Perfect Timing

Paul Tapner talks to Hickstead Press Officer Victoria Goff about his first win in the MS Amlin Eventers' Challenge

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Paul Tapner rode into Hickstead’s International Arena last July like a man on a mission. Ireland’s Joseph Murphy and Electric Cruise had just set the pace in the MS Amlin Eventers’ Challenge, going clear round the long course in a time of 128.64sec, and Paul knew he had to better that time while leaving all the fences up if he was to go into the lead and have any chance of taking the title for the first time.

They made a striking pair as they set off on the course – Paul in his easily-identifiable red colours, and his striking grey gelding Bonza King of Rouges, who had his ears pricked, keen to get on with the job in hand. The course was the usual mixture of cross-country jumps and knockable rustic showjumps and Tapner knew exactly which fences he could gallop at and which he had to collect for.

“The Eventers’ Challenge is very much about having a horse that’s both brave and careful, and the fact Bonza King of Rouges didn’t get any jumping faults indicates he is both of those things,” says the Australian rider. “You can pressure him to go fast and he’s still careful, whereas with some event horses, the minute you pick up a bit of speed they go into cross-country mode and lose carefulness.”

As well as getting the pace just right, Paul had to judge how quick he could turn and how sharp the angles he could take to some of the fences, after rainfall had made the going a little slippery. But a strong rhythm and with the Irish gelding’s long stride eating up the turf of the main arena, they crossed the line in 127.75sec, nearly a second quicker than Joseph Murphy. “Winning was great – Hickstead is such a massive well-known event so to have any sort of win there is special,” says Paul. 

The pair didn’t have the ideal preparation for last year’s BHS Royal International Horse Show. Bonza King of Rouges had made his four-star debut at Badminton three months earlier, where they had a dramatic fall at the Lake that fortunately left both unscathed. Things had been looking much more promising for the pair at Aston-Le-Walls the week before Hickstead – they were leading the Advanced only for the horse’s bit to snap near the end of the cross-country course, and Paul was only able to pull up by grabbing hold of the horse’s browband.

But there were no such mishaps at Hickstead, where ‘King’ was making his second appearance in the class after his debut in 2016, when they finished eighth with two fences down. “We weren’t particularly competitive here the year before, as we had a few rails down due to inexperience. But he went in there last year a totally different horse, he had definitely benefited from his run and he was so much more confident,” Paul explains.

Things have gone much more smoothly for the pair since then, too – their second four-star at Burghley saw them finish in 19th place, following a fourth place finish in the CIC3* at Hartpury International. This season, they’ve had two top 10 finishes at Gatcombe and Oasby, and Badminton went much better for the pair with a very good dressage, a steady cross-country on tacky ground amid soaring temperatures, and one of few clear showjumping rounds with just a few time penalties to add to finish 23rd.

Paul is aiming to return to the All England Jumping Course this week to defend his title. “I’d like to think this year he could be even better and knock a considerable amount off our time from last year,” he says. “I’d like to think I could win again, but it depends on what happens on the day. We’ll be giving it our best shot though.”

Paul’s career is somewhat different these days compared to when he was eventing full-time. In September 2016, he caused shockwaves round the eventing world when he announced he was quitting as a professional event rider to take up a job with the burgeoning Event Rider Masters (ERM) series. While he’d continue to compete at three- and four-star level, he was no longer going to be running a huge string of horses and producing them up through the lower levels. An ‘amateur elite rider’, is how Tapner himself puts it.

As a rider he had finished third in the inaugural running of the ERM series, and now he was returning for their second season as their full-time Television, Digital and Technical Manager. At 43, he was young to be announcing his retirement from professional sport, especially in a discipline where riders can carry on competing into their 50s or even 60s. But having been longlisted for the Rio Olympics and missed out on a team place, and having been pondering his ‘exit plan’ for a few years, he felt the time was right for a change of direction.

The series has been an instant success, with attractive prize money, support from many of the world’s leading riders, and good levels of television coverage across a number of countries. The series comprises special CIC3* classes held across six legs – three in Britain (Chatsworth, Barbury and Blair Castle) as well as Wiesbaden in Germany, Arville in Belgium and Haras De Jardy in France. Points are awarded at each leg, with a £30,000 bonus for the overall series winner.

Paul is relishing the challenge of his new job, and is fortunate to still be able to compete alongside his ERM role. “We all work remotely, so the hours are slightly flexible, and it’s helpful having a boss who’s understanding of the need for time off to compete,” he says, referring to ERM founder and event horse owner Christopher Stone, who is based nearby in Sussex. “He does laugh at my attempts to wear my ERM hat whenever I compete!” he adds.

When it comes to wearing various different hats, Paul has always been a bit of a master. He was born in Sydney in New South Wales, and although his parents weren’t horsey he rode whenever he could. A weekly riding lesson turned into loaning a pony, then getting a horse, and coming up through Pony Club. He was talent spotted at the age of 13 and given the ride on an Advanced event horse, which is how his eventing career began.

While at university Paul founded the Advena Equestrian Centre, and he also set up businesses providing fencing and portable stabling. He came across to the UK in 1999 to ride and compete on a six-month basis, and after a winter back home in Australia he returned the following year for another ‘eventing holiday’, during which he won the three-star at Bramham. After a few years of spending summers in the UK and winters in Australia, he made a permanent move to Britain and wound up his businesses in Australia. In 2005 he married his wife Georgina, and the couple now have two children, Joshua and Madison. Having steadily climbed up the British Eventing rankings, Paul shot to prominence in 2010 when he and Inonothing won the world’s most famous three-day event, Badminton.

The Tapners are based at Wickstead Farm Equestrian Centre in Wiltshire, a BHS-approved livery yard, riding stables, Pony Club Centre, RDA and competition venue as well as home to Paul’s eventers. The facilities are pretty impressive, including a full cross-country course and ‘Wickstead Horseplay’, an outdoor arena with some all-weather cross-country obstacles. “We call Wickstead the mini Hickstead. Our little Derby course has obviously been useful prep for the Eventers’ Challenge,” says Paul.

When he was still eventing professionally, Paul had more than 20 horses in work at Wickstead, and last year he kept four top horses – this year, as he gradually winds down, he is down to two – Bonza King of Rouges, and a younger horse, Bob Chaplin, who finished second in the six-year-old championship at Le Lion D’Angers.  

Tapner describes his Eventers’ Challenge winner King as ‘quirky’ but not overly high maintenance. “He generally prefers horses to people, he doesn’t like it if you take him away from his best friend, and he’s always best friends with whichever horse he just happens to be standing next to. But I’ve had him a long time now so I know how to manage his quirks.”

The gelding came from fellow Australian eventer Matt Ryan, who had competed him up to Intermediate before retiring from top level sport. “King is always going to these old retiring Aussie eventers,” Paul jokes. “When Matt retired he sold the horse to me, and now I’m nearing my retirement it’s not fair to pass him on to anyone else! So he’ll see his career out with me.”

If Paul and Bonza King of Rouges can indeed better their MS Amlin Eventers’ Challenge round from 12 months ago, they’re going to be very difficult to beat – and they could become the first back-to-back winner of this class since Gary Parsonage and Peter Street won in 2008 and 2009. Paul may be juggling his riding with his challenging new role, but he’s lost none of the skill, talent or competitive edge that has seen him rise to the top of his sport. Let’s see if he and King can treat us to another masterclass in timing things to perfection.

 

This article was first published in July 2018. 

 

 

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