Samantha Clark checks in with U.S. Olympic eventer (and all-around babe) Will Coleman about his plans for the future.
I was fortunate to catch up with Will Coleman at his winter training base in Aiken recently, the quietly lavish Quarter More Farm, a former polo facility that Will has rented during the winter months for the last four years. At face value Will is all polite Virginia good manners and charm, showing me into his office and offering me tea or water to drink, but he also has a laid-back, hippie side – he seems to get on easily with most people, jokes come easily, and he’s popular on the circuit. As soon as we start talking about his horses however he becomes serious, contemplative and thoughtful; he doesn’t avoid any of my questions but he does duck his head to fiddle with the zip on his riding boot when he becomes uncomfortable. I say fortunate because it’s always a treat to peek at how four star riders run their operations, and had I waited any longer Will would have been on his way back to Virgina, as he tends to spend less time down south than many of his colleagues and by the time you read this will probably be en route,
“It’s expensive for me to be here. This is an expensive place to rent but I do it because it’s a good facility for the horses, it gives my staff a good place to live and we can do everything we need to do here to the best of our abilities and I do that because I want the horses to train in as good a place as possible. I obviously lose money coming here instead of somewhere cheaper, but I don’t mind giving up some profit to put my horses and clients in the best possible place they can be for a couple months. The biggest reason we don’t stay longer is that I think it’s hard to get a horse really fit here. It’s a great place to leg a horse up, but once you get to that point in their fitness program when you need to start doing some more intense gallops, I like to be on hills and I like to be on good turf, and we just don’t have that here. For horses like Twizzel and OBOS O’Reilly aiming at either Kentucky or a spring three-star, proper gallops become pretty important to me and my owners. I also think that we don’t have great grass here. I don’t care how much it rains, we just don’t have good grass. I find that if I’m down here for too long, then nutritionally my horses start to suffer a little bit, and I like to get them back where they can be in good, green fields and hacking out on the hills. I think it’s just healthier overall for them, so that’s probably the main reason. Plus I love Virginia; I’m always keen to get back.”
Ah, Twizzel, a horse that Will has had what he describes as a “tough hard luck career,” one of “really, really bright moments, and like a lot of eventers, really, really, really, low points” and who he is now aiming at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** once more for what will be their last three day event together,
“I’d say we have about a better than 50% chance of getting him there. He’s old; he was a bit hurt coming out of the Games, not terribly, and at the moment he looks great, but his legs are old and I just worry at his age, especially when we start having to really gallop, whether they’ll hold. He owes me nothing, he owes (owner) Jim (Wildasin) nothing, and we’ve both said that if we get him to Kentucky it will be great; if he looks good, we’ll take him but if he doesn’t then we’ll move on. At the moment he really looks fantastic so I feel a bit more positive about it now because he does exceptional, but we’ll take it one day at a time. I’m enjoying riding him every single day, because I don’t really know what will happen after this season.”
Despite that split-second mistake that will continue to haunt him for years to come, Will maintains he has happy memories of the Olympic Games in London and indeed that whole summer,
“There are a lot of memories preceding the actual Olympic Games; we had six weeks over there getting ready and, as a group, as a unit, we did have some good times. I learned a lot from watching other people train and evaluating my own preparation, and so it will be an experience that will serve me for a very, very long time. The Olympics themselves…I guess as time continues to pass I do look back on parts of it with a fonder outlook but.. (shrugs) the horse did do his personal best dressage test in the biggest and grandest of stages and (did he almost crack a sad smile?) he really was going well cross country until that one moment, and then he jumped one of very few clear rounds on the third day so there are a lot of bright moments; it’s just unfortunate that the whole week didn’t really come together for any of us on that team, including myself, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. (Long pause, more fiddling with his boot zipper) I don’t think going to the Olympics will define me, and I don’t really want it to. I’ve always thought I was a good rider and a good horseman, and I want to continue to strive to be better at those things, and I will. I think probably the Games mean more to the people around me who also really poured a lot of time, effort, and money in to that quest to go there; not only the girls who work here at the barn, but also the farriers, the vets, definitely the owners, my parents. I think that they embrace the significance of it and that they’re really proud of it for me, but honestly, maybe it just hasn’t sunk in yet, but I don’t feel any different. Maybe it would be different if it had gone better. At the moment, I’m just aching to get back, and that’s what consumes me right now. I just hope I get another chance.”
To that end, with dreams of representing his country again, Will came back to the States and made some decisions about his horses and some changes to his business model; he compared structuring his team of horses to building a baseball team,
“I was hugely influenced by the book ‘Moneyball,’ which is basically about the Oakland A’s. They built a winning baseball team on the smallest budget in major league baseball. (If like me, you saw the film, then yes, Will would be Brad Pitt!) The book is basically about value investing. I think it’s applicable to the horse trade in a variety of ways, but most obvious is the way a baseball organization has got to build a team from a variety of sources: the draft, the farm league system and player development, free agent signings and/or trades, etc. In other words, it’s a multi-faceted, diversified approach. My goal is to have an equally diversified, layered approach to building a string of event horses. I started my own young horse program buying a couple three-year olds this past fall and starting some other youngsters for owners, and hope to expand upon it in the future, annually adding young prospects to the team. This young horse program is equine player development, scouting talent early and then putting in the time bringing them along in your system. But, this alone will probably not suffice, and secondarily you’re always going to need to go and sign a free agent, if you will, i.e. go and find some more experienced horses to fill a gap. We all need to do that from time to time, and that’s where your ability to have the resources behind you to accomplish that is critical. Breeding could be another source of players, but like the league drafts, they can be a bit of a lottery. Nonetheless, I’ve spoken to a couple of local breeders in my area about maybe gearing a part of their program towards an event horse type, something that has the quantity of blood that we look for and the right physical and mental attributes, just to add another layer to the mix. So, this is the direction I’m heading. I don’t have huge money behind me, so we’ve got to be smart and well-structured. I think it will take several years to get off the ground, and you’ve got to be vigilantly looking for horses, constantly sourcing them from all over and at all levels. Getting the owners to sign on to this approach is the big thing. Jim Fitzgerald, who has been one of my best owners, is a good example of a guy who gets it. We had said that we might consider selling Zipp to hopefully go out and try and buy some more horses, and restructure a bit. We did end up selling him; we sold him to a very nice, young rider, and I think it was a good match and a great home, so we all felt pretty good about it. I’ve always wanted to start building my own string of horses from the ground up, and I had owned a little piece of Zipp, so I took that money and I bought two 3 year olds for myself, and Jim was obviously supportive of that. I hope to make enough each year that I can go and buy a couple of horses and keep some skin in the game from now on with all of them. While I’d like to have partners on them going forward, I’d like to remain an equity owner in all these young ones and bring them along with some excited partners; hopefully that will limit the bills and make it a little cheaper, but it also makes it clear to everybody how committed I am to doing it. Whether or not it works, who knows? At the moment I still own the two, now four year olds outright! I’m excited about them though; it is possible to find nice young horses readily.”
To find those two young horses Will scoured England, Ireland and Europe and estimated he looked at over 200 horses, admitting that it was the first time he’d been shopping for himself with such a limited budget. What finally sealed the deal?
“They’re both about 3/4 TB, one of them might be closer to 7/8 TB, they have very, very good bloodlines, they’re both just really good-looking athletes, they’ve got great feet, really well-conformed, everything’s balanced, everything looks like it’s the right size, they seem to have really good temperaments but you’re kind of going off your instinct. I watched them jump and move a little bit and there was something I liked about both of them, I can’t really explain it.”
“Jim Fitzgerald is truly one of my best friends and has been one of the greatest owners. We get on – he’s a horseman first and foremost who came over from Ireland as a groom to a stallion and built himself up from nothing, and I think we have a pretty mutual respect for each other; he sees the way I run my business, the barn, and the way I take care of the horses, and I think he appreciates that because he really knows first hand what kind of work it takes. He doesn’t have the deepest pockets but he supports me tremendously, and I really value him as a friend and as an owner, he’s a fantastic guy. We do a lot of things together, bits and bobs of young horses, and pieces of others – he wants to be involved and I want him involved.”
Fred and Katherine Cooper’s Newmarket Venture Flight
Just last year, Will was introduced to Fred and Katherine Cooper at Rolex; Katherine rides at a lower level but enthralled by Rolex she went to Ireland to buy three young horses for Will to bring on, and, “they are as passionate about horses as anybody I’ve ever met, they love the whole process; most people that first get into the game probably aren’t that interested in bringing along young horses because it can be tedious and it’s so time-consuming but they love it, Katherine in particular told me she’s a huge fan of the development of the horses; every time I talk to her about what I’m doing with the horses, you can almost hear her smile on the telephone; she loves hearing about how we’re developing them, what we’re trying to do, what the next step will be for them; she enjoys that part of it every bit as much as the competitive side. They’re great people to have on board.”
And as for Twizzel’s owners, Jim and Sarah Wildasin?
“The Wildasins have obviously been very supportive of the team and they’ve been good owners to me with Twizzel, but I’m not sure where they are. I think last year was a lot with the Olympics, and I can understand that maybe they want to take a step back after that. I hope they’ll get back into it; at the moment we don’t have any plans to buy any more horses together but hopefully that will change. I know that they’re passionate about the sport and they do want to see this country succeed. We get along great; Jim and I are good friends; they’ll tell me when and if they’re ready, but I’m certainly not going to put any pressure on them to do anything. I’m just going to keep working and digging, and hopefully one day they’ll give me a call and say they’re ready to do it all again.”
