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Riding it out with Christine Bates

Many people talk about resilience, but not so many people embody it. Eventer Christine Bates is someone who does, writes REBECCA ASHTON.

One of our country’s most talented eventers, Christine Bates was a non-travelling reserve for the Jerez World Equestrian Games, was long listed for the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics, and short listed for London and Rio. Despite these accolades, Christine knows very well the ups and downs of her chosen sport. So what keeps her climbing back up that ladder? Passion.

Christine was born in Sydney to a navy father and polocrosse playing mother. Raised in Perth, her path in life seemed to be set from a very early age. “I was two when Mum was in the shower and I was caught climbing onto the gate about to put a leg over one of her polo ponies.” Christine’s first pony, a four-year-old, came along when she was just three. “I’ve always been drawn to them,” she muses. “I’m still a horse crazy kid.”

Christine and CP Qualified won a 1st in the Pre-Novice 1* at Sydney Eventing at SIEC in 2011 (Image by Main Event Photography).

Like any good Aussie youngster worth their salt, Christine found Pony Club early and it was show jumping that really drew her in. However, sometimes horses have other plans. When she was sixteen she bought the then four-year-old Masterprint with prize money she’d won. But when Masterprint made it clear he didn’t really want to spend his life going over the coloured poles, she started dabbling in eventing.

Just out of school, Christine decided to take the trek across country with two horses to the 1994 Lochinvar Three Day Event. Upon returning home she informed her parents that she was heading back east and within months, with three horses in tow, had settled at Prue and Craig Barrett’s yard. “It was really hard work but an amazing learning experience. I think you benefit so much as a working pupil as opposed to just having regular lessons. You get that whole aspect of how the business operates, the management of the horses, dealing with vets and farriers,” she says.

After a good grounding with the Barretts, Christine based herself at Sam Lyle’s, but all didn’t go as planned. After her first few weeks there, she broke her leg. Christine recalls: “It was actually quite a funny fall. I landed on my feet, absolutely laughing and then went to walk and realised I had shattered my leg. I had two nasty fractures and a rotation and had to have surgery.” She went home to Perth to recover but eventually thought it best to get her horses back west and start up again.

Competing in the 1.10m with Thoroughbred Fleeting at the 2022 Inglis TSHA & Open Showjumping Competition (Image by Diane K Smith Photography).

But it wasn’t all bad news. She’d been home for a week when she met Matt, the man who was to become her husband. Matt, a Kiwi breaker and trainer, had been in Hong Kong retraining racehorses. After a couple of different jobs over the following year, the pair thought to head back east with two horses for a three month trip to compete at the Lochinvar and Melbourne events. They never went home.

Based at George Sanna’s property, they both got jobs in the racing industry, and worked jumpers for Chris Chugg while slowly starting their own business. “I don’t really know how we did it,” says Christine, “We’d get up at 3:00am then be at the track until around 9:00, drive to Chuggy’s, ride five or six of his, then go home and ride mine.” By 2005, it was time to find a place of their own to call home and Willow Park, just five minutes up the road from George, is where the couple are still based today.

It was during the early days of building their business that Christine had her first taste of the ups and downs of eventing with her first superstar Masterprint. “He actually had quite a nasty foot injury just before the Atlanta Olympics. After 12 months of ongoing lameness, we found he had a keratoma in his pedal bone that required surgery. Unfortunately, during the surgery he got a seven millimeter fracture to his pedal bone. A lot of vets thought he would never come back. But he was a typical, tough Thoroughbred. I don’t think they make them like that anymore,” she says.

Christine considers Masterprint to be one of her more amazing, forgiving rides as she was still learning how to train horses and making plenty of mistakes. After the surgery, the pair came back to win Melbourne and then the Sydney test event. She credits the gelding for having taught her resilience: if one day he was unbeatable, the next he could just as easily throw in a stop, deciding that the jump wasn’t worth the effort.

One of the toughest things about being a professional rider is that if you do your job well, chances are the horses will be sold from under you – and Christine is no stranger to this turn of events. She started Newsprint, a quirky, sensitive but lovely Thoroughbred with whom she won six events straight. The horse ended up with Chris Burton who did really well with him.

Taking out 1st place with Adelaide Hill in the CCI4*-S at the 2017 Adelaide International Three Day Event (Image by Krystin Gibson Photography).

