It’s been an exciting week, what with the launch of Thicker Than Water, and the first, great review in The Times, so it was an extra bonus to find myself on the cover of the Scottish magazine EQy (Equestrian Year), interviewing Game of Thrones actor Clive Russell on horseback on the beach at St Andrews.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Olympian and cross-country course designer Ian Stark — from his hospital bed! — for the same issue. It’s on newstands until the new year, but I’ll post the text online after that.
Last year, I interviewed Zara Phillips for the same magazine at Blair Castle ahead of the European Championships.
Ian Stark interview for EQY magazine, May 2016
Five time Olympian, former European champion, three-time Badminton winner: Ian Stark is an equestrian legend. So it is somewhat surprising to find myself visiting his bedside in Borders General Hospital, clutching a box of grapes.
“Sorry,” he says, by way of a greeting. “Do you mind?” He gestures at a trailing leg – bare under his hospital gown, except for a pair of pressure socks – so I lean over and hoik it onto the bed. It is a different sort of way to meet your sporting hero.
Ian, now 62, is recovering from a fracture of both his left foot and of one of the vertebra in his lower back after a nasty fall a few days previously; a young horse he was training reared up, he says, past the “the point of no return”, and fell over backwards. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital.
He cracks a grin. “My wife Jenny tells me that I owe the paramedics an apology. Apparently they are more used to getting attitude like that on a Friday night in the town centre.” As well as the fractures, he suffered a concussion and a haematoma in his abdomen. “I have,” he confides, waving airily towards his groin, “some very black bits.”
Still, despite these latest additions to a long list of past injuries his enthusiasm for getting back on the horse is undimmed. The consultants have asked him to stay earthbound for at least six weeks (ideally, I think, they would ground him indefinitely) but after only four days he is already itching to be out walking cross country courses, and has even “floated” the idea of competing in the open intermediate at Floors Castle in less than a month’s time.
A nurse, who has dropped by to take his blood pressure, erupts into peals of laughter and backs away, shaking her head. “They can’t wait to get me out of here,” he laughs.
Although he has – ostensibly – retired as an event rider, an injury like this still causes problems. Since stepping back from the competition circuit in 2007, he has cultivated an equally high-flying career in course design, with three-star courses for Chatsworth, Bramham and Tattersalls under his belt as well as last year’s course for the European Championship at Blair Castle. Tomorrow, he says, he is supposed to be positioning fences at Chatsworth: obviously that’s out.
Ian has a reputation among riders of creating big, fast, terrifying tracks that put the emphasis on scope and speed, harking back his roots point-to-pointing and hunting. This was, he says, a conscious decision. “I didn’t like the way the sport was going, turning into what I’d call an arena event. The courses were twisty and turny; horses doubling back, circling. It’s not necessarily the attitude I want them to have. My approach was to try and get some of the old fashioned, big scary Badminton[-style] courses, you know – from the ‘80s – and have it much more attacking. But to bring in a little of the technical, the skinnies and that sort of thing, too.”
The work is satisfying but nerve-racking: “I always talk about that Saturday morning stomach feeling when you’re competing: when you get up Saturday you’re just in knots. It gets worse and worse and worse, and then you get on a horse and it goes away. Well when you’re designing, it gets worse and worse and you haven’t got a horse to get onto, so it doesn’t go away!
“If your first half dozen riders have problems, it gets worse. You’re just tearing your hair out. Then, of course, someone comes along inside the time and goes clear and you think: ‘Ah! It is possible!’
He made it onto the shortlist of designers for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but was disappointed not to get the gig [Derek di Grazia, the Kentucky CCI**** designer, got it]. “As my daughter was helping me fill in the forms I said, ‘I think we’re pricing ourselves out of the market.’ To go all the way to Tokyo, that’s three or four visits a year, for four years… and as I’m getting a bit old and fuddy-duddy I like to turn left on the plane and not right.”
Business class flights to Tokyo add up quickly. He nods. “Yeah, I was annoyed not to get it, but I wasn’t too concerned. Without being rude, the Olympics are a three star event, and I’d much rather hang around and maybe get Badminton or Burghley one day. But –” he opens his hands wide, “– if it doesn’t happen it’s not the end of the world. I’m loving what I’m doing.
