H&H interview: Australian eventing couple Kevin and Emma McNab *H&H Plus*

  • The Australian eventing couple talk to Pippa Roome about working as a team, Tokyo dreams and why taking on sales horses can work in your favour

    How many riders came into 2020 with four horses qualified for the Olympics? There can’t be many, but Kevin McNab was one of the few with such a quartet as the eventing season dawned.

    “I had four horses qualified, but I don’t think I was in a position to be selected,” admits Kevin candidly. “So the plan was to start early, get some good runs on the board and be in a position where I might be selected.”

    Kevin was one of the few eventers actually to achieve some international results before Covid-19 shut down sport. He kicked off the year by heading to Barroca d’Alva in Portugal, where he piloted three horses into the top seven in the CCI4*-S, reflecting the strength in depth of his team. Among them was Fernhill Tabasco (Toby), the 12-year-old on whom Kevin’s wife Emma won Tattersalls CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) in 2018 and rode on the Australian team at the World Equestrian Games. Emma handed over the reins to Kevin until after Tokyo because she had their first child, Annabelle, in August last year.

    “I had a little bit of a difficult delivery and it took me a while to start riding again,” she explains. “Toby is in his prime and I didn’t think I’d be in a position to do enough on him to have a chance of doing to Tokyo, so I wanted Kevin to have a chance.”

    Kevin will still keep the ride until after the Games, despite the year’s delay. Wasn’t Emma tempted to take him back? She says: “That would have been very, very mean.”

    “I wasn’t going to offer,” jokes Kevin. “As it’s still going to be called Tokyo 2020, I figure it’s only fair that I have a crack at it.”

    The McNabs are not competitive with each other, which they consider their major strength as a couple.

    “We’re both equally happy for each other’s success as our own,” says Kevin. “Whoever has the opportunity, we’re happy for that person.”

    There are lots of jokes about the fact Emma is the more stylish rider. “Every time I look across the arena and watch Emma, I try to look a little better,” says Kevin. “Toby likes her more – she looks prettier on him! When I started riding him, we watched a video and Emma commented, ‘You’re supposed to do sitting trot.’ I was…”

    There’s no doubt Toby is talented, but he is also a “quirky little thing”.

    Emma explains: “He really wants to please you all the time, but he’s always been a very sharp, flighty horse. When you’re going cross-country, sometimes he’ll be spooking at things, but he’s so brave and straight at the fences.”

    Around the same time Emma had Annabelle, Australian rider Bella (Isabel) English joined the McNabs’ team, taking over some riding.

    Kevin’s niece Rachael was due to come to England this year as Annabelle’s nanny, but the Covid-19 crisis put that on pause. Meanwhile, Emma is really enjoying being a mum – “which I absolutely didn’t expect” – and is riding younger horses only, with childcare help from the girls on the yard, particularly Ellie Howick.

    Kevin says: “I don’t think we ever asked Ellie if she wanted to do daycare, but she looked like she was enjoying it so we’ve carried on.

    “Emma is a super mum, which works in my favour – I have some nice horses to ride, Bella’s a great jockey and if I run into any trouble, I can get Emma to school them for me,” he laughs. “Annabelle’s a heap of fun as well – because of lockdown, we get to spend more time with her.”

    A farming background

    Kevin, 42, is from Queensland, and hails from a farming background. “Mum said I asked for a horse when I was two and she was silly enough to get me one,” he explains.

    He started eventing when he moved to a sports school for his final years of education and spent time based with Italian eventer Tony Manca. Four years with Heath Ryan followed, at his powerhouse equestrian centre in New South Wales.

    “If you look at most of the riders of Kevin’s age in Australia, they have all been through the centre,” says Emma. “He’s an inspiring, motivational guy.”

    Kevin adds: “No matter who you were, if you had a lesson with Heath, you’d leave thinking you were going to the next championship.”

    Emma’s mother Julia Dougall is English, but her whole family moved to Australia when Julia was in her 20s. Emma, 32, holds both passports, but says she’s “a bigger 50% Australian than English”. Julia evented and Emma’s father Jamie played polocrosse.