Then there was Reprint, the “crazy grey” who jumped around Kentucky; Delago, who sold to Japan and was a member of their gold-winning team at the 2018 Asian Games; and she started Shane Rose’s champion ride CP Qualified, a horse she

considers “quite something”, going from 80cm to 3* in five months. Kung Fu Panda was also under Christine before he went to Andrew Hoy in the UK. “Once they reach 4* they’re sold and there goes a potential team horse for me,” she broods. But the positive? It does keep the costs down and makes the sport affordable.

But there was one young horse that she was able to keep for his whole career: Adelaide Hill, owned by family friend Beth Turner. “He was pretty crazy and wild. The day he arrived, the truck driver was fuming that ‘the bloody thing kicked me’. Once we met Adelaide we understood. Now 19, he still lives in a halter,” Christine smiles. The youngster managed to cow kick Matt twice during breaking in, resulting in two trips to emergency.

However, despite his unpredictable temper and unimpressive conformation, when Adelaide arrived Christine just knew there was something special about him. There was a look in his eye and she saw a “nice person” inside, who over time she was able to gradually coax out to reveal one of the kindest, gentlest and most affectionate horses she’s ever worked with. She credits her experience with Newsprint for making Adelaide Hill easier to produce: “They were similar,” she explains.

After a rocky start, Christine’s persistence and bravery with Adelaide Hill paid off in competition. She recalls the most memorable successes: “Early on he won the Melbourne Two Day Long. He won his first Four Long at Sydney and did his first 5* as a nine-year-old. He won Melbourne 2015 and won the Sydney Long again in 2018 as a 16-year-old. Only two horses have won Sydney twice. I think the other was with Heath Ryan.”

In 2018 with her top horse in top form, Christine ventured off on her long dreamed of trip to Europe to compete at Aachen, and then hopefully on to WEG. But horses being horses, not all went to plan. “Unfortunately Adelaide was plagued with tendon injuries and his timing was terrible. I’d have him primed for a championship year and he’d be in contention then he’d tweak it again.” The pair had competed well at Barbery two weeks earlier, and had done a jump clinic with Nelson Pessoa. But after the dressage and show jumping at Aachen, he unfortunately reinjured the tendon, which at the time vets said was career ending.

Christine and Adelaide Hill built a special and very successful partnership (Image by Krystin Gibson Photography).

Adelaide headed to the UK to Christine’s good friend Becks Bennett to be rehabbed while Christine went home. But there was yet another high when Adelaide fully recovered and Christine returned to Europe for six months to qualify for Tokyo and

finish the trip that had ended in tears the year before. Today, back home in Australia, Adelaide is helping teach Christine’s son William the eventing ropes.

Perhaps the lowest point in Christine’s career came with the death of 19-year-old working student Caitlyn Fischer in a fatal fall at Sydney International Horse Trials in 2016. It rocked Christine to the core, deeply affecting both her personal life and her coaching. Other than the quite natural reaction of blaming herself and wondering whether she could have done anything differently, she questioned whether, as a mother with a son, she should continue to take the risk of riding at a high level. “I definitely lost who I was and I think it’s taken several years to get myself back. We remember Caitlyn on a daily basis at home, we talk about her openly, she was part of our family and we miss her terribly. But I also think it’s important that we live our lives in memory of Caitlyn and not waste time dwelling on something we can’t change.” Every day Christine tries to be a better person, a better coach and a better mum.

Christine and Adelaide Hill with son William and Brightnight (As featured in The Australian Women’s Weekly, August 2016).

After years of experience, Christine is well aware that with horses you have to take the good with the bad, to appreciate the good times and be prepared to struggle through the hard times. While pregnant with William, when she couldn’t ride, she realised how deeply she was committed to her sport. “Since having William I have a better perspective as to why I ride and I enjoy it more,” she says. “Before that it had probably become a bit of a job, a bit of a chore. And there’s an expectation when you’ve been successful for a long time. People think you’ll just keep being successful, but we all know that you go through highs and lows in your career.”

Christine is a fighter and just loves what she’s does. She’s extremely goal driven and still has championship aspirations if destiny allows. “I’m one of those riders, the “what if” stories. I’ve always been knocking on the door. I think my role was to keep everyone honest.” But there are no regrets, instead immense gratitude to have been able to work in the sport she loves, while remaining hopeful that there’s a superstar out there for her in the not too distant future! “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I’m not going to stress about it,” says a pragmatic Christine.

Feature Image: With Adelaide Hill in Lingnieres, France for the 2019 Event Rider Masters Final (Image by Pauline Coudret).