“I was lucky to grow up on a farm as part of a really knowledgeable horse family, but I also worked for it like everybody else. We were instilled with a respect for work, and my brothers and I all grew up doing farm work and taking care of the horses, so it’s not like we were ever spared any of the grunt work. If anything, it was the exact opposite! Dad was tough. I was also a working student for Karen and David O’Connor for three years, and I’d be surprised if anybody who was there at that time would tell you that anyone worked harder than I did. I’d also be surprised if you talked to anybody who really knows me now that would say there are many people in our industry who work harder than me. I struggle to make ends meet, I’m not independently wealthy. My dad is probably my toughest customer – I have to pay rent to the farm at home; he’s occasionally gone in as a partner on horses with me but he’s the stingiest partner I’ve ever had! He was always very adamant that we had to understand and value what it cost to do the horses, and what it takes physically and emotionally. When I made the decision to go professional, I understood what I was getting into and was prepared to fight for it the way a lot of people have to. I’m not one to do fund-raisers and things like that, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not out there trying to make it work. I’ll do it any way I have to, be that selling a horse, teaching extra lessons, or riding horses for other people. I can’t really change the way people look at me. I like to think that people will judge me based on the merits of what I’ve done and how I conduct myself, and not just assume things based on rumor or chatter.”
“Because my father rode jumpers and dressage horses, I had access to trainers, but whenever I went to get help with anyone, I always worked for those people. If I think of the experiences that were really formative in my development as a younger rider, I can’t even remember that many moments ever actually occurred during a lesson – a lot of it was sitting by the side of the ring setting jumps while David/Joe/Ann was teaching somebody else, or hacking out with them and just talking, or watching the way they walk through a barn and look at the horses, squeeze legs, stuff like that, how they set up their tack rooms, how they fed their horses, how they washed their horses, how they manage their operation, the attention to detail….”
“I was a student of the sport, a student of horses and horse training. That meant as much to me as winning young rider medals or getting on the developing rider list or any of that stuff that a lot of younger riders today often make too much of. It’s an art and it really does take a lifetime to learn, and I think if you’re not committed to approaching everything, every day of every year, with a little bit of a childlike mind that you want to learn and you want to get better, then I think it will be easy for you to be beaten. I’m confident about what I can do on a horse, but at the same time I’m humble in that I’m always trying to learn more. That goes back to the way I was raised, I was never allowed to think I was anything that great, and I still don’t! I just enjoy it all, I enjoy the struggle. Every day presents moments where I’ll think, ‘Ah, this is it, this is great!’ Maybe it’s a young horse that I’ve been working on something with for a couple of weeks and it finally clicks, or maybe it’s riding one of my older horses and you just have one of those days when they give you that great feeling where you’d love to just take them into the ring at Kentucky right then, or jumping a young horse, or even coaching somebody and you feel like you connect and you’ve just made a difference in someone else’s riding career. Every day offers something different that will brighten my mood; at the end of the day I really, really like training horses and riding horses and being around them. I think I annoy the girls horribly because I come in in the morning and I’m the chirpiest, most energetic guy in the barn, but I really love doing this, I love everything about it, every aspect.”
“I don’t think turning 30 will be tough for me; a lot of what we do is so age- inspecific, you can be great at this at 25 and at 55, so turning 30 just means you’ve probably got another 25 years left if you take care of yourself! Most of my friends are non-horsey people, a lot of them have kids, but we’ve always been on a different sort of life plan in this sport, it does work out differently. You spend so much time in your twenties just trying to get off the ground, I think it can take about ten years in this business just to get established. I feel like I’m barely taking flight right now, and I feel as if I don’t keep pounding the pavement, I’ll crash. You don’t really get a chance to just rest, but if you love it, then it’s still very rewarding. Age won’t bother me at all. In fact, I’m excited about the future, of this team, this country. I’ve been working with David (O’Connor) on and off for the last couple of years; he and I know each other very well because I was with them for so long. He’ll help me map out what I want to do with a horse and give me good advice on how to train them, and Linda Zang has been helping me with the technical side of the flatwork. The jumping I’d say I do mostly on my own, but whenever I’m struggling a little bit with a horse I might take it over to someone like David, or if it’s a show-jumping question go to somebody like Joe Fargis. The cross country, I’ll pick Phillip’s (Dutton) brain about certain horses and certain issues but I’ve got a lot of experience now, I’m turning 30 this year! I’ve done a lot of upper level eventing, I’ve done seven four stars and god knows how many three stars. I’ve done a lot and I feel like I’m comfortable with what the level requires; now the biggest concern for me is trying to organize my business and my stable in a way that we get the right horses to the top. Horse selection is going to be a big thing for me going forward, and then continuing to build that network of support that we all need. We’ve got some great new faces in the barn which is exciting and we hope they stay in, and I hope the familiar faces don’t go anywhere either.”
You can find out more about Will and his programme, the horses, the facility in Virginia and the girls on his website. He’ll continue to work hard, love his work and his horses, and I’m sure annoy the girls every morning with his chipper cheeriness! Go Will Coleman Eventing!