New Zealand 2018 WEG dressage representative John Thompson is beaming from ear to ear. “I am overwhelmingly proud to be carrying a silver fern after being selected to compete in Tryon,” says the Waikato rider.
John has now joined his horse JHT Antonello in the United States. The journey to WEG has been a huge undertaking, and the effervescent coach and rider has spent his final few days before the trip wrapping up lessons with his “cherished” students in New Zealand and Australia, leaving little time for last minute details and packing.
His joy and excitement is infectious. “I can’t really say just what it means to be chosen,” says the 28-year-old. “When I was growing up in Australia I just wanted people to see me as a good horseman. I love that. Winning is not sustainable – it never is. If winning is your only goal then the journey to the competition is an empty route. That said, it can be the cherry on the top, but it is the overview of the sport that is so much more important.”
It is indeed that overview which drives him.
John and fiancé Holly Leach have been humbled by the support they have received from so many people. “The money needed has been a real eye-opener for me,” says John. “This is my first big overseas endeavour and we feel privileged and so grateful that we’re the ones who get to do it – but there have been sacrifices.”
The scale of funding required has been steep and very challenging for the couple. “We will be trying to sell our horse truck to help fund it but at the end of the day, this dream that Holly and I have always had, so we feel empowered to do what is required.”
ESNZ Dressage and the wider community have been solidly behind both John and his team-mate Julie Brougham.
“It makes me so proud to be a part of something like this. It means even more to be putting that silver fern on. This is our sport and it gives so much more context behind what we are doing. I do feel so many are riding the journey with me.”
As it is for many in the New Zealand equestrian scene though, it all comes with a bittersweet moment.
“When I was at the airport with Julie and AJ (Antonello) I felt sad that Wendi (Williamson) and DJ (Dejavu MH) weren’t there too. I felt that Wendi deserved to be as excited as we were. Holly and I work so hard day to day but Wendi is next level, She really is a superwoman.” DJ, who represented New Zealand at the FEI World Cup Final in 2017, sadly passed away in April from colic.
John’s own build-up to WEG hasn’t been without its challenges, with AJ developing a hoof abscess that took some time to treat. “Ultimately, we love keeping him out in the paddock. He’s happiest out there. It is the risk we take – we’ve had a good old Waikato winter and there was just too much mud. No one was to blame.”
AJ and John are now about to start the next stage of their WEG campaign.
“There are just so many who have been involved in getting him on that plane to New York. To watch the feedback on social media has been incredible – from people who knew me when I was riding my first pony in Kerikeri to others in Australia from my time there.”
Although John’s early days were spent in New Zealand, he and his family moved across the Tasman when he was 12. While John made his mark in dressage, his brother Charles became a celebrated professional dancer with the Australian Ballet Company. Despite their impressive achievements in their respective fields, both John and Charles had to overcome early growing pains.
“When we were young, ballet and horse riding weren’t the cool things to do at school,” says John, who also used to dance. “When you are young, nothing seems cool unless it is very normal. All we tried to do was to blend in so we wouldn’t be teased or bullied for doing something different. You have to push the boundaries and do things out of the norm if you want to achieve something special.”
Both Thompson boys were doing just that. John is hugely appreciative of the support he gets from Charles. “He is the big brother that everyone dreams of having. He showed me that to be successful at something you have to dream big.”
If there is one thing John says rises clearly to the top in his lifelong campaign it’s that good work ethic gets you places.
“I was talking to an old groom in Sydney recently and he reminded me of the days when I was riding up to 22 horses a day. We had no flood lights so we had to park three cars with their headlights pointed onto the arena so I could see what I was doing. I do feel really proud of my own journey but often you don’t have time for reflection. You are just immediately onto the next thing.”
John and AJ teamed up in 2015 and quickly established themselves as a solid partnership. “It is when I look back now that I see how much we have achieved in that time, winning in Australia, two Horse of the Year titles, New Zealand National Championship and twice winning Equidays.” Although he’s a seasoned competitor, John likes to keep AJ as fresh as possible for big events.
“We opt for short intense spells – not long sessions. There will be lots of hacking out and keeping his body supple and his mind relaxed and fresh.”
Although he won’t share his entire WEG strategy, there are parts of his plan he is happy to speak of.
“I don’t have too many nerves and don’t really feel pressure as just to get to WEG is my life time goal, so to be able to use that to our advantage, not get overwhelmed by the moment and then to make good decisions on the day. I want to ride the best the day has given me – if we can achieve that, then I am comfortable.”
He’s talked a lot through with his mentor, Danish Olympian Lone Jorgensen. “She has been on the other end of the phone for the past six years of my life after we developed a relationship when I was training with her in Australia.”
John is hoping his own journey will inspire the next generation. “I want to see the grass roots of dressage grow – that would be a real achievement for us all.”
It is very much a team effort that has seen John reach WEG. “I wouldn’t be anywhere close to this lifelong goal without the support, care and love from my beautiful fiancé Holly, She is my world and with her in my corner I feel like we can achieve anything.”
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
Photos by Libby Law/ESNZ