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As luck would have it with Kevin McNab

There’s an old adage that says luck is the product of preparation meeting opportunity, and in Kevin McNab’s case nothing could be closer to the truth, writes AMANDA MAC.

It was Seneca, an ancient Roman philosopher of some repute, who with great insight once remarked that luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. And I don’t think you’d get much of an argument from Kevin McNab on that point, because he’s been preparing for a very long time.

Growing up in a non-horsey family in Millaa Millaa, a small town on the southern edge of Far North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, Kevin was just two years old when, apropos to apparently nothing, he asked his parents for a horse. “And my parents were silly enough to buy me one,” he says. I can’t help but comment that it turned out not to be so silly. “Yeah, but it took them a while to reach that conclusion I think,” he says with a chuckle.

It wasn’t until Kevin was around seven or eight years old that he began to ride ‘properly’, by which he means he rode every day. However, Millaa Millaa wasn’t a town where there was much in the way of regular equestrian sports. “So when anything happened I did it. Pony Club, barrel racing, mounted games, campdrafting, show jumping, dressage, hacking, literally anything and everything,” he recalls.

One Christmas, after outgrowing Electra, his very first and very small pony, Kevin found a large box under the family’s decorated tree. Beyond excited, he opened his gift only to discover it was full of hay – which was a bit of a letdown until he dug deeper and found a card announcing the arrival of the aptly named Patches, a skewbald who was to be his first ‘real’ horse. 

Living on a dairy farm meant there was plenty of room to accommodate what soon became Kevin’s growing collection of horses. “They were naughty horses and ex-racehorses that had been given away. So I’d come home from school, jump on one and go galloping across paddocks, up and down hills, and across the creeks,” he says. “And then when I started going to Millaa Millaa Pony Club, Mum and Dad, who were very busy with four children, used to drop me at gymkhanas or show jumping days on the Friday afternoon and pick me up on Sunday. So I would just camp there and do whatever was on.”

Francesca Pollara, Manager for Scuderia 1918,Cute Girl, and groom Lucy Hartley with Kevin, Emma, two-year-old Annabelle and baby Charli (Image by Libby LawPhotography).

That’s a fair bit of independence for any youngster, but Kevin reckons that horses have a way of teaching responsibility: “You have to clean their stables, feed them, look after them, and in that sense I think I was always quite responsible. I had multiple horses all the time, so I had plenty to keep me out of trouble.”

Although there’s a noticeably horse-related theme emerging here, I’m curious to know whether he’d ever contemplated any other career. “Definitely not,” he laughs, “it was always going to be riding for me. I actually moved from Millaa Millaa down to southeast Queensland to do Years 11 and 12 at Kooralbyn International School because they had an equestrian program.”

And it was while he was there that he met well-known coach Antonio ‘Tony’ Manka, with whom he still stays in regular touch. It’s a relationship he values greatly. Kevin started lessons with Tony when he was in Year 11, and in Year 12 he boarded with Tony and his partner Tracy, keeping his horses at Tony’s property and commuting to school from there.

Naturally, another question has to be: why eventing? “Well, it’s very simple,” Kevin explains, “I’d read in horse magazines about this thing called eventing and for some reason, I thought that that was going to be the most fun. So it’s what I was drawn to and from there I never looked back. I did do some straight dressage and show jumping alongside eventing. But I found out very quickly that unless you do one thing and do it well, you do everything in a mediocre way. So I concentrated on eventing.”

After high school Kevin moved to Capalaba, a suburb in Brisbane’s south-east, where he worked as a night filler at Coles, a brickies labourer by day, and rode his horses in the evening. Not an easy gig, but it bankrolled the next stage of his plan, another move south, this time to Heath and Rozzie Ryan’s Newcastle Equestrian Centre where he became an EA Level One Coach. 

Now with coaching as a way to finance his equestrian career, he spent several years with the Ryans before moving not too far away to eventers Prue and Craig Barrett’s Rockdene Park. “So I was in the middle of a hub where at the time there were a lot of event riders. It was a great place to be. I learned a lot there,” he recalls.

By now it should be obvious that Kevin is prepared to do the hard yards necessary to be successful, an attitude fostered during his days at Kooralbyn International School, where he was surrounded by sports minded, goal-orientated peers who had their sights set high. “Everyone dreamed of going to the Olympics or representing their country. So it was always a driving force. And Heath Ryan is one of those people that no matter who you are, when you have a lesson with him you always leave thinking you’re going to the next Olympics! He is an amazing motivator.”

But ever a Queenslander at heart, it was eventually time to return to the Sunshine State and set up shop on a property at Kelecyn in the Gold Coast hinterland. Another Heath Ryan protégé, eventer Emma Dougall, whom Heath had suggested should work with Kevin, arrived shortly thereafter. And given that Kevin and Emma married in 2016, I’d say that was a pretty perceptive call on Heath’s part!

