After a “dream season” with her beloved horse, Lush, Madison Crowe is looking to throw her hat in the ring for the NZ three-day eventing team at the 2020 Olympics.
When Madison Crowe was six, her dad did everything he could to deter her from jumping on a horse.
A dairy farmer in Rakaia, on the Canterbury Plains, Richard Crowe was a rider himself – rising through the ranks of pony club, and later playing polo.
“He was the horsey one. But Mum, who isn’t horsey at all, wanted me and my sister to have riding lessons,” Madison recalls. “Dad was dead-set against it.
“He knew it was a tough sport. Ponies are levellers; you can never get ahead of yourself on a pony. And he knew how time consuming they were, too.”
Fast forward 20 years, and Madison Crowe is thankful her mum, Molly, won that battle.
While her elder sister gave up riding at 16, Crowe carried on to become the top three-day eventer in the country in 2019.
Both of her parents are now her most fervent supporters. “They very rarely miss an event,” she says. “Dad sold his ponies because polo was clashing with when I was riding and he didn’t want to miss out.”
In fact, Richard Crowe became so captivated by the equestrian world, he became a course designer.
“He’s very clever with a chainsaw so, as we grew up, he learned to build cross-country courses,” Madison says.
His signature is on a number of the courses at the National Equestrian Centre at McLeans Island in Christchurch.
The Crowes even supported their daughter’s decision to quit her career as an accountant last year, and become the head girl at Olympic equestrian Clarke Johnstone’s Matangi stables.
It wasn’t all about mucking in to help Johnstone. Crowe essentially wanted to spend more time with her own horse, Waitangi Pinterest – lovingly known as Lush.
What Crowe didn’t expect was that, a year later, people would be talking about her and Lush as prospects for the New Zealand three-day eventing team at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
What’s put her in that frame is a stellar season in the national eventing super league. She capped off a string of second places with a victory at the final show of the year – the New Zealand Three-Day Event in Taupo in May – propelling her to the top of the super league.
At last weekend’s ESNZ Eventing Awards, Crowe received a special achievement award – along with her closest rival and friend, Samantha Lissington, who finished second in the super league.
Lissington has just left her Matangi farm to settle in England with four of her horses, in her own bid to make the New Zealand eventing team for the 2020 Olympics.
Crowe is realistic that she is “definitely an outside chance” for Tokyo next year.
“But Lush is the type of horse that people will now look at for an Olympics, because she’s been so consistent,” Crowe says.
“And she’s strong in all three phases – consistent in dressage, and a very good jumper, very brave. So I think now she’s pulled off a strong result at Taupo, Tokyo could be a possibility.
“There’s obviously a lot that would have to happen before then. The strongest eventing riders in the world are from New Zealand, so there’s a lot that we would have to improve on. But it’s pretty cool that it’s being said it could be a chance for us.”
Crowe, who’s in the national talent development squad, had always planned that Lush would get to an Olympic Games, but her target was Paris 2024.
“I’m really lucky that Lush is still very young. She will be 11 for Tokyo and 15 for Paris, which is an age that’s still competitive,” she says.
With those Olympics on her radar, Crowe is also planning to head to the UK, where most of New Zealand’s top riders go to get the best of the strong Northern Hemisphere competition.
She will go with Johnstone, who rode at the Rio Olympics – finishing sixth individually and fourth in the team – and who is also aiming for the next Games. She’ll be working for him, but also competing.
“I knew if I was going to make the Olympics, I would have to go to the UK. But it needed to be the right time, the right horse and the right job to take me,” Crowe says.
“In the horse world, the UK is such a big place to get in lost in and it’s easy to end up mediocre. I don’t want Lush to be mediocre; she deserves more than that. She deserves to go with a plan.”
Crowe and Johnstone have the ideal working/mentoring relationship. As a young rider, Crowe moved up to the Waikato from Canterbury to work for him for a year in 2014. Armed with her degree, she then spent three years as an accountant in Hamilton, but was still coached by Johnstone. “I saw him every day,” she says.
“But this time last year, I realised horses were taking too much of a back seat. In the lead-up to a big show, I needed to take a few afternoons off each week, which didn’t really work if it was the end of the financial year, or GST was due.
“I wanted to make a full-time leap to be competing around the world at the new five-star level. So I decided to put accounting to the side, and Clarke was on-board with me coming back to work with him.
“I can confidently say it was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
Johnstone and Crowe are also good mates, who work and live together. “It’s amazing how much I’ve learned just shadowing him. He’s so generous with his time and knowledge, and I get to ride all of his good horses as well,” says Crowe.
“When I make a plan for my season, Clarke is just as involved. Lush is a priority for him, too.”
For Johnstone, Crowe’s win in Taupo – a CCI4* long-course event – was as good as victory for himself.
“I am hugely proud of her,” Johnstone told Show Circuit magazine after the event. “When she wins, I feel like I’ve won as well. It’s a very special relationship that we have, and it’s exciting. She has worked so hard and that’s why it was such a popular win.”
And it was a nerve-wracking win, too. Crowe and Waitangi Pinterest finished on equal points with Amanda Pottinger (daughter of 1988 Olympic bronze medallist Tinks Pottinger) on board Just Kidding. Crowe was judged the winner after a countback to the cross-country, where she was closest to the optimum time.
Leading into Taupo, Crowe had twice been the bridesmaid – second at the Land Rover Horse of the Year and at the short-format national eventing champs. It was, she says, a dream season.
She had learned from her years in Johnstone’s support team that, if he had ticked all the boxes in his build-up, there was “no reason he wasn’t going to win”.
“But I’d never had that mentality myself. Then, in the lead-up to Taupo, everything was going 100 percent to plan – every jump school, every gallop, every single training session was getting better and better,” Crowe says.
“With a horse, though, so much can go wrong. They’re animals after all, not machines.”
Only a year before, Waitangi Pinterest had missed the Taupo show after a freak accident. She had suddenly pulled up lame before another show, after a piece of wire pierced the back of her leg on the walk to the vet inspection.
The horse had to undergo surgery.
“We were questioning how she would recover,” Crowe says. “But she’s such a trooper. She has such a sweet and kind eye, and she tries so hard.”
In November, Crowe will take her “cool little horse” to Adelaide, to compete in the short-format 4*.
“I’ve qualified for the 5*, but I don’t think I’m ready yet. It’s easy to forget we are still inexperienced. We are aiming to get a solid result, some international exposure, and then see where that takes us,” Crowe says.
“I don’t want to stuff it up now! She’s too cool to risk. We just need to settle in.”