How do you make the biggest decision of your life? When do you know that the moment is exactly right? What happens if you fail?
New Zealand event rider Virginia “Ginny” Thompson has been through that agonizing thought process many times before. At the end of 2017, the now 27-year-old caught a wave that carried her from the small, relaxed pool of New Zealand eventing to the open ocean of the sport in England.
“I always knew that if I wanted to forge a real career in the sport that I loved, I would have to leave New Zealand and come to England. The level of competition in the U.K. is just so much more fierce; you are competing against the very best riders in the world at every event, week in and week out,” she says.
“After Star Nouveau [“Paige”] and I finished eighth in the CCI5* at Adelaide in November 2017, I knew I either had to sell her at home in New Zealand and use the money to build up a team, or gamble and take her to England. I knew she wasn’t going to win a championship, but she’s a brilliant cross-country horse — and now she has romped round both Badminton and Burghley. She’s allowing me to live the dream.”
Slim, long-legged Ginny is now based in the Cotswolds in southwest England, at her compatriot Blyth Tait’s former yard, and is preparing Paige for a second shot at Burghley. They had to withdraw before the final show jumping phase last year, but Ginny is keen to again tackle the CCI5* generally thought of as the toughest in the world.
Like many people, she started riding when she was “three or four,” and went through the Massey branch of the Pony Club in West Auckland.
“I had three naughty ponies, all of whom were quite talented, but I couldn’t really get them to do anything,” she remembers.
“Then, when I was 13, my mum found me a scrawny little Thoroughbred who loved to jump. He was called Johnny Suede, and he was pretty small and weak — as was I. But we battled away and got to CCI* [now CCI2*-L] level by the time I was 16. He was only 15.1-hands high and I grew to 5 foot, 8 inches, so we sold him and I got another ex-racehorse, and this one took me to [CIC2*, now CCI3*-S] level.
“My mum was quite competitive herself at one-star level at that time, so we did it together and competed against each other. She never used to get nervous about what I was doing as she was too busy worrying about herself, but now she just does dressage and she gets very nervous watching me compete!”
Ginny’s parents funded her until she was 18, and helped out while she was at university. “After that I was on my own,” she says. “One of the first horses I owned myself was Paige, whom I bought when she was rising eight. At the time I was riding an old three-star mare, Ashbury Pee Cee, and a young horse, so she filled the gap in the middle. Paige wasn’t great on the flat and she took rails with her in the showjumping, but she had a very good cross-country record.
“We climbed up the grades together, representing New Zealand at senior level in the Trans-Tasman, won the CCI3* [now CCI4*-L] at Puhinui and, in November 2017, finished eighth at Adelaide.”
That proved to Ginny that her mare had the endurance to cope with 5* — and that she herself could take the pressure of riding at the top level.
“That was the catalyst,” she says. “I sold my other horses and, with my partner Mitch, took the plunge. Yes, it did feel like putting all my eggs in one basket, but I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I might not get another chance — it was now or never.
“Some lovely people at home in New Zealand, Elaine Butterworth and Anthony Quirk, wanted to invest in a horse with me, and I said that what I really needed help with was making it possible to make the move to the U.K. So now they are co-owners with me of Paige, and without their support I could never have made it happen. They are very supportive, and it was so lovely that they came to Badminton this year and watched Paige blitz the cross-country so brilliantly. They have also invested in a younger horse with me, who came over here a few months after Paige did.”
She was lucky that Mitch was up for this enormous new challenge, which certainly made the move easier, and the fact that she was walking a path many New Zealand riders had made before her also helped.
“I wanted to base myself with a Kiwi because they understand the sacrifices you have to make and the difficulties of moving from one side of the world to the other to pursue a dream,” she says.
“I emailed Blyth Tait, who was living in Gloucestershire, and asked him if he would have space for me and Paige, and he said yes. I spent the first six months with him and he was an absolute legend — he helped me with so much, such as which events to go to, gallops to use, gave me introductions to sponsors and so on. He has so much knowledge of the sport of eventing and was really generous with it, as have the rest of the Kiwi team over here.”
When Blyth moved back to New Zealand last autumn, Ginny took over the lease on his yard, which is owned by Suzanne van Heyningen.
