Behind The Stall Door With: Ringwood Sky Boy

Nov 10, 2020 - 7:57 AM

There are some horses who just have that rare, indefinable “it”—a special something that surpasses any quirks or unconventional traits and, in fact, turns them into superpowers. Tim Price’s 2018 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (England) winner Ringwood Sky Boy is one of those horses.

Almost laughably tricky as a young horse, the 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding (Courage II—Sky Lassie, Sky Boy) has nevertheless appeared time and time again at the business end of the leaderboard in the world’s biggest competitions. His accolades include three top-five finishes at Burghley, plus that big win, two top 10s at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials (England), a top-five placing at Luhmühlen CCI5*-L (Germany), completions at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event and the Pau CCI5*-L (France), and an Olympic appearance in 2016 in Brazil, though that would end, frustratingly, with a fall on the flat on cross-country.

Most recently he finished 14th at the Pau CCI5*-L, Oct. 21-25 in Pau, France.

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Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy. Tilly Berendt Photos

Though he’s not necessarily the most conventional of horses, that’s a big part of why “Ozzie” has become such a fan favorite. The big-hearted gelding, owned by Varenna Allen, Robert Taylor and Price himself, has such an obvious sense of humor and endless reserves of gumption, and when he finally took the Burghley title, it was one of those fairy-tale wins that felt, well, right.

But when you take away the (many) rosettes, who’s the complicated soul lying beneath? We headed to Mildenhall, a picturesque village just outside Marlborough, Wiltshire, England, to get to know the horse behind the FEI record.

First things first: he’s a little bit complicated.

To get to the heart of Ozzie and Price’s relationship, it’s important to understand the backstory. Price bought Ozzie as a 6-year-old for less than $4,000–a bargain for his type because he’d gained a reputation for being a bit of a bad boy.

“He came from Mel and Steve Jones, who are based in Ireland now and are great sourcers and producers of young horses. I’d definitely have another horse off them if I could,” said Price. “But he was called ‘The Bolter’ because, well, you know! He’d come in with a student of theirs and had proven himself to be a bit troublesome; there were all the sorts of stories you only tend to hear over a glass of something five years later! They’d never concealed anything from me; there were just so many anecdotes that they still kept coming up: ‘Oh, there was another time that Ozzie did this…!’ ‘Do you remember the time he bolted and jumped out of the yard?’ All those sorts of things.

“In those days I was a little bit known for taking on slightly troublesome horses, so they gave me a call thinking I might be interested,” Price continued. “He did, of course, have some appeal. He’s a good-looking horse, he’s athletic by design, and he has good attributes, so I took the chance.”

Initially, Price planned to put some mileage on the gelding and help him see the light before selling him on for a profit, but his plan didn’t exactly work out.

“I tried to sell him to the Brazilians, but they wouldn’t have him,” Price said with a laugh.

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Jonelle Price, Wesko, Ringwood Sky Boy and Tim Price.

With time, patience, and a little bit of compromise, he’s become something of a living legend, but there were plenty of wobbles along the way.

“It’s been a really fun and interesting journey with him and all his quirks,” said Price. “He’s one hell of a character. He’s learned to be a little bit more refined, but it’s not something that comes easily to him. By that, I mean his personality can get the better of him. When he was younger that could mean bolting up the drive and then standing at the top going, ‘Oh God, what just happened to us?!’ He genuinely thought it was both of us, that running away was something we just did.”

Sometimes, Oz’s antics would put him in the spotlight—for the wrong reasons.

“Back when Tweseldown Horse Trials [England] still had the racetrack, I was hacking around the warm-up chatting to Pippa Funnell, and he took off with me,” said Price. “He ended up jumping the drop rail onto the track, and I just dropped the reins and let him gallop until he relaxed and started to pull up. When I got all the way back down the racetrack there were three officials waiting for me, tapping their clipboards. I got in a bit of trouble for that!”

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He played a crucial part in Tim and his wife Jonelle Price’s engagement.

In mid-2010, Tim was sidelined with a broken femur, and friends of the affable Kiwi and his longtime then-girlfriend Jonelle used the quiet period to put the wedding pressure on.

“I had a bit of time to think about life, and I had a few elbows in the ribs from friends, saying, ‘Come on, boy,’ ” said Tim. “So I thought I should probably utilize this time. I needed to figure out how to sneak to London and buy a ring.”

But there was a problem: “It’s very difficult to conceal or hide any finances from Jonelle—especially back then, when every penny counted,” Tim said. “How was I going to get a bit of money and then surprise her at my leisure?”

As it turned out, Ozzie was the, admittedly unlikely, answer.

“I rang up a good friend and persuaded him to buy into a horse he’d never seen, and still to this day has hardly seen,” said Price, laughing. “I sold him as a bit of an investment, saying, ‘Don’t worry—give me this much for your share now, and then in a couple of years when I sell him you could get 500 pounds more.’ Then I took that money, went and bought a ring, and sprung it on Jonelle.”

These days, he’s part of the furniture at Mere Farm.

