I am very pleased and immensely honoured to be interviewing Australian Sam Griffiths who on May 11th 2014 won the prestigious Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials on Dinah Posford & Juliet Carter’s 11-year-old mare Paulank Brockagh (Brocks). This was Sam’s first four-star eventing title, landing £80,000 pounds (US $134,000), and the Mitsubishi Motors Trophy.
Watching one of the most demanding Badmintons, I was elated when Sam and Brocks jumped from twenty-fifth after the dressage phase, to first after surviving the attrition of a tough cross-country and having just one fence down in the final show jumping phase. This was not only because Sam’s such a great guy but also because he was riding a mare. As readers of my novel “Spiral of Hooves” will know, mares hold a special place in my eventing world.
When Sam became the sixth Australian winner in Badminton’s 65-year history, he said, “This is the ultimate dream. When I was a little boy we used to wait for the video to come out to watch the highlights of Badminton. To win it is the completion of that dream.”
So Sam, where did you grow up, and what was your first encounter with a horse?
Originally from Melbourne, I am the middle sibling of of a family of three boys, I grew up on a farm on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula and has been involved with horses all my life showing my parent’s homebred Welsh ponies and being very much part of the Pearcedale Pony Club, which to this day still holds its rallies on my parent’s farm. Along with both my brothers I started taking eventing very seriously in my teenage years and had quite a bit of success with young rider competitions including finishing 2nd at the notoriously tough Gawler CCI*** in Australia at 18 years old. I continued to event whilst studying at Monash University, gaining a BA Hons degree in Geography.
You moved to the UK in 1995, the same year I started the South East Eventers League, and also when I first interviewed you. What made you move to the UK?
Well, I slightly fell into it really! I had been travelling with a friend and had run out of money so needed to find some work – quick! I had heard of a job as a groom with Blyth Tait so thought that could be an option for a month or two to get together enough money to continue my travels…I never did continue my travels! I realised that my passion lay in eventing and it was obvious that the UK was the place to be to make this my career.
Where were you based, and what made you choose to move to Dorset with one of our best eventing photographers?
So I started off grooming for Blyth , which was an amazing experience as his attention to detail and professionalism is second to none but really I wanted to be a rider not a groom and after a while I moved to Matt Ryan’s yard to be his ‘stable jockey’. It was here that I began to build up a little business and got one or two rides of my own which was enough to ‘go it alone’ so when I heard of the opportunity to base myself in David Hamilton’s yard I grabbed it as it would enable me to have more competition rides and grow my business further – although at this stage I only had one saddle to my name! Nevertheless, one thing led to another and some fantastic horses came my way, including Private Colin with whom I came 6th at Badminton and was reserve for the Athens Olympics. As my business grew I found myself with too many horses and not enough stables so I made the big move to Hoplands Equestrian Centre – an amazing facility with everything every event rider could ever wish for – indoor, outdoor, gallops, cross-country schooling course, accommodation etc! It cost me an arm and a leg to be there but it was worth it! Shortly before moving here I had met my now wife Lucy – we still joke that she only liked me for the facilities at Hoplands (She was still competing from her family home on the Isle of Wight! So when she saw Hoplands she moved in pretty quickly!! ) . However, as much as Hoplands was the most fantastic training facility, the rent was beginning to cripple us and we realised we could put that rent money towards a mortgage so after 5 years at Hoplands, we started looking for our own place…we originally looked in the central south area but the prices were huge so we ended up looking further west where we could get more value for money and that’s when we found our perfect Symphony Farm on the Dorset/Somerset border.
The Posford family have been great supporters throughout your career. How long have you been riding for Dinah Posford and her daughter Juliet Carter? How long have you been riding Brocks for them? Did you ride her in her first events?
Dinah Posford was my first EVER owner – her daughter, Jules, had been having lessons with Matt Ryan but had not wanted to carry on eventing. Dinah, however, had become hooked on the sport and wanted to see the horse she had brought for Jules progress and so I got asked to ride it as Matt was too busy! So that was around 1995/96. Brocks came to me as a 7 year old, having competed at novice level in Ireland with Heidi Hamilton. She progressed well and that year, having only been with me a few months, finished 8th at Le Lion D’Angers CCI** World Young Horse Championships – Dinah Posford had seen her out competing with me and liked her so much that she brought her just before we went to Le Lion.
You have clearly built up a great rapport with Brocks saying, “She is one tough nut with a massive heart. She tries and tries and tries. I cannot speak highly enough of her”. What else is special about her?
She is incredibly powerful and scopey – I have never, yet, felt her reach her limit in her jumping – she really would jump anything I pointed her out and just wants to go between the flags. She is incredibly brave and bold – so much so that I often have to really ‘anchor’ her on course! She just has a real ‘no fuss’ attitude to life and takes everything in her stride and funnily enough so goes even better when she’s in season!
