Horsing around

Showjumping will be centre stage at Friday's Ride the Rhythm event in Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. Two top local riders taking part in the invitation-only competition talk to Bruce Munro about what it takes to get two brains and four legs flying over fences in perfect harmony.

A painful throbbing arm, the hot Cantabrian sun, and a few hundred watchful pairs of eyes are all about to disappear.

Sitting astride her chestnut stallion Euro Sport Heartbreaker, equestrian athlete Claudia Hay (25) is poised for the final round of the South Island Show Jumping Grand Prix. She almost did not make the 286km journey from her parents' Taieri lifestyle block to the Ashburton A&P show-grounds for this two-day equestrian competition in November.

Five days earlier she had fallen and been stomped by a young horse she was training. Severe bruising, a hoof-shaped wound on her forearm and a numb left hand put her participation in doubt.

But thankfully X-rays revealed no breaks. A loudspeaker calls out her name and Miss Hay nudges Heartbreaker forward into the ring as the outer edges of her world begin to melt away, narrowing down to just her horse and the wooden fences that lie between them and the championship title.

Horses have always focused Miss Hay's attention, her mother Vicki Hay says.

''Even as a baby, her head would turn when she saw horses,'' Mrs Hay said.

''And the more the horses played up, the more she would laugh.''

First on a horse at 18 months of age, Miss Hay was riding competitively by the age of 8.

She started in eventing - the equestrian equivalent of triathlon, incorporating showjumping, dressage and cross-country disciplines - before specialising in showjumping.

During the next several years she rode a lot of different ponies which, she explains, are not young horses, but horses under 148cm high at the ridge between the shoulder blades known as the withers. And at 16, in the final year she was eligible to compete on ponies, she came second in the New Zealand Pony of the Year riding Repias Super Blonde.

The next competition grade up from pony is young rider - for those aged 14 to 21 - and then horse competitions. Riders can, but rarely do, start competing in horse classes from as young as 12 years.

Miss Hay is among the few New Zealand showjumpers to have competed as a 16-year-old in the annual Horse of the Year Olympic Cup - the top horse showjumping class.

In her late teens, she spent time in England working and learning under Olympic showjumper Tim Stockdale.

One of his riders sold Miss Hay a ''green and quite difficult but very talented'' young horse named Valentino Rossi.

She had three seasons with Rossi, training him up and competing with him, before he was sold to Georgina Harvey, of the Australian-based Harvey Norman retail stores family.

''In the final season he won just about every grand prix he competed in, and we won the grand prix series,'' Miss Hay said.

''But it was too big an offer to say no to.''

Most showjumpers avoid riding stallions because they tend to be harder to handle than mares and geldings. But Miss Hay had only ever imagined a future for herself that involved working full-time with horses, so breeding them was the logical next step.

She went back to Europe and returned with two 3-year-old stallions that had been ridden only six times.

Buying Heartbreaker and Euro Sport Centavos was a calculated gamble, she said.

''A lot of horses have the right physical attributes but aren't there mentally in terms of loving to work and compete.''

It is not until they are properly ''under saddle'' that their true potential begins to show through.

''I knew as three-year-olds that they would be special.

''I watched them free-jumping. They were incredible athletes.''

Both stallions are now doing well in grand prix class competition. They also have offspring which are ''looking fantastic''.

But results come at a cost.

''Most people probably wouldn't realise how involved it is - how much it can take over your life,'' Miss Hay says.

''You always have to put the horses first.

''To be successful you have to put 100% into it.''

The annual showjumping season culminates with the New Zealand Horse of the Year Show, in Hastings, in March. That show attracts more than 2000 horses and their riders across 17 disciplines, plus tens of thousands of spectators.

In the build-up to horse of the year, riders are away almost every weekend between October and March attending competitions. Competitions like the one in Ashburton, which includes the South Island Show Jumping Grand Prix. Miss Hay and her parents departed Dunedin for Ashburton in their horse truck on Friday afternoon, with Miss Hay still nursing her sore and bandaged arm.

Also heading north for the South Island grand prix was Brittany Whelan (20), of Brighton, travelling with her parents and her chestnut gelding George Jetson, a.k.a. Squirt.

Miss Whelan has been riding since she was 2, and competitively for the past six years. In 2009 her two ponies were placed first and second in the South Island, and third and fourth in New Zealand, at grand prix level. That same year she won the New Zealand Pony Grand Prix on Repias Super Blonde, Miss Hay's former pony.

Two years later Miss Whelan won the South Island Speed Championship and the South Island section of the University Show Jumping Series. She took the South Island Young Rider Show Jumping title last year.

When Miss Whelan was younger her whole family, including her parents and three brothers, took part in equestrian competition. Now it is just her, although that is still an expensive undertaking.

Buying a horse can cost anywhere between $1000 and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars depending on its age, pedigree and competition record. A truck to get rider and horses to competitions costs between $20,000 and $400,000 depending on tastes and budgets.

