For someone who has a fair grasp of what makes the equine world revolve, Oliver Croucher certainly knows what makes his horses tick.
That sense of affinity came to the fore when Oliver rode Waitangi Surf to eclipse an elite field to clinch the Norwood Gold Cup in Hastings this evening.
"It feels amazing, absolutely amazing," said the 20-year-old Rotorua-based rider whose acquisition on day two of the Land Rover Horse of the Year Show was the highest accolade he had ever received at the country's premier equestrian event.
"I was just not expecting that. The horse just jumped insane out there. She has gone from strength to strength and she just tries her heart out every time she gets in the ring," he said of his feisty grey mare who helped him tame the course Werner Deeg, of Germany, had designed at the Hawke's Bay Showgrounds.
No rain was forecast but the showers that had taken hold not long before the 1.45m showjumping event, which is part of the Equissage Grand Prix Series, started must have added some mental challenge to the field of 22 combinations. Ten of them returned for the second round – six on zero faults and four carrying four faults each.
If Croucher needed any encouragement he got it from an expectant crowd amid a chorus of cheers and applause for a historic cup, which Sir Walter Norwood had donated for the top horse height class on day one in the inaugural competition in 1967.
Veteran Dannevirke rider Maurice Beatson shares the honour of having ridden four Norsewood Cup winners (Jefferson Junior 1987, Irish Embassy 1983, Duty Free 2000, Jedi Warrior 2009).
But despite Beatson's presence in the returning 10, before he finished in 10th place on Gold Locks, today belonged to the bloke who was savouring the dream of representing the New Zealand team for the Transtasman Young Rider (21-and-under) test in Gisborne early last year.
Croucher said he was simply aiming to leave all the rails unruffled, quietly confident in his mount's ability to accomplish that in a crisp time. He lauded Waitangi Surf for keeping them out of trouble a few times they had started pushing the envelope during the jump-off.
The top four were all double clear, with Ollie clocking 53.56 seconds, runner-up Lily Tootill, of Karaka, giving Ulysses NZPH a slap of appraisal in 55.14 seconds while Brooke Edgecombe, of Waipukurau, riding LT Holst Andrea, had to settle for third in 55.35s. Clarke Johnstone, of Matangi, in the saddle of Quainton Labyrinth, crossed the flags in 55.72s.
Last year's winner Tom Tarver, of Kawerau, riding Equifibre Popeye, posted the fastest time of 49.93s but an early rail in the second round at the price of four faults pushed the combo into fifth place.
Reigning Olympic Cup queen Briar Burnett-Grant, of Taupo, had an air of ascendancy about her on Fiber Fresh Veroana but dislodged the last rail for four faults in a time of 51.45s to come in sixth. Nicole White, on LC Samson, was seventh, Emily Hayward, riding AP Ninja, came in next and Olivia Dalton, in the saddle of Cil Dara Bonaparte, snuck in before Beatson in ninth place.
Croucher told the Daily Post (Rotorua) last year he had started riding as a 10-year-old, after his younger sister, Alice, dragged him along to an event. However, his instincts had led him astray because he instantly found traction with the sport.
"I probably started showjumping when I was 11 or 12. It's a combination between the mind game and physical as well. There's a lot of mental aspect, working out which turns will be the tightest, the horses are all shapes and sizes, they all jump differently and have different strengths and weaknesses," he had recounted.
"You do get quite close with the horses. They all have their own personalities and it can be challenging when there's a personality clash. It's a good way to learn how to keep your cool in challenging situations."
Croucher certainly adhered to that philosphy today. However, he would next start in the Bayleys Young Rider Final in the premier arena on Friday from 2pm and then the Canterbury Equestrian Premier Stakes from 9am on Saturday.
He has pencilled in The NZ Horse of the Year Olympic Cup, the marquee showjumping event from 2pm on Sunday, for next year.
In the Pryde's EasiFeed 6-year-old of the Year, 13 of the original 34 starters came back for the jump-off where seven combinations maintained clean slates.
Logan Massie, of Dannevirke, rode Double J Kelvin to victory in a super speed time of 43.91s. Tootill, on Domino NZPH, clocked 46.97s to finish runner-up.
Dana Sutton went for the careful clear in the jump-off of the Wade Equine Coaches Amateur Rider of the Year class.
Only six of the 29 starters came back for the jump-off with Sutton riding Down Wind to become the only combo not to disturb any furniture in the premier arena earlier this afternoon.