Golden plan to keep equestrian stars on top of podium

By David Leggat

New Zealand bronze medallists in the teams competition at last year's London Olympics; Andrew Nicholson victorious at three successive four star events, most recently Kentucky last month; and Jock Paget triumphs on his first attempt at Badminton this week.

These are boom days for New Zealand eventing.

Not since the days of Mark Todd, Blyth Tait, Vaughn Jefferis and Nicholson in the late 1980s and through the 1990s has the sport been in such rude health as it is now.

And as with all smart sports organisations, Equestrian New Zealand is determined not to sit back and savour the success, but keep pressing forward to maintain momentum.

"Part of our plan is to ramp up our performances at four star (highest class events), to try and really make sure those are leading us towards good world championship and Olympics performances, so we're not just spiking occasionally," EQNZ chief executive Jim Ellis said.

One of the planks of that is more horse power, having the leading riders with three or four good quality horses capable of strong showings at four star events.

That combined with sharpening New Zealand's dressage standards are the two key ingredients, according to Ellis.

Take the horses first.

Nicholson has Nereo, Avebury and Quimbo among a large stable in Marlborough, Wiltshire, headquarters. All three have given him four star success. In that order he rode them to victory at Burghley and Pau in France last year, and Kentucky. He's world No 1 and at the top of his game.

There are seven riders in the EQNZ high performance group - the five London Olympians Nicholson, Paget, Todd, Caroline Powell and Jonelle Richards, plus Clarke Johnstone and Lucy Jackson.

Then follow four more on EQNZ's accelerator programme: Tim Price, Lizzie Brown, Jesse Campbell - all UK-based - and Australian-based Joe Waldron.

But they don't all possess Nicholson's horse depth.

"We need to make sure those seven riders in particular all ideally have three or four four-star horses, then we're really in clover. We are quite some way off that," Ellis said.

"Our aim isn't necessarily how many riders we need, as how many horses."

EQNZ received $1.8 million in Sport New Zealand funding last year, with the same amount forecast for each of the next three years leading up to the Rio Olympics.

That can't be put towards buying good horses. However relations are good with owners, who like the idea of New Zealand riders working with their horses.

Funding is put towards improving New Zealand's dressage skills. The opening, and technically most challenging leg of the three-skill eventing discipline, has long been New Zealand's weak point.

Dressage was the preserve of the more highly strung European horses. New Zealand's were hardier, more robust animals, good for cross-country and less for the finicky, delicate arts of dressage.

New Zealand horses used to make up ground after average dressage returns and still figure in the final showjumping stage. That's changed, especially with the steeplechase and roads and tracks legs which preceded the cross-country, disappearing after the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

That has been addressed, with impressive results.

"Basically the endurance element, which suited the New Zealand horse and rider, was reduced, so the importance of dressage went north in a hurry," Ellis said.

"And if you don't have a tough cross-country course your dressage score is absolutely essential. We cannot be chasing our tail."

The days of not overstressing on dressage and putting all the eggs in the cross-country basket are gone.

Riders are now expected to work with individual dressage specialist coaches - in Todd's case, with double London Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin - overseen by high-performance boss Erik Duvander. Nicholson's dressage has improved out of sight of late, Ellis added.

The leading riders receive a chunk of the funding, but it varies, depending on their needs and circumstances.

New Zealand equestrian lost its way for a time through the 2000s. There's a determination to ensure standards don't fall back again.

Riding high
Four star events to come:
June 13-16: Luhmuhlen, Germany
September 5-8: Burghley, England
October 23-27: Pau, France

- NZ Herald

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