Jumping from Kaikohe to Bulgaria, and home again
Almost 20 years after she last rode at an Olympics, Kiwi showjumper Samantha McIntosh never expected to find herself here, standing on the verge of another one.
Fortunately, she’s never been afraid to take bold leaps.
McIntosh, who's now 43, admits she hadn't seen herself competing at sports’ pinnacle event for her homeland, New Zealand. You see, at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the girl from Kaikohe rode for Bulgaria.
Yes, Bulgaria. It’s a long and involved story, McIntosh admits.
But put simply, McIntosh - who grew up in a well-known Kiwi riding family - moved to Europe as a teenager to chase her showjumping dream, and ended up switching to dual NZ-Bulgarian citizenship to ride in Bulgaria’s first showjumping team at an Olympic Games.
A lot of water has flowed under the jumps since then, and now McIntosh is recognised as one of New Zealand’s top showjumpers – who you’d expect to be a shoo-in for New Zealand’s three-rider team at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
You only have to look back at her most recent performance. McIntosh's clear second round aboard her trusty stallion, Check In 2, at an Olympic qualifier in the Netherlands a fortnight ago, was instrumental in New Zealand's victory, securing the nation a place in Tokyo.
“Although I’ve already been to an Olympics, it would be my dream to go to the Olympics for New Zealand. It’s like a fresh start,” says McIntosh, who now lives in France. “Especially with all the support I’m getting from back home."
The Olympics have been a common goal in the McIntosh family. Samantha’s dad, Colin, also represented New Zealand in showjumping at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
He was part of the team that included Sir Mark Todd – who’d already won gold and bronze in eventing at those games. The Kiwi showjumpers finished 12th.
Samantha McIntosh doesn’t recall a lot from those games, as a 13-year-old back home in Kaikohe.
“I was just a kid, and you didn’t have the internet, so you couldn’t have instant access to everything. We had to wait to see if it came on TV, or watch videos of it when he came back home,” she says. “Everyone is proud when someone in the family makes an Olympics. It’s such a huge thing.”
McIntosh's mum, Penny Stevenson, was also a grand prix showjumper, but better known around the world as a leading instructor and coach.
Samantha was never pushed into riding, but growing up surrounded by horses and ponies, it was virtually unavoidable. She headed to Europe at 17, to work as a stable hand at different yards, and compete on stable horses.
When she ended up in Germany, working for Bulgarian rider Günter Orschel, he convinced her to take Bulgarian nationality so she could aim for the Sydney Olympics with his team.
“I had some mixed emotions about being there and not riding for New Zealand,” McIntosh recalls of those Olympics, so close to home. “But I was there and I had a good result.”
She made it through to the Olympic final, on Royal Discover, and finished 39th. Bulgaria finished 13th overall. “It got missed by the people back at home, but it was an amazing experience,” she says.
McIntosh also qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics, but never got there - her horse, Fleche Rouge, was sold just before the Games. They’d finished 11th at the 2002 World Equestrian Games, where McIntosh was second woman overall.
“It was a real blow because she was one of the best horses I’d ever ridden,” she says. “But that’s just part of the sport too - you have to suck it up, move on and try to find the next horse. That’s hard to deal with when you’re young and really hungry for the sport. But the more older and experienced you get, the more you take it in your stride.”
McIntosh admits she hadn’t imagined finding a horse good enough again to compete in the Olympic ring.
“But Check In has really become that horse for me,” she says.
‘Checky’, a 16-year-old Oldenburg – a warmblood horse from Germany once bred to pull carriages – was bought by Waikato philanthropists Mitch and Kate Plaw four years ago. The Plaws also own a world-class showjumping venue at Takapoto Estate on the banks of Lake Karapiro.
“He’s a phenomenal talent - though he can be a bit of a handful at times,” McIntosh says of the horse. “But he’s a real fighter, and we have the advantage of knowing each other well now.”
Together, they’ve won a grand prix – a 3* event on last year’s Mediterranean Equestrian Tour – and they were the best performing New Zealand duo at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, in the United States (finishing 32nd).
But their greatest success together was in Abu Dhabi last February, when they clinched victory for New Zealand in a nerve-wracking jump-off in the Nations Cup - the first time New Zealand had won a Nations Cup title.
“’He likes big shows, and he likes people watching him. He’s quite a showman once he gets in the ring,” McIntosh says.
But Check In had to lift his game in front of a smaller crowd at the Olympic qualifier in Valkenswaard earlier this month.
“It wasn't at a show; it was one class on a week day, which makes it a very different atmosphere. So you have to get yourself hyped up a bit more,” McIntosh says.
“The older horses know when it’s game day. This wasn't the normal hustle and bustle - but when he got in the ring, he worked it out.”
McIntosh was one of four riders in the victorious New Zealand team, with three-time Olympic veteran Bruce Goodin, Daniel Meech (who was 12th in the individual showjumping at the 2004 Olympics) and Tom Tarver, a newcomer to the team who's only been riding in Europe for a few months. Tarver was the only other rider, alongside McIntosh, to complete a clear round inside the time allowed.
This weekend, they will all compete together again in the Nations Cup in Gijon, Spain. “It’s a 5* Nations Cup - the top level you get in Europe. It’s rare for New Zealand to get a start at a Nations Cup; we have to wait for a wild card which only happens for us once or twice a year,” McIntosh says.
“It will be a tough week, a big step up for a couple of the horses. But we'll rise to the challenge. We’re on the road to Tokyo now.”
McIntosh will spend the Northern Hemisphere winter keeping Check In fit and healthy, alongside her three other competitive horses, at Haras de la Becassiere, a horse farm south of Bordeaux. The stables were owned by French showjumper Joelle Cairaschi-Dagut, who died last year; her daughter now runs the yard.
After her debut for New Zealand at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, McIntosh returned home and lived in Cambridge for three years. “It was time that I really needed for myself to get back to my roots, reboot and get motivated again. It gave me the energy to come back to Europe, to compete and really enjoy it again,” she says.
She returns home once a year to see her mum - who’s staying with her in France this month - and to ride at the annual Takapoto Estate showjumping event. She feels fortunate to have reconnected with her Kiwi side over the last decade.
“I love riding for New Zealand, especially when you’re at a big event in Europe, and it’s a world away from home,” she says. “People wake up in the middle of the night to watch you and send messages of support – it’s really special.”
She's hoping it will be just the same in Tokyo in 12 months' time.