Tim and Jonelle Price recently spoke at a function organised by the New Zealand Irish Draught Horse Society at the new West Melton Community Centre, Canterbury. In fact it was the first official event at the new centre, and was attended by about 250 people, including many children.
Here's part one of a two part article on their stories.
Tell us about why you went overseas and your journey to get there?
Tim: A sense of adventure and naivety which developed into something more serious.
Jonelle: Coming out to West Melton this evening was a bit like coming home. I’ve driven that road many times, I lived here for about five or six years, and I even worked at the West Melton Tavern. I think that stage of my life was very pivotal in my riding career. It was the time I had moved down here to Christchurch to go to university, which was largely to please my mother but gradually I convinced her I didn’t need to continue university and was riding more and more. It was from here that we started to compete throughout New Zealand and that was what lead us to heading over to the UK which was where it began seriously.
Tim: You have to stay focused on what you want to achieve. There is a real advantage being a New Zealand but not being based in your home country as you have to keep referring to the fact that you have left home, you have made a lot of sacrifices, so what are you doing that for, why are you on the bones of your backside in England with a couple of scrubby horses, trying to do what you are trying to do. You are always ask yourself that question and then you answer that question. I think we are lucky in that respect.
What sort of reaction did you get in the UK?
Jonelle: Tim was mostly known for the first five years for not wearing shoes until he started to win a bit more.
Perservance was key for us. If we knew what we know now, and we had to start over again, I am not sure that we would but there is something about being young and foolish, determined and brave. You don’t really truly consider all the possibilities. We had one goal and we believed we could be as good as the best in the world. For some reason we did, and we were hell bent on achieving that. That single-minded, dogged determination plus being very niave, that was the main selling point for us.
What did you have in the beginning and what do you have now?
Tim: Step one was getting horses on planes to take over so we had a couple of horses at least to ride over there. To go over there and not have any setup whatsoever leaves you with not enough to do during the day. I had a horse Vortex, a good little kiwi thoroughbred from the bottom of the South Island. He cost me $500 plus $500 to get him up to Canterbury, and a year and a half later he won the Taupo CCI2* and I thought he was the next best thing. He certainly was the best horse I had sat on at that stage of my career, but I sold him for a good amount of money, which got myself and my other horses over to England and catapulted the whole expedition. There were also sacrifices in leaving New Zealand, you are there for a reason, and that was to event, and I wanted to be the best eventer. Leaving home is a sacrifice.
We rent 120 acre farm in Wilshire. It was just one of those things, a fateful thing. We were based with David Green for the first couple of years when we were going back and forth before we actually made the proper move to live there permanently. David had a connection with Tim Brown who owns our property, he is our landlord to this day. They shared the same wife, not at the same time! David was married to Lucinda and after David and Lucinda broke up, Tim was with Lucinda for many years. David said this chap had bought this farm out the back of Marlborough and he put us in touch.
It was very run down, it didn’t have power in the yard, none of the fences were standing, it needed a lot of work, and it was far too big for us when we were starting out. Normally you would graduate and that is another benefit we had. We were able to go to one place and start there and remain there. As we grew, the place grew with us.
We had no money, modest income and not many horses to ride so we had a lot of time during the day to do the jobs on the farm ourselves, we got a few kiwi mates over as well, and so those first couple of years, they ended up owing us at the end of each month after the rent was paid. As we progressed and the place got up in standard and the scale sort of changed, we got in a bit of business as I was breaking in horses and Jonelle was riding, so we started to afford the ever increasing rent.
What has fame changed for you?
Jonelle: We don’t think of ourselves as being famous. We think of ourselves as climbing further and further up in the sport. Certainly life has got easier for sure from those first days. I remember in those first couple of years going to the supermarket with a 20 pound note and you had an order of priority in your trolley and once you hit the 20 quid mark, then anything south didn’t get pushed across the till.
It is a different sport over there. We run 30 horses, give or take, we would only own two or three of those horses. The rest are owned by others who are passionate about the sport typically. They enjoy watching their horse progress. That is the core of the business and that allows us to fully focus on trying to get better. We still train a huge amount and just put in the foundation that is required.