I believe Brocks is only the third mare to win Badminton, which in many ways is because the greater proportion of event horses are geldings. That may be because too many riders deem that mares are temperamental and difficult. Yet from talking to those riders that have a special rapport with mares – from Open European Champion Lucy Thompson with Welton Romance, to 2007 Badminton winner Lucinda Fredericks with Headley Britannia – they can be exceptional. What can a mare bring to a partnership?
If you click with a mare, keep them confident and gain their trust – I do believe that they try harder for you than many geldings. Yes, you have to have a ‘way’ with mares – you can’t dominate them, you have to negotiate but if you understand that and the mare wants to work with you then they can be exceptional.
One major advantage of successfully competing on a mare has to be her breeding potential, a huge drawback with geldings. Do the Posford Family have any breeding plans for Paulank Brockagh as a proven mare? Are they considering embryo transplant (ET) so Brocks can stay in competition work or is ET a problem? Of course there is the more expensive even controversial cloning route, which even geldings can go down. [For readers’ information, “the ET process involves breeding a donor mare to a stallion and then transferring the resulting embryo into a recipient mare which carries the foal to term and nurses it until weaning.”]
Brocks has actually got two embryo transfers opportunities now – one from Burghley and another offer has come since Badminton however the Posfords do not want to rush into anything – her focus at the moment needs to be on competing – she’s at her prime and there is plenty of time to go down the breeding route. Even though ET has proved very successful, each mare takes it differently and the last thing we would want to do would be to change anything about her. All the pros and cons would have to be very carefully looked into before any decisions were made. Having said that, if she goes to WEG this year, then there is a long gap until the start of the 2015 season so who knows…maybe that would be a good time…
I’ve been implying that the win is down to you & Brocks, but a successful eventing challenge requires a great deal of support in all weathers, from grooms to owners. Tell us about the unsung heroines (& heroes) of Team Griffiths that were crucial to the Badminton win, and will be central to your World Equestrian Games campaign. How will the Team prepare? [Sam & Brocks are one of the six horse and rider combinations selected to comprise Australia’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) Eventing Team.]
Well this really is a team sport and I simply could not compete successfully without my back up team – so crucial to my success is my headgirl, Imogen Mercer, who not only runs the yard on a daily basis but also comes to all the major competitions with me. She knows each horse inside out and knows me very well now too! She is incredibly calm, capable and organised, which allows me to concentrate on my riding – not worrying about whether I’ve placed a recent feed order or whether I have the right tack packed for the next event. She is exceptional at her job and we are very lucky to have her. Then I have the main core of the home team which consists of 6 or 7 grooms/working pupils during the season and I have a very good stable jockey too – a young French rider called Gireg Le Coz who helps school the horses at home when I am out competing. Each and every one of the home team are fundamental to my success and keeping the show on the road month after month. Then there is my wife Lucy – having previously ridden at three star level before having our son, Ollie, she too helps school the horses at home whilst I am away but also does the bulk of the admin work – entries, invoicing, booking in training sessions, liaising with sponsors, owners, press and supporting the staff here on site – more often than not she is the one dealing with any issues or problems that crop up as I am on the road so much (I’m also not great at answering my phone as I’m usually on a horse so everyone calls Lucy!). So what with that, looking after Ollie and somewhere in there doing her photography work, life is pretty full on for Lucy too! As well as all these people that keep things going for me I do of course have some wonderful owners who have supported me through thick and thin and were all so thrilled with the Badminton result as many of them have supported me right from the early days and I am so grateful to them for sticking by me through all these years. Finally, I have two exceptional trainers – Gareth Hughes for dressage and Ros Morgan (nee Bevan) for jumping – both of these people are a huge support to me as they both really understand me and, more importantly, they understand what makes Brocks perform at her best and they have always believed she is a star – luckily both Ros and Gareth could be there on the Sunday of Badminton and we could share that special (and very surreal!) moment with them. It is such a great feeling to have really ‘brought home the goods’ for all of my team.
I am presuming that WEG will be the focus of your summer, and we wish you lots of good fortune. I follow you and the Team on Twitter and on Facebook, but are there other ways that people can follow the exploits of you and Team Griffiths? Websites? Other Social media?
Yes, I have a website www.samgriffithseventing.co.uk and on there you will find links to my Facebook and Twitter pages as well as a link to my monthly newsletter where you can just click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter and get a copy of it emailed to you every month.
Thank you very much, Sam. It’s been a great pleasure to interview you. And thanks to Lucy for arranging this. Best of luck to you, Brocks and Team Griffiths for WEG.
Finally, my apologies that my Badminton preview failed to mention the real winner, just the far too obvious contenders. Although, prompted by my fiction, I did say, “…but also watch out for the outsiders and the hidden agendas. There might be a mystery there.”
Other Sam Griffiths articles & interviews well worth checking out:
Announcement of the six horse and rider combinations selected to comprise Australia’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) Eventing Team. http://www.equestrian.org.au/?ID=35710
For Lucy Griffiths’ amazing photos of Horses, Landscapes and Gardens & Plants, visit http://www.lucygriffithsphotography.co.uk/