You know it, don’t you, when you see it – the effortless fluid grace of a true athlete, whether it be a swimmer, a runner, or in Andrew Hoy’s case, a rider. And for me, the invisible communication between a great rider and a great horse takes that grace to another level.
“Someone once asked me to describe my riding in one sentence,” he tells me, on the phone from Melbourne, “and I said to them, ‘I can tell you what it means to me in one word – and that’s harmony’. It’s harmony between me and the horse in whatever we’re doing.”
Andrew Hoy is one of Australia’s most experienced elite eventing riders, with two of his current horses, Vassily de Lassos and Bloom Des Hauts Crets recently qualifying for Tokyo, coming second and ninth respectively at the recent three day event at the Strzegom Horse Trials in Poland. “That doesn’t mean I’m selected at this point in time,” he tells me. “Selection will take place in 2020, and the final selection is in July.”
If he makes the team, and the chances are high that he will, it will be his eighth Olympics, placing him right up there in the record books. Only 14 athletes in the world have competed at eight or more Olympic games. Two have competed at nine, and one at ten.
When I mention it, he corrects me kindly. “Actually,” he says, “it would be the ninth time I’ve been selected, because I was also selected for the team in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics, but because of the fighting between Russia and the US at the time, some sports chose to boycott. The Australian Team competed at the Alternative Olympics in Fontainebleau instead and we won a bronze medal – which was great, but in Olympic terms, it doesn’t have any relevance.”
At the London Olympics, Andrew was already breaking the Australian record for an athlete attending the most Olympic Games. He was the flag bearer at the 1996 Olympics and has won four Olympic medals, three-team gold with the eventing team, and silver in the individual three-day event in Sydney. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 2000.
But despite his continuingly stellar career, there’s something more prosaic on his mind at the moment than Olympic selection. “Sleep,” the 60-year-old who has come somewhat late to parenting, laughs. “Stefanie and I have two children, Philippa who is 27 months, going on 27 years, and Oscar who is twelve-weeks-old. I find I don’t get down to the stables quite as early as I did before I was a parent.”
I have to say It feels good to know that even Olympians find parenting has its challenges. “It’s definitely challenging,” he says. “I had no idea how much joy children could bring you, but along with the joy there are definitely challenges, wonderful as they are.”
The ‘stables’ are his eventing complex in Leicestershire, about an hour north of London. Stefanie and Andrew, who married in 2017 live a kilometre away from the stable complex in a village.
“It works very well. Stefanie runs her own communications business from the office at the yard, which now also works as a meeting place, and conference area,” he says.
His lifestyle is a long way from his rural upbringing in New South Wales, but despite all his success Andrew still remembers his first ‘real’ horse with pride. “Davey was a 15.3hh thoroughbred who’d raced in Queensland,” he says. “He came to central Victoria on a train with a load of other horses, he was sold through the saleyards in Wangaratta, a dairy farmer called Dave bought him – hence the name – then someone else bought him, and then my parents bought him for me thinking he’d be a good pony club horse for me to go up the grades with. Well, that horse took me to two Olympic Games, two World Championships and won the Burghley Horse Trials. He was special.”
As he’s got older – he turned 60 in February – he’s learned to appreciate his earlier horses even more. “I honestly had zero knowledge in those days. I mean, when I rode Davey at the World Championships, I was only 19. I used to kick and point, and it was extraordinary how they went for me considering that I feel as if I had no talent at all. But I suppose I must have had something, and I had some lessons from some great people, so I suppose there was something there.”
Davey was the start of a lifelong affinity with thoroughbreds, a breed for which Andrew has the highest respect. “Of course they’re bred for racing,” he says, “but of all the breeds, I think the thoroughbred is the most versatile – they still move so easily into the Olympic disciplines of dressage, jumping and eventing.”
That said, his current star, Vassily de Lassos, is Anglo Arabian, with, Selle Francais jumping lines in there. “He looks like a thoroughbred,” he says. “In Europe there’s very much the endurance Anglo Arabian, but he doesn’t look like that.”
Andrew dismisses the idea of ‘quirky’ horses. “A quirky horse is a sensitive horse,” he says. “The more I do with horses, the more knowledge I’ve gained, the more I work with the personality of the horse. I try to work with them, I want them to tell me what’s going on. Just as not every thoroughbred will make a racehorse, not every ex-racehorse will transition to high-level performance, but that doesn’t mean there’s not the opportunity for the horse to have a useful and happy life.”
But at the moment, he couldn’t be happier that what Vassily appears to be telling him, which is that he is at his very best at big events. “So am I.” he says. “The bigger the event, the calmer I am. I’m really focused on that one job, and it usually works out much better for me.”
