Aquis – Aiming High
One thing show jumper Michelle Lang-McMahon knows only too well is that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. For the organiser of the upcoming Aquis show jumping competition, from April 27-29 and May 1-6, it was the logistics that were most nerve-wracking about taking on the massive project, which is now entering its third year.
“Both myself and Peter is that we’ve done a lot of global shows,” says the show jumping mother of three, “and right from the start we wanted it to be top class. Not,” she adds, “that it was something we were originally looking to do – not by a long shot.”
In fact, it was four years ago when the McMahons were holding a George Morris clinic at their place, and Michael Keane was there watching his wife Kelly participate.
“Michael asked Peter if he’d like to resurrect the Elysian Fields event, and the pair of them organized to have dinner, so next thing you know we’re all having a meeting, and Michael told us that he’d give us $125,00 to put on an event,” she says, “so that was that! The very next day my daughter Meleah and I sat down for three days straight planning a program.”
To say it was a learning curve is an understatement Michelle says, looking back at the first couple of years. “It was a massive learning curve,” she says. “For the first time in my life I appreciated the effort that goes into putting on any show, let alone a major event. We had to plan classes, and create ideas for classes, get course designers, jumps, stables, sawdust – article numbers – I knew nothing about
article numbers! You could give me the numbers of jumps in a jump-off and I knew about those, but article numbers – what were they?”
Michelle is a good example of Heath Ryan’s theory that in Australia it’s mainly the parents that make our equestrian champions, because although her parents were not horsey themselves, they did have a passion for the sport of eventing. “As soon as it became obvious that they had a rider for a daughter, I was encouraged to event,” she says, “I was also lucky enough to have a cross-country course at our property, Equestrian Australia held events there, so I evented.”
But perhaps like all true show jumpers Michelle was not fond of the dressage. “I told my parents that I just wanted to jump, and that was that, we ditched the eventing and off we went.”
Not, she hastens to add, that she doesn’t believe in the importance of dressage training for all competition horses. “We actually have a dressage trainer, Ron Patterson, for our horses,” she says, “and he’s brilliant with our horses, it’s just it’s not really for me.”
By the time she was 19, Michelle had a horse with huge potential – an ex-racehorse, Odds On. “My dad sent me to George Sanna’s to train for three months,” she says, “and by the next year we were on the World Cup circuit. We won a big one in Shepparton, and when I was 22 I went to Europe to try and make the team for the World Equestrian Games.”
Michelle says this almost off-handedly as if this was an easy task, but make not mistake about it, representing Australia at the highest level of jumping, is anything but easy – in all ways. “What a lot of people don’t realise is how lonely it is,” she says. “I made the team with Odds On, but really it’s very boring riding one horse a day, the
weather is vile, and the Europeans aren’t that friendly. Obviously once the team turned up it was a lot of fun, but up until then it was a bit ordinary.”
Odds On went on to qualify again two years later, with an outstanding season leading to the World Cup in Geneva, and in the wings was another ex-racehorse superstar in the making. “Before I went back to Europe I’d bought another nice TB with Sir Tristram bloodlines, KS Double Up – he was really skinny and under-nourished so I got my Mum to look after him while I was away and when I was back he really proved himself quickly – in his first World Cup he came third, and I really wanted him for the Olympics in Sydney, but then we discovered he had a degeneration of the pastern joint.”
Most people, with that kind of information might well not have taken the horse further, but Michelle’s belief in him was so strong that she decided to have surgery performed on him by Jim Vasey, a vet who had done it twice before. So down he went all the way to Goulburn, and although he missed the Olympics, by 2001 he was back in work.
“I took him to Sydney Royal in 2002 and he won Champion Part 1, then he won Champion Horse. I took him to Europe and made the team for WEG with him,” she says. “He was the highest scoring horse, and the best-performed horse at Rotterdam. At the time I didn’t know that would be the last time I sat on him, but Jan Tops wanted to buy him, and he kept him to the end. He was 27 when he died and very much loved. I came back from WEG and was very sad to say the least. It was the best trip I’d ever done. Edwina (Alexander) and I were up to no good most of the time, and it was just
one of those periods of life where we couldn’t do a thing wrong. We had the best time.”
But it wasn’t long before resuming her life in Australia produced something very special – a meeting at the Sale Show in 2002 with another jumper, Peter McMahon.
“Pete was in drought at the time,” she says, “and having to cart water so I suggested he bring horses up to me. And, as they say, the rest is history.”
