As Jonty Evans trotted into the ring at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton CCI**** (England) this spring on Cooley Rorkes Drift, the gelding spooked a little.
Evans took a breath, hoping he would concentrate, then turned down the long side, right into the crowd.
“He looked up and saw them, and thought, ‘Oh, I wondered where you guys have been,’ ” Evans remembered. “He’s so professional, and he loves the job, and he loves people. It’s all about his brain. The more people watching, the better he’ll go.”
It’s been exactly a year since Evans and “Art” finished ninth individually at the Rio Olympic Games for Ireland. At 45, Evans has spent his whole eventing career searching for a world-class horse like Art, who he’s brought along since the gelding was 5.
But when Art’s owners Fiona Elliott and Ann Nobbs decided they wanted to sell him this year, Evans scrambled to get the funds to buy him but came up short.
So a month ago, admitting it was his last solution, Evans started an online fundraising campaign to raise the £500,00 needed to keep Art in his stable.
On Monday, with an Aug. 10 deadline looming, Evans met his goal, ensuring that the 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Courage II—Doon-A-Ree Lass, Rachelle Comet) will stay with him.
“I’ve been at Hartpury [England] and the announcer, before I went into the dressage, said that a year ago we were at the Olympics. Now we’ve managed to raise the money. It’s a funny thing to have happened exactly a year later,” said Evans. “I’m really grateful to people who’ve taken this story to their heart and helped us out.”
Evans admitted that in the last few days before the deadline he wasn’t sure it would happen.
“A week out we were a long way down. The figures were pretty frightening, like we would need to raise 30,000 pounds a day if we were going to manage to secure him,” he said. “We had a large donation from a single person, and that really seemed to trigger people’s belief that it could happen. I was surprised by that because I always said all along that the money would be returned if we failed to meet the target. It was almost as though people got behind it when they saw this big amount come in, and it looked like there was a chance of making it. It seemed to take on a life of its own.”
In total Evans said just over 3,500 individuals donated money. His campaign was buoyed by the donation of £100,000 and another of £150,000, as well as several auction items.
Art’s ownership structure will be arranged so that he’ll be part-owned by the two people who put in significant donations, and the rest will be owned by the crowd fund. Evans hasn’t come up with a name yet, but is thinking about “Friends of Art.”
In part, it’s Art’s love of people that inspired Evans to dub him, “The People’s Horse.”
“We intend to do everything we can to make sure that everybody stays involved and in touch,” said Evans. “My idea behind it is that there’s a big family around it, and we’re going to have a closed social media group just for members. We’re going to have an email newsletter and various things we’ll do. Everybody’s hopefully going to get a lapel pin, so if they remember to wear it, to find each other.”
Elliott campaigned Art in his early days before Evans took on the ride when he was at the end of his 5-year-old year. Together they’ve represented Ireland at two Nations Cups—on the winning team at the 2015 Boekelo CCIO*** (the Netherlands) and the 2016 Fontainebleau CICO*** (France).
After such a great finish at the Olympics last year, the pair went on to place third after dressage at Badminton this year, but a mistake on cross-country cost them a top placing.
“Before him, to be honest, I’d ridden at four-star level, and I’d ridden at two European Championships, and I’d ridden some very genuine and honest horses, but not horses that were world class. To have a horse like him, I’m 45, and to be lucky enough to get him when you’re old enough to have the experience to produce him meant a lot,” he said. “I’m really glad I didn’t get him when I was 22 because I wouldn’t have made the right job of producing him. To have a horse like him that can be so competitive…what he’s done so far, alright, we had a little glitch at Badminton, but he’s only just coming now. He’s got more to show. His trot work is getting stronger, his changes are super. Having a world class horse means everything.”
The August deadline was originally so Evans and Art could represent Ireland at the FEI European Eventing Championships (Poland) on Aug. 17-20, but that’s up in the air now.
“We’re in discussion at the moment. There’s a great deal of concern about going. Because of what’s been going on the focus has been on raising the money. The focus hasn’t been on preparing for a championship,” said Evans. “I’m not entirely sure we’re going to go. We feel he’s a competitive horse, but if we take him, and we’re not prepared sufficiently; we’re not sure that’s fair on him. This has come from my team manager as much as me. I desperately want to go and represent my country, but we’re not entirely sure this is the best route. This wasn’t about securing the horse’s future just to do the European Championships, this was about securing the horse’s competitive future and to take him to Badminton next year and the main aim of coming to Tryon to do the World Games and qualify for Tokyo. I think maybe we have to look at the bigger picture.”
While fans of Art may be sad to miss him at the Europeans, Evans is hoping to target some fall events where more of his supporters can him, like the Millstreet CIC*** (Ireland) and maybe the Blenheim Palace CCI*** (England).
“It’s just been mindblowing,” said Evans. “It still is, to be honest, and that’s some of the reason behind the decision on the Europeans. It’s so much to take on that people have stuck their neck out and put their hand in their pocket and supported Art and I, and I cannot thank people enough.”