A good-priced saddle is $4000, and shoeing and feeding a horse can easily cost $3600 a year.

Then there are competition entry fees of $300 to $400 a week for six months of the year, plus truck and fuel costs.

''When you are at this higher level of competition you do win more prize money,'' Miss Whelan said.

''Squirt often pays his own way, but you still wouldn't make any money.''

Not that the money, or even a career in horses, is Miss Whelan's top priority. She is studying for a bachelor of teaching degree through the University of Otago, and plans to teach early childhood education.

''I always wanted a career as well as horses.''

Teaching children and training horses each require a lot of patience and both are extremely rewarding, she says.

''You have to have a trusting relationship with your horse. And you need to be confident in what you are doing because that passes through to the horse. If you're not confident they won't be.''

And George Jetson is the sort of horse Miss Whelan can place her confidence in too.

It took her ''a few trips to the North Island'' to find him, the progeny of an Australian thoroughbred and a Canadian mare.

''Attitude is a big part of the equation ... Squirt doesn't have a great style but he's very brave and tries very hard.

''He's my type of horse - forward-moving, you don't have to push him to go. And he's manoeuvrable.

''At about 16 hands [162cm] he's quite small compared with the other horses he jumps against. But he has the heart of a lion and just really wants to jump.''

At the Ashburton A&P show-grounds dozens of horse trucks, a couple of hundred horses and more than 600 people, mostly riders and supporters, are gathered for the weekend of competitions.

Sunday dawns fine, and Miss Whelan and Miss Hay are soon feeding, grazing and grooming their horses in preparation for the afternoon grand prix, which will have 15 entrants.

Other competition classes are still being held in the three competition rings as the grand prix riders prepare themselves and their horses. Tacking up, as it is called, takes some time - studs are added to the rear of each shoe to help the horse grip the ground, then come saddle blanket, sheepskin pad, saddle, breastplate to hold the saddle in place, bit and bridle, and tendon and fetlock boots for protection.

Although legal, neither woman uses the controversial kick-up boots that put pressure on the horse's tendons when it jumps to make it lift its legs higher.

Before the first round, each competitor walks the course. This is their one opportunity to work out how many strides will be needed between each fence, whether they will be long strides or the horse will need to be held back to time the jump right, what line will be needed to approach the fences at a good angle, and how much effort will be required if they are to clear each fence depending on its width and height.

As they walk the course they also think about potential influences outside the ring and how their horse might react.

A couple of warm-up jumps on fences outside the ring and then round one of the South Island Show Jumping Grand Prix begins.

Despite a couple of tricky distances between jumps, five horses including George Jetson and Heartbreaker get clear rounds. The course is changed slightly and fences raised for round two. The riders have to devise their strategy from outside before each takes their second turn inside the ring.

Faults are added together from both rounds. Three competitors have double clear rounds and go through to the final - Kate Cavanagh, of Christchurch, Miss Hay and Miss Whelan.

The stakes are rising. The horses and riders are tiring but the course is altered and fences raised yet again. And this time they will be judged on time and faults. The quickest horse with the fewest rails down will be South Island grand prix champion.

Miss Hay is first up. She takes a neat course, focusing foremost on getting the jumps right while not slackening the pace. Heartbreaker flies over fence after fence, Miss Hay tucked in behind his neck, two brains and four legs working in fluid, athletic harmony.

It is a clear round. But will it be fast enough?The Christchurch rider is slower and knocks a rail. Miss Whelan and George Jetson are faster but also knock down a rail, giving them second place.

Miss Hay is jubilant with the win.

''I was really happy, I wouldn't have done anything differently ... I was very pleased for Heartbreaker. He was fantastic.''


High quality field to showjump under stadium roof

Ride the Rhythm was born before Forsyth Barr Stadium had barely begun being built. On Friday, 75 horses will take part in an equestrian spectacle bringing probably the best field of horses assembled in New Zealand together under the roof of the world's only permanently covered natural turf stadium.

It is the realisation of an idea conceived when construction of the Dunedin stadium was in its early stages, Bill McFarlane, who is president of the Otago Area Show Jumping Group, says.

''We had Kevin Hansen down here at the time as a course builder for a showjumping event,'' Mr McFarlane said.

''We took him to see the stadium being built and he said he wanted to run a show there. Everyone said it wouldn't happen, but here we are.''

Mr Hansen organises the New Zealand Horse of the Year Show, in Hawkes Bay. He lived in Dunedin for seven years until the mid-1990s.

There is more than $120,000 in prize money to be won at Ride the Rhythm. The afternoon and evening public event, which culminates in a concert by English band The Hollies, has attracted top riders from both sides of the Tasman. New Zealand Olympians Katie McVean, Maurice Beatson and Samantha McIntosh head the impressive New Zealand line-up, each entering with two horses.

The nine-person Australian contingent is led by recent equestrian World Cup Australian League winner Alison Rowland. Many of those riders will also compete in the Otago Jumping and Show Hunter Championship Show at the Taieri A&P grounds next Saturday and Sunday.