Legends of the sport: Mark Todd’s diminutive star, Charisma *H&H Plus*

  • This “feisty, fiery” yet diminutive horse won consecutive Olympic golds under New Zealand’s Mark Todd. Catherine Austen finds out more about the headstrong eventer with “limitless stamina”

    Legendary event horse Charisma

    Died age 30yo,
    Breeding: dark bay New Zealand Sport Horse gelding
    Owner/rider: Mark Todd
    Breeder: Daphne and Peter Williams

    Charisma was born in 1972, out of jumping and polo mare Planet – who was 1/16th Percheron – by the thoroughbred Tira Mink. Planet hunted before becoming a grade A showjumper, and was the first mare in New Zealand to jump her own height.

    “When I look back, I just think about how cool Charisma was – and how lucky I was to have him,” says Mark Todd. “He was so easy to do anything with, and so kind. But as a competitor, he was feisty, fiery, and exceptionally tough and brave.”

    Charisma’s enduring fame pivots around those back-to-back individual Olympic gold medals at Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in 1988, and the extraordinary partnership between the 6ft 2in rider and the 15.3hh horse. Anyone who took an interest in eventing during the 1980s will be able to recall Mark’s tall, lean upper body crouching low over Charisma’s compact form, the rider’s head almost further forward than the horse’s pricked ears.

    “He had limitless stamina; he never felt tired underneath me,” remembers Mark. “He was very fast, and never questioned anything I pointed him at.”

    Marks feels that being gelded late – not until the 15/16ths thoroughbred, with a dash of Percheron, was four, by which time he had sired four foals – gave him “that bit of cocky arrogance” that helped him become one of the greatest event horses in history.

    A string of wins

    Charisma had evented to intermediate level, was a Grade B showjumper and competed at prix st georges in dressage by the time Mark got the ride on him in May 1983. They quickly put together a string of wins in New Zealand, including, in December that year, an official Olympic trial at Taupo.

    Mark and Charisma won easily, and in February 1984 they moved to England. No longer was Mark a part-time dairy farmer; he was a professional event rider with an Olympics in his sights. Finishing second at Badminton meant that a ticket to LA was theirs, and Mark began to prepare Charisma for the huge test ahead.

    “We did have a few arguments – both of us would come out of the arena with steam coming out of our ears and there was never a winner. Well, if there was, it certainly wasn’t me!” says Mark.

    “For a little horse he was incredibly strong. I remember a racehorse trainer friend of mine coming over here and I said he could ride Charisma up the gallops. He couldn’t believe how strong he was. He would put his head on his chest and you could pull as hard as you like against him, it didn’t make any difference. And he was permanently on a diet – he was nicknamed Podge for a reason.”

    The twisting cross-country track on the golf course at the Fairbanks Ranch at Del Mar, site of the LA Olympics, suited Charisma: “He was so nippy; quick into his fences and away from them,” says Mark.

    It was after watching the horse whizz round the steeplechase 20 seconds under the time there that trainer Pat Daley said, “If he can run like that, he ought to go round Cheltenham” – although that drop of Percheron blood would have prohibited event horse Charisma running under Rules, Mark wishes he had run him in a point-to-point in those days.

    They finished inside the time around the 13-minute cross-country track, and went into showjumping two marks behind the leaders, Karen Stives and Ben Arthur.

    Jenny MacArthur, equestrian correspondent for The Times for many years, says: “The disadvantage of Charisma’s economical jumping style was his tendency to roll the odd pole in the showjumping phase – which was to prove expensive over the years. At Badminton in 1985 he was relegated to runner-up for the second successive year after an error at the last fence. At Stockholm in June 1987 and Burghley in September that year Todd and Charisma had led from the start of the competition only to lose the lead in the showjumping. His record of four-star wins would have been unparalleled had it not been for these odd mistakes.

    “Even so, on the two occasions when it mattered most he rose to the occasion to book his place among equine legends.”

    Despite giving a couple of showjumps a good rattle in that vast, packed Los Angeles arena, the pair jumped clear. Karen wasn’t so lucky and a fence came down, giving the New Zealand pair the gold medal.

    Taking the mickey

    “The best performance of Charisma’s career was when he won his second gold medal in Seoul,” says Mark. “He was 16 then – not many 16-year-olds were eventing at that time. The long format [with roads and tracks and steeplechase] used to find them out. But he was incredibly sound – I don’t remember him taking a lame step.

    “Towards the end of his career he really only used to perform at his best when he had a crowd, otherwise he’d take the mickey out of you; play up in the dressage, run away across country, skittle the showjumps.”

    The eventing facilities in Seoul were on Kwa’Chon racecourse, but barriers meant that when galloping the horses in the build-up to the event, riders could only get three-quarters of the way round the track before having to pull up and go back the other way.

