Event rider Will Furlong on how his career began and Olympic goals
- Credit: JIm Holden
This year Will Furlong was the second youngest rider to compete at Badminton. It was just the latest landmark in an already illustrious career for the Battle-based equestrian
In May, 23-year-old Will Furlong was the second youngest competitor to ride at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials. It was an extraordinary milestone in a career already marked by considerable achievement. What makes it especially remarkable is the fact that Will didn’t sit on a horse until the age of 10 – and even then he wasn’t overly impressed: “I wouldn’t say I came from a particularly horsey background,” he says, speaking at his home yard in Battle. “My mum competed but just for fun, and my dad has never ridden a horse in his life.”
It wasn’t until he tried riding again months later that he was bitten by the bug. He got his start in eventing through East Sussex Pony Club, competing in his first British Eventing competition in 2008 before rising through the ranks of affiliated competition, winning individual bronze at the 2013 Junior European Championships and then winning double gold at the Young Rider Europeans in Strzegom, Poland in 2015. Last year he won the under-25 National Championship, which came as something of a surprise: “It was the first attempt at that level for both me and my horse. Although I wanted to be competitive I didn’t necessarily think we were in with a chance, so it was a bit of a shock.”
It’s clear that Badminton meant something special: “Although I’m still young it feels like it’s been a long journey. It can take people a whole career to get there so I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do it sooner, but there have been a lot of ups and downs along the way.”
Young though he is, Will’s approach to his career is serious and strategic. Also a promising young hockey player, he represented England at under-16 level before the pressure of competing at such a high level in two different sports began to tell on him. He sat down with his parents and weighed up his options, with eventing coming out on top. And while they are totally different disciplines, he does feel that hockey has informed his riding: “I’ve taken a lot of what I learnt from the hockey in terms of commitment, attention to detail and how to be successful as an athlete.” But, he says, “the vast majority of riding is competing as an individual. The eventing spirit is very good and I have a lot of friends there but at the end of the day you are competing against each other.”
That competitive spirit extends to what limited free time he has. “To be perfectly honest I do spend the vast majority of my time riding, although I do try to get away from it as much as I can. While I’m still trying to make a name for myself it’s all hands on deck.” That being said, he still plays hockey with an old boys’ club at his former school in Kent, enjoys making the most of his Brighton and Hove Albion season ticket when he’s not competing, and he has run the Brighton half-marathon for the past few years.
He points to the 2013 Junior European Championships as the moment his eventing career began in earnest: “I wasn’t expected to do as well as I did so to come away with an individual bronze medal surpassed expectations. That was probably the moment when I realised I was hopefully talented enough to pursue this as a career.
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“I hadn’t really had aspirations to go to university but that gave me confidence in the fact that I was doing the right thing.”
With prize money in the sport not enough to sustain a career by itself, riders have to represent a compelling investment to sponsors and supporters alike. Only recently Will faced the prospect of losing his best horse, Collien P2 (also known as Tinks), but managed to put a syndicate together in the nick of time.
Will and his mum Lou run Ingrams Eventing from their home near Battle, offering riding lessons and livery as well as having their own breeding programme which they started five years ago. “We are reliant on different streams of income to keep it going, and alongside that there is sponsorship and supporters. It is quite complex and I hope as the sport moves with the times, the prize money will increase,” he says.
“We started breeding five years ago and our oldest ones are just coming through now. It is definitely a long-term strategy. There are not many people breeding event horses so if we can do it well it is potentially a good income stream for us. By having these different income streams we are sharing our eggs among a few baskets – we’re not completely reliant on one thing alone. Horses are unpredictable and they tend to find ways to injure themselves or get sick. You have to be quite realistic.”
While he believes that there are plenty of opportunities in the sport for those willing to work hard and get their hands dirty, he acknowledges that for those with fewer resources, the ascent up the ranks might take that much longer. But he underlines that support isn’t only financial: “It’s all about having a team behind you, whether that’s your parents or your friends: people who are willing to travel, spend their time driving a lorry when you can’t, or help in a practical way.” He also thinks the sport has become more inclusive since London 2012, with more investment at a grassroots level.
As for what his own future holds, Will is looking forward to competing at Hickstead at the BHS Royal International Horse Show (24-29 July 2018) as part of the MS Amlin Eventers’ Challenge. “Hickstead is just over an hour away from us so it’s our local show centre. The buzz that you get there is fantastic and you have everybody cheering you on. We actually lost the challenge class from the schedule for a couple of years so it’s fantastic that MS Amlin brought it back. I think it’s a favourite in the eventing calendar and also for spectators – there are lots of thrills and spills. It’s one I look forward to every year.”
Beyond that, his sights are firmly set at the very highest level of the sport. “I’ve got a good string of horses at the moment and I’d like to be in contention for a senior spot, whether that’s at the European Championships or the World Equestrian Games. Long-term we are looking at the Olympics.
“I think 2020 will be too soon for me because it is very much a sport where experience means a huge deal. It’s a sport with longevity and you don’t have to be a teenager or in your low 20s to compete.
“It’s nice there’s a longevity to the career but it makes it harder for us younger riders to make our mark. Hopefully we’ll be looking towards 2024 in Paris as a long-term goal and in the years building up to that I can cement my name as a regular senior rider. But as I said, horses are unpredictable and a lot can happen very quickly, both for better and for worse.
“I’m still taking it one step at a time and keeping my feet firmly on the floor.”
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