Four rails down, four years to recover

Olympic glory was within touching distance for the New Zealand eventing team in Rio de Janeiro. But it all fell apart in seconds. Steve Deane heads to the Puhinui Horse Trials, where he discovers the ghosts of Rio still lurking in the low rolling hills, and plans for redemption at Tokyo 2020 well under way.

We’re hovering by the boot of the people-mover, applying sunscreen to the kids and cursing the fact that we didn’t bring a picnic blanket, when the warning shout comes, closely followed by the thunder of hooves.

Wheeling 180 degrees, we’re greeted by the sight of a large, spectacularly-beautiful black horse charging straight towards us. It has an intricately-pleated mane, a sleek coat and a smart-looking saddle. With no rider.

It’s about 10 metres away and coming fast, a suddenly very-low-looking wire fence the only thing separating us from what would be an uncomfortably close encounter with a literally shining example of Equus ferus caballus, the supposedly well and truly domesticated horse.

The magnificent creature is charging around the warm-up area at the Puhinui International horse trials, a stone’s throw from Auckland Airport, looking mighty pissed. As we shuffle the kids briskly away from the fence, the horse breaks right and heads for the corner of the paddock. It seems to weigh up jumping the fence, but thinks better of it, rearing up and snorting indignantly instead.

The faces of the jodhpur-clad, whip-wielding folks tasked with bringing the animal under control convey a mixture of mild concern and bemusement.

For people who spend their lives around horses, the incident is clearly nothing out of the ordinary.

The Deane family process it in different ways. The kids are initially frightened, then baffled, doubtless wondering why we would place them in such mortal danger. The farmer’s daughter wife, who somehow never developed an affinity with animals despite sharing an acreage with them in her formative years, darkly mutters something that would trouble the SPCA.

For me, the horse’s display of defiance is stark reminder that what we are about to witness – the showjumping phase of an elite three-day event – is a sport quite like no other. Its central component is the taming of an animal, coercing it to become part of a team, pushing it to physical extremes in order to showcase its spectacular athletic ability, while demonstrating the skill, control and – it should not be understated – bravery of the rider.

When everything clicks, the result is majestic. But it takes very little for things to go wrong.

Things go wrong

It's a glorious summer's day half a world away, but the ghosts of Rio de Janeiro still send a slight chill around the rolling hills of Manukau's Puhinui Reserve.

“We went into our last round of showjumping in gold medal position,” says a rueful Jonathan ‘Jock’ Paget of New Zealand’s campaign at the 2016 Olympics.

Between 1984 and 2000, the sport of eventing produced three gold, two silver and four bronze Olympic medals for New Zealand – including two individual champions, Mark Todd (1984,1988) and Blyth Tait (1996).

In a country that prizes Olympic silverware as the ultimate currency in high-performance sport, that’s a mighty haul.

But with just one medal – the team bronze at London in 2012 – since 2000 it had been a lean time of it heading into Rio. It was time to recapture lost glories. And there the New Zealand team was, poised on the cusp of a gold rush, with the reins, and their fate, resting in exactly the hands they wanted – the peerless Todd and his steady mount Leonidas II.

Having been ruled out of the event when his horse Clifton Lush suffered a stable accident, Paget had sucked up a healthy dollop of disappointment long before Leonidas II began clunking the rails. Like the rest of the country, he watched on in shock as Todd’s disastrous round unfolded.

“We could have one rail down and still get gold, two rails down and get silver, three rails down and still have bronze,” says Paget. “At four you are out. And a horse that always jumps clear had four down.”

So, what went wrong?

“There are variables involved with having another brain in the matter. The horse normally jumps clear rounds,” says Paget. “He’s a reliable jumper. He went into his next round (in the individual competition) and jumped clear. There was quite a bit of atmosphere in the arena and sometimes that horse gets distracted. To be fair to Mark, he didn’t ride it badly. He rode it well, I thought. But the horse was distracted. How do you allow for that? It was the horse’s first Olympics. It was the first time he walked into a stadium and it was like that.

