“I’m Always Hoping I Can Have That Feeling One More Time”: Five-Star Horse Who Changed Lives Dies at 26

Two Tims and a horse who changed their lives. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

We’re sad to report that Keyflow NOP (Colonel Collins x Amatrics, by Alicante), the former championship mount of Dutch Olympian Tim Lips, has died at the age of 26 after an incredible career and a happy — though not entirely drama-free — retirement.

We were lucky enough to meet Keyflow last year at Lips Stables in The Netherlands, and even luckier to be part of an exciting reunion: due to travel restrictions at the time, Kiwi duo Tim and Jonelle Price were using the Breda yard as a stopover en route to Luhmühlen, which gave Tim, the ex-racehorse’s original rider, the chance to see the horse who arguably helped springboard his career after nearly a decade apart. For both Tims, it was also a chance to share in the happy memories of an elderly Thoroughbred who had changed both their lives in very different ways.

For Tim Lips, the impact Keyflow had was as a competitive partner. He was Keyflow’s final, most successful rider, and together, they tackled two European Championships, picked up a bronze medal at the World Equestrian Games, and finished in the top ten at Badminton – even though Tim didn’t originally think the horse was suitable for the task at hand.

“I was lucky to work with a horse like that in my life. In the beginning, we didn’t think that we could have a picture like this” — he gestures around him, at walls of expressive competition photos — “and I’d had Concrex Oncarlos [as my previous top horse], who had come to us as a good dressage horse. So after two weeks I said to my father, ‘I think we should send him back, because this horse is really nuts and he can’t jump!’ But because we’d got him from very good friends, we kept going.”

“For me, he was a really, really special horse, but in the beginning, if I hadn’t been paid to ride him, I would have given up. But because his owner Peter Eck did this, and it was my first time riding for an owner, I had to try — and actually, all my best horses have taken that time. You really need to learn each other and how to work together. With Keyflow, he had so much quality — but that didn’t make it easy for himself, as well. I always say that I need to respect the horse, but the horse also needs to respect the rider; he always wanted to go back to the stable, even in the outdoor arena at home. And out hacking, going away from home was okay, but coming back wasn’t so easy – my father went into a ditch with him one time, and I think 80% of horses would have fallen, but he was so brave to jump out again. But he could be a bit dangerous, too, and so only me and my father could go to gallop him or anything like that.”

Once they made their first competitive starts, though, Tim started to see what the horse was really made of — after getting an abortive first run out of the way in a national two-star class, in which they picked up a score of around 50 and two technical run-outs when Tim had to circle to regain some semblance of control.

“He was a bit crazy, but then he really surprised us. I never forget our second competition, which was just a low level competition, but that feeling… he had so much power. He really had something, and all the good horses I’ve ever ridden have had something that average horses don’t. They have to be capable in the body, but it’s also a mental thing — and it’s hard to train that. Either they’ve got it or they don’t.”

Part of what complicated the process was Keyflow’s pre-existing bank of knowledge and experience: by the time Tim took the reins, the gelding was already fourteen, and had stepped down to run at now-two and three-star level for a couple of seasons with Germany’s Anna Siemer in the irons.

“I think it took two or three years for us to really figure it out, and in the first two years, we didn’t have the results we really wanted. I’m a really different rider than Tim Price is; I’m probably closer to Anna’s style than to Tim’s, but you still have to take the time to get to know each other and get confident with each other.”

In getting to know one another, Tim found Keyflow’s Achilles heel: left-handed corners. On the flip side, though, he also discovered the horse’s greatest strength.

“Maybe it started a little bit in my head, but I knew that it was always a big risk for a run-out – and because he was fast, I also knew I could take the alternative route and still not lose to much time,” he says. “So then he didn’t run out anymore, and that was the moment where I finally felt I could start to jump bigger, more technical questions. I think if I’d kept trying to fix the left corner issue, we never would have the results we did. If you’re sitting on a Thoroughbred horse that can gallop and you know you can go from 30 seconds down to eight seconds down, and things like that, why wouldn’t you use that? It’s the sensible thing to do — and then I felt like I had the whole toolkit, and the results started to come.”

Tim Lips and Keyflow N.O.P. at the First Horse Inspection at Longines Blair Castle European Champs – could there be a more beautiful backdrop for an event? I don’t think so! Photo by Samantha Clark.

