Every time the Olympic Games roll around, Hawke’s Bay organic farmer Adrian White is transported back to the time he made history for New Zealand.
Adrian was the nation’s first-ever equestrian representative at an Olympic Games. It was 1960 and he and Telebrae rode their way to 23rd individual in the showjumping. “Every four years it brings back lots of wonderful memories,” says the 88-year-old who is New Zealand Olympian number 155. The stories he recounts are a far cry from the international competition of this millennia. It was the days of horses being shipped around the globe – well, the Kiwis were.
Adrian twice rode for New Zealand at the Games – Rome and then in 1964 at the Tokyo Games in New Zealand’s first team, alongside the Gisborne crew of Graeme and Bruce Hansen, with Charlie Matthews the reserve.
In the beginning, it was the drive of the rather legendary Coloman Bolgar that saw Adrian head to Europe to chase the Rome Olympic berth. “He was a very opinionated and military man but he did a lot for New Zealand showjumping. It was his idea New Zealand should be represented there.”
Coloman was a world champion pentathlon exponent who turned his hand to being a horse trainer when he came to New Zealand. “He had a slightly eastern European approach and was a very fine horseman. I couldn’t understand a word he said but was trained by him for over 20 years! You could get the gist of it and if you didn’t you got a stock whip around your butt.”
Adrian remembers his trainer as a colourful character who was brilliant at building courses and got good results. Coloman borrowed Telebrae from Mrs HD McDonald and then set about lining up a rider.
“He knew he had a good horse – it was a very good horse who jumped up north mostly with the Goodin brothers who were very good riders. I got the nod because I think Coloman knew the Horse Society wouldn’t fund the trip and while my family had a big farm, I was a humble shepherd with no money!”
Adrian and his groom John Howard, a “fine” eventer from Whakatane, worked their passages on the ship. “John was a bank manager and agreed to come with me to help with the horse, be a companion and my groom. We had a great friendship.”
On arrival in England they worked on a farm. Adrian bought an old cattle truck for fifty pounds which they converted so they could also sleep in it. Coloman followed them around Europe with his family in the car. “He was doing the work keeping in touch with the Horse Society, cabling back results – we only had telegrams in those days. Coloman didn’t actually like the English much . . . actually the feeling was mutual . . . he didn’t like many people!”
The old truck had a gap into the cab where Telebrae – or Mac as his mates knew him – would pop his head. “John was a grand companion and a bit of a ventriloquist. When we drove around Europe, Mac’s head would come through into the cab and John would take the horse’s part in a husky Mr Ed-type voice, so we would have a three-way conversation.”
The act would carry on when they were at the sometimes rather stuffy cocktail parties. “No-one knew where the voice was coming from. It was a great laugh.”
Given the time lag between shows, cabling results back to New Zealand and decisions being made, Adrian wasn’t entered into the Games until two weeks before they started.
However, his arrival in Rome is something he will never forget. “We turned a corner and could see Rome, which had a wall around it with fields going right up to it. The sun was on it and it was shining so brightly – it gave me a real lift.”
Coloman used his inside knowledge to get Adrian and Telebrae access to where the Italian cavalry used to train and while it had the potential of being immensely helpful, it almost ended their Olympic campaign in one foul swoop. The combo were jumping a ditch that Coloman had got a water truck to come in a fill but a leaking pipe left a soft patch right near jump’s take-off.
“We came up to the jump and he slipped on his hind quarters, right into the ditch and got stuck there,” remembers Adrian. “He struggled and struggled. He pulled him over and he eventually kicked his way out but when he got up he had taken some skin and was on three legs. It could have been absolutely catastrophic and I honestly thought it was all over.”
But – true to form – Coloman was insistent they continued. “He trotted up sound though so Coloman was right. He certainly knew the metal of the horse.” Their first round wasn’t the best – they were blinded by sunlight that popped over the trees at the worst possible moment and they finished with both time and jump faults. A New Zealand journalist left at the end of that round and sent word home that Adrian and Telebrae simply weren’t up to it. If only he had watched the second round where they jumped equal with the combination who went on to win the gold.
“To go out and do that just two days after that accident was quite incredible. Telebrae has earned a place in the list of great New Zealand showjumpers not through a long record but by his performance jumping at the Olympic Games just two days after having a fall like that.”
The Kiwi combo finished in 23rd spot. When Rome was all over, Telebrae was sold to Pat Smyth and the two men delivered the horse to her in Gloucestershire. “She was the most famous showjumping person in the world and an amazing person. To sell a horse to her was an absolute coup and it really moved New Zealand to the higher echelons of the equestrian world.”
Pat had been riding at Rome when she spied Telebrae and immediately approached Adrian. He later found out that while Telebrae had been vetted before the sale, he was actually blind in one eye – and the vet has missed that.
With the showjumping out of the way, it was then John’s time to shine on a catch ride at Burghley.
When Tokyo rolled around, the Kiwis and the Aussies were the only countries to ship their horses to Japan but the difference was that our trans-Tasman neighbours had a lunging ring on deck and the New Zealand horses were locked up in their boxes for three weeks.
“We were the first to get there but had to get the horses fit from the very start – it wasn’t easy,” says Adrian. “We had a big indoor ring to practice in though, so didn’t lose any time because of the weather and the horses all shipped well.”
Adrian’s family have long been extremely well respected in the world of equestrian – his mother Rona held the record at the Hawke’s Bay Spring Show for decades for winning the open, ladies and hunters’ jump at one show. His father Pat was master of the Hawke’s Bay hunt through the war, while his uncle was Duncan Holden, the driving force behind the formation of the horse society, and his cousin Peter Holden was the winner of the first-ever Olympic Cup, which was held in 1953.
Every four years Adrian is reminded of the many wonderful people he has met along the way. “It is such a very special event,” he says.
These days his son has taken over the 250-acre certified organic farm just south of Hastings where they graze dairy cows whose milk is used to create award-winning organic cheese. It has been restoratively farmed for 27 years, with no spray or chemical fertiliser in more than 40 years.
It’s a quiet kind of life Adrian thoroughly enjoys, albeit there isn’t a horse in sight. He’ll be getting his fill of all things equestrian during the Games . . . and he can’t wait!
By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison