Daniel Meech is confident New Zealand’s WEG jumping team is absolutely the best prepared it could be.
“I really don’t think we have gone into such a championship as a team as well prepared as we are this time,” says the 44-year-old who is based near Dusseldorf in Germany. His journey has been a long one, and he holds the honour of being New Zealand’s highest ranked individual jumper at an Olympic Games with his 12thplacing aboard Diagonal at the Athens Games.
This, however, will be his first World Equestrian Games. “It does seem a bit weird,” he says. “I have had a few horses at different times who could have competed at worlds, but for different reasons it just never seemed to fall into place. This time it has. I am lucky enough to have a horse who is very capable and talented enough to jump.”
He’s talking about Fine – a sometimes challenging 10-year-old Swedish-bred mare.
“She has been a real project from the time I got her,” says Daniel. “She is a bit of a handful and there were days I wondered if she would ever come right but she is now getting better all the time. She is very tough-minded and sometimes I just have to go with her. At this level, that can be tough. There is no margin for error so we are working hard on that.”
Daniel knows only too well, that horses are “just sometimes what they are” and you have to do the best you can around that.
“I aim to get her feeling as good as possible so she is in a good state of mind on the day and wants to work with me. It is a challenge to find that recipe. We can hit really good rounds sometimes, but I know we need to be more consistent.”
But he says he can always trust her. “She wouldn’t let me down. If we ever have a bad round, it is never really a disaster.”
Fine has given him a lot of confidence in the past few years. “She has me back jumping at the top level and for that I am very thankful. It is nice all that work is now paying off.”
And he is immensely grateful for the support of those who helped him buy the horse. “My syndicate have been amazing. When I bought Fine I needed some help so asked friends and family, and within days we had the money together. They have never put pressure on us or doubted us even once, so it is another reason to keep driving towards our goals.”
But he knows that sometimes, getting selected is the easy job. “Now we need to produce some results.”
The excitement of finally being selected was at first a relief for Daniel, but he says the reality of taking on the very best in the world quickly follows. “There are a few nerves but every day counts. There is not much time and every single minute you put into your horse has to count. There is simply no room for mistakes.”
As much as he draws strength from wins, there are other smaller victories that can be equally as important.
“Like that clear round in the Nations Cup in Rome was one of the best in my life – and I have gone clear at the Olympics. It is sometimes those small things, that maybe no one else knows about when something works and comes together – especially with a horse like Fine!”
For Daniel, who doesn’t have a sponsor, there is the extra challenge of finance. “Just supporting a horse at this top level is very expensive. She is doing well sometimes though, so she helps along the way. Our sport is like formula one racing – there’s a lot of money involved and we don’t have that big budget. It is about taking something raw and producing it into a world class athlete – it is gratifying to do that.”
Even getting into the big shows can be tough. New Zealand’s jumping team competing at the FEI Nations Cup in Barcelona last year set in motion events that would see them not only invited to top events, but also win the opening round at Abu Dhabi.
“These are world class competitions and our experience at them means we are probably more ready as a team at the top level than ever before. It isn’t going to be a big shock when you are doing 5* competitions like St Gallen and Rome and Abu Dhabi. Of course it would always be nice to do more but we just have to work our way around that.”
Just thinking back to the Abu Dhabi win brings a flood of emotion for Daniel. “It was a surreal day really – we were in a different world. Going to that show every day was a fantastic occasion and it was just one of those events. You train for that all the time and sometimes it all comes good. That it was the opening Nations Cup of the season for the FEI was special and I think our win was a big shock for everyone around the world.”
Daniel says the Kiwi team is certainly in with a good chance. “We have good riders and the horses are talented. If all goes well, we have a chance to do something good here (at WEG).”
He knows it is a big ask. “WEG is huge. For all the work we do, it is pathetic just how quickly it can be over – in just a few minutes. If it doesn’t go quite right on the day, you are out pretty quick. The next few weeks are very important for us to hit the nail on the head as far as getting that preparation right for both ourselves and our horses. It all needs to come together on the day.”
The team had a final get together with chef d’equipe Helena Stormanns at her German base. “She has a great place and it just put that last shine on our work.”
That the team comprises riders he has been mates with since childhood is not lost on him. “It is special but also a tribute to the people who have supported us all these years – we each have our own support crews but there are so many others. It is nice for everyone to see if you stick at it and work hard, you can keep achieving.”
He’s confident the professionalism of the team will also shine. “It is about making ourselves proud and doing the best we can – then the team will do well and produce a result that could surprise people. If you have one of those weeks where everything comes together, then you just never know what can happen.”
By Diana Dobson, NZ team media liaison
Photos by Libby Law Photography