With his absolute belief in the importance of harmony between horse and rider, he was pleased when several people who saw him ride Vassily in Poland, told him that it seemed as if he was doing nothing, and that he didn’t even appear to move.
“What a lot of riders don’t understand when they’re jumping horses is that a horse doesn’t actually fully see a fence until only about three seconds before you get to it,” he says. “So there’s no point in getting anxious or nervous, or pulling a little to the left or right, or wriggling in the seat for a fence that’s 15 seconds ahead. The secret lies in the quality of the canter, not the actual fence. Good rhythm, balance and a good take-off will get you over the fence.”
Bloom Des Hauts Crets, otherwise known as Bloom, has similar breeding to Vassily, and Andrew is excited at the idea of her future. “Vassily is ten, Bloom is only eight, so it’s looking as if she might have a truly exceptional career ahead of her,” he says. “Plus there’s also Basmati, a ten-year-old Trakehner, who came third at Montelibretti CCI43*, at the end of October. All I need to do for him to quality is a short 4* competition.”
An obvious question is if he has a favourite phase in eventing. He’s kind enough to humour me. “I’m so often asked that,” he says, “and what I’ve worked out is that if I have a horse that is unbelievable in one phase of the competition then that’s my favourite!” He laughs. “The fact is, I love it all. It’s a passion for me.”
So what, I ask, does a typical Andrew Hoy day look like, if he’s at home and not travelling and competing.
“How I work is I do a plan the night before, working out which horses I’m going to ride, and the structure of the ride, whether I’m going to work them on the flat, at a canter or a gallop. In the morning I get down there around eight, and work the horses. Then after lunch we spend more time on organisation, meetings, planning etcetera. I like to mix up the horses work to keep them interested, and me too, for that matter.”
Of course, like anyone who has achieved great success in their field, he’s occasionally had a high price to pay. His international debut, with Davey, was at the 1978 World Championships in the USA. In 2008 he was accused of using spiked boots at an event in Portugal, a claim he strongly denied. “I’m absolutely convinced someone is out to get me,” he said at the time. He was cleared of all charges, but it was still hurtful. “I’ve always prided myself on my treatment of my horses,” he says. “I’m not the kind of person to anthropomorphise horses, and give them human qualities. They don’t know what I’ve done in my life, they don’t care what I’ve done. What they need from me is the most professional relationship I can give them, and that’s what they get.”
If you think, for a minute, about the accolades that Dawn Fraser received when she won three gold medals in a row, it does seem as if equestrians in this country fly slightly below the ‘popular’ radar. That said, Andrew was the first Australian since Fraser to win three gold medals consecutively, and at the Sydney Olympics the crowd were quick to adopt their own Aussie chant to fit the bill, calling out “Aussie, Aussie…Hoy, Hoy, Hoy,” whenever he competed.
As well as his Olympic records, Andrew and his previous wife, Bettina Hoy (nee Overesch) were the only married couple to ever compete against each other from different countries – Bettina for Germany, Andrew for Australia – in different teams for the same Olympic medals. (Clayton and Lucinda Fredericks also competed against one another in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, but both were riding for Australia.) The couple lived for 12 years in Gloucestershire, at the Gatcombe Estate of the Princess Royal. In 2009, they moved to Germany, with Andrew moving back to the UK only a year later, and their separation announced in November 2011.
When I ask him if his second wife, Stefanie, is horsey, Andrew laughs. “Not at all,” he says. “Well, she’s not a rider. I met her at a horse show. I’ve always had a passion for motor racing that came from my father. I was looking at some of the cars on display at the event, and Stefanie, who handled the communications account for Jeep, was there. She asked if I’d be interested to do an autograph session, and gradually over a period of time, I realised that she was a very interesting person. I have a lot of respect for her in the way that she looks at her projects. She is used to hard work and commitment as well. She played for the German Youth Orchestra, and she has a communications business that specializes in companies that want to invest in the equine industry. Her clients include Mercedes-Benz, Deutsche Bank and Hermès, so she is involved with horses at the sponsorship level, and she’s learned a lot about them, but she’s not riding, or taking care of them at the yard.”
Mind you, that might change with little Philippa showing signs of being a chip off the old block, as they say. “All she wants to do is ride, ride, ride,” Andrew says. “She has a miniature Shetland called Toad. We originally bought him as a companion pony, first for Rutherglen, and then for a short period of time for Vassily. Vassily gave him such a hard time, we separated them again. Toad wasn’t broken in when we bought him, so basically Philippa has broken in her first pony already.”
Andrew says that there is no way he would push his children into an equestrian career, but it seems in Philippa’s case as if it may already be too late for that, and with baby Oscar coming up behind, it maybe that the catchcry of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Hoy, Hoy, Hoy,” is heard for generations to come.