What trainers do you use?
Tim: We use Isobel Wessels for dressage, she is a pure dressage judge, we are very lucky to have her. She really gets the event horse which goes to show what kind of true horsewoman she is, she understands the horses. She has a good way of teaching, she is quiet but very persuasive.
You have to arrive at a competition in the right kind of condition to win. It is not about what you do one the day, it is about the preparation that has gone in. That is the part that Isobel has really contributed to with our dressage. When we get there for the dressage test itself, it is just a matter of going through the motions of your good training and demonstrating what you can do. You have them in a place where they are going to fall into the work because they know it so well and they are comfortable there.
From a jumping perspective we have a lovely gentleman, who is very well known in the jumping world. Luis Alverez Cervera, we just call him King Luis. He has been with us for about 8-10 years with the Kiwi team. He is the man you want to have at the final warm up fence. He knows when to say whoa, and he knows us and our horses so well. He has been to six Olympic games for both eventing and show jumping. When you go to a showjump show and he comes along to help, that is where you realise how well known he is because everyone steps aside. It is quite handy, as when there is an intensity at the warm up at a big show and we have Luis, everyone steps aside, and he says, thank you and we take over the practice jump.
It is about having systems and a long term relationship with these guys. You have to find the right trainer but then you have to get very established with them. I am not looking forward to the day when we have to jump ship for whatever reason and go. It is about getting established and believing. It is also about what you do, you can’t rely on having them in the right place at the right time, it is about what
It is also about what you do, you can’t rely on having them in the right place at the right time, it is about what system you have in place as well.
What is a typical day at home?
Jonelle: I often skive off to the gym first thing, Tim is OK with that as he gets the early shift with wee Otis to get him up and ready. We are very lucky to have a great nanny who arrives about 8am. Nothing too early, we like to get him up and have breakfast with him. Then we head to the yard and ride horses all day. I think we probably ride about eight each, on a busy day it might be ten. Around eight is the magic number, it is the number where we feel we can do well mentally, and keep focused for that long, physically keep going and it would normally take us through to about 4 ish. Then it can be a combination of anything from bookwork and life, all the usual boring household duties. Someone has to go to the supermarket!
It is very different this time of the year compared to the competition season. Eventing starts in March but we actually head down to Spain first, which we have done for about four years now. We go down there and jump in a show jumping circuit for about a month. That sees us away all of February. We then come back and start eventing in March. If we are at home, we could be competing at one day events anything from three to four days a week. Once the three day competitions start, it is not unusual for us to do four or five three day events on the trot. We would literally leave on Monday night if we are going to Europe, we normally travel through the night so we often leave between 8 and 11 pm. We drive through the night, aiming to arrive about midday the next day. We are at the three-day all week and then leave on Sunday night, again driving through the night getting home, rolling into the farm the early hours of Monday morning. We often have to get up and ride a few horses as we have been away all week, and turn around and leave again on the Monday night. We can easily do that backing it up for up to six weeks on the trot.
Tim: Sometimes, which we always regret on the day but it seems like a good idea when we are entering, we get home on that Monday morning and back the truck down, and there is already another load of horses ready to go to a competition and we go and compete all the ones who have been missing out. Five horses in one day sort of thing and then leave that night for another competition. It is a busy time and before you know it a couple of months can roll by and we have been on the road the whole time.
What was the worst fall you have ever had?
Tim: Breaking my leg or getting squashed? I have had a few falls. I had a little thoroughbred horse from NZ called Black. I had been away at a competition and on the Monday I was going for a hack. We just had a spook out on the hack. It was springtime and all the stinging nettles were at their peak strength. He was very thin skinned and went sideways through these stinging nettles and then backwards. It set him off, he ran backwards, fell over, fell on me, and I snapped my femur. They were able to get the helicopter on the ground just beside me which was good otherwise it was going to be a bumpy ride in the ambulance. That led on to most of the summer off, and a few good things came out of that. I decided to ask Jonelle to marry me in that time I sat at home, and I also managed to have enough time to put together a bit of a plan to make that happen.
