What is your earliest equestrian memory?
My earliest equestrian memory comes from when I was 10-years-old, and I remember watching the top riders at the London International Horse Show [formerly known as Olympia] racing camels!
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
One of my proudest moments was winning Individual European gold medal for Ireland in 1995, I had a massive point to prove because I left the British team two years prior, aged 32, because I wanted to compete in major Championships. Previously, I had won many good 5-star Grands Prix, but this was a huge moment in my career, as it vindicated a lot of what I had done previously. It proved my planning, thinking and direction was correct.
I changed nationality again in 2008, which was unprecedented, but it was something the owners I had at the time wanted because they wanted to have a horse on the British team at the London Olympics in 2012. At this time, I had just broken my back in three places, so I wasn’t even sure I was going to ride again, so to jump the last round on Vinidicate in order to the win the gold medal for Great Britain at home was something only dreams are made of. What made it more special, was Vinidicate was a true family horse, my wife was the half owner and my son, Harry persuaded me to buy the horse as a four-year-old.
How did you get into the breeding side of the sport?
One of my very good friends, Kevin Cooper, who lives down the road from me, got me into the breeding side of the sport. He would always talk about it and he had a nice Irish mare, who was very good 1.40m jumper. We were at a show together and he asked me what I thought of the stallion Carnaval Drum, who he had just brought, and I said: “That’s a good one, let’s use him”. I rode the progeny, he was called Carnavelly, and I won the six-year-old World Championships, the German Masters, the Berlin Grand Prix, and the World Cup at The London International Horse Show on him. To have had a hand in that horse was fantastic, and that really inspired me to breed myself. Kevin has also bred many good horses since.
What do you believe are the main elements of breeding a top show jumping horse?
I can’t say for sure, because sometimes you get horses that don’t have any top pedigree lines at the very top of the sport. But I do 100% believe that if you have a really good dam, with top breeding going back two or three generations, you are improving your chances of breeding a top horse.
All a stallion can do is better the mare, so in percentages of probability, you need a very good mare to start with. If you have that, then you are increasing the chances of your success rate – it is not guaranteed but you are giving yourself a fair chance. However, with some mares it doesn’t matter who you put them to, they still produce outstanding horses.
Has there ever been a time when pairings have had unexpected results??
Definitely! The perfect example is Liscalgot who was ridden by Dermott Lennon. They together won the Individual World Championship in Jerez de la Frontera in 2002. Liscalgot’s dam was bought by a breeder to act as a way of keeping his grass down in his paddock. One day he decided to put her into foal, but she would not load into the lorry, so they chased her down a road in Ireland to the nearest stallion who happened to be Touchdown. This combination bred the world champion in 2002!
The partnership between horse and rider is incredibly important – is that something that you look for when selling to new owners?
I think it is very important. When I sold Spirit T to Jessica Mendoza a few years ago, I could instantly see the partnership was going to be successful. Her father, Paul Mendoza, took some more convincing, but I could see how well the horse and rider suited each other, and it has turned out to be an exceptional partnership.
Sometimes partnerships do not work out, but I think with enough time and a smart rider, who does not try to force issues, a partnership can develop. Many people now, do not give the horse time or a chance, they pay so much money that they expect instant results. It has never worked like that – a horse does not know how much it costs.
What is your breeding set-up like?
We have nine mares, none of which are very old. I believe the younger mares produce the best horses. If you also look at horse racing the successful ones tend to be by young mares. So, I have taken that onboard. I try to mainly breed from good pedigree; over a few generations with the mares themselves. They must also have a good jump and confirmation. We have no mares over the age of 16, and we start to take embryos from them around 8-10 years old.
How long do you usually keep a foal for before it goes onto the next home or before you break it in?
I am not very commercial; I like to keep the foals and not sell too early. Each year we breed between six and nine foals and I’ll buy one or two as well. I like to wait until they are in the spring of their fourth year, before we break them in, this allows the horse to be strong enough to show me what they are like and I will not misread a situation with the horse not being ready or strong enough. We never loose jump our horses; they will have a few small jumps with a rider when they are first broken in and this gives us an accurate representation of their talent. Loose jumping can give out a lot of false impressions, and I cannot judge a horse loose jumping at a sale because it can be totally inaccurate.
Why do you do it / what is your ambition?
I love it. I love seeing the foals being born and bringing them up. Earlier on in my breeding career I sold one horse too early, and I have learnt from this. I sold Clear Round and Party aged two-years-old, for £1,500, because I judged the horse too early on his loose jumping. He ended second in the Grand Prix at The London International Horse Show. It taught me to never be impatient and if you judge a young horse every time they jump and perform you will be disappointed. They need time to develop, and all are vastly different in their development.
Which homebred are you most proud of?
Clear Round and Party – he was the first horse that was born here. I must stress I never gave him that name, that was Geir Gulliksen!
What does the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping mean to you? How positive do you believe it is for the sport of show jumping?
I think that Rolex has taken show jumping to next level, it is now on par with all the other sporting Majors, such as tennis and golf. Rolex has picked the four most iconic arenas in the world, they are without a doubt historic venues and the history in them needs no explaining. The level of competition associated with those arenas, over the years, is the best in the world.
CHIO Aachen is beautiful, manicured, and the attention to details unrivalled. It takes your breath away every time. They have taken CHI Geneva to another level, way beyond any other indoor show in the world. The CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ is a long plane ride away, but it is worth every second when you get there. The crowds are phenomenal, and they have created the best show jumping arena in North America. The Dutch Masters is magnificent and steeped in history. Each of those venues are also outstanding for the horses, great stabling, warm up arenas and plenty of room to move them around.
CHI Geneva is the next Major and it brings the whole equestrian world together, with the Rolex IJRC Top 10 Final, the Rolex Grand Prix and the fantastic prize money. It is without doubt the pinnacle of the whole indoor season and is proper Grand Prix showjumping with no pay cards and no gimmicks.
Who has been your biggest inspiration throughout career?
I loved watching the pure belief of Hugo Simon. I would watch him, his warm-ups, his approach at beginning of a show. He was the only man to jump every class in the show, and he would try and win them all even on his best horses. His horses had to win and the belief that he gave his horses to win was something you rarely see. I have never seen that level of intensity; a few riders want to win the top few classes at a show, but they usually mainly focus on the Grand Prix. But Hugo wanted to win from the first day, to the final Grand Prix. His mental preparation was amazing, and he prepared his horses to win. They knew what to expect from him as a rider, they were ready, and his belief in himself and his horses was extraordinary.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Paul Schockemöhle, in 1984 when I won my first World Cup in Brussels on a seven-year-old, called April Sun. After my round he offered to buy the horse, and I was quite naïve at that age and I told him that the horse wasn’t for sale. He said are you sure? I told him my plan was to go to Seoul Olympics. Paul said good luck and look after him they don’t come around that often. The following year the owner sold him! So ever since then with owners or partnerships I make sure there is a clear plan. It is better for everyone involved.
If you had to give advice to someone entering the equestrian industry, what would it be?
Solely concentrate on your riding career, and do not mix too many things into it. It is very hard to try and establish yourself in the industry. It’s a marathon not a sprint. First and foremost, make sure you do a proper apprenticeship and learn everything you can about good horse care on a daily basis.
As a rider you must work hard and have good training and be dedicated. I would recommend not to worry about the breeding until further down the line. It takes up a lot of time and lot of expertise – I wouldn’t as a young rider try and do it all because it is too much. Nowadays, to be a very successful rider you need a really good team around you, dedicated owners when things don’t always work out, good staff and a long-term plan and goal. Take your career step by step.