    “One way the barrier was a line of Portaloos, and Charisma was so strong that I virtually ran straight into this line of Portaloos because I couldn’t pull him up,” says Mark with a laugh.

    “Everything just sort of felt right for Seoul. I had this real feeling of déjà vu,” he adds. “He did the best dressage test of his career; I remember the Horse & Hound reporter Pegotty Henriques writing that his test was more technically correct than Nicole Uphoff and Rembrandt’s gold medal-winning grand prix test, which made me feel quite good!”

    Jenny MacArthur says: “The cross-country course the next day was characterised by hilly terrain – and some fairly improbable looking ‘quick routes’. None of the British riders finished inside the time. Charisma and Mark made the tricky course look like a Pony Club event, finishing on their dressage score.”

    “He was amazing across country,” says Mark. “I think he had the fastest time and the best recovery rate; he had incredible heart and lung capacity, especially considering when he flew over from New Zealand to England he got a nasal infection which basically disintegrated his sinuses, and he always had a bit of discharge coming out of his nose after that.”

    They ended cross-country day with two showjumps in hand over Ginny Elliot (Master Craftsman) and Ian Stark (Sir Wattie).

    Jenny says: “The next day Charisma came out looking more like a six-year-old than a 16-year-old and completed a nerve-racking showjumping round [with one fence down] to secure the gold. Mark, who had been criticised in some quarters for wanting to take an old horse to the Olympics, described it as ‘the sweetest victory of all.’”

    They were the second pair in Olympic history to defend their title. “A Dutchman, Charles Pahud du Mortagnes, did it on Marcoix in 1928 and 1932,” says Mark. “I had a lovely message from his widow congratulating me.”

    A nationwide victory tour

    The plan had always been for the event horse called Charisma to retire after Seoul, and Charisma flew back to New Zealand where he and his groom Helen Gilbert went on a nationwide victory tour, sponsored by Wrightsons general stores, lasting six months.

    “He loved people,” says Mark. “On that tour he met disabled kids, old people, and was always so kind and gentle and almost compassionate with them.”

    An early plan for him to spend his retirement in the hunting field was quickly abandoned – “he was lethal,” says Mark – and, adding once again to his remarkable collection of air miles, Podge flew back to England to retire with Mark and his wife Carolyn. When they moved back to New Zealand in 2000 for Mark’s seven-year retirement from eventing, he went too.

    “He stayed on our farm, and had to be put down aged 30 – we found him in the field one day very lame, and somehow he’d broken his shoulder. It was very sad,” says Mark. “Two weeks earlier, he’d done a little demo at a charity event with me – we’d done some tempi changes, jumped a little jump and so on, aged 30.”

    The great event horse is buried there and his grave still attracts visitors who wish to pay their respects to a true sporting hero.

    Ginny Elliot on the small but brilliant event horse, Charisma

    “I happened to be in New Zealand – I was invited to compete at an event out there – when Charisma arrived at Mark’s. He said, ‘Come and look at my new horse,’ and when I did, I thought, ‘Blimey, Mark’s going to need rollerskates!’ I said, ‘You can’t be serious, he’s tiny…’

    “Mark told me to wait until I saw Charisma move, and he was such a big mover that he looked much bigger than he actually was. I thought that I would watch with interest – and they clicked straight away.

    “He was a very nice-looking horse; he had substance but huge quality. Perhaps it was that thing of his small size versus his big heart that made their relationship so special. And I think they had a wonderful respect and admiration for each other – they were genuinely fond of each other.”

    Kate Green on how it felt to ride Charisma

    Kate Green, deputy editor of Country Life and former editor of Eventing magazine, went to New Zealand in the autumn of 2001 to do a training series for Horse & Hound with Mark Todd.

    She says: “It was emotional enough seeing Charisma in a paddock – the horse had been retired for about 13 years but, wherever Mark was based in the world, he always flew Podge to be with him. The horse would wander around behind him like a dog – there was an invisible golden thread between them that went far beyond competitor and top horse and was deeply touching to see.

    “I couldn’t believe it when Mark asked me if I’d like to ride him, but he said he loved seeing people on him. In retrospect, the potential for looking an idiot was immense – and, at 5ft 2in, I could barely reach the stirrups even when the leathers were looped over for me, and felt as if I might be bucked off at any minute – but the sensation of power underneath me was extraordinary for an old horse.

    “One tiny squeeze and he floated into the trot that had H&H dressage reporter Pegotty Henriques in raptures at the Seoul Olympics and made a very amateur jockey feel like Isabell Werth. And for a few weeks I could say that the last horse I rode was Charisma…”

    Event horse Charisma in numbers

    2 individual Olympic gold medals

    15.3hh – his height

    4 foals sired

    16 – his age when winning his second gold

    2 runner-up spots at Badminton

    30 – the age at which he died

    Ref Horse & Hound; 22 October 2020


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