“Because they don’t speak English you can’t say ‘hey mate, this round means a lot, can you please stay focused on the poles?’”

It took less than 80 seconds for over half-a-decade of painstaking toil to unravel in Rio.

It takes a minimum of five years to train a horse to compete at the elite four-star level, and another couple for them to prove themselves worthy of a place at big dances such as the Olympics and world championships. It’s a process that requires dedication, skill, instinct, money and, above all, time.

“You have to be in it for the long-haul,” says Amanda “Muzi” Pottinger. And she’d know.

Amanda Pottinger guides Good Timing safely through the water. Photo: Getty Images

Eleven-year-old thoroughbred gelding Just Kidding is a former national champion suffering a nasty bout of what his rider Pottinger describes as the hiccups.

The pair have spent five years together, progressing through the ranks from pre-novice to one star, two star and, finally, the national championship three-star level. In New Zealand, eventing tops out at the three-star level (with Puhinui and the national championships the jewels in the Kiwi eventing crown).

Having won New Zealand’s national champs in Taupo in May 2016, Just Kidding and Pottinger were within touching distance of a tilt at the major international four-star shows – Badminton, Burghley, Pau and Luhmühlen in Europe, Kentucky in the United States, and the lone southern hemisphere four-star event, Adelaide.

For now, that dream is on hold.

“We’ve had a few hiccups,” says Pottinger, the daughter of Olympic bronze medallist and six-time national champion Tinx Pottinger. “He’s had a bit of a fright heading into water. So now I am having to rebuild.”

Just Kidding’s fright came at the water jump during the cross country at the nationals in 2016. The horse cleared the intimidating fence to leap into the water, but fell into an unseen hole. Horse and rider were totally submerged, but somehow survived the scare intact to push on to victory.

But Just Kidding was unnerved by the incident and has subsequently been averse to water. At Puhinui, the horse refused the water jump, resulting in instant elimination from an event he was leading.

“I have spent five years on this horse,” says Pottinger. “He has won a national title and he was going well. I’ve now spent a year trying to get him back from that [scare].”

Had he continued his progression, Just Kidding may well have been in the frame for Tokyo 2020. Now, the grim reality is that, even if he gets over his aquaphobia, his card will have been marked. He’ll almost certainly be considered too risky for selection to a national team, where a single refusal could derail an entire campaign.

“That’s not to say I can’t go out there and win Badminton [on him],” says Pottinger. “He’s very good in the dressage phase and showjumping is not a problem, so he’s worth persevering with. If I can get him into the water, we can hopefully go four star.”

At 11, Just Kidding is hardly washed up. The prime age for an eventing horse is between 11 and 16. At 26, Pottinger herself is not far off a novice, at least in international terms. Her time may well come. But displacing the old guard will not be easy.

False negatives

The Rio meltdown and the lack of Olympic glory it exacerbated doesn’t tell the full picture of the state of the sport in this country.

“It goes in waves,” says Paget, who doubles his duties as a competitor with those of the national high-performance coach. “In 2010 we won a bronze at the world championships and then in 2012 we won a bronze at the London Olympics.”

In 2013, Kiwis won all five of the Northern Hemisphere four-star events. Things could hardly have looked better going into the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

“We had the strongest team we’ve ever had. And it all just went wrong,” says Paget.

In a sport where success and failure can be separated by the clonk of a single hoof on a metal rail, things going wrong is a bit of theme.

“It’s very much a loser’s sport,” shrugs Paget. “You lose more times than you win.”

Winning requires risk-taking. Playing it safe might get you in the top 10, but it won’t get you on the podium.

“There is a big difference between going to a championship to do well and going there to win it,” says Paget. “If you go in there to win it, you take risks across the board, and everyone has to pull it off. You know that if you don’t do that, the winner will.”

So the Kiwis sucked up their failure in France and doubled down on Rio.