Jonelle: Out of that fall I also got Flintstar which was a horse that I took to London Olympics. That was Tim's horse but when he was laid up, I started riding him, and obviously things went from strength to strength, and when it came time to give Flintstar back to Tim, everyone said 'you can't take that horse off her now' and sure enough we went on to the London Olympics. So I was very lucky with that fall that day.
How do you decide who has which horse?
Jonelle: Typically the horses tend to work it out themselves, it is often size and stature, or stronger or weaker or it has come with a specific owner and it has come very much for one or other of us. It is just the occasional one that just seems to sit in a bit of a grey area in the middle. It can definitely test our marriage.
Tim: That is where I remain ever the diplomat. I just quietly work away, and make sure I do the dishes, and keep the place tidy and just pop the question every so often, what is happening or what do you think about, you've got those amazing mares, and I just really need a decent little mare... and then I leave it alone for a couple of weeks. No seriously, it is one of those things, and we do have the advantage of being able to ride an array of different horses between us. People these days really identify that with us and hopefully we can pick up some owners because they know there is that diversity. But it is not always smooth running.
Flintstar’s breeder was present and told us about the horse who was by Zabalou out of a Kingcroft Wicklow mare. “He was one-eighth Irish draft, which is what I always aimed for when we had the stud as I believed one-eighth Irish draft TB would have the qualities and speed of a thoroughbred and also have the vigour and strength and supposedly common sense of the Irish draft. Unfortunately that factor missed out a bit with Flint as he was pretty hot!”
Jonelle: It was quite a miraculous story about Flint. He was an arrogant so-and-so, I am not going to lie. It was no wonder that Tim didn't want him back to be honest. If only he had of been a little bit more courteous or willing, he could have really been quite special. He actually came to us from a kiwi girl we employed from near Oxford, Darnelle Hubard. She kept talking about the horse at home and show us photos and he did look quite good and so eventually after about a year or so, she twisted her father's arm to sending him over. He arrived and the first few times she jumped him in the arena, we looked at each other and thought, this is alright. We were expecting him to be a bit of a Dobbin but he was far from that so we politely persuaded her to let her come to Tim. He ended up buying a half share of him and he stayed with us. Further to the story, Tim's brother ended up marrying Darnelle!
Puhinui horse trials last weekend: How did the horses compare to a similar event in the UK?
Tim: They are probably not that close, a couple of fields apart to be brutally honest. There are some really quality young riders coming through, we were impressed by the standard and the determination of some of the riders up there in fact. The thing is and the difference is when you are competing day in and day out against the likes of William Fox Pitt and Mark Todd and all those wonderful riders, that is what really sharpens you up. You can just see these guys here in New Zealand just don't have that. There is just a lack of spit and polish, but they do have that good old natural way of being able to gallop around the course, jump jumps and a lot of talent.
Jonelle: It really is a numbers game. In the UK in a CCI3* which is your premier class at Puhinui, we would have a hundred starters and even then there would be a ballot / wait list. That will be one event and all it runs is three-star. At Puhinui, there were about seven classes and it is the same even with our one-day system. We can compete on a Monday or a Tuesday and it will be just novice for the whole day and they will run a couple of hundred novices. When you are up against that sort of competition, it really raises the bar. To be winning, you have to be finishing a novice on a 75%+ dressage, and one rail could see you drop from first to twelfth. It is not that we don't have the talent here, it is perhaps because we don't have the foundation and the competition that is making them be that cut-throat competitor.
Tim: What is required to win in England and Europe is that extra 2-3% to be better than the rest of the field. It is something that doesn't happen by chance. It is a long journey but what was pivotal for us is that we went through the initial stages of having the 20 quid at the supermarket and we got going, I was breaking in a lot of horses, we were ducking and diving with whatever would come our way. Always the answer was yes if someone wanted to send us a horse, no matter what the horse, the age, the size, we would take the horse. We would take an average horse and make it good. As we got better we would get a good horse and make a good horse great. That is how it went.
But there also needed to come a point along the way where we had to make a decision of what we were trying to achieve and understand and appreciate what that would take. That was to really hone in on our own job of riding good horses and taking them all the way.