“I‘ve got my designing, I’ve got my racing, I’ve got my BBC commentating, and we’ve got our equestrian centre at home. So I’ve got a real variety, which is very spoiling.”
The Ian Stark Equestrian Centre outside Selkirk opened in 2013; effectively a continuation of the riding school business that Jenny had run from her late sister’s farm over the hill at Dryden, but with top of the range facilities including a competition-size indoor arena, outdoor manège and practice cross country course.
It has a made an important addition to the calendar for young Scottish riders who struggle to get enough competition experience close to home, and provides a base at which lots of top riders can teach. “I did think for a while when we built the indoor school it might turn out to be the world’s most expensive cattle barn, but it’s incredibly popular and that’s what we wanted. We wanted it to be our legacy to the area.”
It’s a family affair, run largely by his wife Jenny, but staffed too by his son Tim and his daughter Stephanie on occasion. Ian teaches when he can, although it’s hard to squeeze it in around course designing, and the time he devotes to horse-racing: between 35 and 40 days stewarding a year, plus trips to London to sit on the sport’s disciplinary panel.
He’s always loved racing, and even when eventing tended to opt for Thoroughbreds. “I bought some at Doncaster bloodstock sales for three- and four-year-olds, or store horses that were unbroken.” He selected them based on a sort of intuition, rejecting some in seconds, “as soon as they look out over their stable door”. Similarly, when he spotted Full Circle II, his last four star horse, across a crowded collecting ring he knew had to have him.
So speed is of the essence, in everything he does. “Very much so… When I started flying, I was very lucky to go down to RAF Anglesey where a friend of mine who was an instructor there managed to get me a flight in a hawk. I did a day’s training, and then I went up in the hawk, and I managed to do backward flips, rotationals at 500mph, 500ft off the ground…”
It all sounds very dangerous, to me, as does his extreme skiing habit. “I have had a lot of injuries but, touch wood, I’ve been quite lucky. I mean, yeah, I broke my neck and I’ve broken lots of bones, but my big fear has never been dying, it’s of being left incapable. I tease my wife – what she’s got to do when I meet my parallels, as they say. She says, ‘well, how can I help?’ And I say, well, just push me off a cliff.” Let’s hope it never comes to that.
Clive Russell interview for EQY, May 2016
Learning to ride in his fifties has brought Clive Russell, the Fife-based Game of Thrones actor, a wealth of opportunities.
After training in horsemanship for a part in the 1999 film The 13th Warrior – in which he played Norseman Helfdane alongside Antonio Banderas – his roles have repeatedly demanded that he take to the saddle, most recently for a yet-to-be-screened episode of the American television show Outlander.
He is, he warns me before we meet up for a hack along the beach at West Sands at St Andrews, still very much a beginner, albeit a very keen one: “I love the whole experience.” Yet when we come to mount up behind the dunes, he springs nimbly into the saddle from the ground.
“My first lessons were on a 20-hand Shire horse,” he explains later. Much was made in The 13th Warrior of Clive and his co-stars’ towering over Banderas, who stands only 5’8 to Clive’s 6’6, and his dainty Arab mount. So vast horses were a must. “At first I needed a block and a leg-up, but by the end of training I was getting on from the ground. Wearing 30lb of armour, a helmet, and carrying a sword.”
Learning to ride can be a nerve-racking process at the best of times, but when your job depends on it, it must add an entirely new spin on the whole experience. At the three week pre-production boot-camp in Canada, each actor was paired up with a local wrangler. “Have you read any Cormac McCarthy? These ranchers were real men. They had made their living in rodeos, were all wearing belt buckles reading ‘World champion – Calgary – 1982’ and so on. They had the power of speech, but they chose not to use it.”
Soon after, he was on horseback again for the 2001 television series The Mists of Avalon starring Anjelica Huston. “It was an entirely different experience. We were filming in Prague, riding highly-bred Andalucians. In one scene we had to pull up in front of the camera and draw our swords as the horses reared up. Then rush off as 200 men came running in behind us. So there could be no messing up.”
The Andalucians were entirely different to the big friendly giant he had learnt on, he adds. “Small in comparison, but very sensitive. It took a long time to get accustomed to their style of riding. In Canada we’d been told to ‘kick em up’ to get moving, but now it was more like a squeeze, the strength of a handshake.”