“He’s a character around the yard, and he’s the first horse I go and say hello to every morning,” said Tim. “He’s got his special scratches, where he does this giraffe thing with his neck. He’s just been here so long, and he’s so happy.”

If he’s not the center of attention, though, he’ll demand to be included in whatever’s going on in the yard, even if his input isn’t exactly needed.

“He’s a quirky horse who likes to be in the middle of all business; he’s got a very long neck and a long nose, and he sticks it out almost horizontal to insert himself into whatever’s going on,” said Tim with a laugh.

Though he’s no less quirky as a seasoned campaigner, now his unique attributes are among his greatest strengths.

“These days, I’m happy to have the energy in him and have him feeling as well as possible,” Tim said. “He’s in at night and out during the day, and he’s a workman, so when you ask something of him he wants to give it. Whether he’s fresh or not, he’ll knuckle down to the job.”

Ozzie enjoys his time off in the company of fellow five-star winner Wesko, known at home as “Dash,” and the pair can be found making the most of their spacious turnout at home in Wiltshire.

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Wesko and Saffron Cresswell (left) and Ringwood Sky Boy and Gussie Terry go for a hack.

He’s by the same sire as some of the sport’s greatest, and that shared parentage might have a little something to do with both his talent and his quirkiness. Ozzie’s sire is the Kedrah House Stud’s late Courage II, who was also responsible for Oliver Townend’s Ballaghmor Class and Jonty Evans’ Cooley Rorkes Drift—all great jumpers with occasionally challenging personalities.

“He’d jump off a cliff, and so everything’s been about careful management to get him inside a box so we can create consistency without ruining that,” Tim explained. “Anything I put in front of him, even if he’s jumping sideways through the air, and it feels like he’s about to crash, the one thing he’ll always do is jump. In the show jumping that’s been a bit tricky because on the final day he might be a bit tired and a bit strung out, and he’s built like that anyway, so when you go down these tough lines with a big old oxer to a short distance to a double of verticals you say, ‘Come on Ozzie, we need to sit and shorten a bit,’ and he just doesn’t think it’s possible. If anything, he gets even more strung out, and then the jump’s not there to save the day.”

Ozzie overcame the statistics to take his first five-star win.

When he went into the main arena at Burghley in 2018, it wasn’t so much a case of whether he’d have a rail down; it was how many he’d send tumbling. In his nine prior CCI5* completions, he’d only ever jumped a solitary clear round. On a day that saw just 8 percent of the field jump penalty-free rounds, Tim and Ozzie needed something more than luck.

But Ozzie’s time in the sun was due. He jumped a super clear round and took the Burghley title.

“My mentality was that it could be a 4- or 8-fault round, because that’s what I needed to think to stay relaxed. It was quite therapeutic,” said Tim. “I kept saying, ‘Look, he is what he is. I love him to bits, and he gives me everything on cross-country.’ Then I was able to go and relax and jump. Once we got over the first couple of fences, and he jumped them quite conventionally, I thought, ‘This is going to be OK.’ ”

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Ozzie with groom Gussie Terry.

Oz and Tim’s partnership is the result of plenty of time, lots of patience and a little help from their friends.

“I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of help with him. [Former Team New Zealand, now Team USA coach] Erik Duvander said to me from the beginning, ‘Ride him like a proper horse.’ That’s something I’ve taken with me for every horse I’ve ridden since then,” said Tim. “It’s a general respect for the horses and the job they’re trying to do for us; I think if you take that approach with them, you have more chance of getting the best out of them. That was a lesson that was very much borne from my trials and tribulations with Ozzie.”

The other major influence has been Tim’s show jumping trainer, Spaniard Luis Alvarez Cervera.

“He’s a show jumper, so he’s used to seeing proper jumpers; he’s got six Olympics’ worth of jumping experience himself,” said Tim. “And yet he sees Oz, a horse who’s not conventional or technically correct and has a lot of what some people might consider faults, and he never once criticized him or put him down. He recognized the qualities in the horse, and he found a way to get him to want to jump for us. That was an interesting journey that took some time, but it was all about getting Oz to take more responsibility for the job of jumping the fence. It wasn’t through any force; it was just a way of schooling him, like doing an exercise and then halting and reining back, which gave the horse a conscience of where he needed to be athletic and rideable. Three or four or five years later, we started jumping the odd clear round!”

Ozzie’s diet is as unique as his personality.

“He’s a bit of a funny eater because he’s a busybody. He wants to see what’s going on, so he gets distracted from his food and goes off it,” Tim said. “We’ve tackled that by spreading his feeds out. Someone comes up at 9:30 at night to give him his last meal. He also has some funny additions to his feed. He has half a can of Guinness twice a day and an egg, smashed with the eggshell, which comes from an old wives’ tale that it helps with their condition. I know it’s bizarre, and my brother Cam [Price, founder of Keyflow Horse Feeds, Tim and Jonelle’s feed sponsor], who does very high-performance feeds, rolls his eyes, but since I’ve been doing it, Oz eats his feed and really enjoys it. Fortunately, beer is FEI legal!”

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