Oliver Townend: Making a champion
Oliver Townend was always glued to the TV screen. Sat on the sofa, remote in hand, playing and rewinding VHS tapes of his favourite riders and events on an almost infinite loop.
Last year’s Badminton? Worth another watch. That Mark Todd sequence? There might be something he’d missed. Watch and repeat, watch and repeat.
It was in the front room of his family home in Huddersfield where the would-be world number one fell in love with the sport he would go on to reign over. Yet back then, as a young boy with an insatiable appetite for eventing, the passion that has since driven his success was beginning to take shape.
“The first video we had was Badminton 1988 where Ian Stark finished first and second and that video tape got worn out,” Oliver remembers.
“Gatcombe used to be televised and so did Badminton and Burghley. I’d record them on VHS tape and my parents would be absolutely sick to death of it. All I did was watch and study, watch and study.
“From 9 or 10 years old there was no doubt in my mind that I was copying Mark Todd’s elbows going through the water at Badminton, even though I was trotting through a puddle at Scapegoat Hill. I was trying to emulate him back then.”
While pretty much every other sports-mad youngster in the early 90s was out in the street with a football pretending to be Paul Gascoigne, Oliver was transfixed by the likes of Todd and Stark. Many of those kids caught up in Gazza-mania would go on to discover they’d never scale the same heights as their idol, but the same wasn’t true for the eventing fanatic.
Oliver had watched his dad, Alan, compete – and win – at Advanced level as a gifted amateur rider and knew it was possible to reach a high standard with the right level of hard work. Only he had much higher ambitions.
After getting in the saddle for the first time as a seven-year-old, a fire ignited within the Yorkshire rider. Despite entering several junior show jumping competitions in the region, it was eventing that captured Oliver’s imagination. Undeterred by his parents’ reservations due to the challenges of making a living from the sport, it was clear that following in his dad’s footsteps as an amateur wasn’t enough.
Funding that passion on Alan’s modest milkman’s wage wouldn’t be easy. After guiding his son through those early years, he made the decision to hang up his stirrups to help Oliver realise his dreams instead.
“I remember him [my dad] giving away his best advanced horse,” Oliver says. “We were very Yorkshire and we wouldn’t discuss things too much, but I know there was an awful lot of sacrifice – the things my mum and dad did so I could have a dressage saddle or whatever it may have been – which upset me later on in life.
“There’s an element of me that is still trying to make mum and dad proud because I know a lot went on to make sure I could compete and be involved in the sport.”
Oliver wasn’t about to let those sacrifices go to waste. Before he’d finished school, he’d spent time in Ireland working on Paul Donovan and Carol Gee’s dealers’ yards and riding out of national hunt trainer Mouse Morris’s stable. After completing his GCSEs, Oliver spent five months with Chris Bartle before making a longer stay with British team show jumping trainer Kenneth Clawson in Leicestershire.
Even now, Oliver’s self-proclaimed obsession with eventing and knowledge of the sport’s every detail is referenced by some of his childhood heroes, who he now rubs shoulders with as a peer rather than a fan.
“I got obsessed with Mark Todd; he was my biggest hero as a kid,” Oliver says. “I also remember thinking I knew Ian Stark when I was a boy because we were both northern and he said hello to me once, so in my head he was a friend of mine. Then Andrew Nicholson came on the scene too.
“It’s quite funny how life works because when Todd made his comeback, I sold Land Vision to him and he went on to win Badminton.
“Todd knew I was a big fan of his when I was a kid and once when somebody asked him the name of a horse and he couldn’t remember, he said, ‘why don’t you ask Oliver, he’ll tell you everything about my life and career’. I came across as a sad geek.
“Nicholson is funny when he talks about me too because he knows I know more about his career than he can probably remember. When I get on the horses he’s ridden, I say, ‘I’ve watched you always coming off the left rein’ and he just shakes his head and laughs at me.”
That grounding would serve Oliver well, but he also possessed a bloody-mindedness that wouldn’t allow him to sit in the shadows and wait for his big opportunity. He knew where he wanted to be and he wanted to get there now.
So as his 21st birthday came around, he set up his own business with ‘very little money, very few horses and no wagon’ and attempted to make his own way in the sport.
“It had to work because there was no choice,” Oliver picks up. “I rang everybody in my phonebook to say I’m available to ride anything. If it bolts, I’ll ride it. If it flips over backwards, I’ll ride it. If it falls on cross country fences, I’ll ride it. And that’s what I got a lot of to start with.
“I remember being excited about getting my first advanced event horse. It was before I had a computer, so I got a friend to look the horse up for me. He said, ‘it’s fallen the last four times in international runs’, but I still couldn’t wait to get on him. Did I fall on him plenty of times? Yeah, but I picked myself up and won an Advanced class the week after. Nothing could have stopped me. I was hungry and it didn’t matter if I had a broken bone or nothing was going my way.”
Money was tight in those early years, so much so that Oliver would often drive to events with only enough diesel to get him there, then would use his prize winnings to fill up for the way home. Fail to win and he’d be left having to work out an alternative plan. As a result, Oliver operated what was a revolving door for his horses. He’d build them up, use those events as a shop window to prove their worth and then look for a buyer to make a profit to keep the business ticking over.
“I follow a lot of breeding and pedigrees, and I know what pedigree works with what from a mare or a stallion point of view,” he continues.
“When you get it wrong and it costs you money, you learn quickly because you can’t make too many of those mistakes. As everyone knows, owning horses is expensive, so it’s important to make good decisions when it comes to buying and selling them.
“It’s been a tough learning curve and I can’t say I get it right 100% of the time, but I try to be decisive in order to take the best course of action for us and each horse. A good horse that isn’t going to make it costs the same to keep, so you might as well try to fill the stables with the ones with a chance of getting there and find a more suitable home for those that won’t.”
Victories started coming
Oliver was starting to make a name for himself in eventing circles and while he says he felt more like a horse dealer who also competed, that was all about to change when he won his first two 5* competitions at Badminton and Burghley in 2009.
Still relatively young at 26, the victories were a huge fillip for his reputation as a rider but proved to be at the detriment of his dealing business. And it’s a trend that’s carried on across the next decade or so as he continued to rack up the trophies and establish himself as the world number one.
“There’s this strange mentality that if somebody who has won Badminton or Burghley is selling a horse, it mustn’t be good enough, whereas before that I was selling 35 horses a year and they were going on to achieve good things,” Oliver explains.
“Not many of the people who are buying these horses have to make a living, so they don’t understand that the prize money isn’t enough on its own to run my business and I need to continue to sell those horses.
“I can’t get away from that stigma now, so a lot of the horses I source and produce go to different places to be sold because people won’t come and try them here. They try them at another yard so they can judge the horses themselves. Selling horses is still part of my business, although eventing is what grabs the headlines. It means some of my more famous, older horses, such as Cooley SRS who finished second at Badminton, do end up being sold and moving to a new home.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to sell some of my favourite horses. By choice, I’d never have to sell a horse. But at the same time, this is a way of life in this industry and making a sale funds the purchase of another gifted horse in the future.”
It’s a strategy that has clearly worked, winning four more 5* events to take his total to six and ranking as the leading rider on British Eventing points in six of the past nine years to 2020. But it hasn’t always translated to him being particularly popular among the eventing fraternity, although it’s an opinion Oliver feels is starting to soften.
“People didn’t understand me to start with and a lot of people still don’t,” he says earnestly. “I think I’m becoming more accepted. People say to me,‘oh you’ve changed so much’, but I haven’t really changed, it’s that their opinion has changed.
“People see what they want to see and it’s the people who know you best who really know you. You could never walk in here [his yard] and not be impressed by how the horses are kept, the beds, the immaculate yard, but some people don’t want to see that side – they’ll always pick holes in you.
“There have been a lot of tricky times when I’ve not done myself favours because while I never ride with emotion, when I get off the horse I become very emotional and that’s generally when people shove you in front of the camera. I had to learn that was actually happening… and that it’s difficult for people to see me as the person I really am at home when I’m in the house and have a friend round.”
Oliver’s exploits this summer are certainly going to help with that. After winning in Kentucky for the third time in April, he finally earned his first call-up for Team GB’s Olympic team – alongside Laura Collett and Tom McEwen – in Tokyo, where he played his part in winning the first team gold Britain had won in 49 years.
And it was Oliver’s face that everyone watching at home saw as he brought his horse, Ballaghmor Class, home in the show jumping round to convert the lead the British team had developed in the previous few days. So despite being a serial winner, was it nerve-racking to have that pressure of being the last team member to jump and not to mess it up?
“I honestly didn’t know about the cushion,” he deadpans. “Every time I try to do my job, which is to have as good a round as possible, so I just went in and did a good round. You can see from my reaction when I’m competing that it’s never immediate because once I’m in a competition, all I’m focused on is competing against the dressage judges, competing against the cross country course and competing against the show jumps.
“I just concentrate completely on myself. It’s not like I’m trying to run across a line or affect another competitor in any way; I’m just doing what I do.”
Horses of a lifetime
The 38-year-old might describe that victorious moment in a way that only a cold-blooded winner would, but the significance of adding an Olympic gold medal to his trophy cabinet isn’t lost on Oliver now he’s off the horse.
“It was very, very special to get the call-up initially; it was a relief more than anything else,” he says.
“I went out there and it was all about the team. When I got told who I was with, I thought, ‘right, if we don’t win this, then we’ve seriously ballsed up’. I believed the horsepower that the three of us were on was stronger than we’ve ever sent to any Olympics and that was proven by the result and the margin – we were on three horses of a lifetime.
“From a public perception, the Olympics is far more important than five stars and I’ve noticed that since coming home. Now people know that Oliver Townend is an event rider; before they might have known I ride horses. They now also know what eventing is and it’s brought it to a whole new crowd of people locally.
“Afterwards, I couldn’t walk down my local street in Ellesmere without being stopped every 10 metres and someone saying, ‘well done’, whereas I can win Kentucky and I might get stopped by two people – and that’s only because we’re in a very horsey area.That’s the difference and it’s very special.”
If only that seven-year-old Oliver watching back videos could see his older self now. He’d definitely be forgiven for replaying one or two of his finest moments on that old VHS player.
Article first published in British Eventing Life magazine, Winter 2021