“We went there to win,” says Paget.

And the pursuit of all, once again, resulted in nothing.

“It’s such an experience game. Look at Toddy and Andrew, they seem to be in their prime at 50.” – Amanda “Muzi” Pottinger

If the three-star Oceania Championships in Melbourne in June are anything to go by, the current rebuilding phase is progressing nicely. For the first time in a decade, New Zealand toppled Australia on its own soil to claim the championship. Riding former racehorse Angus Blue, rider-coach Paget finished first, with his young charges Samantha Felton (second) and Ginny Thompson (fourth) coming in hard on his heels.

The New Zealand-based group of emerging riders and horses now being schooled by Paget will contend for places in the Tokyo team, along with a clutch of elite, vastly experienced European-based Kiwis that includes the likes of Todd, Tait, and husband-and-wife-pairing Tim and Jonelle Price.

This year’s Badminton champion, the three-time Olympic medallist Andrew Nicholson, currently operates outside of the New Zealand high-performance environment, while incumbent Clark Johnstone – who recently notched his first four-star victory in Adelaide on Balmoral Sensation – prefers to base himself in New Zealand, when possible.

“Sam, Ginny and I are targeting that,” says Pottinger. “We want to be pushing into that squad. That means you are sitting on a horse that is capable of going to the Olympics.

“But for us to get on one of those teams, we have got to kick one of them out. That’s not that easy when they have had 30 years more experience than we have. Realistically, I have to be better than one of them.”

In most sports, the clock would be ticking on Pottinger’s athletic prime. In equestrian, she’s got time on her side, and plenty of it.

“It’s such an experience game,” she says. “Look at Toddy and Andrew, they seem to be in their prime at 50. I certainly don’t feel any pressure at my age that I am nearly at my peak. I don’t feel that pressure at all.”

Out on the Puhinui show jumping course, the fences have just been raised for the two-star field.

Pottinger, who has just placed second in the pre-novice class after notching a clear round on her prospect Good Timing, provides a quick eventing 101 lesson.

“You will see some tired horses out there,” she says.

The previous day’s 10-minute cross country course was demanding, and some horses will have handled the rigours better than others. Those still competing have passed a rigorous veterinary inspection this morning.

Knowing they can be ruled out if their horse is at all lame makes it a nervous time for the riders, but they have no interest in putting a wounded animal on display, says Pottinger.

The advice about tired horses is bang-on. The competitors enter the arena in reverse order, with those at the tail of the field going first. An occasional rail goes down, however the first six horses negotiate the course without obvious difficulty.

“What’s wrong with that one?” my six-year-old son asks as the seventh-placed X-Factor begins its run.

Stephanie Vervoort holds on as X-Factor stumbles. Photo: Getty Images

The horse’s stride looks laboured from the outset and the rails begin to tumble almost immediately. At the fence directly in front of us, X-Factor hardly jumps at all, crashing through the rails and stumbling badly. Its rider, Stephanie Vervoort, somehow remains seated, but it’s a scary moment in a sport considered by many to be the most dangerous on the planet.

Between 1993 and 2015, there were 59 confirmed rider deaths attributed to eventing, and significantly more horse fatalities.

In Australia last year, teenagers Olivia Inglis and Caitlyn Fischer died within a month of each other while competing during the cross country phase of a three-day event. Both were killed by rotational falls – when a horse twists in mid-air and lands on top of its rider.

At Puhinui, Class Nine rider Cherie Jacques had a lucky escape when suffering a rotational fall underneath her horse Wizard. Jacques was hospitalised with severe bruising, including to her lungs, but apparently suffered no broken bones.

Jacques will be just one of thousands of Kiwis injured in an incident with a horse this year.

In 2016, 7862 injuries resulting from horseriding were logged by the ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation), which paid out $8,280,058 in claims.

