Tom McEwen

The laid-back even­ter tells Martha Terry why the move to his Gat­combe base was such a mile­stone and how he’s learn­ing from his mis­takes

Horse & Hound - - On The Cover -

H&H in­ter­view Event rider

Tom McEwen

ÒH E has big shoes to fill,” says Tom McEwen, of his top ride Toledo De Kerser, who is look­ing out docilely from his sta­ble at his Gat­combe base.

“Toledo” — and the rest of Tom’s 18-strong string — is stand­ing on hal­lowed horsey ground. Some of the world’s most fa­mous even­ters have lived and trained here. Dis­creet an­tique plaques above some of the doors sig­nal past in­cum­bents rid­den by Princess Anne and Capt Mark Phillips, such as Flame Gun and Good­will, who com­peted in the Olympics two decades be­fore Tom was born. Af­ter Princess Anne came the Hoys, then Zara Tin­dall.

“Toy­town’s and High King­dom’s were the only plaques I recog­nised,” ad­mits Tom, 26, who moved here in April last year. “The his­tory is re­ally nice, but the main thing for me is that the horses are so happy here. From the day they ar­rived they were set­tled, it was bizarre, like they’d been here all their lives.”

The move to Gat­combe was a mile­stone for Tom, who has been ahead of the game through­out his text­book event­ing up­bring­ing, which started with hunt­ing on the lead-rein be­fore his con­scious mem­ory. He com­peted in pony trials at 12 and was the youngest rider at Bad­minton in 2011. By 19 he had set up his own event­ing busi­ness — hav­ing ditched his univer­sity de­gree af­ter five weeks (“I didn’t see

the point in spend­ing any more money when I knew what I wanted to do”) — but it was only last year that he cut the apron strings.

“Mov­ing here was a big step, be­cause my pre­vi­ous base [Badger­stown] was only 10 min­utes from my par­ents’ home, where I was liv­ing,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it with­out them help­ing me build up the busi­ness, but now it’s solely me.”

MANY fledg­ling se­niors strug­gle with the tran­si­tion from a suc­cess­ful young rider ca­reer. Tom won three team golds in ponies and young rid­ers, and was mak­ing a seam­less con­ver­sion to the big stage in be­ing se­lected for the 2013 Euro­peans, when he was just 22. He felt his ride, Diesel, was ideal for Malmö’s ur­ban track, but never got to prove it — the horse failed the first trot-up. How did he cope with the set­back?

“I took it fine,” he says, as though this is a trick ques­tion. “It is what it is — bad luck. Diesel would have loved it round there, but these things hap­pen and you have to move on.

“It af­fects you a bit — the next few trot-ups aren’t much fun, but it wasn’t some­thing that went wrong in com­pe­ti­tion. In the grand scheme of things, there are many worse things that can hap­pen.”

It’s an ex­cep­tion­ally san­guine at­ti­tude from such a com­pet­i­tive guy, which per­haps owes much to his fa­ther Bobby’s job as a vet — Tom will have seen plenty of rid­ers’ dreams shat­tered as he grew up.

Mean­while, his pre­co­cious as­cent to the se­nior team has yet to be ful­filled. Last month’s Euro­peans were his first proper shout at se­nior squad se­lec­tion since 2013, but he fluffed his lines both at Aachen, where he had a “to­tally-my-fault” run-out, and Bad­minton, where a stop­watch blun­der meant he was coast­ing round a whole minute be­hind. He and Toledo still fin­ished 11th.

“I’d wanted to be much more com­pet­i­tive, but I thought I was cruis­ing on my minute mark­ers, sur­prised it was so easy,” he ex­plains. “In the arena I saw the board and thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve cocked this up’. I pushed on a bit, but I’d have been a lot closer.

“I com­pletely agree with what the se­lec­tors did this year — I messed up the eas­i­est fence at Aachen,” he says. “What’s meant to be is meant to be. It led on to Burgh­ley in­stead, which was so ex­cit­ing. Toledo maybe wasn’t quite ready for the Euro­peans — it was a se­ri­ous test and the team did amaz­ingly. I haven’t quite ticked ev­ery box yet and I’d like to go when we have a real chance.”

‘I like them to be fiery, unique. But it’s re­ally about their heart and their will­ing­ness’

ONE thing Tom says he’s learnt dur­ing his tran­si­tion from young rid­ers is that although four-star rides like

Diesel and Dry Old Party made the step up feel easy com­pet­i­tively, he needed to de­velop a busi­ness model.

“The tran­si­tion is ac­tu­ally more about own­ers, back­ers and your sup­port team. It’s about the whole pack­age so you can bring on the four-star horses like a rolling train. It’s not just the one-off horse you might get lucky with, but pro­duc­ing enough horses to stay there.”

Toledo is one such prod­uct. Although Sammi Birch started him off as a five-year-old, Tom has taken him up from BE100 to fin­ish­ing fourth at Burgh­ley on their lat­est start. The Dia­mant De Semilly 10-year-old is named af­ter a sword blade, and he’s just as sharp.

“He’s ‘dif­fer­ent’ to ride,” says Tom pro­tec­tively. “I can’t jump him at home — he bolts, scoots round, backs off and then fires him­self over. I kept try­ing for a while, then thought, ‘This isn’t work­ing’. He doesn’t warm up — he doesn’t like peo­ple and other horses around the fences.

“He’s a freak. He’s less than half thor­ough­bred, but he rides like one — un­til he showjumps, when he’s like a jumper.”

Tom’s knack in un­rav­el­ling a horse’s char­ac­ter is piv­otal to his suc­cess. His three top rides are com­plete con­trasts. There’s the ex­traor­di­nar­ily tal­ented but mis­trust­ful Toledo; the “psy­cho” thor­ough­bred Diesel, who is com­ing back from in­jury; and new ride Strike Smartly, who is as chilled as Toledo is hot. Be­hind these three, at two-star, he has two “lovely” mares, Royal Roxey and CHF Cooliser. Although Tom used to be drawn to thor­ough­breds, he now has “no set model”.

“I like them to be fiery, unique; be­cause that’s of­ten what it takes to make it,” he ad­mits. “But it’s re­ally about their heart and will­ing­ness.”

Toledo is be­ing billed as one of the best up-and-com­ing horses in the world. He has an as­ton­ish­ing showjump­ing record with a 94% clear strike-rate — that’s just three times they haven’t gone clear. Tom says he’s ca­pa­ble of a sub-40 dres­sage and his cross­coun­try is get­ting faster and more ac­cu­rate. But Tom, ever laid-back, isn’t bur­dened by the ex­pec­ta­tion.

“I don’t feel more pres­sure than on any other horse,” he says. “I don’t want to make a mis­take on any of them. I could ig­nore the hype, but I know my­self how good Toledo is.”

For­mer Gat­combe in­mates have set the bar high, but Toledo’s well on his way to de­serv­ing his own plaque.

For­mer suc­cess­ful young rider Tom McEwen has taken his top ride, the su­per-sharp Toledo De Kerser (pic­tured), from BE100 to fin­ish­ing fourth at Burgh­ley CCI4*

One to watch, new ride Strike Smartly wins Chatsworth CIC3* in May

Tom and the tal­ented ‘Toledo’ at Bramham last year: ‘He’s a freak, he’s dif­fer­ent to ride’

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