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First Badminton and Luhmühlen, next the world

Kiwi equestrian Jonelle Price says having baby Otis hasn't changed her competitive career, but maybe he's her good luck charm. Suzanne McFadden reports.

It’s been a year of incredible firsts for Jonelle Price, but still she craves one more.

Just last month, Price became the first woman equestrian in over a decade to win the prestigious Badminton three-day event. It was also the first time in her 15-year international career she had won a coveted four-star title.

Six weeks later, Price followed it up with a second four-star victory at Luhmühlen in Germany – the first time a New Zealand woman has won back-to-back events at the top level of the sport. “It’s crazy. I still can’t believe it,” she says.

Soon, her first child, son Otis, will turn one. This week she brought Otis to New Zealand for the first time, surprising her father, Paul, for his 70th birthday. Price’s husband Tim, also an outstanding Kiwi rider, remained back at Mere Farm in Wiltshire, England, to look after the 30 horses they train and ride.

But maybe the biggest 'first' lined up in the Prices’ sights this year is a team victory at the World Equestrian Games in North Carolina, in September.

“New Zealand has a rich history in team eventing, but we’ve had a medal-less few years, so we’ve got a bit to put right,” 37-year-old Jonelle says. "This might be our year."

It's been 20 years since New Zealand last won team gold at the world championships. Two years ago, the Kiwis were in the hunt for gold at the Rio Olympics until Mark Todd, the senior statesman of the sport, had a disastrous show jumping round and New Zealand slipped off the podium. It still haunts them all.

Redemption is a word Price is reluctant to use.

“We don’t want to put undue pressure on the situation. But we came so close at Rio, it could have ended in a very different way,” says Price, who won team bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.

A major driver in Price’s desire to win in Mill Spring, North Carolina, is to do it for Todd, before he retires. “Toddy isn’t getting any younger [he’s 62], and we can put this right,” she says.

“It’s very special winning something, but if you can share that win with your best mates, it’s extra special. In our case, because New Zealand is so small, it often is your best friends you’re competing with.”

And winning with her husband would be the ultimate, Price says.   

Mr and Mrs Price - known as eventing's golden couple - rode together in the New Zealand team at Rio, and at the last World Games in 2014 (they are held every four years between Olympic cycles).

While Jonelle has to be a shoe-in with her recent victories, Tim is also “very much in the running” for this year’s team, his wife says. “Fingers crossed we will both be there, but there’s a bit of water to go under the bridge yet.”

Tim, she says, has had a frustrating season: “He’s had one or two things not quite come to fruition. But these things tend to go in swings and roundabouts for us.

“While I sat on the side-lines last year, he had a really good year."  He was third at Badminton in 2017 and finished the year second overall in the world rider rankings. "Although he hasn’t quite clinched a really good win this year, he’s got his horses in good form and it should be just a matter of time.”

If both husband and wife go to the Games, they may take Otis with them. Fortunately, they have Harriet, a young English nanny, who’s been with the family since Jonelle got back in the saddle in earnest on January 1.

“Harriet has a horse, and she rides at a lower level. Because she needs to spend a lot of time at horse events, she had to have a bit of an interest in what we’re doing, so she won't be totally bored by it. She’s been perfect – we couldn’t do without her,” she says.

Price doesn’t think her equestrian career has changed a great deal since Otis was born last August. “The important part for me was that it didn’t; I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my career at this point in time. I had to get back up to speed as quick as possible, and I think we’ve achieved that,” says Price, who continued to ride horses around the farm right up until Otis' arrival.

“We’re lucky with our job that he can travel with us quite a lot. We just have to be more organised and have more help to make it work.

"He's pretty cool," she says, as the 10-month-old burbles in the background.   

Price knows she’s in a fortunate position to have two horses in exceptional form for the New Zealand selectors to choose from for the World Games. “I just have to keep them both happy and healthy now,” she says.

She won Badminton on board her gutsy 15-year-old black mare, Classic Moet – stable name Molly – who’s described as a Mick Jagger-style "rock and roll legend".

At Luhmühlen, Price rode Faerie Dianimo (aka Maggie May), a 13-year-old grey mare, who is the princess of the Mere Farm yard; small, feisty and funny, and in love with the crowds and cameras at the big events.

“They are both special horses. At the risk of being repetitive, they have been such good campaigners for a number of years. I thought they each deserved a big one for different reasons,” Price says.

“Trish Rickards owns both the horses, and Faerie Dianimo was home bred, so that makes her win extra special. I’ve had her since she was six years old, and she’s always been a phenomenal talent, but been a little bit difficult -  feisty and electric.

“It’s pretty fitting that they’ve both got [a four-star win] now. Hopefully it’s not the end, but no matter what happens next, they’ve sealed those anyway.

“They are chalk and cheese. But both have that determined, courageous female spirit.”  Not unlike their rider.  

At home in Nelson this week, Price is still stunned by her back-to-back victories. It was, she said at the time, beyond her wildest dreams.  

“It was totally unexpected. Of course you think you can, and you hope one day that you will, but you still don’t expect it on that particular day," she says.

"Badminton was so special, because it’s the holy grail. It’s Badminton, you know? But in some ways Luhmühlen was even more unbelievable,” she says. Price and Faerie Dianimo were runners-up at the German CCI4* event back in 2015, denied victory by just 0.1 of a penalty point.

Luhmühlen signalled the end of the spring three-day season in Europe, and now the elite riders turn their focus to the world championships. 

But that doesn’t mean the Price family will be enjoying quiet times at home in their thatched cottage in the market town of Marlborough over the next couple of months. “We don’t get a single weekend off between now and the end of October,” Jonelle says. “It’s pretty chocka. We were in Belgium last week, Germany the week before, and Ireland before that.

“As well as having those horses at the top level, we’ve still got to be producing those, that in a few years to come, will fill their shoes. You are constantly building them up.”

They've steadily built up the business they began after moving to England in 2003, to now have 30 horses, and eight staff, on the 50ha farm they lease in Wiltshire. Price would like to think there are future four-star champions in their stables.

“The real champions have to have a little bit of something else. But you never know if they have it until they get to the very top level - then they come through for you on the day. The two mares I’ve had these wins on definitely have that. Hopefully we have a good enough system, and we can keep producing them,” she says.  

Molly and Maggie May now get a well-earned break from competition until one is given the nod to fly to North Carolina early in September.

Price is to the point about what she hopes to achieve at these World Games: “A team gold medal of course. It’s pretty simple - that’s our quest. Now we just need to pull it off.”

 

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