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
H&H interview Event rider
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’