Sam Griffiths has a lot to smile about. Two of the best four-star horses in the world; a beautiful family plus the arrival of a baby girl just last week; a fabulous well-equipped yard with long-standing staff, an enviable new Horsebox… oh and last year’s Badminton title to add to an abundance of top ten four-star finishes and several appearances on the Australian Team.
We met up with Sam at his yard in Dorset and it became clear that his triumphs did not arise from chance or the activities of others, this is a man with exceptional skill and ability coupled with an intelligent approach to horsemanship and dogged determination. In fact if ever a person characterised the saying “you make your own luck” then Sam is your man.
In the run-up to Badminton we ask Sam how it all came about, his hopes for Badminton and beyond as well as his thoughts on horses and training.
What sort of childhood did you have?
I grew up on family farm in Melbourne, Australia with my parents and two brothers. It was a good farm upbringing and we had fun. We grew up riding ponies and doing Pony Club. I have memories of jumping on ponies bare-back with just a head collar and taking them swimming in the lake.
How did you get into eventing?
Originally through the Pony Club. My older brother took it on seriously which meant I received hand-me-down ponies and horses. With two brothers both into eventing, it was like a family event for us- we would all go away eventing together for the weekend.
I did a Bachelor of Arts at Uni and picked my subjects for the timetable which allowed me to keep riding horses. Then decided to do an equine focused “gap year”. This included working in yards in Europe and the US but eventually ended up in the UK. I was just planning to do it for a year and have a bit of fun but things developed. I started with Matt Ryan in Oxfordshire where I stayed for four years and various opportunities came along which kept me in the country.
Who did you train with in Australia?
Actually a variety of people. Because we were quite isolated in Australia, there is a real clinic culture but that meant we benefitted from some really good trainers from all over the world
Which horse first put you on the map?
It was a horse called “In the Groove”. He’s still probably one of my favourite horses now. He was never a superstar but he was really reliable. He was one of those that I could touch every show jump and still go clear. He took me to Three-star and got me noticed.
My first “proper horse” was “Private Colin. He came 6th at Badminton in 2004 and was always very consistent at Three Days.
What do you wish you had known when you started out that you know now?
I wish I had had a bit more patience and stuck to the basics rather than over complicating my training methods. I think I would have got better results.
Can you recall any particularly pivotal moments in your career- in training or competition which have made a difference?
I’ve had a few. Quite often in a training session. You can have trainers saying things to you consistently but sometimes you just have to work it out for yourself.
And what have you learnt the hard way?
There have been a few of those too. I was in the lead at Weston Park two-star once and ended up having five show-jumps down- it was wet there and it taught me that you have to adapt the conditions.
Also when I had a fall on the flat at the Olympics. It had never happened before and I could have beaten myself up over it. I thought well I can come out stronger and better from this and it was just bad luck at the end of the day and my results have been better since then.
How do you handle nerves?
I’ve done a bit of work with sports psychologists. They don’t tell you anything you don’t already know but it did instil in me to avoid thinking about the result and just focus on the process. For example, if you’re cantering to a jump concentrate on the canter, your position and balance rather than jumping a clear. So I almost try and concentrate my way out of the pressure. I also try and convince myself that if I have ten rails down it doesn’t matter and this takes the pressure off. What works for me is taking pressure off myself rather than handling it.
What is your mental preparation for a big event like Badminton?
I get nervous before I get on a horse, once I’m on sometimes I’m almost too relaxed. So I’ll be sitting in the lorry just going through mentally how things work, envisaging myself doing the whole course and remembering the minute markers and where I’m going to go. Then once I’m on the horse, I have a set routine for how I warm each horse up and I think that takes the nerves away rather than just getting into the warm and winging it a bit. Then I need to fire myself up in the start box a bit, get a bit aggressive and totally focus on the job.
What does that set routine before the XC involve?
I trot around for a bit to get the horse nice and supple then jump a few jumps and work on my brakes and accelerator and get the horse listening to me. Then I’ll start angling the fences and doing some turn. I won’t do masses but just check everything is working and then I head to the start.
How will you prepare your horses for the course at Badminton?
The great thing about modern day eventing is all the digital technology. For example, we can see what the Badminton course will be by looking it up online then we can try and recreate it in the arena at home. That being said, no matter what you try and do at home, it’s never quite the same when you actually get there.
Which win has meant the most to you?
I’ve had my best results at Badminton. I’ve been sixth there four times in ten attempts. My proudest award was my Armada Dish for five completions which I did on four different horses. To me that is one of my greatest achievements.
If you could choose to win another four star or win team Gold at the Olympics, which would you pick?
Growing up in Australia it was all about the Olympics so to me that is important. There are two events I always wanted to win, one was Badminton and the other is the Olympics. The purist event rider might prefer to win Badminton but the Olympics goes out to a much wider audience and I guess now I’ve won Badminton, it’s easy for me to say I’d really like to win an Olympic Gold.
Do you think the Australian team stand a good chance in Rio?
Yes. The Ozzie’s have a really strong team. There is a lot of depth, in fact there is probably ten riders that you would be really happy to be part of the team with. The Federation don’t have a budget anything like what New Zealand or Britain has, but the money they do have is wisely invested. We get a little bit of financial help and plenty of support from vets and coaches so that’s been really helpful.
But your focus is on Badminton now and you have two experienced horses heading there. How do you feel about that?
I’m feeling pretty confident about those two. Badminton is often influenced by the ground conditions. I came third on Happy Times when the going was really good and then I won on Paulank Bockagh when conditions were terrible. So I’d like to think that whatever conditions we have, at least one of those two should go really well. But at the end of the day you need a lot of luck too.
How many horses do you have on the yard at the moment and any you are particularly excited about?
I have thirteen to event and there are some nice young ones coming through. One I am particularly excited about is Favorit Z. He’s a everything I look for in an eventer. Athletic, scopey with a great attitude and plenty of Thoroughbred blood. The plan is to head to Tattersalls for the Three-star later this month. He might even be a Rio prospect.
What is the best advice you could offer our readers who ride?
Keep it simple and concentrate on the basics. Think straightness and balance: if the horse is in a balanced rhythm they can do practically anything. And above all when you put your leg on the horse must go forward and I think that applies in any equestrian discipline.
Huge thanks to Nico Morgan for the photographs.