“It’s beautiful, and there is lots of land, which is really important to me because I like having horses living out as much as possible.
“Our original plan was to be here for two to three years, but we really love it now and I think we’ll be here longer. It took a while to find our feet, but there’s so much I want to do, and as long as we can keep enjoying it and keep funding it, we’ll stay.”
In 2018, Ginny and Paige achieved the dream of completing their first Badminton.
“She’s hot and quite tricky on the flat, and at a three-day event she struggles with nerves when there’s a crowd. Nothing in New Zealand compares to the intensity of the atmosphere at one of the big British events. If I could change history, I would have bought her when she was younger so she could learn to adapt earlier, rather than having to do so at 5* level,” she believes.
“I have learnt so much. There are so many differences between the eventing world in the U.K. and back home: in New Zealand a lot of national competitions take place over two days, so everyone stays over and at the end of the day they get out the barbecues and we all chat and catch up. Here, the calendar is so full and so busy, it isn’t so social. The national competitions are crammed into one day and everyone disappears off home as soon as they can.
“The numbers of horses competing in the U.K. are mind-blowing. Our biggest show in New Zealand is Horse of the Year, where there are 800 horses across all the disciplines — driving, dressage, showjumping, eventing, games, and so on. You get that at a standard mid-week event at Aston-le-Walls here. In New Zealand there are about 10 entries in a CCI3*; here there are 100. It is unbelievably competitive — but that is why I came.
“At home horses are put in 4x4-meter pens at night at shows, and they live out for the vast majority of their lives. Here everyone stables at competitions, and at our first Badminton in 2018, Paige struggled to settle in the enclosed spaces that she wasn’t used to.”
The costs of living and competing in the U.K. are much higher, too. “I knew life would be more expensive in the U.K., but I didn’t realize how much more expensive,” she laughs. “Veterinary costs are much higher. And it costs £30 to go cross-country schooling here — that’s $60 in New Zealand, which is a huge amount. And we don’t have horse flies in New Zealand!”
It’s important to Ginny and Mitch that they keep strong links with their home country.
She says: “We’ll always go home to New Zealand in the winter. I had no idea what chilblains were until this winter when I was riding out for racehorse trainer Ben Pauling. Now I know that you need tights, breeches, and waterproofs to ride in the winter in England! And everyone says that last winter in the U.K. was a warm one…”
Has it ever felt lonely, being such a distance from friends and family? “I’m quite social, and of course Mitch is here with me, so the transition hasn’t been as hard as it might have been,” she says. “I got a job in the local pub, which has actually been really fun and has meant I have met a lot of people.”
Mitch is a diesel mechanic, but he has recently got a job with Equireel, who film horse trials, which means that often he is able to work at the events where Ginny competes.
Like most Kiwis, Ginny’s laidback, understated manner belies the enormity of what she has done — and what she has to do to rise to the top of the sport outside New Zealand. The fact that eventing in Britain is the most competitive in the world has its downsides, she admits.
“Finding more rides isn’t easy; there are so many amazing riders over here, and loads in my area in particular. It is difficult to attract owners, and finding horses to buy isn’t easy either because everyone is looking and they get snapped up quickly. It helped on the teaching front that everybody knows what Badminton and Burghley are — it gets your name out there and there is an instant recognition that you have competed at the top level, and the local Pony Clubs have been very supportive.
“New Zealand cross-country tracks are really good and of an equal standard to those in Europe, so producing good cross-country riders has always been our strength. The ones who come over here from New Zealand are those with the drive and the determination and the will to win, so it is no wonder that quite a lot of them have been successful. And everyone can get their hands on a Thoroughbred in New Zealand, so they learn to gallop, to travel at speed to a fence, and to be brave and accurate. I think you have to have that ‘feel’ across country to be a top rider; you can work on the rest.
“To make a big sacrifice, you have to really want it and you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to make it work.”
Photography by Nico Morgan.
Written by Catherine Austen
Catherine Austen is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in all things equestrian sport and racing. She reserves all equine related over-the-top mushiness for her own horse, the very beautiful Molly, whom she hunts with the Heythrop.