“If you’d asked me that question a few weeks ago, I’d have said that sadly the answer was no,” says Billy Raymont. “Now I’m not so sure.”
‘That’ question, of course, pertains to the Olympics and the possibility of whether Billy, whose career has been on fire in the past few years by anybody’s standards, has a horse that could be an Olympic prospect.
Of course, there’s nothing any of us would like more than to see the highly successful, but occasionally quirky 16-year-old Anton get there, but the bay gelding isn’t a horse Billy would put his money on for that.
But then along came Anssioso Z, winning the Fielders Roofing Mini Prix qualifier and then the Championship at Willinga Park in blistering form. The beautiful big grey is owned by Suzannah Willis, who has also competed him up to CSI1*.
“He’s 12-years-old, he’s jumped some serious Grand Prix rounds with Suzannah, he’s scopey and he’s careful. It could be that he’s ready to rock and roll,” he says, “but we’re not going to get carried away.”
As soon as I mention the words, it’s a year…Billy laughs. “I know,” he says, “almost to the day.” We both know what we’re talking about of course – Billy’s wonderful win at the World Equestrian Games on Redwood Oaks, around a giant course that he made look oh, so easy, but behind that effortless grace was a lot of preparation.
“By the time we got to WEG, he’d come a long way in his rideability,” says Billy, “he had much more confidence in the things he allowed me to do in terms of asking him to listen to me. I had to adjust his stride for a smaller horse – he’s only 16hh, which makes him quite small on that size of course. He naturally tracks quite forward, and getting him to sit back, wait and re-gather himself was a bit of a challenge. I knew that I wanted him to roll back to the vertical, and I wanted to do nine strides in to the treble, as opposed to most peoples’ eight.”
Watching that ride a few times, what comes over loud and clear was how relaxed Redwood Oaks was, and it’s something of a mantra for Billy, that to jump their best horses need to be relaxed.
“I really latched on to that concept in Europe with the Olympic Chef d’Equip trainer Hank Noren,” he explains. “You want them to be watching the top poles – that’s where they should be concentrating. The fact is that every horse goes a little differently, and you need to find a way to stabilise and support them – particularly the more quirky horses. There’s a natural tendency, if a horse is hot, to want to take your legs off for instance, but in fact they go better if you can keep your leg on, wrap your legs around them and support them, and keep the contact for them, when you take away too much they can panic. Anton is tricky because he’s quite spooky, he’s easily frightened and wants to run the other way. There’s a small amount of showing him that you’re strong and pushing him to do something, but not too much otherwise he’ll just spin and run away. We’ve been working through a lot of different issues, and I think the fact that I travel a lot and do a lot of shows really benefits those kinds of horses.”
Billy is a Sunshine Coast boy, born and bred, although these days he and his partner Tess Cook (also a show jumper) divide their time between Tooradin, Victoria, where her parents live, and Billy’s home in Cooran, Queensland.
At 40, he may well be one of the last great riders Australia produces via a rough and tumble country start. “My dad had given his younger brother, my uncle, a pony,” he tells me, “and that was the pony I inherited, mainly because my uncle lived next door to us, and the pony was always coming over to our place. I learned to ride without a saddle, because we didn’t have one, or at least I thought we didn’t! I rode everywhere with my cousins on that pony, and then when they were going to start Pony Club, I wanted to as well, and my father said, ‘oh well, you’ll probably need a saddle then’. He dragged out this massive old saddle from the back shed, it was probably an 18”, but it did the job.”
He credits his time bareback for his balance, and also for his ability to read different horses. “Riding bareback is a great thing for kids to do” he says, “and in all honesty better than riding around in a badly-fitting saddle.” We talk about how far saddle-fitting has come in the last few decades: “I sometimes wonder about some of the horses we had in the early years, and if they might have gone better in different saddles.”
Billy rides in an Equipe saddle from Trailrace. “I like the carbon fibre tree and the latex panels,” he explains. “They seem to mould to each horse really well. I have a couple of different trees but in the main I don’t need to have a saddle for every horse.”
