‘It Came Crashing Down’: Jonty Evans Overcame Fear of Letting the World Down on His Crowd-Funded Horse
byCatherine Austen| Apr 19, 2018
Irish eventer Jonty Evans’ extraordinary success in raising £500,000 via crowd-funding to keep the ride on Cooley Rorkes Drift, or “Art”, on whom he had finished ninth at the Rio Olympics, was the story of last summer.
It took high-level eventing out of its “sport” box and showed the world the drama, tension, emotion and passion behind the scenes. But it took its toll on Jonty and when, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, the pair had mishaps across country at first Millstreet, then Blenheim, then Pau, there was whispering that the tall, lean man had buckled under the immense pressure.
Their win last weekend in the Grantham Cup, Belton’s highly competitive CIC3*, on their very first run of the 2018 season, was therefore a particularly joyful victory. Jonty’s eyes were reddened with tears in the photos taken immediately afterwards – amazingly, it was his first international win at any level and must have felt overwhelming – but, talking to me three days later, he was utterly calm and level-headed.
“It was amazing, and the stream of messages afterwards, not just from the “Art family” [the 4,500 people who donated money towards his efforts to keep Art], but everyone you can think of, were incredible,” he says. “But it is irrelevant now.
“I had a phenomenal piece advice from [Irish eventer rider] Sam Watson on Sunday night: ‘Pack the Grantham Cup away into a dusty corner of a cupboard and leave it there.’
“I ended up with a horse I thought was a demi-god – and then it came crashing down.”
“It only has to stay in the cupboard until 8 May [the Tuesday after Badminton], but it is purely about focus. Between now and Badminton, I’ve got to focus not on what has happened, but on what worked and what needs work.”
After many years in the sport riding fairly average horses, Jonty freely admits that his brilliant result in Rio rather blew his mind.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. When I came back, I thought Art walked on water.”
The hoops that had to be jumped through to achieve the change in the horse’s ownership last year meant that Jonty couldn’t ride or train him enough – and then suddenly, the horse’s future was secured, and the pedestal Jonty had put him on grew almost unreachable.
“I ended up with a horse I thought was a demi-god – and then it came crashing down,” he says. “Driving home from Pau CCI4* having retired at the seventh fence was hell. It was a huge confidence knock.”
He adds: “I think most people, seeing him trot so beautifully and apparently submissively, round the dressage arena, wouldn’t realise that Art is a very opinionated horse who thinks he can do it all his own way. I think that was the underlying issue last autumn – I think he was being bossy, if that doesn’t sound stupid.”
And perhaps Jonty, in awe of the horse and what it had taken to keep him, was subconsciously letting him.
“I thought Art walked on water.”
But dealing with set-backs is such a major part of what makes a top-class athlete.
“I had a lot of very good advice from Andrew Nicholson [who Jonty worked for many years ago] over the winter. It’s nearly ludicrous how much the man knows. He seems to just pick up on the details of what has happened to you and a horse so well, almost by osmosis. I think there was a little bit of ‘Avebury psychology’ [Andrew’s great triple Burghley winner, who was quite capable of a cheeky run-out early in his career at the top level] in there.
“Lily, Andrew’s daughter, is sending me some socks that have ‘ride it like you stole it’ written on them!”
Jonty also listened to Sam Watson, who rides for the Irish champion jumps trainer Willie Mullins.
“He said that Willie doesn’t think about these amazing horses he trains in terms of what they have won, just in terms of their strengths and weaknesses – what the horse can do, and why, and what it needs to do better. I took Art out of the best stable in my yard and put him into a little wooden box round the back. And that’s where he’s staying.”
Hence his determination to look forward, using the knowledge he has acquired from Belton, and not to dwell on the triumph.
“When I saw Andrew Nicholson at Belton when I had finished with Art, he asked me if I had won. I said yes, and after he had said ‘well done’, he gave me a royal lecture about what I needed to do better! He and my jumping trainer Ros Morgan said exactly the same things, and that is what the next two weeks is all about.”
Jonty is also keen to give credit to his groom, Jane Felton, who, he says, “was running about the lorry park like a mad thing” when it was announced that he had won at Belton.
“Words cannot express how important Jane has been,” he says.
So now Jonty and Art head to Badminton.
“Hopefully we can prove to everybody who was so kind to help us that it was worth it,” he says.
I think they’ve already done that.