Who of the 2021 champs will be back to defend their titles at the fast-approaching Tavendale & Partners New Zealand National Jumping Championships in Christchurch next month?
Everything is still up in the air thanks to COVID and its restrictions, with a final decision due shortly on what the champs will look like in 2022, but we thought it nice to just revisit last year’s stars. We caught up with showjumpers Kim Bird, Oliver Croucher and Emily Gillies, and show hunter Melanie Morris, to see how their season has been and what their plans are for both the Nationals and the future.
Kim and Cera Cassina headed home a small but very competitive field to win the Rutherford Cup and take out the 2021 Tavendale & Partners Premier Championship. “It was pretty awesome,” says Kim. “Sam (McIntosh) is a rider who has inspired me and I have really looked up to, and Nicole (White) is an awesome competitor too . . . it was a tough competition and we were all neck and neck. I think any one of us could have won it.”
But 25-year-old Kim and Bezzie as Cera Cassina is known by her mates, won’t be in Christchurch to defend their precious title. Instead the Ashburton combo are in Florida making the most of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity and are already enjoying some success with two wins in the past two weeks. “I never expected to be able to do this but here we are.”
Bezzie’s breeder Kerri Parker, from Cera Performance Horses, has always supported Kim’s desire to take the mare offshore. With a little encouragement from her and the chance to join a large group of Australian competitors heading to the States, Kim was suddenly on her way.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Bezzie left mid-December and had to take the long route while Kim left on December 30 and arrived just 20 minutes after the horse. She’s still waiting for her gear to catch up but is grateful for the generosity of her newfound Aussie mates who have lent her most of what she needs.
They are based a few kilometres from the World Equestrian Centre where there is a show a week through to the end of March.
“The grounds are absolutely incredible here,” says Kim. “In New Zealand I was constantly worrying about the grounds and felt they were holding us back.”
While she would dearly love to be at Nationals defending her hard-won crown, she says she is looking forward to what the Kiwi combo can produce in Florida. It is the first time she has competed her own horse offshore. “The plan is to be here until the end of March and then head home. It would take me a fair bit to sell Bezzie – I absolutely adore her and would love to take her home to breed with but if I could do World Equestrian Games . . . well, it is early days year and I am just taking it one step at a time.”
Oliver Croucher and Waitangi Surf were the winners of the Graham McClintock Horse Grand Prix title and they aren’t heading south to defend their crown either. Oliver retired his very talented and feisty mare to the brood mare paddock after the Easter Show.
“She was sound and fine, but valuable to us as a brood mare,” he says. They’ve already had a “lovely” embryo transfer colt born this season and Waitangi Surf – Paris to her mates – is in foal.
“Winning that title last year was super special. There was plenty of good competition in the class and I felt we had a good shot. She is just phenomenal and you would never discount her. When we walked into a ring, I knew she would always give it everything.”
It was just Oliver’s second time at Nationals, and his first title there.
It’s the dawn of a new era for the 22-year-old. After three-and-a-half years with Takapoto Equestrian, he has gone out on his own. “I learnt so much there and I still hope to continue to learn from Sam (McIntosh), Penny (Stevenson) and the team there. They are amazing at what they do.”
An opportunity arose for him to base at a Cambridge stable and start his own business and he thought the time was just right to give it a go.
He’s got one horse who possibly may make the trip to Nationals but it is a wait and see. “It just depends on whether he is ready to jump a title class . . . it is a long trip if he isn’t up for the challenge.”
Long term, Oliver is keen to head offshore to compete but says he plans to get well set up in New Zealand before that happens. “Let’s just see what I can do within my own business first.”
Rounding out the top three titles at the 2021 Nationals was Emma Gillies (Oamaru) and Benrose Eclipse who took out the Pony Grand Prix.
It was the second National title for the 14-year-old, who won in 2020 aboard Benrose Playtime, and she’s certainly got her sights set on a third, with both ponies entered this year. Benrose Playtime has also previously won the crown with his former rider Sophie Scott.
Emma, a year 11 student at St Kevin’s College, won’t be drawn on who her favourite is between the two mares. “They both have a bit of spunk about them which is what makes them good,” she says.
The win on Benrose Eclipse came out of the blue. “I didn’t expect it at all,” says Emma. “I don’t think anyone would have expected it! It was pretty amazing. That was my first Grand Prix win with her – ever.”
And she figures she wouldn’t have been the red hot favourite the year she won on Playtime either. “There were some really good ponies in there who have been doing it for a few years and it was my first season competing at Grand Prix level.”
She knows it will be a whole lot different this year but has no intention of letting the pressure get to her. “It will just be another round . . . even if it is one that is a bit more important.”
It’s been a challenging season for the teen but she tipped her hat to a “great” group of people down south who have been incredibly committed to making the shows happen.
This will be her last season aboard Playtime, so she’d love to go out with a bang. “She is a very special pony,” says Emma. “Playtime is very forward. When I take her on a farm ride there’s not much walking going and she can be quite difficult to jump at home but when you get her to a show she is completely different.
“Eclipse is different – it all depends on how she feels really. Some days she is perfect and then other days she looks at everything with her eyes on stalks!”
The family live on a farm at Waitaki Bridge. “It’s almost a horse farm but it is meant to be dairy and beef!”
Melanie Morris and Kosciuszko made it back to back open show hunter crowns when they triumphed in 2021. They have also previously won the amateur title.
So while this Loburn combination are sitting on a hattrick, they’re not going to let the pressure get to them in 2022.
“I just work on my own game,” says Melanie. “The back-to-back wins were very special but show hunter is so popular now and there are a lot of great horses and riders out there – anything can happen. I know what we need to do and how well he can go . . . I have to ride him to get the best.”
The horse, who was broken in by her dad, has been with her from the get-go. The buckskin gelding was bred by a friend of his and caught the eye of her father, so he bought him.
“When I first saw him he was just like a pony and didn’t look like much at all. He has turned into a very cool horse and most of our family have ridden him at some stage.”
She describes the 12-year-old as a lovely horse. “He is very workman like and is always happy, whatever we are doing.”
Melanie and Kosciuszko, who is named for a national park and mountain in Australia, have dabbled in everything – from eventing to showjumping, round the ring and hunting – but show hunter is their forte. “It is good because it is challenging and you know what you need to do to get the points.”
After a slow start to the season, the combination have found their rhythm and now look forward to Nationals. “I just love the quality of competition at nationals . . . and the shopping!”
By Diana Dobson
31 January 2022