By Alan Baldwin
CHEPSTOW, Wales (Reuters) – There was a time in Jonathan ‘Jock’ Paget’s early equestrian career when staying on a horse for eight seconds was considered good going.
It is a big leap from riding bucking broncos in the rodeo to the refined elegance of the Olympic dressage ring, as is going from laying bricks in the Sydney suburbs to competing in the stately grounds of Badminton and Burghley.
Paget has done all that and more.
Growing up in Pendle Hill, after moving to Australia from New Zealand as a five-year-old, the Kiwi eventer did not start out among the horsey set.
The team bronze medallist at the London 2012 Games, and only the second rider to win the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials on his debut in 2013, started riding at 18 and first jumped a fence properly at 20.
When he left school, he took up an apprenticeship as a bricklayer.
“I enjoyed laying bricks but I wasn’t crazy about it.” the 32-year-old told Reuters at the New Zealand eventing team’s final training camp in south Wales before flying to Rio.
“My father had bought a horse…and he lived about half an hour away. I’d go up there on the weekends to see him and he’d have the horse and start mucking around. So that’s how it started.
“I’d ride with him on the weekends and enjoyed it. I got into the rodeo scene and I started to watch that and then I had a go at doing the saddle broncs and one thing led to another.”
The rodeo rides, he recalled, were “similar rules as the bull riding, but you do it on a horse that bucks and you just have to stay on for eight seconds and they score you on technique”.
The big break came when he got a job with eventer Kevin McNab in Queensland after the experienced rider, now also based in Britain, advertised for a working pupil.
Paget suspected later there might have been an ulterior motive — “I think he took me on because although I had never jumped a horse, he needed a retaining wall built” — but he was not complaining.
Within two years, the novice was competing in three star events and then moved back to Sydney to set up on his own before impressing Clifton Eventers founder and stable owner Frances Stead.
If the dressage, with its formal dress and meticulous steps, might seem intimidating for “a bricklayer who rides a horse”, Paget said the jumping element was actually the biggest initial challenge.
“The way that I had learned to ride had been sort of in the back of the saddle with your legs way out in front of you. And then you lean back and you follow the horse’s back,” he explained.
“When you jump, your legs now are underneath you and you’re at the front of the saddle and you go off the horse’s back and you don’t follow the back at all.
“I found it really difficult to make that switch, I used to fall off a lot in the beginning trying to learn that.”
In Rio, riding 16-year-old thoroughbred Clifton Lush, another medal is definitely a possibility.
“The horse is very experienced, I’ve ridden him around Badminton three times, Burghley three times now and we know each other well,” said Paget. “Your horse has to be enthusiastic and feel good and want to do the job.
“But if you can add experience, that is a big thing.”
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)