Our dual-Olympic medallist, and one of Australia’s most decorated eventing riders, Stuart Tinney is taking on a new role next month as Chef d’Equipe of the World Equestrian Games eventing team at Tryon in the US.
‘Trust’ – that all-important word in the horse/human relationship, and perhaps never more so than in the cross-country phase of serious three-day eventing when horses are asked to literally take leaps of blind faith into water, over ditches, and with angles so narrow there is virtually no margin for error. It’s perhaps one of the most discussed aspects of training a horse – how do you teach it to be bold, to not spook at scary jumps and to literally take everything in its stride?
One of the key elements, according to Stuart, is teaching a horse not to look down. (And if any of us who have ever jumped have heard the phrase ‘eyes up’ once, we’ve heard it hundreds, if not thousands of times.) “I train them right from the start to look at the top rail,” he says.
“If you think about it course designers – myself included – try to distract horses, it becomes your job as a rider to teach them to only look at the top rail. Horses shouldn’t look at the wings, or what the jump is made of – even as a rider you don’t even notice until afterwards because you should be too busy focussing on where the horse should focus.”
But running a team is very different to competing, as Stuart is finding. “I’m certainly finding the job very challenging and very different,” he says, “the logistics of preparing plus getting your team to a Championship is humongous! Being on the other side of the fence certainly makes you appreciate how much the Chef/ HPP do and how much organization is involved. It’s been exhausting at times but very rewarding.”
Stuart was introduced to horses by his father Brian on the family property in Gladstone, Queensland, mustering and bull-riding, which, he says: “I did not like much.” But Pony Club was a good fit for the youngster, and he quickly rose through the ranks, moving into official eventing before he got his first break at the age of 18 working with Wayne and Vicky Roycroft at their Central Coast property.
“I’d ridden two-star before I moved down from Queensland,” he says, “and my riding was not bad, but a lot of it was done without consciously knowing what I was doing. I think that was the biggest thing that Wayne gave me – he made me question everything. I’d never really thought about where I should take off from – although obviously I wasn’t too bad at it since my horses didn’t crash, but he taught me to think about everything.”
These days, says Stuart, even though his riding has become instinctive, he still analyses everything – why one jump worked well, why another didn’t. It’s no doubt partly what has made him one of Australia’s most successful eventers ever, and also a highly-esteemed course builder.
The final eight riders to be selected for the games, which start on September 11 are the combinations of Chris Burton on Quality Purdey; Sam Griffiths with Paulank Brockagh; Andrew Hoy and Vassily de Lassos; Bill Levett with Lassban Diamond; Emma McNab and Fernhill; Robert Palm on Koko Story; Shane Rose with both Virgil and CP Qualified and Amanda Ross with Koko Popping Candy.
As Equestrian Australia’s High Performance Director Chris Webb said when Stuart’s WEG appointment was announced. “Stuart is not only a brilliant rider with some big runs on the board but he is also a highly regarded cross-country course designer and coach. He brings a huge breadth of skills to the position and is also very popular with and respected by riders of all ages and levels.”
The final five combinations won’t be chosen until the full length of the cross-country course is known. “It may have an impact on our selection tactics,” says Stuart, “so we are waiting for final notifications. But no matter the final five, it will be an absolute privilege to work alongside all these riders.”
Stuart has a formidable record of success in eventing – he’s represented Australia internationally numerous times, and his awards include his Sydney 2000 Gold Medal, a Bronze Medal at Rio and an Order of Australia medal (OAM) in 2000. He is an NCAS Level 3 Coach, was on the National Gold Squad between 2014 and 2017, and last year he was NSW Rider of the Year on the amazingly beautiful War Hawk (now for sale for anyone wanting a 4* horse!).
In the tightly knit family business, which includes Stuart’s wife Karen, herself an NCAS Level 2 Eventing Coach, and their daughter Gemma, it’s Gemma – who is following in the family footsteps and is already an NCAS Level 1 General Coach. Gemma is currently riding John and Jane Pittard’s Annapurna (having just placed 2nd at Tamborine CCI*** & 3rd Melbourne CCI3* in June) and is now taking over the reins of the big grey War Hawk with his owners very excited that War Hawk will continue competing whilst Stuart is away. Gemma’s stardom is on the rise, last year at the age of 19, she beat a field of top class seasoned riders in the CIC three-star class and was crowned 2017 national eventing champion with Annapurna. It was the first time Gemma had competed at that level, riding the half-sister of her father’s Olympic Games Mount, Pluto Mio. (Gemma’s ambition is to ride with her father in an Olympic Games team. “You can never dream too big,” she says.)