One actor didn’t like being told what to do, Clive tells me, and kicked his horse on, hard, while filming a sequence outside of a castle. “Of course, the horse took it as a signal to gallop off, and did – but with the actor hanging around his neck screaming. He was convinced the horse would jump the moat!”
It all sounds like a recipe for disaster. Big horses, beginner riders, all the pressures of a film set. And Clive has plenty other white knuckle stories from behind the scenes – including one that involves an actor he declines to name being run away with through a forest, returning with his face whipped raw by low hanging branches; others of riding through bear country (“the horses sense them and suddenly race sideways to get away”). But, he says, such excitements are par for the course. “If you don’t want to fall off, don’t get on a horse.”
Experts are brought in to advise the actors and film crews; Clive recalls working in Bulgaria with “a Romanian horse whisperer, a disciple of Monty Robert”, who did much of the precision riding. “There’s a lot of skill in keeping a horse active on camera – standing in the right spot, but shifting back and forth constantly so it doesn’t look like a ‘dead horse’” with dull eyes and a sleepy look. These details are beyond the ability of many actors still struggling with the basics, but make all the difference.
In acting, a varied skillset can make all the difference when it comes to landing interesting parts. These days, he adds, “a lot of young actors come from rich backgrounds. They tend to be able to ride, and they can list it among their skills on their CV.”
For other roles he has learnt to ice-skate, to handle and dismantle a gun, and to paint – or, at least, to hold a paintbrush and approach the canvas like a pro, a harder task than one might think. But riding is the one that has sparked his passion. Others colleagues have caught the bug too – Clive’s friend Nicholas Pinnock, the British actor, now rides weekly at a stables near London and regularly proclaims his love for horses on Twitter and Instagram.
“If I didn’t spend so much time playing golf I would consider getting my own horse,” Clive says. But the game takes up most of his weekends: he plays competitively and has an admirable handicap of five. He also spends a lot of time walking his two dogs on the beach close to the home he shares with his wife in the East Neuk of Fife.
Clive returned to our screens in recent weeks, as series six of Game of Thrones screened in the UK. And there is more in the pipeline: when we meet he has just finished filming the last series of Ripper Street, the Victorian-era detective series (“Very sad – after five years of working together you know people so well they are like family”) and an American film with his old friend Brian Cox in the lead. So what next?
He laughs. “I have no idea.” He has no work booked in, but this is causing him little concern. A bit of time off after a very busy few months is welcome, he explains, plus he has always enjoyed the periods of uncertainty that punctuate an acting career: “The majority of people with ‘proper’ lives find this terrifying, but I honestly don’t want to know [what’s next]. I never have done.”
Fingers crossed, his next role will have him on horseback once again.
Kirsty Aird profile, EQY magazine, May 2016
The thing that strikes you first about Kirsty Aird’s horses is the sheer variety. First, she rides proudly out upon Jumping Mac Flash, her own gleaming Grand Prix showjumper, then moments later dismounts so as to climb aboard a 13hh Fell pony, Gwen Rae’s Greenholme Emblem, whose fulsome mane and forelock fall down over his eyes.
She rides both, it must be said, with flair: calmly handling the highly-strung bay as he leers at our camera equipment – at one point, throwing himself back onto his haunches to avoid the flash – but then pushing and encouraging the little Fell stallion to reach the very limits of his extended canter, silky feathers flying out behind.
These are only two of the 25-year-old rider’s string of ten horses, which also takes in a much-admired Connemara owned by Winsome Aird and Liz Smith’s 17.2hh working hunter Toronto, who last year was crowned working hunter champion at the Royal Highland Show.
Kirsty appears to take it all in her stride, as she cultivates a twin-track career in both the show ring and the showjumping arena. But isn’t it difficult to be always switching between such dissimilar mounts: to be moving from mountain and moorland – to heavyweight cob – to lightweight sports horse in the space of minutes?
“It’s great for your riding,” she assures me. “You learn to adapt to each individual horse and work in more of a partnership: work with it and the way that it goes. You can work it to its strengths, as opposed to it having to work around yours.
