When Rowan Willis came to the United States in early 2018 he didn’t plan to stay much more than a year. He had work and horses waiting for him in England, where the 40-year-old Australian has been based since his 20s. But two years later, after finishing 12th at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) on his mare Blue Movie, Willis is still living in the U.S., and he isn’t sure about his plans going forward—especially with complications from the COVID-19 crisis.
In the meantime, he’s focusing on what’s left of the summer show season. His most recent win came aboard the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood Diablo VII in the $75,000 Tryon Resort Grand Prix at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina, on June 21.
We caught up with Willis to learn more about Diablo VII (Douglas—Lundy, Cavalier), what he’s been up to during lockdown, and what his plans are for the rest of the year.
How long have you had Diablo VII? What was it like to be riding in a big class after such a long break?
I bought him early last year in partnership with Lucinda Huddy, who I met at the WEG in 2018. It was very nice of her to support me and invest in Diablo to help me and help take the pressure off of Blue Movie. It took me a few weeks to get back in the swing of showing, but Diablo’s been great. He’s got a powerful jump, and he’s very careful. It was great to be jumping under the lights again; it wasn’t the biggest field, but it was a strong field, so it’s always good to jump against competitive riders. It makes you up your game.
What was it like showing with the new COVID rules for masks and social distancing?
It was fine. I think everyone’s just glad to be back out competing. I think everyone’s gotten used to wearing masks over the past few months, and we’re all a bit distant when we’re at the horse show anyways. It’s great to get the sport going again.
What made you want to come ride in the U.S.?
I’ve always wanted to compete over here in some of the big shows with good prize money. It’s good to experience the show jumping over here because it’s very competitive, but it’s also good to get some contacts and travel around America a bit.
Where are you based?
That’s a good question. I was based in Ocala [Florida] over the winter. Then we came up here to Tryon three weeks ago, and we’ll probably head to Saugerties [New York] next. I’m living on the road a little bit at the moment, just traveling and seeing what happens.
Are you planning to go back to England?
I’m not sure. I’ve still got quite a few young horses in England, and that’s where most of my stuff is, so I suppose I do plan to go back, but things have been going well over here, so I’ll stay for a bit longer. I did have a plan for up until Tokyo, but that’s fallen through, so we’ve kind of gone from Plan B to C to D.
What has surprised you about life in the U.S?
Well, the shows are a bit more expensive, but they’re run well and organized, and the prize money on offer is incredible and great for the sport. There is a lot of distance to cover between the shows. Like, when I first heard there weren’t many riders in Michigan I was like, “Oh, maybe I should go to Michigan!” without realizing how far away it is from Florida.
What do you miss about Australia?
I miss my family and friends in Australia; it’s always hard to leave that. The way of life there is more relaxed than in the U.S., but unfortunately the sport isn’t where it is over here.
What have you been up to during the lockdown?
Not too much. I have eight horses competing right now, including three I brought over from England. Normally I have about a dozen, but I’ve backed off a little. We’ve all been taking it a little easy. Diablo got a well-deserved break, and we got some embryos out of Blue Movie.
How many foals are you hoping to get from Blue Movie?
We’ll see! I’ve got one foal from her at Sterling Equestrian in Lexington [Kentucky] by HH Copin Van De Broy. I also have one embryo by him and another by Natalie Dean’s Don’s Diamant. Both of those stallions are proven, and I think [they] will be a good match to her.
Have you always been interested in breeding your own horses?
Kind of. I don’t have many, but it started when I bred some back in Australia from my young riders horse. I think if you have a good mare it’s a good start, and these days with the price of horses, it’s getting difficult to buy everything, so it’s nice to produce them yourself. It’s a bit of a long process, but once you start and can keep having them come through it works out.
How are you dealing with the uncertainty around the Olympics?
It’s been difficult. I’d been aiming for [the Longines FEI] World Cup Finals [Las Vegas] and then Tokyo, so it was disappointing to have that fall through, but now we’re all kind of taking every day as it comes. My strategy is to have a plan in the back of my head but be open to change.
News broke recently that Equestrian Australia has entered voluntary administration after losing funding from Sports Australia. How does that affect you?
I don’t think it affects me too much. They’ve been having some internal battles for a while, so maybe it’s a good thing to try and start everything again. I try to just stick to my own plan, concentrate on my horses, and if they’re jumping well hopefully we can help the team.