After Pony Club came Billy’s first mentor. “When I was 16 and 17, I spent a lot of time with Guy Creighton,” he says, “and I think I have quite a lot of attributes that are still strong from those days. I’m probably not unlike Guy as a rider. I’ve spent a lot of time with George Sanna, Gavin Chester and Vicky Roycroft over the years, and the best part of spending time with them, without having to have based myself with one particular person, is that I get to have conversations with all of them about different training aspects. They watch you ride, and they advise you. Even as recently as going away last year I was talking to George Sanna about my plans and he was helping me with how to plan the trip. They’re always happy to help a fellow Aussie, and it’s been a bigger part of my career than anybody realises.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s one thing,” he says reflectively, “to be a good rider, but it’s another to also be a good teacher.”
Over the past twenty years Billy has represented Australia on multiple National, senior and young rider teams, and has campaigned and produced world-class horses, including Royal Selections, Dutch Choice, Balmoral Tim Tram, Nicalette NZPH, Stardom, Anton and Redwood Oaks. In the past he’s won the Australian World Cup League in 2005 and was runner up in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He’s also won a swag of state and National titles including the 2011 and 2013 New Zealand National Senior Title. Throw in the last few years of World Cup and Grand Prix wins, his success at WEG, and his most recent successes at Willinga Park and SIEC in the third round of the 2019-20 Australian World Cup Qualifying Series and there is no doubt that Billy is here to stay. At SIEC, Billy and Anton, with just one carry over fault, were the last combination on course, needing a clear round to win. They got it and took out the victory, despite Billy nursing a serious ankle injury.
But although he’s always loved his career choice, it hasn’t always been easy. “When Equine Influenza hit I had to take to driving trucks for a while,” he says, “and I have to say I did wonder whether it might just be easier to walk away from horses, but then the ban lifted and somehow I found myself just naturally doing the horses again.”
It’s all this experience that Billy now brings to his teaching, which is now a large part of his life. “Any given day – when we’re not competing – usually includes teaching these days,” he says. “Sometimes there’ll be working horses too, unless they’re having a day off because they’ve had a massage the day before, or they’re having a rest day. I enjoy the teaching. I feel as if I’ve got to the stage now where I can pass on the knowledge I’ve learnt from my years in the industry, and that’s very rewarding.”
That said, he feels for young people wanting to get into the industry. “It’s not like any other industry where you do a four-year apprenticeship, or you gain a degree, and that pretty much qualifies you to get a job, in this industry you have to build a reputation. It was a very long time before I was approached by clients asking me to take on their horses. I was very lucky, when I first left school I had massive support from my parents – and in fact I still do – but also fuel, horse feed, stabling and entries were much cheaper then. I could take six horses to a show and make a wage from the prize money. The expense of everything these days is just insane. I think that unless young people are lucky enough to be funded by their families, you really have to find a way to support yourself with something that will allow you to have time to compete, and that’s not easy either.”
Patience, he says is a good thing to cultivate for both horses and riders. “We tend to be a bit impatient here in Australia. It’s not an easy lesson to learn that waiting, and taking things slowly allows your horse to develop its best body, but it’s a great lesson to learn,” he says. “I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned with Warmbloods is that they develop even later than everybody realises. I would say that they’re not fully developed until they’re nine or 10, rather than the six or seven people suggest. They just can’t have their best body, and give you their best work until they’re fully developed. You have to be patient, and wait for them to fully develop. Anton is 16 for example, and he’s in his prime. Even with our thoroughbreds we’re too quick to use them up.”
‘Patience’, ‘a relaxed horse’, ‘taking your time’…it sounds as if the slightly feisty firebrand of the show jumping circuit in years gone by has grown up. Taking his own time to develop into a rider who’s here to make his mark on Australian show jumping – and who knows about the Olympics? If not this one, the next. For sure.