    Emma and Kevin met through Heath, who suggested if she was serious about eventing, she needed to be based with another rider. By then, Kevin had set up Kelecyn Equestrian Services in Queensland and together, the pair ran a big sales yard of 40 to 50 horses.

    “They all lived out, but we worked really hard,” says Emma and Kevin adds: “We once took 28 horses to an event. There was a fun side to it, but it was quite manic.”

    The McNabs now share the ownership of the property in Australia with Kevin’s brother Dale and his fiancée, British eventer Charlotte Price, who worked for Kevin and Emma and now runs a business there. When they retire from competing, Kevin and Emma will return down under.

    The most phenomenal jumper

    In 2012, Emma targeted Badminton with the beautiful grey Kelecyn Ice Age, flying over for what was planned as a short trip.

    “He was definitely the best horse I’ve ever ridden or ever will ride. He wasn’t great on the flat, but was the most phenomenal jumper I’ve sat on,” she says.

    Kevin adds: “He made even the most difficult questions look easy.” At the time, Kevin was riding the New Zealand thoroughbred Clifton Pinot – “a real trier” – for Frances Stead.

    “She wanted him to have a run at the London Olympics and Em was already here, so that was motivation,” he explains. “I planned to come for three months.”

    Emma didn’t make it to Badminton and Kevin didn’t make the Olympics, but having sampled eventing in the UK, neither wanted to leave.

    Aside from the opportunity constantly to compete against the best of the best, Kevin says: “The calendar here is much more user friendly. In Australia, you have one five-star and you do everything you can to get to it and you might not have the best prep. Here, if you miss one event, you can go to another.”

    Building a life in a new country is tough and Kevin had an additional challenge when Clifton Pinot tested positive for a banned substance, the tranquiliser reserpine, at Burghley 2013, alongside Clifton Promise, the ride of his great friend Jock Paget.

    Both riders were later found to have “no fault or negligence” – the reserpine was traced to a supplement contaminated at the manufacturing stage – but they were disqualified from Burghley and endured a seven month suspension, with Jock losing the title.

    “It was difficult coming back from that, but we moved on,” says Kevin. “Jock and I could support each other – he had a lot more to lose than me – and we both knew we’d not done anything deliberately, which made it easier.”

    Valued owners

    Kevin and Emma have been based at Mark and Belinda Sartori’s pretty Surrey yard for seven years. “They support us really well,” says Kevin.

    Among their valued owners are the Italian equestrian team Scuderia 1918, who have horses in all three Olympic disciplines and for whom the McNabs currently have seven horses, who are chosen and managed by agent Francesca Pollara. Kevin says: “When we came over, we drew a line in the sand and said we wouldn’t have any sale horses. We stuck with that for quite a few years, but financially there’s always a bit of a pinch.

    “Francesca had been talking to me about Scuderia 1918 for a couple of years – she was someone we were very interested in working with and she basically talked us into it.

    “It’s ended up being a lot better than we expected. Initially it was just going to be sales and help with the spreadsheet each month. But they enjoyed it and we ended up with some nice horses, so we set some target events and said we’d keep the horses until then.”

    Last winter, the McNabs also boarded over 120 mares for The Billy Stud on some 179 acres of land which they rent separately behind the yard, and Kevin is keen to campaign a Billy horse in the future.

    Among the Scuderia 1918-prefixed horses are Don Quidam – seventh at Pau last year – and A Best Friend, who are cornerstones of Kevin’s four-strong potential Olympic team. Alongside them is Fernhill Tabasco – who belongs to Dom and Poppy Worcester and Emma’s parents Julia and Jamie Dougall – and Samia Murgian’s Willunga, ninth in the Millstreet Event Rider Masters last year.

    Asked what the Olympic dream would mean to him, Kevin underplays his answer.

    “It would tick a box,” he says, as Emma laughs. She adds: “Kevin is pretty modest when he talks about goals, but it would be a massive deal. Through Kevin’s whole career in Australia, he produced some lovely horses, which ended up on teams with other people.

    “It was a business and the horses were always to be sold. Now we’re in a position where we can concentrate on achieving goals and being on teams, which is exciting.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 18 June 2020