H&H interview: Eventer Emilie Chandler on the horse who keeps her going *H&H Plus*

  • The event rider tells Pippa Roome about juggling priorities in sport and business, the special horse who keeps her going and coaching the showjumpers

    What do we know about diamonds? They are rare, beautiful and sparkling. It seems, therefore, that Emilie Chandler’s top horse is appropriately named, because Gortfadda Diamond definitely fits these three criteria.

    Last year, “Bertie” won the CCI4*-L at Blair Castle. He triumphed by an impressive 12.7 penalties, but his victory went slightly under the radar because it was a small field, with just nine starters.

    But in August this year, when eventing restarted post-lockdown, Bertie had a chance to frank that form and he did so in style, finishing fifth in an incredibly high-class field at Burgham CCI4*-S.

    “I was astounded,” says Emilie, who smiles a lot and is too modest for her considerable talent. “I wanted to do the best we could in each phase and the result was really the icing on the cake.”

    Gortfadda Diamond is an 11-year-old by Water Valley Cool Diamond, who has belonged to Maria Doel since he was a four-year-old. He was produced by Tanya Kyle to intermediate level, after which her husband Mark took over for a few runs. He moved to Emilie in 2017 when Mark broke his ankle badly in a fall from another horse.

    “He’s a gentle, kind horse and lovely to have about on a day-to-day basis,” says Emilie. “I’ve always liked him. He’s just my sort – tall, dark and handsome. He’s a really nice mover, galloper and jumper.

    “It took me a while to get my control panel across country – in his enthusiasm, he wanted to get the job done quickly, but sadly he hadn’t walked the course and wasn’t expecting some of the turns. It’s taken a while to train him to listen to me, but we have a really nice partnership now, which is exciting.”

    Emilie says quieter collecting rings under the new Covid-19 competition guidelines work to her advantage.

    “Bertie loves his routines and can get a little bit uptight at events. We used to laugh that he often has one ‘crazy leg moment’ when his legs seem to go very quickly underneath him in the moment of anticipation, but generally he then relaxes and enjoys himself.”

    Emilie used the lockdown period to improve her dressage – to good effect, as the pair scored a personal best of 25.2 at Burgham.

    “I practised my five-star dressage tests,” she explains. “I made myself get on, warm up for 20 minutes and then ride through them. That gave us both a lot of confidence.”

    Despite the challenges of quarantine, Emilie’s end-of-season plan is still to step Bertie up to five-star at Pau, in France. “I’d love to give it a shot,” she says. “There are lots of ifs and buts, but I’m determined to get him ready to go there if we can.”

    Five-star comeback

    Emilie, 39, knows better than most that gems such as Gortfadda Diamond don’t come along all that often – he’s rare, just like his namesake.

    A junior team gold and individual silver medallist, Emilie jumped round Badminton clear at 22. It looked like her career was set up, but it took more than a decade for her to get back to five-star, when she was 21st at Burghley 2015 on Coopers Law (Spider).

    Top-20 placings at both Badminton and Pau followed with Sally Williams and Nicola Dickson’s home-bred, but things came crashing down when the son of Mill Law suffered an injury on the cross
    country at Burghley 2018.

    “It really broke my heart because Spider was in great form, he’d done a nice dressage test – which was quite challenging for him – and was going really well across country,” remembers Emilie.

    “It took me a minute to pick myself back up from there and I’m very grateful I have a nice horse in Gortfadda Diamond. It keeps you looking forward and enjoying the sport. It’s just finding them that’s hard.”

    Emilie certainly has a skill for sourcing and training good horses, but over the years she has prioritised growing a business and owning her own property over her sporting career.

    “I keep selling the horses I buy, but I wouldn’t have what I have if I didn’t do that,” she says. “And I love to see the horses I’ve produced go on to be successful. Yes, I love riding them myself and I’d love to have kept them, but that’s life. I find it fascinating to work with them and watch them flourish in their careers. That really interests me.”

    Among those she has produced are Alex Hua Tian’s four-star horse DHI Jet Set and the CIC3* (now CCI4*-S) winner Douglas, as well as many horses now ridden by young riders, such as Georgia Bartlett’s Jalba O, Henry Hobby’s Hazzle Dazzle and Clementine De Brenne, who is now in Belgium.

    The profits of these sales are ploughed back into Emilie’s base. In 2006, she bought a plot of land on which she now has a house and a 14-box yard, with ever-growing facilities. A 500m canter track is the latest development; a grass arena and a garage are on the agenda.

    Emilie’s fiancé Paul Luger – whom she would have married on 27 June this year, had it not been for Covid-19 – is credited with keeping the place “tidy and very smart”. During lockdown, the pair joined forces with Ellie Harding, who was previously Emilie’s head girl and now works for her part-time and at shows, to do “a lot of painting”.

    Right now, Emilie only has three youngsters in addition to Bertie, and she is seeking new rides to follow her stable star.

    “I’d love to find something that fills that gap – that’s going to be my real target in the coming months,” she says, adding she is happy to take on younger or older horses. “Whatever age you take them on, you just have to allow that time to build a partnership so they understand you and you understand them.

    “I love training horses and attention to detail. That’s what I take real pride in – I like to think I could produce a horse to be happy, confident and able to do its job to the best of its ability.”

    Although she’d like a few more horses, Emilie does not want a big string.

    “Burghley 2018, when Coopers Law was injured, was a bit of a catalyst,” she says. “It made me look at what I wanted to do with the business, what I wanted to do with my sport and where I wanted to go.

    “I began to make a change then to have fewer horses. I’m really good at building partnerships with them and if you have a lot of horses, that’s really challenging – you need an army to support you. So I took the decision to go slightly smaller in numbers. I always taught a bit, and having fewer horses gives me more time to coach; as a business, that works better. But the horses I have, I really enjoy riding.”

    ‘A big believer’

    On the coaching side, Emilie has been helping the World Class Podium Potential showjumping riders with their flatwork for 18 months, an opportunity that came about through her long-term coach Di Lampard, who is also British showjumping performance manager.

    “It’s wonderful to work with such talented riders and it gives me a buzz when an idea helps improve the horse’s way of going,” says Emilie. “I’m a big believer in having a consistent way of going for a horse, so it works every day in a good way that benefits it as an athlete and helps strengthen its core and muscle tone.

    “With showjumpers, you’re not training people to ride the movements to score marks, you’re training people to ride exercises to help the horses be more supple and rideable.”

    Learning flows both ways with the podium potential showjumpers as Emilie says she “learns so much” when she has the chance to watch them jump. She has recently had help from European showjumping team bronze medallist Holly Smith, who lives near her.

    “I’ve helped Holly on the flat, so I thought it’d be good if she helped me with the jumping and that’s worked well,” says Emilie. “She’s challenged me on turnbacks to fences and keeping a good rhythm – at Burgham where the time was tight and there were a lot of turnbacks, I was very grateful to her.”

    Emilie is still ambitious and would love to make a senior championship team, but she has changed the way she approaches her targets.

    “Now, I’m a lot more focused on process goals and enjoying the journey, rather than always focusing on an end result,” she says. “The end result comes as a result of your process – we can’t control the end result, but we can control what we do every day.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 15 October 2020