The rails continue to tumble

Back to the showjumping, where carnage of a different nature ensues. Following on from X-Factor’s rough ride, the next five horses combine to knock down 17 rails. Many of them start well but seem to fade. Fatigue is clearly a factor for some of the horses, although it wasn't what caused X-Factor's struggles.

"My horse was [not] tired," said Vervoort."He started out with a huge amount of energy not unlike any other horse. He completed the first part of the course exceptionally well. We merely missed a stride at one fence and therefore had an unfortunate moment where we almost fell."

Vervoort felt it was being "too strong" that in fact led to X-Factor's struggles.

The final rider to enter is Johnstone on Wolf Whistle II – a horse he is riding for his friend Kate Wood, who has retired to have children. Equestrian is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete against each other without being part of a team, such as mixed doubles tennis or the Nacre 17 sailing class that was introduced in Rio for the first time. However, the gender parity is unlikely to ever extend to childbirth.

Wolf Whistle II is up for sale, so it’s an important event. Victory in the two-star class at Puhinui will mark the horse out as a decent prospect.

So Johnstone, who jumped clear on Balmoral Sensation on that fateful day in Rio, has work to do. He’s New Zealand’s form eventer, and he’s about to show why.

Wolf Whistle II clears the rails with absurd ease. Johnstone is so relaxed he could be driving a convertible with the top down, one hand on the wheel and the other holding a pina colada. This is horsemanship at a different level, and he duly goes clear to win the title with four rails up his sleeve.

Four rails.

“Arrrggghh – partially,” says Johnstone, when asked if he is over Rio. “That’s just sport. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I guess it has probably made me more hungry to not have the same thing happen next time.”

Clark Johnstone makes it look easy, producing a faultless showjumping round on Wolf Whistle II. Photo: Getty Images

Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation have been together since February 2014. The gelding is now 13. He’ll still be in his prime for next September’s world championships in North Carolina, but closer to the end of the road by Tokyo 2020.

“That’s quite a long way away,” says Johnstone. “But I am coming off the biggest win of my career in Adelaide last month. At this stage it’s all tracking well, but that’s a long way away.”

Mid-way through 2018, Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation will head to the United Kingdom to link with the other Kiwi contenders for the world championships. All going well, they’ll then make their way to the United States.

“It’s a long travel and things can go wrong. But hopefully they won’t.”

A business analyst at a dairy farming company in Hawkes Bay, Pottinger works 30 hours a week at her day job – “the rest is horses”. She trains around five-to-six promising horses, one of which she hopes will eventually progress to the big time.

Given Just Kidding’s recent struggles, Tokyo looks a long shot. But she has time on her side.

“You’d be very lucky in our sport to be at the Olympics before you are 30,” she says. “In our sport you have to be seriously committed. It’s not just a hobby or a sport, it’s a lifestyle. You don’t do it until you are 30 and then retire.”

Puhinui didn’t go as planned, but it hasn’t been a complete bust. Good Timing’s good showing should see it progress up the ranks next year.

“That’s what we are doing here – building young horses for the future,” Pottinger says.

There are shortcuts, but they are risky. Elite riders with proven records, such as Paget, do take on rides once a horse has proven its pedigree at two-star level. Sometimes it works, just as often it doesn’t.

Snow Leopard deposits Jock Paget onto the fence after climbing out of the water. Photo: Getty Images

Like Pottinger, Paget’s tilt at the Puhinui title ended at the water jump during the cross country phase.

He’d taken a punt and entered Snow Leopard, a horse he had first encountered only a few months earlier and ridden a handful of times.

“That comes with a lot of problems,” says Paget. “It’s like speaking two different languages.

“I jumped into the water a little bit too big. I wanted to say ‘wait, come here, stay up’, but it just didn’t make sense to him. If I was on a horse that I knew really well, and that knew me really well, they’d get it.”

Snow Leopard didn’t get it. After leaping out of the water he fell hard onto his knees, sending Paget slipping over his shoulder onto the next fence – and out of the event.

“I was trying to win it,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t trying to just get around. And I was about due for a fall.”

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