Issue 55
JUNE 2020


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Issue 55


JUNE 2020
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A Few Words



Ryan's Rave






Para Equestrian



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EQ Journeys









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My Favourite Dish


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Sam and Paulank Brockagh on course at Badminton in 2018. © Elli Birch

Paulank Brockagh goes down in the history books as one of the great event horses of the 21st century. As the curtains close on her outstanding career, Sam Griffiths reflects on the highlights of their decade long partnership, while sharing his thoughts and plans for the future.

“I always knew she
was a Badminton horse,
because she was a cross
country machine.”

A good event horse must be brave, careful, athletic, agile and intelligent, with quality paces, the ability to gallop, and a good dose of stamina. A great event horse must have all these attributes plus an enormous heart, an endless willingness to try, and a trust in their rider that enables a special partnership to develop. Paulank Brockagh ticked all the boxes.

The tale of Sam and “Brocks the Wonder Mare”, as she is fondly known, really is the stuff dreams are made of; a Badminton win, an Olympic team medal, and 35 international outings – 12 of these at 5-Star Level. Indeed as 2020 dawned, the dream seemed far from over. Seventeen-year-old Brocks was as fit and healthy as ever, and a 7th Badminton start was on the cards. It was not to be; in the wake of Coronavirus and resulting event cancellations, the decision was made to retire Brocks. The next chapter is befitting of this fairytale — she has returned to her breeders and birthplace in County Wicklow, Ireland.

The Irish Sport Horse mare, by Touchdown out of Calendar Girl (Trigerrero), was bred by Paula and Frank Cullen (hence the name Paulank). The Cullens sent Brocks to Sam Griffiths’ yard in Dorset, England ten years ago, with a target  of competing in the Seven Year Old class at the FEI World Breeding Federation Young Horse Championships at  Le Lion D’Angers. During this time, Sam’s long-term owner Dinah Ponsford spotted the mare, and she was soon sold to Dinah and her daughter Jules Carter. For Sam, this was a perfect outcome; he was able to retain the ride, and a promising partnership was born.

EQ Life: When Brocks came to your yard in 2010, did you have any idea that she would become such a star?

Sam: From the start, I always knew she was a Badminton horse, because she was a cross country machine. She was a super horse; if you got too close to a fence, she was really quick on her feet. If you were too far off, she just had scope to burn, so she was always a real pleasure to ride. When I first got her, I didn’t think she’d turn out to be as good as she was. But I always knew she was a Badminton horse because she had that power, scope and cross country ability. She was just so trainable and tried so hard. That was her real strength, her willingness to try, and she just got better the more I did with her.

She’s just an incredible cross country horse. It was years before I even got a cross country fault on her, and when I did I think that was probably my fault!

Particularly jumping around somewhere like Rio, which was a really tough course and the course designer kept the distances quite open so you needed a big striding horse, that just played into her strengths. She was just such a good horse.

EQ Life: She appeared to be a big, brave horse that loved her job, the kind that everyone wants to be sitting on cross country. What was she like to train through the levels?

Sam: She’s probably 16.2 to 16.3 hands, but she was always quite a solid horse, very strong and powerful, so she rode quite big. It took us a long time at the start of her career to train her canter, to make it collected. When I first got her, she was a horse that if I was to have a rail show jumping it would probably be coming out of a combination because her stride was so big. It took a while then to compress her and once she got the idea of being able to hold herself in a shorter canter, that’s when she got really reliable in the Show Jumping phase.

We did do a bit of straight Show Jumping, and probably should have done more of that — but the eventing season over here gets pretty full on! One year I took her down to Spain to compete in Show Jumping, that was part of part of an EA training program to really focus on the show jumping phase.

EQ Life: When you look back at the amazing career Paulank Brockagh had with you, highlights must be the Badminton win in 2014 and your outstanding performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where you came so close to an individual medal. Are there any other performances that perhaps aren’t so prestigious, yet really stand out to you as being special?

Sam: She was always really good around the big events. I came 8th one year in Pau, France in the 5 Star. I was coming back from an injury at the time, and so I wasn’t on my top form; she just carried me around. That was a good performance and the kind of mare she was, she was just so reliable.

