to jump,” James remembers.
“Heather said she didn’t want to carry on with Coco any more and she asked if I wanted to ride her – we took a little while to click to be honest.”
The mare was bred at the De Muze Stud in Belgium before going on to Axel Verlooy and then Townhead Stud, where Stuart found her for Heather as a seven-year-old. Although she was a horse who “always got noticed”, she was considered not careful enough in her early career. It has only been as she has stepped up to the bigger tracks that she has found real consistency.
“She isn’t difficult but she doesn’t have a fantastic canter and she is not the nicest horse to ride on the flat,” James explains.
“But she has all the scope you could ever want and more. The jumps never seem too big and you are never worried because she is super-brave.”
Like many mares, she is a horse who “likes to think she is in control”, and part of the secret to the partnership’s success has been working with her, rather than against her.
“People used to say, ‘You need to get her rounder in front of the fence,’ but when you look at her breeding, and watch how her sire Nabab De Reve jumped, he was exactly the same. She doesn’t want to be dominated and made to do that,” James explains.
“It all just clicked – I thought I needed to give her a bit more space and to ride her that little bit more forward. It sounds simple, like that’s all you needed to do, but it started to make a very big difference.”
Perfectionism and attention to detail
The more you talk shop with James, the more you get the feeling that perfectionism and attention to detail are at the heart of his craft. It seems to be a constant desire to improve that motivates him, perhaps more than a will to win.
“I do an awful lot of thinking – even when it goes right I ask, ‘What did the horse like?’ I think the most important thing you can ask yourself is why,” he says.
It’s clear James likes to do his homework, and many hours over the past three years have gone into researching his other passion, the yard’s breeding programme, the oldest results of which are now two. Buying another seven embryos, all out of grand prix mares, has been his other principal lockdown time-filler.
“I really enjoy it, it is my solution to being able to have good horses,” he says. “I spend ages watching rounds on ClipMyHorse.TV – if a horse has produced three 1.45m horses, has it produced three 1.45m horses that haven’t done anything more, or haven’t got good riders and could have been better? I’ll study them the whole way through.”
Some of the current stock include an embryo from a daughter of Coco’s (she has six offspring from embryos taken from her as a youngster) as well as a full sibling of PSG Final. He also lights up when discussing one of the two-year-olds, a “freaky filly” by Vigo D’Arsouilles, as well as some promising Comilfo Plus offspring.
“The filly is an absolute machine and that is what encourages me,” he says. “I have ended up with one each year that looks about as good as they get. It’s picked up speed quite quickly.”
James is acutely aware that the next big question he has to answer is how he will find another top ride to follow in Coco’s footsteps, but says he tries not to get too caught up in it.
He has recently acquired a 13-year-old ride, Cooley Elusive, who has done some rankings classes and whom he describes as “very brave with a lot of scope”, but acknowledges he still needs another superstar, “but who doesn’t?”
“You can’t think it’s never going to end and you know you need to find a way to sustain yourself at that level, and that’s why I put all the time and effort into the embryos,” he says.
“But I find it frustrating when people say about having only the one horse. You finally get there and people say, ‘Why haven’t you arrived with two or three?’” he quips. “Give us a bit more time to be able to get everything going and leave that part to me.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 July 2020