Clarke Johnstone and Balmoral Sensation are Northern Hemisphere bound, with high hopes it will culminate with representation at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in the United States.
The two fly on the same day, albeit on different planes – Balmoral Sensation flying with “star” groom Lydia Beales via Australia, Singapore and Dubai before landing in Heathrow and Johnstone taking a far more direct route and planning to be on the ground before the rest of his team.
It’s not the first time Johnstone chased WEG selection – he was the baby of the bronze medal winning team in 2010 at Kentucky. “That first championship was a big learning curve and a real eye-opener,” says the Matangi-based 31-year-old. “This time round I would still be one of the younger ones but I feel like less of a baby!”
While it is eight years between those championships, his approach is not so different. “I was aiming to go well last time but realistically was probably not a medal contender at that stage. This time I am certainly going with the goal of trying to win an individual medal as well as hopefully help the team to a medal too. It would be really special to be selected for WEG again, but even better to win a medal,” he says.
“I guess the main thing is to try and tick all the boxes before you go to these events . . . the more you do, the more you know what needs to be done. It is all those little details that need to be addressed to ensure it comes together on the day.”
Key to team Johnstone is groom Beales. “She is just awesome. We hardly need to discuss anything – she knows what she is doing and I know what I am doing. We each know things will happen because of that.”
And then there is the horse – Balmoral Sensation, the white unicorn, or just Ritchie for short. The 13-year-old David Goodin-bred grey gelding who was started by Donna Edwards-Smith before being sold to the Johnstone family in 2014. Very quickly it was clear this was going to be some partnership. They came out and won the Horse of the Year Eventing crown, followed very quickly by the CIC3* at Kihikihi.
From their 19 starts, they’ve won 12 and been on the podium 14 times. They placed fifth in their first shot at Badminton in the lead-up to the Rio Olympic Games where they were sixth – the best of the Kiwi eventers. They’ve never had a cross country jump penalty and only just two occasions had showjumping faults.
“One of those was in a two star in the snow and mud and the other was at Rio,” says Johnstone. “It just shows that even the best horse can have a fence down. Ritchie really is an exceptionally good jumper. I am very lucky to ride him.”
In the UK, they’ll base with good mate Chris Burton in Surrey. “It’s a great base and where we were before Rio. I get on really well with Burto and he has everything we need – good gallops and hacking and close to London too which is fun.” Burton is also chasing a WEG berth for Australia.
Johnstone is planning to compete in Arville, Belgium, in late June, followed by Aachen in Germany. Ritchie has never been to Aachen before but Johnstone has twice competed there – in 2011 when he placed sixth with Orient Express, and again in 2013 with Incognito. “It is definitely one of my favourite events and I think it will suit Ritchie really well.”
If selected for WEG, Johnstone and Ritchie would return to New Zealand straight after the championships. He’s no fan of being based in the Northern Hemisphere and acknowledges that can make things harder for him.
“It does make it harder for sure, but I like living here and this is how I want to do it. New Zealand is a great place for horses to live – horses have a great quality of life here compared to most other parts of the world. The challenge with travelling around the world is trying to keep them fresh – especially for a horse like Ritchie. He’s not a thoroughbred.”
Ritchie performs best when fresh and Johnstone says he has sometimes had to be forceful with others about how best to prepare him.
Johnstone himself is doing his bit too in the build-up to their trip away. “I am trying to be my best self too,” he says. That includes working with a personal trainer and heading to the high performance gym at the Avantidrome in Cambridge.
He and Ritchie have been in fine form in their Northern Hemisphere trip preparation, having just claimed the ESNZ Eventing Super League, on the back of wins at Kihikihi CIC3*, Horse of the Year CIC3*, Adelaide CCI4* and Takapau CIC3*.
“Ritchie is a combination of everything – he is an amazing mix of brave and careful,” says Johnstone. “At both showjumping and eventing at this top level, horses have to be brave and careful, and he is fortunately extremely brave . . . I don’t know many event horses who are as careful and he seems to know when it is important.”
He’s hoping the lovely grey will now line up WEG in his sights and claim a special piece of history on the world stage.
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
Photos by Libby Law/ESNZ