EQ Life: It’s such an achievement to get a horse to that level, to then keep that horse not only sound, but also fresh and enjoying the job is quite amazing. How did you manage that with her?

Sam: I was aiming at Badminton this year, and she felt in as good form as ever in the Spring this year. Obviously we ended up cutting short, and when we decided earlier this year to retire her we were considering Burghley, but we always knew with Covid, we’re in a bit of the “never never” so we decided against that. Part of me was really sad to see her retire because I’ve been together with her for so long, but I was so proud that she could finish a career healthy and sound.

We have quite a strict fitness program with them, quite a long process, and that helps keep the horses sound. With Brocks, particularly in the later part of her career, I very much targeted specific events, so I didn’t get too many unnecessary miles at the Intermediate one day events (CCI3*S equivalent) or anything like that. I targeted the bigger ones, so I think that kept her fresh.

I guess like any horse, she just absolutely loved her routine at home, so we kept her in a really strict routine – we fed her at exactly the same time every day, things like that. If you broke your routine at all, she’d get a bit upset by it. For example in the UK during the winter you have to keep them in stables all the time because the paddocks are just too wet to put them out. So when we turn them out in the spring, if we left her out for half an hour longer, she’d start running around in the field. You would let her out and she would happily graze for three or four hours. And then suddenly she’d be letting you know it was definitely time to come in!

EQ Life: Was she the queen of the yard?

Sam: She became a bit of a queen! Although, she’s a horse that I always said was a bit unassuming, in that she didn’t realise just how good she was. I’ve had some other horses that really know they are good, whereas she never really knew how good she was; she was a bit sort of modest in that respect.

She was actually quite an independent horse, quite an independent woman. Her main groom was Imogen Mercer; she was there at Badminton and came to the Olympics. At the major events when they’re stabled, they have allocated areas where you can hand graze the horse. Immo would lead the horse out and if Brocks wanted to get a bit of grass from over the other side, she would just walk off and there was nothing Immo could do – we always laughed about that. I’ll never forget, I’d call it the Brocks Bolt, at walk! She had her own opinions and her own mind.

EQ Life: Listening to the interviews after your 2014 Badminton win, it was quite an emotional and in many ways, surprising victory as you weren’t threatening the leaders after the dressage phase. Take us back to that special moment.

Sam: The thing about the modern sport is that all the scores are quite close. So she did a good test, and although I was 25th after the dressage, I was actually not that far off the leaders in terms of penalties. But that year, the UK had a lot of rain leading into the event, and on cross country day there were gale force winds. Quite literally, as you were galloping along you had to lean into the wind so you didn’t get blown off backwards.

I feel my experience kicked in a bit there, because I’d competed when I was a lot younger at Badminton once when the ground was really wet. I remember going out on one horse and trying to keep to my minute markers and the horse had gone really well, but then I ran out of petrol a few minutes from home and had to pull the horse up.

That was a bit of a learning curve for me, and so the year I won Badminton I’d got a couple of minutes into the course and I just knew the ground was so “holding” that I thought, I’ll almost turn my watch off and just go at the speed that she’s comfortable with. Three quarters of the way around the course there was one last tough combination, and my plan was that once I got through that combination, I’d put my foot down and see what I had left. And that’s what I did — we still ended up with quite a few time faults, but were one of the quicker rounds of the day.

On the last day, her heart came out, it showed how hard she always tried. All the horses were pretty exhausted after the day before, and we thought the course designer might go easy on us, but it was a really tough show jumping track. Brocks just tried and tried and that’s where she came to the fore.

EQ Life: Even without the conditions that you had to contend with — the wet going and the wind, there was the course itself. A lot of people were saying that was one of the toughest courses in Badminton’s history.

Sam: It was definitely the toughest one I rode around.

EQ Life: With the move more towards short format eventing, there are some people who say that the horses who were so successful in the early days when the endurance test was so critically important are not so suited to the short format, and vice versa. A horse like Brocks seemed to be very capable and comfortable in both scenarios, is that how she felt to ride?

