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Lissington plots her path to ride to Tokyo 2020

Samantha Lissington is facing a heart-wrenching decision.

When she leaves her Waikato farm for the English Cotswolds in pursuit of a place in the New Zealand equestrian team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Lissington will have to choose who she takes with her - and who she bids goodbye to.

Toby or Riley? Ricky or Rui? Sooty or Venus?

Lissington, one of the country’s most talented young eventing riders on the rise, runs a team of seven horses in Matangi, who’ve all become a major part of her life. But the 27-year-old will only take three, possibly four, of them to the UK in June.

She will also have to sell at least two of her prized horses to help pay her way.

“You know them all so well, it’s heart-breaking,” she says.

She’s been with Toby - whose competition name is Ricker Ridge Escada - since he was five; he’s now 13. “That’s longer than I’ve known my husband.”

Lissington was Samantha Felton until last month, when she married Brayden Lissington on the front lawn of her family’s Ricker Ridge Farm in Kerikeri.

He’s an athlete in his own right – playing futsal (indoor football) for the New Zealand team, the Futsal Whites. And he’s definitely on the list of those going to England.

The Lissingtons will set up camp in Gloucestershire, on the farm that four-time Olympic medallist Blyth Tait had leased for more than a decade. Tait has finally returned home to his farm in Karaka, where he will make his bid for a fifth Olympics next year.

Already settled in at the Gloucestershire yard is Ginny Thompson – another New Zealand eventing rider, who was Lissington’s chief bridesmaid. Thompson made her debut at the four-star events of Badminton and Burghley last year.

Lissington wants to do the same, and stamp her mark on the international eventing scene. It’s her aspiration to ride for New Zealand at the Olympic Games.

“Realistically, I’ll have horses at the Olympic level, so it would be silly not to have a crack at the team for Tokyo,” she says.

“I know there are a lot of great Kiwi riders, and the Olympic competition has changed to only three in a team. But if we don’t make it, we want to have gathered as much experience as we can before we come home in a few years.”

Lissington has no trouble with upping sticks and moving horses across the globe.

“I’m a bit of a drifter,” she says.

She doesn’t like admitting she was born in Australia (“I’m Kiwi proud”), but her family’s nomadic lifestyle when she was young has formed the adventurous, fearless woman she is today.

At the age of eight, Lissington spent two years living on a boat with her parents and sister Nicky. They sailed around the South Pacific, and eventually chose New Zealand to settle in.

“It was a great childhood. I loved the freedom it’s given me to think outside the square, and the bravery and confidence to take a leap of faith into the unknown,” she says.

The family started an avocado orchard in Whangarei, before moving to a farm in Kerikeri. The girls were promised ponies – although no one in the family was the “slightest bit horsey”, Lissington laughs.  

She wasn’t very athletic either. “Growing up on a boat meant I didn’t have a sporting background in netball or football,” she says. “I didn’t have great hand eye co-ordination, so I ended up falling into riding. I started when I was 10, but I was already behind some of my peers.”

But, as her self-confidence grew, so did her Olympic dream. “Once I latched on to that idea, I wouldn’t let it go. Hopefully I’ll never let it go,” she says.

Lissington on her way to second at the 2017 Melbourne CCI3*, helping NZ win the Oceania title. Photo: Diana Dobson, Black Balloon

It was one brief line from a celebrated New Zealand rider that made Lissington realise she really could be somebody.

In 2008, Lissington won her first championship title – the CIC* Junior, on a horse named Buddy. With it came a 10-day training scholarship and coaching from Olympic bronze medallist and Badminton champion Jock Paget.

“It was the only thing I’d ever won, and I fluked it. But Jock said to my dad: ‘Sam, she’s a winner’.

“From that day on, I started believing that. He instilled self-confidence in me that what I was doing wasn’t a fluke anymore - the hard work, training and concentration that now produces success.”

Lissington still goes to Paget, who’s back living in New Zealand, for advice: “We talk at least once a week”.

Paget believes Lissington has the ability to “go wherever she wants to go.”

“She’s very motivated, very grounded and works hard. She’s already riding a huge number of horses, but she’s really organised. Now she needs to go [overseas] and learn more.”

She also knows how to win – an asset that not all good riders possess, Paget says. “You’ve got to be brave, take massive risks on the day. Last year at Puhinui was a great example.”

Lissington rode four of her horses at the Puhinui International Horse Trials last December. In cross country, Lissington’s first horse – Ricker Ridge Sooty – unceremoniously dumped her at the water jump.

“It’s really hard when you take a dunking like that,” Paget says. “She was saturated and came back to the truck to get changed for her next ride. She asked me ‘What did you think of the ride?’, and I said she’d done nothing wrong.

“So she got back out there and gave the same ride with her next three horses. She didn’t change a thing. It doesn’t matter if it scares the hell out of her, she will be straight about it and do it.”

Lissington’s boldness paid off handsomely - she won the Puhinui CCI3* on board Ricker Ridge Devine Right (known by her mates as Venus), and rode Ricker Ridge Rui into third place. Her other horse, Ricker Ridge Riley, finished second in the CCI2*.

It capped off a tough year where she had three months off riding following hip surgery - having broken her pelvis in a fall five years earlier.

But Lissington’s proudest moment so far has been finishing second to Paget at the 2017 Melbourne CCI3*. They were part of the winning New Zealand team in the Oceania championship – beating Australia for the first time in a decade.

Lissington wants another crack at the trans-Tasman competition, when the Australians come here in May. The competition will test the new Olympic format – with teams reduced from four to three riders and substitutions allowed for vet or medical reasons midway through the competition.

She knows the cut in team numbers means it will be tougher to make the national team for Tokyo – with four-star champions Jonelle and Tim Price almost a shoo-in, and the perennial Mark Todd not ruling out a 10th Olympic selection.

“But you’ve got to be in amongst it to have a shot,” she says.

Taking horses to the Northern Hemisphere is expensive – flights alone can be up to $20,000 per horse one way. “If you only take one horse, who then gets injured, you’re out,” Lissington says.

She’s looking to sell two of her three-star horses to cover initial costs, but she’d also like to get owners on board for her other horses.

“In the UK, they do a fabulous job involving horse owners. It’s a real VIP culture. We haven’t got the critical mass yet to achieve that in New Zealand,” says Lissington, who also has a bachelor of management studies.

“I want to get people involved in our journey, follow a Kiwi on their way, who's working hard, trying to be the best they can be. And see their horse progress through the grades to Badminton and Burghley. Then as a rider I can concentrate on performance, rather than having to put bread on the table.”

She already has a supporter in Pip McCarroll, who owns half of two of her horses, including Sooty - a young and cocky but a reliable workman who heads Lissington’s list of who will go with her.

Ricker Ridge Ricochet (aka Ricky) is another young horse with personality and potential, but Lissington will also need a horse that can jump around the “big tracks” – events like Badminton, Pau and Luhmühlen.

Lissington knows she’s fortunate her new husband shares her love of competition at the highest level. He’s working to grow futsal in the Waikato / Bay of Plenty, and hopes to get a similar job in the UK. 

“We’re both high performance athletes, so it’s a challenge. While we’re following my path, we’ll still be supporting his. And the tables will turn at some stage,” she says. “For now, we’re sharing this dream.”

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