Life lessons: showjumper Geoff Billington *H&H Plus*

  • The Olympic showjumper on keeping checklists, the life-changing It’s Otto,
    the joys of a personalised horsebox and finding a rich wife…

    Geoff represented Great Britain at two Olympic Games as well as World and European Championships, winning team bronze medals in 1997 and 1998. The 65-year-old is now also well known for his coaching, clinics and hilarious showjumping commentary.

    The best piece of advice my dad gave me was: “Be nice to people on the way up because you might meet them on the way down.”

    My parents had nothing to do with horses when I started out but they became massive supporters. John Whitaker and I first met when we were 12 and our parents became good friends, so they used to travel to all the shows together.

    Harvey Smith and David Broome were our heroes. I started watching Horse of the Year Show on television when I was about nine and they were the most prominent riders then. At that age, I don’t suppose I dreamed that one day I’d be riding against them but it’s funny how life goes – we became fellow competitors and then good friends.

    The biggest change in my riding is that I always wear a hat now. In the old days, nobody wore one unless you were in the ring and, before chinstraps, if your hat was wobbling about you’d just throw it off. But I’ve seen enough accidents for it to have been an important lesson, and I’d never get on a horse without one now.

    Finding the key

    The training tip I live by is to never give up. There’s a key to every horse, you just have to find it. If you keep your horse happy and healthy he’ll give you his all.

    I’ve had a few quirky horses over the years – even It’s Otto would try it on. In the ring he wouldn’t spook at anything but if you took him up the road, you’d have a right battle just to get him past the next farm. But he was one of the best in the world.

    I’d always had good horses but could never really take on the likes of Milton. I never dreamed of going to an Olympic Games before I had Otto because I never thought I’d have a horse good enough. You say you’re not bothered about going to the Olympics but it’s just a cover-up – once it’s in reach, you get really hungry for it.

    When people asked what my ambition was I’d say to win the Calgary grand prix because it’s the most money of the year; in four years, Otto was fourth, second, second and sixth in it.

    He’d definitely be as careful over today’s tracks but I don’t know if I could go as fast as they do nowadays – I struggled even back then because he jumped so high. He won only 12 classes in his life but he was placed in all the big ones.

    Preparation is vital

    The one thing I always remember to do on competition day is get out of bed! After that, I’ll check through my list – horse passport, money, wagon documents, riding gear. I go through each one before I go out the door and hopefully don’t forget anything – I often seem to miss something though.

    But I’m not as bad as John Whitaker – we got to the Atlanta Olympics and he said, “Have you got any spare boots?” He’d gone to the Olympics and forgotten his riding boots… As luck would have it, I’d taken a new pair with me to break in while I was there so he finished up breaking the boots in for me! That’s John though – so laid back he’s unreal, and he wasn’t even panicking about it.

    Before I go into the ring, I go over the course in my head then either switch my phone off or, better still, give it to somebody to film the round, because you can learn so much by studying it later. I never used to, but you have to keep up with the times.

    My Bloomfields two-horse truck has been another game-changer – it’s so handy, we use it more than anything. It even has a picture of me jumping on the side.

    But above all, I wish I’d known when I was younger that the sport would be so much easier with a rich wife!

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 26 November 2020

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