Sam: She was more suited to the long format. She wasn’t the quickest, but she could gallop all day. Because she always tried so hard on the last day, she was reliable in the show jumping phase of a long format event. That said, she was still very good at the short format events too.

I think the shorter format events are the way forward. The horses come out of them better and have longer careers as a result. I guess I’m old enough to say I rode around Badminton in the true old format where we had Roads and Tracks and Steeplechasing, and the horses were absolutely exhausted by the end of it. Those phases didn’t really bring anything to the sport. Wayne Roycroft had a lot to do with bringing in the short format and he copped a lot of stick at the time, but it was definitely the right decision.

“It was years before I even
got a cross country fault on her,
and when I did I think that
was probably my fault!”

EQ Life: When it came to major events such as the Olympics, you and Brocks were the rock of the Australian team. It must have given the other riders a lot of confidence when you were there as the pathfinders. How did it feel to have that role?

Sam: They just kept sending me out first! There were times I wanted to go later because it’s just human nature that they seem to score better dressage marks on the last day than they do on the first day. You get the feedback on the cross country course when you head out later. But a lot of the thinking was, because she was such a reliable horse it would be good to get a clear under the belt, to set up the rest of the team. Then I could give feedback on how the course was riding, and hopefully take a bit of pressure off them. Brocks was just so reliable in that phase.

EQ Life: Whilst it’s an honour to have had that role, do you sometimes wonder whether you could have got that individual medal at the Rio Olympics if you had the chance to ride later in the order?

Sam: I was pipped by a New South Welshman who represents the United States! Phillip Dutton’s obviously a great rider, but yeah I was just pipped by him – it was so close.

EQ Life: Nevertheless, it was a great performance to finish 4th at the Rio Olympics individually and be part of the Australian bronze medal winning team. Do you put that performance on par with the Badminton win?

Sam: Very much so, it was on par, particularly the show jumping phase. We’d been sitting in a gold medal position after the dressage, and we were feeling fairly confident. That changed after Cross Country, and then in the Show Jumping Stuart Tinney’s horse unfortunately had quite a few rails down, and we’d suddenly gone from being in a medal position to being nowhere, fourth! So to go out and jump a clear round I was really pleased; you feel right under pressure there. We put everything into it, but particularly when you know that the whole nation is following you, there’s certainly that bit of extra pressure there!

EQ Life: For Australians at home watching when you jumped back into that medal position, it was such a big moment; equestrian sports aside, Australia wasn’t having a great Olympics and the performance saw Eventing gaining mainstream media attention again.

Sam: For sure, and we feel we had a bit of a missed opportunity there. We really felt as a team we should have won the gold. Unfortunately Shane’s horse didn’t quite get the trip around the cross country course, so to lose our last member was a bit of a blow. We felt we perhaps could have won it, but that’s the way it went.

EQ Life: With Brocks now retired to her breeder in Ireland, no doubt there are many people hoping there will be foals in her future. Has she had any embryo transfer foals through her career?

Sam: We did try one year after Badminton but it was just the wrong time of year; it should really be done earlier in the UK. We felt that we wanted to really focus on the competition. She’s such a good competitive force and when we tried, it just took a chunk of the time from our competitions and training schedule, so we decided to really focus on keeping her as a competitive horse.

EQ Life: As we speak it’s currently Monday morning in the UK, usually you’d be recovering from a weekend of eventing and preparing for the next competition – Covid- 19’s changed all of that. What does each week look like for you now? Are you keeping your horses in full work with the view that they’ll be eventing again soon?

Sam: My week hasn’t changed too much; I’ve still got quite a few horses in work. With some of the older ones, we’ve just backed off because we don’t want to put too many miles on legs, but it’s actually been really good for the younger ones who have been able to get a lot of training and they’ve really come along. So we’re happy with that, but obviously we’d love to go out competing, we’re missing the competitions! Like most eventers I live on a horse property and as every horse person knows, there’s always something you need to do on your property. So it’s given me a good chance to do things like fencing and mowing. There are jobs I’ve been meaning to do for years that I’ve been able to do now, so that’s kept me quite busy.

