Any thoughts of easing gently into retirement have completely bypassed North Canterbury’s Philip Graham, who at the age of 63 is preparing to take his horse to the USA to compete in a hundred-mile endurance competition.
Philip and his horse, Sefton-bred Rosewood Bashir, are one of just two Kiwi combinations selected to represent New Zealand at September’s World Equestrian Games in North Carolina. The other is Jenny Champion from Masterton, riding the 20-year-old Barack Obama.
Endurance is a sport where riders are in it for the long haul, both on the day and in training. Riding 160km in a single day is no easy task, but the best in the sport can do it in well under a dozen hours.
And Philip, from Glentui, shows no signs of slowing down just yet: “We won’t be running this race and coming home to retire,” he said.
The FEI World Equestrian Games are held every four years under the auspices of horse sport’s world governing body. New Zealand is also sending showjumpers and eventers, with the latter likely to include Mark Todd, 62, and Badminton winner Jonelle Price, formerly of Oxford.
Philip last represented New Zealand at the Games in 2006 in Germany, and a return to the world stage has always been at the back of his mind. “It’s just a matter of horses fitting in at the right place at the right time, and doing what they’re supposed to do. So it’s always been out there as a goal, then I guess this time it all fell into place.
“Horses being horses, they don’t always fit in at the right time.”
Rosewood Bashir – Benny at home – is back in work after taking a break after his 120km run at the New Zealand Nationals in Springfield a few weeks ago. In 2016, the combination won New Zealand’s national 160km title.
“We’re starting to get back into it and everything’s going well. We had a bit of a slow start to the season; I fell off and cracked some ribs way back in October, so that took a little longer to heal than normal. We came through the nationals well so that was a big plus.”
Philip said he was starting to put together a training plan for the next three months; no easy task given that he’ll be working in the depths of winter. Some of the training will be done on the couple’s beef cattle farm at Glentui, but there is also a lot of travelling involved.
“Training for us is a challenge. We tend to have to float out to training; some of it is quite close, other places a little further. We’ll be looking to do that at least three times a week now. It’s a bit of a commitment training-wise from where we are now.”
At this stage there are no formal events or trials for the pair before departing for the US. “It’ll be something we’ll have to do on our own but we’ll certainly be doing rides between now and then and doing a fairly good test ride just with ourselves,” he said. Philip would also work in with local clubs where possible.
Philip and his wife, fellow endurance rider Helen Bray, have several young horses coming up, “but everything takes priority and everything’s got to slot in – when you’ve got old ones still going, and middle-aged ones still going, the young ones tend to get left in the paddock for perhaps longer than they should.
“But for every year you try to rush them at the start you’re probably losing two or three at the other end of their life.”
Philip bought Benny, now rising 15, as a foal from his breeder, Helen Chambers of Rosewood Stud in Sefton. Bashir’s sire River Oak Colorado was imported from Australia by Helen, and he stood at stud until a paddock accident claimed his life in 2010.
Helen who breeds Arabian performance horses, is thrilled to have bred a horse who will soon perform on the world stage. “It’s so exciting to have something going overseas to compete at the World Games for New Zealand. It’s just amazing.”
She says Benny was bred specifically for endurance, “and he was certainly always going to be tall (about 16hh) and longer legs help, especially in the final run.”
She is quick to credit Philip for his work in bringing Benny along to this level. “I only bred him, but Philip has done all this amazing work with him since, and he’s done it right. If he’d pushed him too hard at the start he could have broken him. He’s helped him fulfil his potential.”
With the loss of his sire at a young age, Benny is one of the few Colorado offspring out competing, but those who are, are doing well, Helen said. A son of Colorado stands at her stud.
“We’re very excited and hope the New Zealanders go well. We’ll be watching, glued to a computer screen.”
A further local link is that Benny’s granddam, Sherwood Athene, was bred by Helen Bray, from a mare by her English-imported foundation stallion, Sky Hawk. She used Colorado several times in her breeding programme, after being impressed with Benny.
“I wasn’t with Philip when he bought Benny. But he was that good as a foal I knew Colorado would cross well with my bloodlines,” Helen said.
Early indications of the track in North Carolina will be classed as a “technical” ride rather than an all-out speed race. A recent 120km test event at the venue had horse speeds around the 15kmh rate.
It is estimated that the return trip could cost up to $80,000, but there’s no way Philip is leaving his horse behind, as some riders have done in previous years. Fundraising plans on a local level were starting to be put together.
Benny will be travelling “economy class”, flying out of Christchurch, on to Sydney, through Singapore, then Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to New York, where the remainder of the journey is likely to be by road.
Philip and Benny will have about three weeks to get used to conditions at the Games venue, the Tryon Equestrian Center, before the endurance event starts on September 13.