NZ Cross Country Course Designer John Holmes

Hawke’s Bay course designer John Holmes has been involved with eventing for nearly 30 years but for him, “nothing equates” to shadowing the legendary Mike Etherington-Smith nor actually being at a CCI4*.

A High Performance Sport New Zealand Prime Minister’s Scholarship allowed John to attend the recent Mitsubishi Motors Australian International 3 Day Event in Adelaide. As a level 2 FEI course designer, he’s attended plenty of events but this was his first CCI4*.

“Being over there working with him on the 4* track was totally different to anything I have seen,” he said. “I have never seen a 4* (in person) before and seeing the difference was incredible . . . the fences were all right up to the absolute maximum and I was amazed at the different technicalities you see. There’s a big difference between 3* and 4*.”

But he wasn’t surprised. “It was what I was expecting, but just seeing it was an eye-opener and such an awesome experience.”

He has worked with Mike twice before when the British star has visited New Zealand through the Prime Minister’s Scholarship Scheme in 2016 and 2017.

“In Adelaide I was mostly shadowing Mike, watching and helping as much as I could,” said the Hastings accountant. “I did a lot of banging in pegs for laning – all 4* events have to be laned so there were thousands of those little white pegs and string to be dealt to and you had to work them out for all the different tracks.”

He worked alongside course builder Mick Pineo, who designed the CCI2* as well as building all the Adelaide tracks, along with CIC3* designer Sylvia Williams-Roberts. Badminton cross country builder James Willis was at the event helping out and John got to spend time with him too. “They were all awesome people and great contacts for me to make.”

He walked all the courses – CCI2*, CIC3* and CCI4* – and discussed them with Mike. “The best thing about the whole experience was the people – Mike knows so many people and introduced me to a lot.”

John would dearly love to travel to Europe to attend more of the world’s top-ranked courses but next on his list is his level 3 FEI course in Sydney next year.

Fitting all his course designing and building has to fit in around his partner Vaughan and children Molly (15) and Ben (11) as well as his horses. “I was competing at 1* last season but that horse will be going showjumping when I find time. The other horse is competing at 105.”

It was through his riding that he got involved in course designing. “When I was in my early 20s, I was involved with Eventing Hawke’s Bay and helping the course designer when he decided to go overseas so I was thrown in the deep end – if we wanted to keep having an event in Hawke’s Bay I had to do it. While course designing was always second to my riding it seems to take up more and more of my time now.”

But he loves it and admits that while it is stressful in the build-up there’s nothing like the feeling once it’s all over.

John is currently designing 105/1* tracks at the National 3DE, has designed at the Pony Club Champs, Central Districts and also at his favourite track in Hastings where he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

ESNZ Eventing sport manager Eliza Johns felt the trip would be hugely beneficial for the wider sport. “We were thrilled to be able to facilitate this opportunity for John who was identified by Mike back in 2016 as having the skill to move to the top level of course design,” said Eliza.

“The knowledge John gained through this experience will be a huge benefit to the sport in New Zealand and will aid his development and ultimately his transfer to Level 3 in the future.”

By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison