If I’ve heard one constant refrain over the years from my vet and my chiropractor it’s been about the dangers of over-lunging, and yet for many trainers and riders it’s still normally a go-to method of training.
Not Chris Chugg, though, whose ability to raise and train top show jumpers is legendary. He’s as clear as day on the topic of circles.
“The fact is that horses aren’t built to go in circles,” he says bluntly. “Everything about their bodies, including all their joints, are designed to go in a straight line. If you ask a horse to do circle work before it’s mature enough, strong enough and supple enough to do it, you’re just asking for problems.”
These days, Chris says, particularly in Europe, people are now paying attention to the surfaces, and the size of arenas their horses are being worked on.
“We use a lot of different training surfaces and different areas,” he says. “We swim our horses, we use a treadmill, we work them on a very large arena.”
The ‘we’ that he’s referring to of course, is his partner in life and in jumping, the incredibly talented show jumper Gabi Kuna, also Chris’s fiancée. Together the couple are a formidable force in the show jumping world, and at the moment all their efforts are going into the team they’ll take up to the Aquis Champions Tour at the Elysian Fields near Canungra, Queensland, which runs between April 26 – May 5.
“Aquis is a great event,” says Chris. “It’s equivalent to a 5* show in Europe. The prize money may not be as high as Europe, but the footing, the jumps, the great stables – the manicured grounds all create a fantastic environment for a good event. Gabi and I will be taking eight horses, including Cassiago and Flare. It comes straight after Sydney Royal so it’s a busy time for us.”
Talking of how he and Gabi work their horses, he says that they’re lucky they both admire each other’s riding. “We train each other,” he says, “and we ride each other’s horses. Gabi has a great eye for a horse, and we both enjoy bringing on young horses.”
But although Chris may not be a fan of circle work too young, the final goal of having a horse work ‘round’, is the same he says, he just likes to find the way each horse likes to engage with what they’re doing. “There’s a lot of pressure for horses to look like everybody else’s horses; even for riders to look like other riders,” he says. “But they don’t all work the same. It’s vital for all horses to have self-carriage, to be able to balance themselves up, to work round – but often you’ll need to chop and change how you work a horse, because every horse is a little different.”
For Chris and Gabi keeping their horses sound and happy is paramount. “They get regular chiropractic treatment and acupuncture; we use the treadmill for building muscle and weight on the back leg which is so important for jumping, and the horses are kept in a hilly area around Tennyson near Sydney.” The early tragedy of losing Del Bart means there are no steel fence posts. “You learn to keep your horses safe,” he says.
Over the decades Chris, always known as ‘Chuggy’, has built himself up a fearsome reputation as a competitor. He is a five times Australian Showjumping Champion (three consecutive years on the extraordinary Vivant); an Australian Representative at the World Cup Finals in Paris in 1987, in Gotenburg in 1991 and in Geneva in 2010, and an Australian Representative at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, finishing 21st individually on Vivant. He’s an NCAS Level 3 Showjumping instructor, and, with his former wife, Helen Chugg put together a formidable Warmblood breeding program, for jumpers and dressage horses.
Chris has always had horses in his life. “My mother, Bev, was heavily involved in the trotting scene,” he says. “From the time I can remember I was around horses, and for many years our extra money came in from horses we used to buy at McGrath’s Hill, the old Homebush saleyards – where the Olympics were held.”
It was a quick turn-over. The family would buy on Friday, and sell on Saturday and Sunday through a regular ad in the paper. “Where we lived wasn’t very horsey,” he says, “so we used to go to the local park and ride.”
When his mother decided to take out a trainer’s license, the family moved out to Riverstone, continuing to deal in horses, an endeavour which brought along Chris’s first competition horse, Del Bart, a grey 15.3hh purebred Arabian. “Not the obvious choice for a competition horse,” he says, “but we did very well jumping at pony club together.” Chris loved his horse, the pair of them growing into showjumping together, until sadly they came home after the Championships and Del Bart injured himself beyond repair on a fence post.
His knowledge of the breed stood him in good stead however when he decided to finish school early, to make a living showing Arabians for Paul James from Arabian Park. “That was a great job for me,” he says. “I learnt a lot about conformation and handling stallions. The main stallion I used to ride was a beautiful purebred black Egyptian stallion called Hakim. He was wild and fierce, and I enjoyed that about him. I had to be tough with him because he had a lot of bad habits. He’d actually been banned as a ridden horse from The Royal because he’d thrown his rider.”
Already not one to pass on a challenge, Chris schooled Hakim as regularly as he could. “I once rode him in a Karl Mikolka clinic,” he says, “and Karl said to me that he looked like a Warmblood not an Arabian. He was very big on long reins, and so we put Hakim in the long reins. We taught him two-time changes and one-time changes, and he drove me like I was at the Vienna Riding School for weeks on end. Hakim came out of it at Prix St George level which was pretty incredible.”
Almost without realising it, Chris was learning a valuable lesson about horses – and himself as well. “I’m not sure that as a teenager I even thought about whether I was particularly good with horses,” he says. “I made pocket money training horses, leading stallions, riding and showing, and I just gradually realised that I seemed to have a talent for it. I think Hakim showed me that when you get horses that are good at what they do, you stick with it. It’s nice to work with smart animals, to teach them trust and that they can believe in themselves – then it either becomes a great partnership, or they become a very saleable item, and you can make sure they go on to a great home.”
It seemed as if Chris was headed in the direction of eventing when his eventing horse, Kustah, died of an aneurysm at the Melbourne 3DE.
But Chris had a surprise around the corner. His mother had bought a horse that was to become famous. The Palomino first-cross Quarter Horse stallion, Chico D’Oro, had done a bit of everything when he was purchased as a dressage horse for Bev – but he had other ideas. All these years later Chris still laughs at the memory. “He was no dressage horse,” he says. “He was a playful, bucking handful. As soon as I was old enough I got to ride him, and he took me to Grand Prix showjumping.”
Google Chico D’Oro and you can see how he won the hearts of so many – with hundreds of posts about his bloodlines. He went on to sire a number of good jumpers, including Ashico, and, says Chris, they were lucky to be coached by Di Lawson (Gala Nigh, Tick-Tac). Chris soaked up everything she had to teach him. “She was a great rider,” he says. “She could take a horse that had learned the basic ropes and turn them into a really great horse.”
One of the reasons that Chris enjoys working with show jumpers is their longevity. “Jumpers last much longer than high-level dressage horses or eventers,” he says. “Horses that are well looked after will jump well into their teens, they can still compete at Olympic level up until they’re 16 – even older sometimes, so they’re well looked after. I believe you can create a really fit jumping horse in 12 weeks or so, then really you’re just asking them to work for sixty seconds every now and then to keep them ticking over, you don’t have to ride them for two hours like a dressage horse. Show jumping is really a light, easy way to ride.”
Something that Chris enjoys is buying horses at a young age, and working them up through the grades, perhaps because of the wonderful journey he enjoyed with Sky High.
“My mother was on the hunt for a breeding stallion when she found Sky High, a two-year-old Hanoverian Warmblood,” says Chris. “Sky High was completely different to Chico – an European-bred horse, slower and heavier. He weighed 750kgs so you wouldn’t think he was built for speed but he was fast, very fast. We took him slowly up through the grades, and I won my first World Cup on him at Armidale when I was 21. I’d won the Mini Prix, and I thought, well I may as well try the World Cup. I won that, and my Mum had bought me in the Calcutta the night before, so she won more than I won in prize money!”
Chris still remembers the thrill of being chosen to represent Australia at the World Cup final in Paris in 1987, but also the massive learning curve of discovering what can happen if you don’t travel with your horse. “I’d never done it before, and of course they sent a groom to travel with him – the horse got sick, and they worked him after he’d arrived,” he says. “I arrived four weeks later, and walked straight past him in the stable-block. I didn’t even recognise him. He’d lost about 200kgs. I was devastated.”
Sky High was sick for weeks, but recovered to give the pair a few starts prior to the final in Paris. “In the very first class he trod on a shoe in the first double, and that was it, we were out. I figured it could only ever get better. It doubt me a valuable lesson. The horse goes nowhere without us. I travel with any horse we take to Europe 24 hours a day. Owners know their horses like no-one else does, and you have to have your finger on the pulse. They’re big animals, but they can get sick very easily.”
Staying on in Europe to work at Paul Schockemöle’s place for a few months, cleaning stables and riding young horses, gave Chris some more major life lessons – namely that the horse industry in Europe was massive in comparison to Australia, but that he didn’t want to live in Europe. “I knew that I wanted to come and produce my own horses, and have Europe as a place to go to for purchasing horses,” he says. “I’ve never regretted that decision. For me living in Australia and doing what I do with horses is the best possible life.”
Fast forward a few decades to THAT mare, and by now Chris’s eye for a young horse, and the combined training and riding of Cristalline by both Gabi and Chris of the horse they’d purchased as a five-year-old, created what he refers to as: “A freak of nature. Cristalline has an incredible level of self-confidence, but again, it reinforces how important the early years are in a horse’s life. You can have
Incredible talent in a horse, but unless you nurture it correctly, and create a relationship of trust with the horse, the results won’t happen.”
But when results do happen, a professional stable has to face the difficult choice, particularly with a younger horse, of whether to keep it, or sell it. In 2016, Cristalline was sold to US rider Adrienne Strenlicht, for an undisclosed amount.
“I’m not going to say that it’s not tough selling horses, it is,” he says. “But if you want to be in the business of horses, and not just have them as a hobby, you have to sell them. Bringing them on from youngsters and selling them before they reach their teens is what brings in the money to sustain the business and provide our lifestyle so it just has to be.”
He’s as straight-shooting as it’s possible to be on the way to build a business.
“A lot of people think they can create a business out of one great horse – you can’t,” he says. “You might for a little while if you’re winning, and the horse is doing really well, but I’m sorry, one horse is a hobby not a business. If you want to be in the show jumping game, the only way to do it is to buy the breeding lines, buy the ones that are naturally athletic, smart, willing and keen to do it. Take them through the grades, and make the choice – at the right point – to sell them.”
Chris’s liking for young horses almost meant he missed out on Mr Currency one of the great horses of his career. “He was six, so he was really at the upper level of the age limit for me,” says Chris. “Helen and I were actually looking for a Palomino for a friend, but when we went to see this horse it had been sold. Then there was another one – this 16.3hh black horse, that could piaffe in-hand.” Chris wasn’t entirely convinced but took Mr Currency home on trial for a week. He was going to sell him on quickly, but fortunately changed his mind. A good decision as it turned out since only three years later they were at the World Cup final in Sweden.
One pointer Chris gives to people wanting to buy a show jumper is that even though, in the past, thoroughbreds were the mainstay of the industry, the difference these days between thoroughbreds and warmbloods has become greater. “These days thoroughbreds are bred leaner, and flatter, and less uphill. For a great jumper you need a horse that is uphill, and in the main you won’t find that in a thoroughbred.”
It brings him back to his central point – if you want to do horses professionally it has to be a business. “If you do it on the fringes it will just keep you poor,” he says, “if you try and do it in a big way and you don’t have the support you’ll go broke. Remember that to feed a top-performing showjumper costs $40-$50 a day. What you want to look for are your foundation mares, and a gold medal stallion. It’s a great game this one, but some months our vet bills would bankrupt some people. I learned, from buying and selling my own horses, that I could make a living. When I was young we had incredible diversification. My Mum had her trotters, we had Quarter Horses and Appaloosas, and my performance horses. Put it all together and it made something. You have to have big dreams, but at the same time you can’t afford to not learn how to manage the business of horses.”
And then of course, there was Vivant. The very first horse that Chris and Helen Chugg looked at on one of their trips to Europe, the horse that finally retired two years ago at the age of 18, having dominated the World Cup scene for many years. “He was an unbelievable horse,” says Chris, “scopey, careful and brave. A warmblood with thoroughbred characteristics – a perfect jumping horse. He was the best athlete I’ve ever had the privilege of working with.”
These days Gabi and Chris’s breeding program is carefully worked out. “We try to stagger our horses and have them at every age,” he says. “Our first crop of two have been broken in – 50% are mares, and 50% stallions or geldings. We are now producing five to eight embryos, and before you know it we’ll have 20 or 30 young horses to train and sell. For me personally the icing on the cake is to go overseas, find a going four-year-old, bring it back and take it to the next level.”
In the meantime, after Aquis there’s a December wedding to plan for, the next World Equestrian Games, and of course the 2020 Olympics. What about their own personal breeding program, I wonder. Chris laughs. “’Well I’ve had a vasectomy so it would have to be reversed, but Gabi is only 30 so you never know – and in the meantime horses are our family.”