“We never won an international, but he was always reliable, especially for the Dutch team — you could really count on him,” remembers Tim. At his very best moments, Keyflow thrived by showing his grit and gumption – most memorably at an extraordinarily tough and wet Badminton in 2014, where he was seventh, and a similarly tough, bottomless week at the Normandy World Equestrian Games that summer, where he helped the Dutch team to a bronze medal.

“We live in a very different country to England, so we can’t make the horses fit with only hacking — we really have to gallop our horses and know how fit they are, and so we’ve trained with heart rate systems since 2010 or 2011. That meant that I knew exactly how fit he was, and it also meant I always knew exactly when I could go fast in the course and when I couldn’t. With Keyflow, I felt that he was produced to jump courses like Badminton – with a horse like Bayro, he was produced to jump Belgian courses with a focus on safety and profiled fences and things, but Keyflow was a horse that wouldn’t care if it was very vertical fences on a mountain. He knew how to jump it, and he made it feel very natural.”

That natural aptitude for cross-country was what helped Tim take colossal steps forward over the toughest of tracks.

“At Badminton in 2014, I was actually walking the cross-country for three days, and I still didn’t really know how to jump it because it was really, really tough,” he remembers. “And then when the first riders didn’t even finish, I thought, ‘oh, no, I’d better retire and go to Luhmühlen instead. It’s more fun, because I think this is not so fun’. But then my dad was the Dutch team coach at the time, and he was like, ‘this could be your day — you have a horse that can do this’. And he was right; it was the best course I’ve ever ridden. It felt so good, and now I’m always hoping I can have that feeling one more time. It’s not that I haven’t ridden nice courses on other horses, but nothing has ever felt so easy on the toughest track I’ve ever ridden. I look back, and there’s not one jump I would have done differently. It was really perfect.”

At the end of that extraordinary day of competition, which saw just 35 of the 83 starters cross the finish line, Tim and 18-year-old Keyflow would record the second fastest time — behind Tim Price and Ringwood Sky Boy. At that point in Tim’s career, the Badminton result was his biggest, best, and most hard-won moment – but he would top it just months later when he and his intrepid horse stepped onto the podium at the WEG.

“That really was such a special moment,” he recalls. “And with these incredible horses, the greatest thing they give us is the chance to collect memories.”

For Tim Price, Keyflow was an accidental purchase that became a lifeline, arguably springboarding the careers and livelihood of the sport’s most prominent power couple.

“Way before the idea had even been conceived of coming to the UK, I was down the bottom of my family’s farm in the South Island of New Zealand,” he remembers. “It was just a normal day on the breeding farm, but the day, we had a hedge trimmer there that was doing all the big hedges around the boundary of the farm. Down at the bottom, our farm bordered a neighbour’s that we didn’t have much association with on a daily basis; we’d see him maybe every month or so, just in the supermarket or something.”

“The horses in that field were hooning around and being larrikins, and Keyflow was one of them — although he was called Rocky back then. He was just a racehorse, four or five-years-old, by a well-known racing sire called Colonel Collins, whose offspring are known for being very tricky. He was in that category, and the guy who was training him had all but given up on him.”

“I was helping hold the horses while the trimmer was on the other side of the hedge, and the one I was holding was Keyflow,” says Tim. “The guy was telling me all about how he’d been a fairly disappointing racehorses and a bit troublesome in general to deal with, and then the conversation kind of finished with him saying, ‘well, you can have the bloody thing if you want.’ I was there in bare feet holding onto this horse and not really in that state of mind, but I was like, ‘sure!’ And I led him just by his halter, in my bare feet, all the way back up to our farm and chucked him on the yard and went to tell mum and dad what had happened.”

From the get-go, Tim found plenty to like about the sharp, smart gelding.

“He’s exuded athleticism all through his career, and at the beginning he was a typical Thoroughbred who wants to go and wants to do. We had a good couple of years in New Zealand before I decided it would be a good idea to put him on a plane.”

By that point, the idea of going to the UK had been very firmly conceived of: it was the early noughties, and Tim and then-girlfriend Jonelle had put all their limited resources together to travel with their horses, first around New Zealand and Australia, and then on to the UK, where they each bought a horse to tackle Burghley.

“There was a lot of back and forth in those days; we’d each bring a horse over, compete, leave the horses there, and then come back to New Zealand to earn a bit more money and deal with the other horses, and then we’d go back to England again to make another bid for the next six months — another Burghley, and then home again, regroup, and go back for Badminton. During that time, I was producing Keyflow and he was one of three of four I decided to put on a plane and bring over.”