“Stuart and I met in 1990 when we were both competing,” says Karen, “we married in 1993. Initially we ran an agistment property at Kenthurst, near Sydney, then bought our 30-acre property at Maraylya which we now lease to ‘Steph Bender Equestrian’. We now agist all our horses with Steph, this gives us more flexibility to train, ride and compete our horses. Gemma was, and still is always super-keen on being involved, our older daughter Jaymee lives and works in Sydney, but rides as a hobby and was very competitive before she went to University.”
Stuart is the first to acknowledge that it’s the teamwork that has enabled him to fulfil his dream of international competition, and Karen happily describes herself as: “A very good filler. If Stuart’s away, I ride all the horses – although only on the flat these days, and if he has to compete on some horses, I’ll ride the other ones. Gemma now competes on the beautiful Diabolo which was bought for her and myself to train by owner Tim Game plus of course she and Annapurna are a great combination.”
One of the new initiatives for Australian riders is to give them more availability to jumping coaches wherever they are based in the world. To that end, Rod Brown will be available as a jumping coach in Australia with iconic Brazilian jumping legend Nelson Pessoa will work with the Northern Hemisphere-based riders.
On the occasions when Stuart is at home, the routine is pretty much the same every day. “Early emails,” he says “followed by riding or working all the horses, followed by admin/coaching in the afternoon, evening red wine etcetera followed by sleep!!.” (A somewhat rare commodity in the high-pressure world of elite horse competition, apart from the wine !!)
For Stuart at the start of any fitness program with a horse, it’s all about dressage. “We’re just getting all their muscles working. When you do high enough level dressage they’re using quite a few of their muscles,” he says. “Then they start on really low jumps and we’ll jump twice a week because the jumps are tiny. I’ll work up to jumping two or three times a week at a reasonable level, then I’ll go to an event. It’s gradual with the jumping. Then if I find anything faulty, I’ll work on that. When you walk up to some of those Olympic Games fences they look so enormous that you don’t think it is physically possible for horses to jump them, but it’s a gradual process, level by level as the horse learns its trade the impossible becomes possible.”
Like many top-level eventers and jumpers, Stuart does not believe in over-jumping a horse that knows what it’s doing. “Once they know how to jump, they know how,” he says.
“You’re better off to keep refining the flatwork because in the end that’s what pays off out on the cross-country course or in the show jumping ring.”
Although he does point out the difference between flatwork for dressage and flatwork for jumping: “People often don’t realise that the reaction times of a horse to a command are completely different in these disciplines – or, at least, they should be. A horse doing a dressage transition needs to do it smoothly and slowly, a horse doing a flying change on a jump-course around a corner or an angle over a cross-country jump needs to react quickly, so it’s very important to train your horse to understand the difference. Good horses get it. They understand the difference between the disciplines and they react accordingly.”It’s his wealth of experience and understanding of eventing that has made him in demand as a course-designer, but if anything, that and the Chef d’Equipe role have only whetted his appetite for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.“I have every intention of qualifying,” he says. “We have some great young horses coming along – Elisabeth Brinton’s Celebration is a seven-year-old chestnut with four white socks, who’s won his last three starts in 2-star. Also, the very intriguing Dayleena Daydream. She’s a six-year-old16.1hh German Sport Horse mare we bought last year from an eventing yard in Germany, but she’d only done show jumping. She’s literally a bit of a dark horse – she’s very easy to train and has a super-careful jump, and we think she has a great future ahead of her. We also have our own Leporis, (Heraldik) who is big and scopey and will mature to be a super 4-star horse. Others that we hope will have a career on the International stage include Wanda, a New Zealand Thoroughbred, and German Sport Horses Be My Daisy and Wasabi. Being away a lot, this year will give them time with Karen on the flat, and Gemma can help with the jumping which will be great grounding for the 2019 season which I am looking forward to after WEG.”
The story taken from HorseVibes Magazine, August 2018.