Bringing it home withCute Girl during the final at Pau(Image by Libby LawPhotography).

Life rolled on with Kevin flying back and forth across the ditch to do some catch rides for New Zealander Heelan Tompkins.  By the end of 2011, Frances Stead of Clifton Eventers offered Kevin the ride on Clifton Pinot. The horse was duly shipped from New Zealand and the pair competed at the Adelaide 4*, which fortunately also happened to be a Minimum Eligibility Requirement (MER) event, ensuring Kevin was qualified at the appropriate level well before the new MER framework was implemented the following year. 

But these events coincided with a period not uncommon in any horse sport, where one minute you have a great team of horses, and the next, for one reason and another, you have none. So things were pretty quiet, particularly in early 2012 after Emma left to pursue her career in the UK. “I was getting a little bit bored sitting at home. Emma was over there having all the fun, so I followed her,” Kevin says, laughing as he points out that although the initial plan was for a three month stay, they’re still there 10 years later. 

So after basing himself in the UK with Olympic qualified Clifton Pinot, Kevin competed at the Houghton International Horse Trials, followed by Luhmühlen in Germany. However, their performances were not competitive enough to warrant selection for the London Olympics. But there was an upside to that: “It gave us a good look at the sport on this side of the world, and an idea of the level you needed to be riding at to be competitive and to then be selected,” Kevin explains. “So rather than a disappointing outcome, it was a great experience and a good opportunity to actually see it all at first hand.”

Having made the decision to stay in the UK, the time had come to consider logistics.  At the time, Kevin was in Olympian eventer Jock Paget’s yard, while Emma was located nearby with Bryony Holloway, another successful eventer. Neither yard was large enough to accommodate both Kevin and Emma, who eventually decided they’d like a yard of their own. After finding one and growing out of it quite quickly, the couple moved into a larger facility owned by their great supporters Mark and Belinda Sartori, where they’re still based today. 

Now with two young daughters and a yard to run, life is busy. “We’ve got quite a decent operation. We have horses from three years old to 5*, a couple of hundred acres, 25 stables, and a great team,” Kevin tells me. “Isabel English has been with us for a few years now, and Robbie Kearns is over from Ireland. And then we have our long term groom, Lucy Hartley, who used to work for Emma and now grooms for us both, as well as Christine Parker, another top groom.”

It takes time to build a team of quality staff and Kevin puts strong emphasis on their contribution to his current success: “We’ve had a lot of people with us now for quite a long time and I think that when that happens, you tend to become more successful because you have a good team around you who know your good and bad points and are able to help out with that. And then all of a sudden, it seems things start to come together. For me it’s not necessarily just that you have to ride well. I’ve generally been more successful when I’ve had a good team – and I’ve got a great team at the moment.”

In Kevin’s opinion, another important part of his journey are the many obstacles he’s had to overcome: moving from his home to Southeast Queensland for school; working multiple jobs and long hours to fund his continued growth in the sport; a move to NSW and back; the ups and downs of building a team of horses – now you have one, now you don’t; the financial difficulties.

That Kevin counts himself lucky to have faced all these challenges and more says much about his mindset: “It’s a sport of lows rather than highs. The lows make the highs even better, but you have to be able to weather the storm. So I think that those little things that come along – and there’re lots of them – you have to look at them as opportunities rather than crises. They’re all learning experiences, and I’ve had quite a few!”

Tokyo 2020 silver medallists Shane Rose, Andrew Hoy and KevinMcNab(Image by Libby Law Photography).

Which brings us to Tokyo 2020 and Kevin’s place on the Australian Eventing Team alongside Andrew Hoy and Shane Rose. The third team member was originally to have been Chris Burton with Quality Purdey, who was unfortunately withdrawn after sustaining a minor injury. Next in line were Stuart Tinney and Leporis, with Kevin and Scuderia 1918 Don Quidam as the travelling reserves. But on veterinary advice, it was decided it was in Leporis’ best interests not to start, moving Stuart into reserve and Kevin onto the team. 

For Kevin, this is typical of the sport’s highs and lows: “Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn’t, but this was one of the times when it worked for me. I had been very settled into my role as team reserve, thinking that if anything I might be needed for a round of show jumping. Obviously I was excited to now be on the team, but I was also very disappointed for Stuart, so it was a bittersweet surprise.” 

Nonetheless, Kevin enjoyed the opportunity to the full: “It was such a good atmosphere. Stuart congratulated me and then, with his wealth of experience, was probably more helpful to me than I could have been for him had I been the reserve. There were never any hard feelings, it was just okay, well let’s carry on and get the job done.” 

Similarly, he has nothing but praise for Chris Webb, the team’s Chef De Mission, and High Performance Eventing Manager Erin O’Neill: “They’re both very, very good people to have as part of the team and they do their jobs particularly well. It wouldn’t matter what you needed, literally anything. They were always there to help.” 

