Legends of the sport: How Graham Fletcher made his name in showjumping *H&H Plus*

  • The Nations Cup stalwart made his name producing bargain horses to the highest level. Penny Richardson plots his career from all-round sportsman to Olympic athlete

    When I ask Graham Fletcher what it was like to be showjumping’s pin-up boy of the 1970s, there is a moment’s silence before he bursts out laughing.

    “At the risk of sounding conceited, I don’t think there was a downside. I really enjoyed it!” he replies.

    But Graham Fletcher was always a lot more than just a pretty face. He rode at two Olympics, was reserve for a third and went to number four as trainer of the British team. His major wins included grands prix at Meccas such as Aachen, Olympia and Dublin. A former international selector and board member of the British Show Jumping Association (now British Showjumping), for many years he has also found the time to write a column about his sport for this magazine. And most impressively, the majority of his wins were on horses that were inexpensive buys.

    Born into a North Yorkshire farming family, he was introduced to riding by his father, Ken.

    “Dad did a bit of point-to-pointing and hunting, but he never showjumped,” reflects Graham. “My sister Liz [now married to David Broome] and I both had ponies and Dad was really supportive and took us to shows. We all enjoyed it and it became a family day out.”

    It took young Graham a while to settle on a sporting career. “I did well at school and also liked all sports. I played a lot of football and although no one who sees me today would believe it, I was once a good athlete. I reached county level as a hurdler and just missed going to the all-England championships,” he says.

    A bargain horse

    The turning point came when Ken Fletcher spotted a promising young Irish horse called Buttevant Boy out hunting and bought him for £180.

    “That was the common denominator as far as Dad was concerned. He had a great eye but every pony or horse he bought was cheap. I remember one pony who did qualify for the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley a couple of times, but when I got him he was stopping, so he didn’t cost much,” says Graham.

    These were the days when nearly every major town in England hosted a horse show. “The town shows were the best. They ran in public parks in places like Manchester, Birmingham and Southport. London had about five shows in various parks,” remembers Graham. “My first big wins came in Sheffield. I won the pony championship and then the horse equivalent against top riders such as Harvey Smith. That was quite a feat.”

    Graham was only 16 and Buttevant Boy a four-year-old when they made the trip to Wembley and finished fourth in the 1968 Foxhunter final. By the end of the season, Buttevant Boy was grade A and just three years later Graham made the first of his 32 Nations Cup appearances.

    “Buttevant Boy was a great horse because he was a total trier. He was as brave as a lion and always did his best, no matter what I asked,” says Graham. “He was second in the Hickstead Derby after a jump-off against Harvey Smith and won so many classes, including two British Olympic trials and the grands prix at Dublin and Olympia, but what makes me proudest was when we won the big one in Aachen.”

    In those days, the Aachen grand prix comprised two normal rounds, then a round of seven or eight puissance-type fences, followed by a jump-off, so only the toughest and best combinations made it to the end.

    “Our team had already finished second to the Germans after a jump-off for the Nations Cup. The two rounds were both bruisers and then two days later I asked Buttevant Boy to do it again in the grand prix. He really showed his character that day,” says Graham fondly.

    One of Graham’s greatest regrets was that Buttevant Boy never made the Olympics. They were reserves for Munich in 1972 and although Graham rode at Montreal in 1976, a controversial selection policy meant that his top horse was left at home.

    “The selectors were a bunch of clowns!” says Graham. “For reasons best known to themselves, they decided to pick the riders and then put us on other people’s horses!”

    Graham’s chosen mount was Hideaway, a gelding ridden at the Munich Games by Mick Saywell.

    “He wasn’t a bad horse. He’d seen and done it all, but I rode him twice before we went to Montreal,” says Graham. “And sitting at home were Buttevant Boy at his best and top combinations such as John Whitaker with Ryan’s Son and Tony Newbery’s Warwick. If those horses and riders had been in Montreal, we could easily have won a medal.”

    Buttevant Boy continued to compete until the age of 18, when a tendon injury brought about his retirement. He lived a happy life in the field until his death at the age of 30.

