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Life After Racing: Making the leap

What do a thirteen-year-old novice rider and an OTT Standardbred have in common? A very special partnership and some serious Pony Club successes, writes PETER STAPLES.

Many retired Tasmanian racehorses have successfully transitioned into careers in hacking, show jumping, polo, dressage and eventing, or have become Pony Club success stories – an excellent case in point being Samantha (Sami) Barker and her OTT Standardbred Ollie.

Ollie, a former pacer who raced as Ezygatboy for premier Tasmanian harness trainer Ben Yole, has taken a particular shine to Pony Club. So much so that after he and Sami put in an outstanding performance at the Pony Club State Trials in March 2021, they qualified for the recently held 2021 Pony Club Nationals, which due to COVID was unfortunately a virtual event only.

But to take a step back, it’s fair to say that Sami is as new to the world of Pony Club as Ollie. Now thirteen years old, she was introduced to horses just over a year ago when she was invited to go on a trail ride by her neighbor and friend Haylee Chilcott. “When I first tried riding I was petrified! But after my first trail ride I loved it, and I just kept on going out for rides with Haylee,” Sami says.

Meanwhile Ollie had had 35 starts for five wins and three placings, earning over $25,000 in the process. His first four wins were in Western Australia, after which he was relocated to Victoria where he won at Mildura before finally landing a berth in Ben Yole’s stable. But when it became apparent that he’d reached the end of his racing career, it was decided to rehome the nine-year-old gelding and earlier this year he entered the Off the Track program facilitated by Tasracing, Tasmania’s peak racing authority.

It was around the same time that Sami’s new-found love of riding had reached the point where her parents had decided to buy her a horse. But destiny intervened when Sami and Ollie became beneficiaries of Tasracing’s OTT program. Ollie was gifted to Sami, and the pair developed their partnership with the help of Kristin Pitt, a qualified Equestrian Australia NCAS coach, who gave them lessons subsidised by Tasracing as a part of its ongoing program.

Competing at the Pre-Spring Gala in Launceston (Image by Sarah Walker).

And the partnership could not be more solid. The pair have a great rapport and as Sami refines and develops her skills, she teaches Ollie what he needs to learn about equestrian disciplines. “I couldn’t have got a better horse to start me off because he is just so honest, and he deals with everything I ask of him,” she says. “He’s prepared to try anything and that gives me so much more confidence.”

Keen to take her sport as far as she can, Sami’s equestrian horizons broadened considerably when she joined Lilydale Pony Club in November last year, which is when Ollie was first introduced to jumping. Although he’s an enthusiastic learner, he initially found trot poles challenging, but these days he’s popping over 80cm fences like an old hand.

Sami and Ollie progressed quickly, and earned their chance to shine at the Nationals in the sub-junior section of the Tetrathlon. A relatively new discipline, the event comprises a kilometer run, a 100 metre swim, pistol shooting, and an equestrian element that includes cross country and show jumping. “I like swimming and I am fair at running. I’m a member of a pistol club and I love jumping, so it’s a perfect sport for Ollie and me,” Sami says.

Sami and Ollie share a love of jumping (Image courtesy Peter Staples).

Sami has not only benefited from Kristin Pitt’s expert tuition, but also from lessons with her riding coach Jules Targett. “I’ve been lucky to have very good coaches. Jules has been helping me a lot with my jumping technique over the last couple of months, and Kristen has helped with getting Ollie cantering and educated to deal with jumping,” she says. “I love what I’m doing with Ollie, and it’s so pleasing to see how he has grown in confidence, and that also helps my confidence grow.”

Much to the pair’s credit, Ollie is the first Standardbred to make a state Pony Club team and the only ex-pacer to compete at the Nationals.

But while Sami has relished her achievements thus far, she has her eyes fixed firmly on the future. “The next step up from Tetrathlon is Pentathlon, and that’s an Olympic sport which is the same as Tetrathlon plus fencing,” she explains. “Because I have a black belt in Taekwondo, I should be able to pick up fencing skills more easily than most, so that could be my ultimate goal. A year ago I didn’t think I would be riding as well as I am, let alone representing the state in a national competition.”

And that, without a doubt, is the stuff dreams are made of.

Feature Image: Sami and Ollie at home in Turner’s Marsh, Tasmania (Image and article by Peter Staples).