There was a point in time, four or five years ago, in about year seven of our campaign in England to get up and on our feet and in a position where we could go to the owners and say that our plan is to take horses to win four-stars. Are you with us or not? The lovely thing was that everyone was and at the end of the day, it could be quite a nerve wracking thing to do. Not all people would be in a position to do that, ie they might need to sell their horse to finance what they need to do in their own life. But we thought that if we made it very clear that was our plan, and hopefully they would come with us and everyone did. They got behind our ambition, and so from that mental change from breaking in horses, and just surviving with whatever was happening to saying, right, we are only going to try to ride the best horses, and focus on our training, and not focus on teaching and things that were not directly relating to that end goal. That was the time we really started to go in the direction of being that top 3%. It carried on from there to the horses getting better, and it is really about the quality of the horses you are sat on. We really capitalised on that.
We don't start our day too early, because this has to be something that is sustainable. So you have a team to help. Our job is to have bodies that work well for our job, and to be in a physical and mental state to be able to deliver when it counts, and that means that we can't be in there mucking out, we can't be getting up at six every morning doing it that way as we would just burn out and it wouldn't be sustainable. It is all about having yourself and running yourself like a machine and being able to get yourself in a position that when you need to deliver you can deliver, and you can continue to do that regularly.
What motivated you to start riding?
Tim: To get out of school! I think my parents were quite easy on me as I was allowed to be out of school doing things with horses, I still went to school but it was just a natural thing for me. I was on a farm, there were plenty of horses that were around that needed my attention as part of the family set-up. For Jonelle it was different.
Jonelle: I differ. School is very important. You must all go to school. Do not use Tim as an example. For me it was a bizarre passion. I don't know where it came from or what it was that started me off, but I was determined that I wanted to ride and that was it. I had a one-track direction, and those that know me will say that is not a huge surprise. I was adamant I was going to ride.
How did you meet each other?
Jonelle: I was born and bred in Motueka, at the top of New Zealand. When I was coming of an age where I was growing out of pony club and branching into horse trials, I was starting to travel to Canterbury to compete on a regular basis. It was on one of those early trips where I met Tim.
Tim: I remember seeing someone who was from out of town turn up in a little rickety float, with blond hair and marching around as if she owned the place. Rightly or wrongly, I was a little bit intrigued. Then it all went from there, we were friends for years, we kicked out together for a bit, and it went from there.
Tell us about your team and how you run your yard?
Jonelle: We run a full time team of about seven staff and a nanny, so it is a big operation. We have a Swedish, Italian, Brazilian, Kiwis, English - a lot of nationalities. We have a fantastic head girl in Lucy Miles who has been with us for about four years and she really is the lynchpin of the operation. She really is the go-between and the go-to for us and equally for the staff. She has a tough job but she does it very easily and does it with grace.
None of us are under any illusion as to the amount of work that is involved. With us travelling so much it would be very easy if we were all at home every day but the reality is we are away competing. If we are away competing six horses then we will have two staff with us, so then you have four people away with six horses which leaves 24 horses at home with only a few staff. That is why we have to have those sort of numbers to be able to cover all the busy days and all the travel. The winter is nice and quiet, when we are at home each day, and it is a good opportunity for the staff as well to have a bit of down time.
What skills and attributes do you look for in your staff?
Tim: They have to be a good part of the team, naturally. Hardworking, and I think we end up with quite a young team. They have to be passionate for horses and what we are trying to achieve. As there are two of us, we run a bigger team than your typical one-competitor set up. We think that is a real advantage as with seven or eight people, if there is a weaker link or someone is struggling, then the whole team brings them along and keeps them up together whereas if there are just three people and one is struggling for whatever reason, it becomes a difficult thing for everyone including them. We might start the year with a couple of new faces and they are just a bit lacking maturity and understanding of things, and half way through the year they are flying. It is a lovely journey to watch, they really come out of their shells and develop as people.
Skills, it is just a matter of being part of the team. It is fun for the team to enjoy the success and realise they are very much a part of that success. It is something we keep reminding them, it is all of us that make this work. Like Jonelle says, there may be 24 horses at home, they will be going to the gallops, we need eyes on the ground everywhere, we need everyone to be very conscientious with the horses and if there is anything that needs to be addressed, it needs to be identified early so we are reliant on them for that. It is very much a team effort.