It’s been a hell of a ride, to use a horse metaphor, since then. By June 2003 Michelle was pregnant, marrying in October that year, and by 2004 she was back competing at Brisbane Royal. “Pete was asked if he would ride a mare, Genoa, who wasn’t behaving the best,” she says. “So he did and won the Grand Prix on her. He was really impressed with her – he said I think this is the horse I can really compete on. To be honest I was dead-set against him getting her. Meleah was only four months old, we were so busy building up our business, but then I caved in and decided to buy her for him for his first ever Father’s Day present. I hid her at my neighbour’s place, and in the morning we snuck her over – and that was it, she was his.”
That one gift set off a raft of wins, with Genoa winning her first World Cup, in 2006 Peter took her to Europe where she was the best-performed non-European-based horse, qualifying for WEG in Aachen in 2006.
But behind the scenes it wasn’t all just about horses – Peter and Michelle had been trying for another baby, and in 2007 she started on a course of IVF, which resulted in her, as she says in a good horsewoman way, “foaling down in 2008”.
The twins were born in February 2008, and Peter left to chase his Olympic dream with Genoa when they were four weeks old, with Michelle following when they were eight weeks. “I left them with my Mum and Dad,” she says. “I just knew I had to go, and so I went. I was there a month, with Meleah and was with Pete at the selection events and once he qualified I came home.”
It wasn’t the easiest of home-comings, one of the babies was sick and was in hospital, so Michelle landed and went straight into hospital for a week, only to discover that the selectors were, in her words, “being difficult”. So the day she was discharged, she flew back to Europe.
A legal battle went their way, but unfortunately in Hong Kong disaster struck when Genoa flipped herself over a practice jump, and Pete broke his collar-bone. “I thought he’d just corked it,” says Michelle, with what I’ve come to realise is her usual direct fashion. “He was screaming at me, it’s my shoulder, and I’m like, can’t you just be like Gillian Rolton and get back on? But the bone as actually piercing his skin, and so that was that, it was the end of the dream which was really sad.”
But Michelle wasn’t going to let her husband walk away from his hugely successful partnership with Genoa just yet. “He was really down and out from the result of the Games,” she says, “but I just made sure she stayed in work, and I persuaded him to take her to the Horse of the Year Show in New Zealand in 2009. I knew that there was $150,000 for the top jumper, and I knew he could win it.”
As it turned out, Michelle was right. Peter McMahon rode the only double-clear in the Bell Tea Olympic Cup, winning the largest ever
prize in the Southern Hemisphere. For him, it was enough. Despite the lure of Kentucky, he decided to retire, and despite the lure of the amazing Animate, who has since gone of course to be highly successful with Paul Brent, McMahon was happy to hang up his spurs.
“To be honest, I was a bit miffed,” says Michelle. “I was like, so, I have to go around all these shows by myself now – that sucks.” But never one to be thwarted for long, a slight change of direction towards breeding racehorses, has seen the Lang-McMahon camp already produce a couple of truly special horses, including Real Surreal.
“I learned everything I could,” she says, and you don’t doubt her for a second. “We knew she had it in her to win at the Magic Millions, and she’d raced well the weekend before. But there I was at the MM, and this is no word of a lie, I’m standing there and a bird pooped on my head and it splattered all over me. My Mum said it was good luck, and not to wipe it off – so I didn’t, and she won by three lengths!”
Despite the excitement of the jumping circuit, Michelle says that the thrill of seeing your own horse race is something else. “I knew all the sectionals, and I would have been disappointed if she’d been fourth or less, but our trainer had said that we needed to be six or less for her to be pretty certain to win. So when I went to get our number the people in front of me were all getting high numbers – 22, 11, 17. I went up to pull out my brick, and at the very last second it was as if my head was literally pulled to the right, and there it was – number 3! When our race came, it was something else. They jumped from the barriers, and she was out the back, and I’m like, this is no good, and
then when the horses were swooping on the home-turn to look at her come home – it was a wall of horses, and suddenly they’re past you on the finish line, it’s and indescribable feeling!”
Between the breeding, the coaching, the competitions, and now the fact that all three children, Meleah, and ten-year-old twins Emily and Elkee, are all following in their parent’s footsteps, it’s hard to imagine a busier life, or a life where running a major event is even the slightest possibility.
“I don’t really recognise the concept of not being able to do something,” Michelle says, and I don’t doubt her for a second. “But I do think it gets a little easier to run – even though of course the expectation from everybody coming gets higher.
This year the program has changed a bit, with more prize-money on offer. “If you double up your entry fee and you qualify for the final we have prize-money first to 12, and we will triple your money. We’re basically asking riders to back themselves! The Grand Prix is $45,000 to win, this year, and we’ve also created an all-girl Aquis team. We’ve got great sponsors, and corporate teams. I’m determined that this will become an international event not just a Queensland or an Australian event.”
I’d say the odds on her achieving her ambition would be high indeed.
For more information on this year’s Aquis follow this link