    Four years after Montreal, Graham was back on the team, although the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow meant that the equestrian events took place at the alternative Olympics in Rotterdam.

    As Buttevant Boy was then 16, Graham’s mount was Preachan, a horse later ridden successfully by Geoff Billington. Then only an eight-year-old, this Irish-bred gelding had all the ability, but wasn’t the easiest ride.

    Also on a strong British squad were John Whitaker (Ryan’s Son), Nick Skelton (Maybe) and the late Tim Grubb (Night Murmur). The team went home with two silver medals, as John also finished runner-up individually.

    “We lost out to Canada in the team competition by a time-fault after Grubby went a bit too slowly,” remembers Graham. “He was always so laid-back that he was nearly horizontal, so the clock was always going to be his downfall.”

    The squad then went to Spruce Meadows in Calgary, where Preachan disgraced himself in the first round of the Nations Cup.

    “He had his nutty head on,” says Graham. “We were the discard score and I had to work him right through until we jumped again to get him rideable. He only had a 15-minute break, but in round two he jumped clear. That was Preachan!”

    Another inexpensive buy was the mare Tauna Dora, a big winner for Graham who went on to introduce the future British Showjumping chairman, the late Michael Mac, to top-level competition.

    “Of all the horses I rode in the 1970s, she was the one who would have made it in the modern-day sport,” says Graham. “She was so careful and scopey and the beefy courses with brushes in front of the fences didn’t really suit her. She would have preferred today’s delicate fences and lighter poles. But she did win many classes, including the leading showjumper at Wembley.”

    Among numerous other top rides was the multi-talented Double Brandy, who had the distinction of winning the puissance and grand prix at the Royal Dublin Society’s indoor international show in 1979.

    “He was an awkward horse to ride but had plenty of jump. Grand prix horses often jumped in the puissance. I think they were maybe a bit braver in those days,” says Graham.

    A proud father

    Graham was forced to retire from the sport in 2007 due to a shoulder injury doctors told him would not stand up to another fall. Instead, he has built up a training and sales business with his second wife Tina and their sons Will and Olli.

    Graham’s two daughters from his first marriage followed different career paths, but Will and Olli have joined their parents in the showjumping business.

    “One of the nicest things is that they don’t have to rely on cheap horses, like I did,” says Graham.

    “I am proud of the fact that I made so many grade As on a budget and it would be easy to say to my lads: ‘That’s what I did, so you must do the same,’ but in this modern era we do things differently.

    “This is the time of good owners who have to be looked after. The two best horses I found for Tina were Hello Sailor and Ursula. I could never have afforded to keep them in my day, but we managed it due to the spending power of exceptionally generous owners.”

    However, Graham did revert to “cheap and cheerful” when he bought Promised Land, the horse who carried Tina to a famous Hickstead Derby victory in 2011.

    “When I got Promised Land, Tina told me I was absolutely mad. To be fair, he was a bit of a lunatic,” says Graham. “I rode him first but when Tina took over they won an awful lot of classes. I used to remind her that I wasn’t as mad as she thought!

    “Tina has retired from competition now, but she was a great rider whose main strength was that she was so good under pressure,” Graham adds. “She loved being last to go for the team. She was incredibly unlucky that she never managed to ride at the Olympics. She got so close in London 2012, when she was reserve, but it just wasn’t to be.”

    Olli, now 17, was destined from an early age for a career in the saddle. “He moved on to horses almost by mistake at the age of 12,” says Graham. “I’d had a mare I thought would be perfect for children-on-horses classes. Some people came to try her, she went perfectly and to my surprise they didn’t buy her.

    “‘I’ll show them,’ I thought, and I entered Olli in the European trials on her the following week. He’d never ridden a horse before and Tina told me it was unfair, but they ended up with a silver medal at the European Championships.”

    Will, however, was more interested in football and played at a high level. He began riding a little more seriously after taking his A levels. “He decided to take a gap year before going to university and wanted to try showjumping,” explains Graham.

    “Olli had done so much more and I was worried for Will, but he’s worked incredibly hard, improved beyond all recognition, is now good enough for the highest level. He’s 21 now and still on that gap year!”

