Peter Holden will forever hold a piece of New Zealand equestrian history.
The now 90-year-old from Hawke’s Bay was the very first winner of the prestigious Olympic Cup. It was in Palmerston North in 1953 when he steered Starlight to victory, and he followed it up in 1957 aboard Rum. It is fitting it is the family name Holden on one of the nation’s most treasured showjumping trophies as it was Peter’s dad Duncan who was a founding father of the New Zealand Horse Society.
For many years there was confusion around whether it was Peter or Duncan who won the Olympic Cup, probably because it was the senior who with Starlight won the country’s first FEI class in 1951.
Peter’s mother Helen was also a top rider, winning the prestigious Burkner Medal as New Zealand dressage champion in 1959 with Bandmaster, and 1963 and 1965 aboard Bayard. Legend has it that Peter jumped plenty of fences before he was even born.
It was Helen who owned Starlight, but Peter who took the horse to new heights, including riding for New Zealand in the nation’s first showjumping team to Australia.
Sadly Starlight, a 16hh bay from a particularly good bloodline, broke down after the Australia trip and they bought Rum, who was owned by Heather Swarbrick. Heather and Rum were also members of the 1953 team to Australia.
“Rum was a real brumby and quite a character. He never stopped at a fence – he’d go through them but never hit the brakes.”
Peter and Rum went on to win many puissance.
Horses were always a part of life for the Holdens. “I was rather spoilt,” says Peter. He was riding to school at five, spend his summers at shows and winters on the hunting field where his father was master of the hounds. His parents ensured he had plenty of good input, attending Bolger schools and training with others in the UK. “I spent a lot of time at riding schools at the insistence of my dad,” he says.
He and first cousin Adrian White – New Zealand’s first showjumping Olympian – grew up together. “He was the brother I never had. We did everything together.”
They were both on that first team to Australia in 1953. “I think winning that first Olympic Cup cemented my place on the showjumping team. Starlight was a special horse but things were quite different back then. The fences were smaller and the rails longer and heavier. It took more to knock them off but people still managed to collect faults.”
Following his second victory in the 1957 cup, Peter hung up his spurs to concentrate on family and farming. He did continue to hunt with his own children but none of them followed him into the showjumping arena.
He loves heading HOY each year. “I do enjoy the camaraderie and catching up with all those you haven’t seen for so long.”
Peter never tires admiring the quality of the horsepower of today. Of course, watching the Olympic Cup is always the highlight of the week, and he has certain watched plenty over the years. His favourite win is perhaps unsurprisingly one of the great names in New Zealand showjumping – Maurice Beatson aboard Nationwide in 1984.
“Maurice had to go clear and the way he nurtured that horse around to win showed all his great skills. That for me is a round of the Olympic Cup that will stand supreme.”
girls don’t ride at the same time now, so it is easier to focus on one at a time.”
She can’t wait for the girls to progress to jumping. “As much as we love showing, the jumping will be fun. If they take a rail, then that decides the result. Showing is what a judge likes on the day.”