By Emily Riden
Let’s play the association game. Your words: Ben Maher. Chances are that words such as “winning,” “unstoppable” and “talented” all come to mind.
That’s because this winter, Ben Maher’s name became synonymous with success as the English show jumper led what many lightheartedly dubbed the “British invasion” of the Winter Equestrian Festival. In an unprecedented winning streak, Ben was victorious in a total of five Grand Prix during the 12-week circuit.
Add in a victory in the $125,000 Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup during Week V, a win at the $50,000 CSI 2* Live Oak World Cup Qualifier Grand Prix and a handful of other victories, and it’s no surprise that by the end of the season, many equestrian journalists joked that it would be more newsworthy to report only when Ben wasn’t winning.
At age 31, Ben has an Olympic team gold medal to his name and is currently ranked number two in the world (at press time). With top finishes at some of the biggest horse shows around the globe, the success is nothing new to Ben, but as is the case with most accomplished riders, it hasn’t always been that way.
From Shetland Ponies to Switzerland
To follow Ben’s rise to the top, the best place to start is the very beginning. Rewind 20 years to England and you’ll find Ben riding around his family’s garden on his own Shetland Pony — a pony purchased for him by his parents, who otherwise didn’t come from much of an equestrian background.
While they might not have had an equestrian upbringing, they knew enough to recognize a passion and talent for riding when they saw it, and they were quick to enroll Ben in regular lessons. “They encouraged me and gave me everything that was affordable that I needed to try, and do it. They gave me the best start possible,” Ben said.
With his parents’ blessing and support, Ben moved up the pony ranks in England and then advanced under the tutelage of British Olympian Steven Smith.
“I fell off at more lessons than I stayed on, but when I was 11 or 12, I started to have some success,” Ben said. “In England, it’s totally just jumping. We don’t have the short-stirrup or the equitation. I never even knew all of that existed.”
Ben continued, “The way that we do it in England, it gets you a very competitive edge early on because you are going in to win. You learn to ride jump-offs. I was riding jump-offs and flying around the ring when I was 11 years old.”
His experiences at a young age not only sparked his competitive edge, but also a love for the sport and the desire to follow it further. That’s why when Ben went to take the final exam of his school career, his bags were already packed and his mind was set on a career in horses. No sooner was his exam turned in than Ben was en route to Liz and Ted Edgar’s stable in Warwickshire, England.
“I left that afternoon. I took a working student type of job there for a year and a half or two years, and I’ve never lived at home since,” Ben said. “I had a great time when I worked for Liz and Ted. They gave me an unbelievable grounding and really more of a professional edge. It was the first time that I was in a professional stable and saw things running on a day-to-day basis.
“I had some of my first real experiences on horses there, but I always wanted more,” Ben said. “I really always wanted to go abroad. I was always watching show jumping on the TV and seeing Ludger Beerbaum, Marcus Ehning, Nick Skelton, all of these guys, riding. I just thought that there was more out there than what was possibly on the table for me in England.”
Ben wasn’t the only one who saw untapped potential abroad. Liz and Ted saw it too and gifted Ben with a two-week riding experience with another of their former students, Beat Mandli. For the second time since leaving school, Ben packed up his suitcase and left for an adventure that would change his life. The two-week riding experience in Switzerland quickly turned into a job, and Ben spent his next two years in Switzerland riding and working for Beat.
“I’d become one of his stable riders,” Ben said. “I was eventually given a set of horses, a lorry and a groom. We had to work very, very hard for it, but they were certainly some of the most fun years I ever had. There were no real pressures. I didn’t have any bills. I didn’t have any worries. I just had to get up in the morning and ride my horses. It was a fantastic start to my jumping career. It was a great time, and he’s a great trainer.”
A Turning Point at Age 22
Following his time with Beat, Ben returned to England to try to make it on his own, but business was slow to take off for Ben. That is until 2005, a year which proved to be the turning point of his career. At the age of 22, Ben became only the second rider ever to win both major events at Hickstead — the Hickstead Jumper Derby and the Speed Derby.
“I had a couple horses of my own, but I was struggling to kind of make a little bit of a business of it,” Ben said. “I went from struggling to make any money, and then I won both classes; all of a sudden I got some very low-level sponsorship from a couple of companies. They were my very first sponsors.