    Graham is extremely proud of his sons. “One of my best moments was in 2018, when they came home from the [junior and young rider] European Championships with three medals. And they’re both proper workers. They spend all day on the yard and do their own mucking out, grooming and tacking up, while Will spends hours driving the horsebox,” he says. “They take after their mum in that respect. I can’t say hard work ever appealed to me much!”

    A nice hobby

    Graham still owns the family farm near Thirsk, but his life is now spent at Foxglade Farm in Oxfordshire.

    “I bred a few horses in Yorkshire, but I’ve stopped that now and the land’s rented out,” he says. “I may not ride any more, but I’m very busy.

    “I used to own a couple of racehorses, but I was still competing and because you never know if your horse will run until the day before, I didn’t get much chance to go to the races. It was a nice hobby, but I don’t have time for those any more.

    “I should be retired and instead we’re building a new block of stables and have a nine-horse lorry on order.”

    So was showjumping really a better sport in the good old days? “In some ways it was,” he says. “The camaraderie between riders from different nations was great and we had some good nights out. That may have been my Achilles’ heel. I probably liked parties a little too much. I don’t miss riding. I had a good innings and some great memories, but I don’t enjoy looking back. I prefer to talk about tomorrow.”

    The “nearly” horses

    “The most talented horse I rode was probably Burnbrook, a mare we just couldn’t keep sound. In two seasons at top level she had only three fences down and she should have become one of the world’s best horses,” says Graham.

    “Hold Hard won the Foxhunter final as a five-year-old and went back to Wembley next season to win two international classes. Because he was only six, we decided to give him a holiday instead of taking him to Olympia and he died in the field. It was a huge disappointment because he could have been anything.”

    Tina on Graham

    “Graham’s greatest asset as a rider was a natural feel for his horses. He also has a great eye and has picked out so many young horses that have become stars. He was an out-and-out winner in the ring and he’s probably a bit too ultra-competitive outside horses. He has to win at everything and we can’t play things like Monopoly at home because he’s also the world’s worst loser!”

    Team spirit

    “When I went to the Seoul Olympics as team trainer, I knew that with a squad comprising David Broome, Nick Skelton, Joe Turi and Malcolm Pyrah, I wouldn’t need to train them. Instead, I decided my job was to foster team spirit,” Graham explains.

    “I’d never seen four such tired riders. They jumped at Calgary on different horses, flew home for a day and then had a 17-hour trip to Seoul. They were knackered, so I suggested time out watching other sports. We went to boxing and track and field and totally relaxed. It must have worked because we ended up with three riders in the top 15 individually.

    “A good atmosphere is the most important thing at championships. The riders already know what they have to do and how to do it.”

    Number one fan

    “I didn’t have a showjumping hero when I started out, as I was lucky that it was at a time when there were so many great British riders. I learned a bit from them all,” admits Graham.

    “When it comes to today, world number one Steve Guerdat is outstanding. As well as being an absolute gentleman, he hasn’t done it on expensive or easy horses. They’ve all had some sort of quirk and Steve manages to get the best out of them in a very nice way.”

    Home and away

    “I may be slightly biased, but the Great Yorkshire Show is Britain’s best by a distance,” says Graham. “The atmosphere is second-to-none, the prize-money is very good and the Cock o’ the North championship is a great class. I’m proud of the fact that I won it four times on four different horses.

    “I’m on the committee now and we’ve worked hard to ramp-up the facilities. The collecting ring, for instance, used to be rubbish, but it’s now all-weather and as good as anywhere.

    “My favourite international show by far is Aachen. The Germans really show the rest of the world how to do the job. You can tell showjumping’s a big sport there as soon as you arrive, with TV cameras everywhere and headline news in the daily papers. It’s such a shame that the profile has slipped so badly in Britain.”

    Graham in numbers

    35 years competing at top level

    32 Nations Cup appearance

    3 five-star grand prix wins

    2 British national champion’s titles

    2 Olympic Games teams

    1 Olympic silver medal

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 July 2020