Kevin, Shane and Andrew take a lap of honour in Tokyo (Image by DirkCaremans, Hippo Foto)

Over the years, Kevin has had a bit to do with Australia’s High Performance Program, and he’s impressed. “They do everything they can to make your job easier. Our horses were prepared in the way we wanted to have them prepared, and we were encouraged to choose our own support teams, which is something that doesn’t always happen,” he tells me.

As it turned out, choosing his team proved to be a bonus. Before leaving the UK, Chris asked Kevin what he needed to enable him to do his job well. Kevin suggested taking his dressage coach Sune Hansen to Tokyo, thinking the request was a bit of a long shot given at that point he was only the reserve. However, Chris immediately agreed to what was a considerable financial investment. 

But it was an investment that paid dividends, because Kevin’s most anxious moment in Tokyo was when he realised he was going to have to ride the dressage test. The Australian eventing team met daily for a briefing and just prior to Stuart’s withdrawal, Kevin had been feeling quite relaxed. “They asked me where I was at and I said I was working towards having my horse ready to jump a few fences if necessary. I joked that I was comfortable that the boys were keeping it all together so I wouldn’t need to do a dressage test.” Kevin laughs at the memory. “But by the very next day everything had changed and when they asked me the same question again I said, well, I’m a lot less comfortable now!” 

So having his coach with him made a huge difference: “The horse was working particularly well, and Sune made sure I worked hard. I was a bit disappointed with myself though. I fumbled through the test a little bit rather than capitalising on the things Don Quidam does well. But at the end of the day, it made no difference – even with a 26 dressage score the team result would still have been the same.”

And to top off a fantastic experience there was a silver medal, something that seemed a little surreal: “It’s strange because one minute I was there and settled into the role of reserve,” Kevin recalls, “and the next thing you know, we’re standing on a podium and Andrew, who’s an old hand, is giving me directions on what to do!  It was quite incredible. I was very privileged to have been part of a team with such a wealth of experience.”

But Kevin’s recent successes, which, by the way, have propelled him from 21st to ninth position (at the time of writing) on the FEI Eventing World Athlete Rankings, have not been limited to Olympic glory. The past 12 months or so have been some of his best, and while it’s taken time to build a team of horses to an elite level, the stars, five and otherwise, have now aligned. There was the Kentucky CCI5* followed by silver at Tokyo, both with Don Quidam. Kevin and Scuderia 1918 Humphreys then took first place in the CCI3*-L at Osberton International, followed by a first and second in the Millstreet International CCI4*-S on Scuderia 1918 A Best Friend, and Irish Sport Horse Willunga. Next it was Cute Girl who secured the FEI WBFSH Eventing 7yo World Championship at Le Lion d’Angers, followed by A Best Friend’s solid fourth place at a very competitive CCI 5* in Pau. “So yeah, it’s been a really good run,” Kevin says. An understatement, for sure!

And the future is looking bright. “Don Quidam and A Best Friend are both going well and are qualified for the World Equestrian Games in August. So we’re aiming for WEG and then Paris will be shortly after that,” Kevin tells me. “They’re the goals long term, and then short term we have lots of competitions coming up. But for now, the aim is to bolt down the hatches for winter and spend some time at home with my family.” 

With a career that’s going ahead at full pace, Kevin and Emma won’t be returning to Australia any time soon, although for them it will always be home. They still have their property at Kelecyn, currently being run by Kevin’s brother Dale and his wife Charlotte, also an eventer. “And that’s where we’ll retire. We’d still like to have horses but it’ll be on a different scale. Right now though, we’ll stay in the UK. The calendar is a lot better here and access to other events is easier.”   

That said, Kevin is grateful for all that Australia has given him. “I think that Australia actually has a lot of benefits when you’re starting out. We always had a lot of horses there and that gives you the opportunity to gain experience. And not just for myself, but for the people who were working for me. It benefits everyone. The more horses you ride, the more opportunity you have to compete, improve them, and then sell them. I think starting your career in England would be very expensive and very hard unless you happened to be lucky enough to find good horses to ride.”

Kevin has spent quite a bit of time in the limelight of late, but that hasn’t changed the absolute gratitude he feels for the many people who support him behind the scenes: for his wife Emma; for the team responsible for looking after the yard while he’s away and who always do such a great job (“I’m sure when I come back I annoy everyone and slow the yard down” he confesses); for his owners; for his vets and for his farriers.

All in all, I’d say there’s a lot to like about Kevin McNab’s philosophy on life, luck, and being successful in one of the equestrian world’s most demanding disciplines.

Feature Image: Victory forKevin and Cute Girl in the FEI WBFSHCCI 3*7yo World Championship at Le Lion d’Angers (Image by Libby Law Photography)