There is a guy who is sat somewhere right now shaking his head in disbelief…in fact there are three. They go by the names of Jung, Fox-Pitt and Nicholson and I am sure not one of them saw it coming. Badminton had been dubbed the battle of the greats. In one corner we had Michael Jung gracing us with his presence for the first time, on the back of Olympic, World and European gold medals he was thought to be a shoe-in for the title. Then good old Nicholson decided to make things extra delicious by winning at Kentucky meaning that, because of a cancelled Badders last year, both he and WFP would be up for the Rolex Grand Slam prize of $350k….and with their history things couldn’t get more electric.
And so the event started, and we all watched the drama unfold, but eyes were firmly focussed on the great three aforementioned eventing greats, with little thought spared for a humble Kiwi first timer who goes by the name of Jock. Soon though, sitting in 2nd place after XC, more and more people were asking, in the style of Grease 2, “Who’s That Guy?”.
Well that guy is a 29 year old who started riding at 18…yes, you read that right, 18, and that was just mucking about with horses. Having completed a bricklaying apprenticeship the equine bug struck and he wangled himself a job with Kevin McNab in Australia when he was 20, and not even with the ability to rise to a trot! To this day Jock reckons that he got the working pupil’s position because of his ability to build….Kevin was setting up a new property…but his promise to be happy to fall off probably helped when a lot of WPs are not so keen on riding the tricky ones!
Kevin obviously saw the potential in Jock, but rather than give him immediate, intensive training he sent him out to the paddock and made him focus on his lower leg by requesting he do nothing but rising trot, 45 minutes per horse, for 6 months. “We worked long hours and I rode a lot of horses. I’d ride from dark to dark and work up to 15 a day. I think if you want to get good at something and you try hard enough and do it enough, it’s possible” Jock told New Zealand Horse And Pony magazine in May 2010. This scenario obviously worked, and Kevin had his protegee riding at 3* level in just under two years on a horse that Jock produced himself. This is almost unbelievable, and if it were portrayed in a film (International Velvet anyone?!) the viewer would probably sigh and roll his or her eyes, but these are the facts of Jock’s meteoric rise to the top.
Jock remembers, “At that stage I was still jumping with a loose rein. Kev taught me to jump with no contact, to just leave the horse alone and close your leg. So I was at my first World Cup 3*, walking the course with my eyes popping out of my head, because that was a proper track, it was just in your face the whole way round. The next day I was warming up for show jumping and Kev was like “Hey Jock, pick up your reins now!” That was the first time I remember riding to a fence with a contact.”
We can all probably learn a lot by this training regime – no pulling or kicking or interfering, but learning to sit and wait for the fence to come and allowing the horse to engage his brain and jump the fence, it is the pavement scenario (we automatically adjust our stride to step up a pavement, we don’t try and read our stride length miles out).
After staying with Kevin for three years Jock set up his own yard in Sydney, but without an idea of how to go about financing his dream of being a pro rider. He taught, rode for a couple of owners and went back to laying bricks to keep the money coming in…he was still that focused on what he was trying to achieve…but getting noticed was pretty much impossible without the top level horse power. A stroke of luck came in the manner of a phone call from Frances Stead, the owner of Clifton Eventers, offering Jock a job, so he packed up and moved back to New Zealand in 2007. Frances’ support has enabled Jock to continue to rise through the ranks, indeed he was the leading NZ rider in 2008/2009 and winner of Eventer Of The Year at the NZ Horse of the Year Show in 2009 and 2010!
Jock hit the British Eventing scene in 2010, playing with some baby horses over Novice and lower until Hartpury *** when he brought Clifton Promise out. A horse fall resulted in elimination, but the ever tenacious Jock didn’t let that worry him, and to ensure that the powers that be were still looking in his direction he went over to Kentucky for WEG two months later and finished 7th!
2011 saw him complete Burghley with two horses in “not just making up the numbers” positions of 5th and 12th, and so dawned 2012. 11 years on from a teenager sitting in a stock saddle could Jock actually get the Olympic call up that so many have been striving for for so many years? Of course he could! A great 6th place at Lexington in the April ensured he could not be over looked, and he made sure that he wasn’t there to make up the numbers, oh no, not Jock, he finished 10th individually, second best of the Kiwis, and got to stand on the podium with a bronze team medal around his neck.
And 2013…well, I think a win at Badminton may just well be his highlight! It was great to see Michael Jung so happy in defeat, for he has been helping Jock over the winter, predominantly with his show jumping, and it can only be great news for the sport that the next generation are so willing to help each other out and keep our sport great.
So in answer to “Who’s that guy?”, he really is a man that proves that with enormous dedication, tenacity, intelligence, talent and a little bit of luck anyone CAN achieve their dreams if they want them badly enough.
All photographs by kind permission of Will Baxter.