“It’s something I’ve been used to since I was wee,” she adds. “I was always going from one type to another type, jumping off and onto another… I started riding mum’s heavyweight hunter when I was only 11.”
Her mother Trude smiles at the memory. “Her wee boots,” she reminisces. “They just stuck out the sides!”
Horses have always been a family affair for the Airds, who have been running a business producing and schooling horses for decades, and spend a lot of the time on the road – not least south to Hickstead, where Kirsty has qualified in one or another class every year in the last decade, or to the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS), where she has competed in each of the last eight. Her brother too competed in his teens and helped out on the yard before trading “horses for horsepower” when he got a “proper job” selling tractors.
In her showjumping success too she follows in her father James’s footsteps: he rode for the British squad as a young rider, and continued to ride up until a nasty traffic accident a few years ago.
Despite all the showing success, it is showjumping where Kirsty’s true passion lies. “It’s only recently, since having Mac, that people have seen me out jumping more and realised that I can do that as well – I’m not just a show rider. So that’s opening up new horizons for me.”
She bought Mac three years ago, from the showjumper and personal friend Robert Sneddon who continues to train her regularly. Mac and Kirsty seemed “meant to be”: she first rode him at Robert’s place six years ago, and been blown over by the gelding, who was then known down south as ‘the flying cob’. She’d then seen him every time she’d gone to Robert’s, until finally she sold one of her parents’ horses to Greece, and they used the proceeds to buy Mac.
In the meantime, several other riders had tried the bay for size but found they couldn’t manage him. “He is a unique character… just a bit of a drama queen! He’s scared of everything,” she says.
“You trot into the ring and he spooks at the flowers, spooks at the wings, spooks at the poles and you think: ‘Oh my god, we’re not going to get over anything.’ But then you get up to your canter, head to the first fence and he’s a completely different horse…”
In the first year together, they came 7th in the Grand Prix class at Bicester and Finmere – “against all British team members and other top people… I was fair chuffed!” – and since then they’ve come a long way.
This year she was selected a second time for the Horse Scotland development squad; it would seem she has a glittering future on the showjumping circuit. Even so, she says, it’ll never be time to give up on the showing: “It’s nice to mix it up. I don’t think I could ever just do one thing.”
The different disciplines feed into each other, she explains. Not only the showjumping into the workers and vice versa, but the flat showing has its benefits too: “It’s a good eye-opener – you have to be polished and finished as a rider, whereas in the showjumping you’ll get away with being a bit untidy.
The ultimate prize would be to win big at HOYS, and the big working hunter Toronto is her best hope, she reckons. “It’s his second year there, and he’s usually better, much bolder and braver, in the second year. So hopefully this will be the one.” But she has high hopes of the neat little Fell stallion too (‘Rio’, as he’s known at home). “He’s still a bit of a baby, but he’s got that star quality. He might be the secret weapon that nobody’s expecting.”
So she’s gunning for the very top, and the same goes in the showjumping. This year she hopes to jump Mac in the 1.50m class at the Great Yorkshire Show, then the Grand Prix at the Highland Show. “He’s got all the ability in the world. I know no course is too difficult for him, and he’s teaching me loads.”
All of this experience gained with Mac will be fed into her youngster, the six-year-old, 17.2hh Breckenridge, for whom she has big plans: “Well, as I keep saying: he’s my 2020 [Olympic] prospect. I saw him as a foal, loved him as a foal, and I said it at the time: ‘He’s going to Tokyo. He’ll be the perfect age. So that’s what we’re aiming for! He doesn’t know it yet – but that’s the plan.”
Katherine Tullie profile, EQY magazine, May 2016
I find Katherine Tullie at her parents’ beautiful farmhouse near Duns, eating the sugar bread she has brought back from the Netherlands. “It’s literally just white bread, with big lumps of half melted sugar baked into it!” she cackles, buttering another slice. “But it’s so good. You’ve got to try it.”
But the pleasures of sugar bread are the least of what she’s learnt over the last few months, since she moved to Nijkerk, Gelderland, to work at the yard of Olympic dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen.
“It’s like being at dressage camp all the time,” she tells me, grinning with enthusiasm. She reels off her weekly routine: up at 6am, work until 6pm – as late as 9pm some nights. Eighteen horses to care for, including a mare in foal. Several to ride – both at Adelinde’s yard and that of fellow Dutch rider Aris van Manen’s yard, an hour’s drive away.