“In England, the Hickstead Derby is the class that everybody knows of even if they’re not horse people,” Ben continued. “They know about the Hickstead Derby, and they know about the puissance. I got a few horses given to me to ride after that because of the good publicity. It’s perhaps not the biggest achievement compared to an Olympic gold medal, but it was a turning point in my career. I often think maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today without that.”
The few horses that Ben was given to ride following his Hickstead wins snowballed into more rides and more sponsors, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Ben built up a string of world-class horses and quickly became one of the top British riders in the world. By the age of 26, he was ranked number one in his country, and he had broken into the top five in the world.
In 2008, Ben competed in his first Olympic Games aboard Rolette, and, in 2012, he returned to the Olympics, this time on a homebred mount, Tripple X III, and this time he went home with Olympic gold.
A Whole New World
Ben’s Olympic gold medal performance, his general riding ability and his resume over the preceding years caught people’s attention. In particular, it caught the attention of one key person: Jane Clark.
The former U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation President and CEO, and long-time supporter of equestrian sport, was searching for just the right rider to take over the reins on a few of her horses, and she liked what she saw in Ben.
“It was late 2012 when we started to talk,” Ben said. “Jane took a big risk with me in the beginning. Obviously, I’m not American. That was probably a shock to a lot of people. I was nervous even though I had a lot of experience. You can’t help but think that I was walking into a position that maybe many thought may not work or was a risk for Jane.”
It was a risk that has paid off tenfold. The incredible support of an owner like Jane has helped take Ben to a whole new rung on the ladder of show jumping success.
Ben took over the rides on Jane’s Urico and Cella prior to the start of the 2013 Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), at which time he bounced back and forth between Europe and Jane’s Wellington, Florida, farm getting acclimated to the new mounts.
“I was flying backward and forward every week to two weeks. I did a huge amount of air miles, and I really put in the work,” Ben said of his initial start with Cella and Urico. “George Morris was helping me a bit at that time to really get my feet on the ground with the horses so that we didn’t have the problems in the ring in front of everybody. It went great from the beginning. Jane’s been fantastic with me; it’s really sort of the perfect scenario if you like.”
That “perfect scenario” has resulted in numerous winning scenarios, and it was on the backs of Cella, Urico and Aristo Z, also owned by Jane, that Ben saw the winner’s circle during the 2013 Global Champions Tour and countless times at this year’s 2014 WEF.
“I’ve been very lucky my whole career so far. I’ve always had a number of horses to ride,” Ben said. “Up until 2012, I had some great horses, but they weren’t horses that perhaps I got to go and choose and try. They were horses that were given to me to ride, and we always just tried to make the best of what we had. Any that I had chosen were horses that were more of an investment and bought to sell on. They were all for business.
“The difference now with Jane’s horses is the horses are here for the sport,” Ben continued. “There are no wants here. Everything that is needed to get the best result is given. The team is unbelievable. The facilities are great. Even just coming down to the small things like the show plan and doing exactly the best plan for each horse. In the last year and a half, it’s been a whole new world for me. Jane has been an unbelievable supporter of the sport, and she still is. I wouldn’t be here now and enjoying all of this success if it wasn’t for her.”
While Ben credits the support from Jane for his recent success, he’s also quick to appreciate the journey that got him to the point he’s at today.
“I’ve had both scenarios,” Ben said. “It’s important that I went through that stage of not having such great horses. It really makes me appreciate everything that I have now.
“I think if you work hard enough, you make your own luck,” he added. “You make your own opportunities. I really believe that everybody has a chance in life at whatever they want to do. They just have to keep working and sometimes opportunities come around faster than others. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a lot of people support me in the last 10 or 15 years.”
Despite just coming off his winning season, Ben isn’t taking time to rest on his laurels. His sights are currently set on this year’s Longines Global Champions Tour and the 2014 World Equestrian Games, and he’s approaching them with the same work ethic and drive that’s gotten him to where he is today and that he hopes will keep him at the top of the sport for years to come.
“Jane knows that I’m prepared to work all hours that I’m given, and I’ll give 110 percent,” Ben said. “I certainly won’t ever go home thinking that I could’ve put more hours in. I can always do things better and learn from my mistakes, but it wouldn’t be from not trying.
“I’m in a position where I have great horses; I really appreciate them, and I will work hard to do the best for them,” Ben added. “Every morning when I wake up, I can’t wait to get down and ride. I’m hoping that’s never going to end.”