Jonelle: Just adding to that, we do have a lot of foreigners and it is a bit of a conscious decision to do that. Anyone that is prepared to sacrifice home and get themselves on a plane to the other side of the world like we did, it shows that they have a real dedication and desire to pursue their dreams.
The structure we have is the head girl and 2IC are strictly on the ground, we have two riders, or assistant riders who are good enough to be doing some schooling and ride our good horses from time to time if we are away. We then normally have a couple of working pupils so they are often younger riders, 17-18 who might come for a year with their horse. We help and guide and mentor them. At any given time we have a Kiwi who is over for a year or something, who is just there to experience and see the world. It is a great way for them to do that. We have a girl who has just moved into our 2IC position from Kaiapoi. She came over to us, she had even been rousing in a shearing shed and in the 18 months she has been with us she has been all over Europe, and hopefully now, and if things go to plan, she will get to go to Tokyo Olympics and be part of that. There are a lot of opportunities for small town people, it is not just all about us, it is fulfilling their dreams as well.
Tim: People apply for jobs as grooms from New Zealand. As Jonelle said, we take our hats off to someone who considers the idea of coming over. Even if you are a budding rider, it is a great idea to come across even for just half a season. If you are surplus to what we need, we can point you in the right direction to some friends or somewhere that might be a good place to go that has availability.
Tell us about your horses?
Jonelle: For me, I seem to have collected a whole string of mares. Some days I wonder what on earth I am doing. They really have been a key to my success and for whatever reason, I have seemed to have jelled with them. Classic Moet and Fairie Dianimo have led my team for the last couple of years and they are 13 and 15 now so I like to think they have a few more years ahead as well. I have a couple of nice ones coming up the grades, two seven-year-old mares who are looking to go advanced next year. That is a big part of our job as well, making sure that the gap is filled below the horses featuring in the big competitions. It is equally as important making sure that we have the next generation coming through so that when it comes time for the two older mares to retire, we have something else there filling that spot. We really have to focus on keeping that next generation coming through.
Tim: Whilst Jonelle has been gathering horses post having a baby and sorting out her numbers in the upper direction, I have been quietly working mine down. Referring back to the changes we made, I have always had a lot of horses and got well known for riding tricky ones. They came from all directions so for many years I was competing up to 16 horses. I was getting old and sore coming home from work every day. I have been working that down, and as my horses have become better quality, it has become much more exciting and the results are starting to demonstrate that as well. I am really looking forward to these next couple of years as they are all bloody good horses.
I have got Ringwood Skyboy who has pulled up really well from Burghley and I am looking forward to next year with him. He will be basically at Badminton and Burghley. Bango who also went really well at Burghley with a double clear round there, he is going to come back in and I am aiming him for Badminton as well. Xavier Faer is a nice horse, he has a little bit of time off in the latter part of the season but he came third at Badminton the year before this one, so he is actually going to Kentucky which is the week before Badminton. Not that the Grand Slam is a real focus, if you are not at the competition you don't have a shot so he is going out there.
Wesko is a super little horse that I have had a lot of fun with and then I lost him for a couple of years with injury and bits and pieces, but he has come back this year nicely and I have been very steady with his re-introduction to top level sport. I've been really happy with him, I am going to aim for some of the Event Rider Masters in the first half of the year with him, and then finish the year hopefully at Pau with him.
Ascona, I fell off her a few weeks ago at Pau. She is one that Jonelle started. She is a lovely big grey mare with a whole lot of attitude. Everything about her is quite extreme, her movement is beautiful but she can be quite crazy. Jonelle was quite happy to pass over so I have been chipping away with her. Our first four-star together, at Pau, she did a really nice dressage test, and was tripping around very nicely in the cross country but we had a stumble jumping into the water jump and flicked me off and I got nice and wet. I walked home and that was how I finished my season! We will learn from that and she will hopefully go to Luhmuhlen.
I also have a really nice two-star horse and some babies, so I am quite top heavy. I am quite happy with that at this stage and I will focus on what I have got.
Part two of this article is also now available.