On Sundays, Adelinde’s personal trainer visits, and both Katherine and the head girl Marloes undertake sessions too. “Plus, there’s a physio who comes with a saddle shaped seat attached to a computer – you sit on it and she adjusts your position to what’s best for the horse. And the vet! She’s specifically a sports-horse vet. She watches you ride then gives you exercises.
“I think I’ve already gotten stronger in my riding. They ride differently there to the way we do. Here, it’s all about your seat – using your seat to move the horse forwards. Adelinde told me, ‘It’s very British, the way you ride.’ Well – it’s the only way I’ve been taught! She said I shouldn’t work for the horse: the horse has to work for me. So I’ve been working on getting Jazz hot off the leg.”
Jazz, or Arctic Jazz as he is known in the ring, is her horse: a strapping, dapple-grey gelding who her parents bought as a youngster and she is now training to Grand Prix level. “He’s very clever, he loves to learn new things. Sometimes he gets frustrated because he tries to do too much, and gets confused. But he’s always willing, and wanting to work.”
Together they have amassed an impressive prize haul as they have risen up through the grades: after winning the Medium championship at regional level in 2013, they went on to place 5th at the nationals; the next year they were Advanced Medium regional champions at both the winter and summer competitions. Last year they came third regionally at Prix St Georges level with a score of 65.2%, as well as winning outright at Intermediate 1 level.
Jazz hails from Australia, where Katherine’s mother Fiona is from, and where the Tullie family was living when Katherine was a teenager. “Grey horses don’t sell very well in Australia – they get skin cancer easily – so he was good value. We went to look at him and he was just like nothing I’d ever sat on before. I think I rode him for about an hour that first day!”
Nevertheless, Jazz has never been simple to do. “He came to school with me [in Australia], and I couldn’t get on him. He would stand straight up on his hind legs and bolt, so we had to have three people: one holding his front leg, one holding his head and another there to fling me on.
“He’s very cheeky. He’s very hot, very spooky. Now he’s older I can keep a lid on him a bit, but when we first did dressage tests I would just pray that we’d get to the end without galloping off.”
She manages, she acknowledges, due to her hard-won ‘stickability’. “I never had a schoolmaster when I was younger, only crazy ponies. ‘You’d better stay on, or you’re walking home’ – that sort of thing.”
While out in Australia, the entire family would go out mustering on their farm near Armidale, New South Wales, riding bareback. “Our stockhorse was just dragged off the hill, not really backed or anything,” Katherine laughs. “We just jumped on, and she’d watch the sheep. If one broke off, she’d be after it. You’d be sitting on this horse, clinging on for grim death. They’re amazing, stock horses, exactly like collie dogs.” Even Jazz played a part in mustering; there can’t be many Grand Prix dressage horses with that on their CV.
But after a few years of rough and ready riding Down Under, Katherine appealed to her parents to be allowed to return to Scotland and compete seriously. She, her dad, and Jazz flew back when she was 17 – she is now 22 – followed soon after by the rest of the family.
Since then, it has been all hands on deck. Her father called in his friends to help him build her a sand arena on the edge of a field; her mother accompanying her south to train with Adam Kemp and Matt Frost, and to compete at national level. At home she trained with Jane Rutherford at Ayton for four years, recently switching to Kilmarnock-based Jill Grant.
“It’s very hard to compete against people that are buying their horses in from Europe ready-made,” she admits. “Without financial backing… though of course, my parents do the best they can, and I make as much money as I can. It all goes into the horse.
“My dad has a joke about those –“ she points to a row of commemorative plaques received for competing at the regional championships, “– he says, ‘these plaques were produced for pennies, but cost us £1000 each…’” Still, by the number of framed photos of Katherine and Jazz that adorn every wall, you can tell that both parents revel in her success.
With her place at an Olympic yard secure for another few months at least, the future looks bright. The next step, she says, is to compete at Grand Prix level, “with Jazz, if he can get there.” He might not be the horse to win her Olympic gold she realises now that she’s tried some of Adelinde’s mounts for size: “but it’s not about that.
“It’s about me and him being on that whole journey together, from us both not knowing anything to where we are now.”