Giving a masterclass in success

Twice-Olympian showjumper Geoff Billington came to the Island in February to teach a series of master classes at Brickfields Horse Country.

If the young rider is slightly nervous her horse is more so. After circling the ring he hesitantly hops over the first couple of fences – but utterly refuses to take the solid planks.

It is a show jumping master class at Brickfields Horse Country, and the master is twice-Olympian Geoff Billington. He has spent the morning watching, coaxing and giving tips to riders who may secretly hope to achieve something like his success, and he now wades in with some firm encouragement. After a few more false starts the horse obviously realises Geoff knows what he’s talking about, and completes the round.

“It’s a close call,” says Geoff Billington, over his lunch break. “When a horse refuses to jump you have to decide whether he’s plain scared or just taking the mickey. If he’s messing you about you give him a tap on the bum – but if he’s nervous you have to coax him, remove one of the bars to make the fence smaller and gently build up his confidence.”

Doesn’t anything scare Geoff about riding? “No,” he says quickly. Adding, with a twinkle, “Well, if you’ve got a five foot fence and the horse can only jump 4 ft 6, then you start to worry.”

Geoff’s affinity with horses has developed over thirty years, both in coaching young riders and in holding his place – apart from a lean spell – at the top of the sport. He was born in Lancashire, and his broad Accrington accent has never been lost, it’s rawness unexpected in a world of red jackets and gymkhanas. You can’t help recalling the uppercrust commentary when show jumping was a regular feature on peak time television, when the term  “jump orf” became universal parlance.

“My parents weren’t anything to do with horses,” he says. “I went to the local riding school when I was nine years old, and found I had an affinity with horses.”

He doesn’t react to the suggestion that horses are more often a girl-thing at that sort of age: the fact that he got a job as a groom aged just nine says all that is necessary about his determination to succeed. “My parents didn’t have the money to support me in that career. I got to ride some horses and it went from there.” He does concede though that his ability with horses must have been apparent to observers from early on. “God gave me something,” he smiles.

By the time he left school his career was set. At 19 he began riding horses belonging to nightclub impressario Joe Pullen, and riding Talk of the North he got onto the Nations Cup Team, which took him to Poland and his first international competition. But it was his own horse, It’s Otto, who famously cemented Geoff’s success, leading him to his first Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996.

“He found me,” says Geoff, his bluff Northern tones making the obvious affection for his horse particularly poignant. “His owner sent him to me, said he didn’t want to pay anything – but he’d give me half of him.”

He says you sometimes get a sense that certain horses are special – but not always.  “When I took Its Otto and jumped him as a six year old he won a hundred pounds. You couldn’t have said he’d go to two Olympic Games, and everything else he did. He won £700,000 in prize money.”

There is far more to being a successful horse than just jumping over the fences. They have to be amenable to travel, to be able to settle in new stables and, most importantly, they need to react well to a crowd. “The best horses rise when they get into an atmosphere, but some others, they shrink,” says Geoff. “You ride into the ring, the crowd starts clapping – and they start to disappear up their own backsides!”

It’s Otto was ever the showman, ‘growing’ as the crowd reacted. Thanks to him, Geoff is only one of a tiny number of showjumpers who have two Olympics under their belt. He was in the British team again for Sydney 2000, but stresses how you can never, ever, take your place in the team for granted. “The Olympics is the pinnacle for every sportsman. When you’re picked as part of the British team there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be one of the four going to the Olympic Games. I feel very honoured to have been to two. Normally if a horse goes to one Olympics they’re very special – if they go to two, it’s outrageous. It’s Otto was one of the best horses in the world.”

After Its Otto retired Geoff had eight years when he was out of the limelight, but he doesn’t care to dwell on those wilderness years. “You’ve got to get on and produce another. Now I’ve got three or four top class animals coming through.”

He talks about the team that is a man and his horse. “It’s two lots of flesh and blood working together. The horse can’t tell you he’s got a headache that day, so you’ve got to be aware. You never stop learning in this job: every horse is different, like people. You’ve got to work out how he ticks, and you can only do that from years of experience.”

He looks back at Brickfields’ arena. “People come here to get a problem sorted out. It’s nice when it all goes well for them, but really its better if the problem shows itself on these occasions, so I can help get it right.”

While his knowledge of horses has deepened over the years, he has watched them change at a fundamental level, as show jumping has developed as a sport. “They’ve been bred specifically for showjumping and been made more delicate. The old Irish horses, you could gallop him down the road with three shoes off and one on and he’d still stay sound, but the modern day horse is a little bit tender.”

To accommodate today’s more delicate horse, fence poles, too, are lighter, to fall at a touch. You might expect someone of Geoff’s experience to be curmudgeonly about the changes he’s seen over 20 years, but he’s far from it: “You’ve got to go with the times – and it has improved the competition,” he says, adding: “The good thing about our job is as a rider is that a lot of us are still competing over the age of 50 – in other sports they’re over the hill. I won the Hickstead Derby two years ago when I was 51 – or was it 52?” With a flash of his famed bluff humour he says “I’ve got Alzheimer’s but I can still ride – I just forget my way round the course!”

In truth the future for Geoff is looking pretty good. In two Grand Prix in Norway, the first two shows of the new season he came second in one and sixth in the other. After a trip to Portugal he’s hoping to repeat his success of last year at the Hickstead Derby, though on a different horse.

“I’m still really achieving. I’ve got some nice up and coming horses and I’m excited about it – I’m not ready to hang my boots up yet.”