“Brocks just tried and
tried, and that’s where
she came to the fore.

EQ Life: How soon do you expect to see competitions resume in the UK?

Sam: We’re starting to hear more, there are announcements coming from the Prime Minister Boris Johnson on professional sport and how to return to competitions.  The British Equestrian Federation have put out tentative guidelines of what we have to do at events with respect to social distancing, but we don’t have an event calendar yet. I imagine we will very soon. It’s going to be very different, with the numbers allowed at events being limited. The UK has been hit really hard by Covid-19 compared to Australia, so we’ve had to be really cautious.

EQ Life: Looking at your results from the past few years, you seem to have some exciting horses coming up through the levels, including another Paulank horse?

Sam: Yes, Paulank Kings River, he’s a half brother to Brocks from the same mare. He’s a handy horse, quite a different personality to Paulank Brockagh but like her, a very good cross country horse. It took him a little while to adjust to the really big courses, but I really clicked with him in the last year or so. He’s at 4-star level now and he’s really good at that level.

I’ve got a couple of handy horses, so hopefully next year, they can all come out firing. With a couple of them I wanted to do quality qualifying events, hopefully to get another one to Badminton this year, but we might struggle with that!

I’ve got a really smart one called Annaghmore Valoner — she’s an Irish mare that I had at the Young Horse Championships last year, and she’s really talented. I’ll look to do a 4-star with her in the spring next year. If I can just really consolidate her, she’s one that has the ability, and could be very competitive.

“I’ve got a couple of
handy horses…. hopefully
next year they can all
come out firing.”

EQ Life: The postponement of Tokyo has disappointed many, and for some people it’s a disaster because their horses will be a year older and might be past their prime. For others the postponement could present an opportunity, in that their horses might have needed another year to reach their peak. Is this the case for you?

Sam: I’ve got probably got three or four, including Annaghmore Valoner and Paulank Kings River, that I’m hoping I could get a few results with this season and come out strong at the start of next year.

We’ve got a really strong Australian eventing team at the moment, and it’s hard to get in to. Shane Rose and Chris Burton always have a handful of horses each, then Andrew Hoy and now Kevin McNab is in the mix, of course Stuart’s always got horses, and you’re never surprised if Megan Jones joins the mix with a top horse, or Amanda Ross, and of course there are other riders coming on through – we’ve got quite a lot of depth at the moment, it’s really good.

EQ Life: So Tokyo’s still on your radar?

Sam: Yes. Still a motivator! But like I said, we’ve got such depth at the moment in Australian eventing, so it’s not going to be easy to break into the team. Although I guess it’s never been easy!

EQ Life: With Tokyo’s climate being closer to Australia’s than the UK’s, do you think that will influence the kind of horses that are aimed at and selected for the team?

Sam: Very much so. I think the Australian based horses have a real advantage going to Tokyo because they’re used to the climate conditions. But I also feel the Olympics will just modify to suit the conditions and they’ll keep it to a shortish course. I think you need a really fit horse, because the travel and humidity will take so much out of them. It will be a bit like Rio where all the horses and their fitness programs were closely monitored by the Australian team vet Graham Potts; they all turned up really fit and well, and I think that contributed to how well they performed. You can only get your horse as fit and feeling as good as you can, and then you just need a bit of luck on the day!

EQ Life: How are you keeping in touch with everyone, including other Australian riders, during this period of no competitions?

Sam: In the UK all the Aussies stick together. For example, I actually went and hired Chris Burton’s arena yesterday; I took some young horses there for some show jumping, so I caught up with Chris briefly. I’m great mates with Shane Rose, it was my birthday the other day, and Shane rang me up, that was so nice of him. Then I try to come out to Australia when I can, I’ve made it a policy and try really hard to get back every year, particularly for Adelaide, to stay in touch with everyone. This year I’ll obviously struggle to get back though!

We thank Paulank Brockagh for the amazing ride she’s taken Australian eventing fans on over the years, and wish Sam all the best when competitions resume and the race to Tokyo 2021 begins! EQ


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