Unlike the other horses Tim had been moving over, Keyflow wasn’t yet a Badminton or Burghley contender — instead, Tim had spotted a trend in the market that could suit his talented gelding.

“The last event I did with him in New Zealand, he did just enough to show that he had a bit of talent and was willing to be good enough,” he says. “The plan was very vague: I knew that there was apparently a market for New Zealand Thoroughbreds in the Northern Hemisphere, and he was the perfect example of a Kiwi Thoroughbred. He was sensitive, light, athletic, a great galloper and jumper, so I wanted to get him over and produce him to Advanced and four-star.”

“This was really the ducking and diving period of our careers, and he was one that we owned 100%, so of course he was always one we were thinking we could make a bit of money out of just to survive. So after Boekelo, we put him on the market — and although he went through a couple of riders before he got to Tim, it was really a cool experience to follow them once he did. It was the first time I’d been able to watch a horse I’d sold going under the hands and guidance of another top rider. That was fun.”

Like Tim Lips, Tim Price found something unique in Keyflow: he had the scope, ability, and brains to make even the toughest challenges feel manageable, setting a high bar for later horses to follow.

“I think he just found it easy at every level, and that’s always a fun thing to have in any horse. At that point, we thought that was something that was quite normal, but we’d since learned that that’s not always the case,” he says. “He was probably more limited by me being early in my senior career and not really knowing how to train a horse, especially in the dressage side and the jumping, although he was a good jumper. There’s definitely a few rails on his record that he wouldn’t have had if I’d known a bit more as a rider.”

“I always thought of him as a very beautiful horse; he moved better than your average Thoroughbred and he was very sensitive and light in the hand, but I liked that. He was just a pleasure to ride every day, and he did something for us, which was what we came over with in our pocket. It paid our debts, and it helped us stay alive for a bit longer. It gave us more solid footing, and a bit of a breather. It was so, so important for us.”

The Price family went on to commemorate Keyflow in a way that certainly lives on in the UK: Tim’s brother, Cam, runs feed company Keyflow, which sponsors a number of riders and events, giving the gelding a truly unique legacy in the sport.

Keyflow says hi, making this overtired journalist very happy indeed. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Remarkably, Keyflow continued to compete at the top level until he was twenty years old, bowing out from international eventing at Boekelo CCIO4*-L in 2016 with a top twenty finish. The busy-brained Thoroughbred wasn’t ready to hang up his horseshoes just yet, though: he continued to compete in 1.10m jumping classes for the next couple of seasons.

“Then we said, ‘okay, he’s 22 — we need to let him enjoy the field’,” says Tim Lips, who turned him out with then-25-year-old Oncarlos and another retiree. It wasn’t a success. “He really didn’t like it. The other two horses were together and then he’d only be walking the fence, like ‘I want to come in’, even though the old horses always come in at night.”

Tim and his team rejigged the situation, putting Keyflow in the paddocks reserved for competition horse turnout.

“If he was there between the competition horses, it was fine — he just felt like it was what he was used to, and he wanted to stay there,” says Tim. In 2020, though, the situation took a turn for the worse: Keyflow developed a problem with his left eye, losing much of his vision.

“He wasn’t totally blind on it, but he didn’t see so good, which he really struggled with in the beginning. We had a moment where we thought, ‘what shall we do with him?’ He wasn’t eating so well at the time, and he didn’t look well, and then I had a staff member who said, ‘well, why don’t you just put him down?’ I think they didn’t know how special he was; of course, you never want them to suffer, but I also wanted to give him a chance to live out his retirement.”

The solution came, as it so often does, in finding a solid female life-partner: Keyflow was turned out with four-star mare Wadolca, who’d been retired at fourteen after an injury, and the pair bonded immediately. Then, he got a second ‘girlfriend’ in the form of a young mare owned by Tim’s head girl Jillian Giessen, and after meeting her over the fence line, he was a new horse completely: “he’s sometimes screaming like a three-year-old stallion for her; you think, ‘where has this horse come from?!’ He never did this before.”

 

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“At the age of 26, we had to let go of our very precious Keyflow,” writes Tim Lips in a statement on his social media channels. “He was known to the public for his great achievements, and personally, our strong bond together was the most special thing. I am so grateful to him that he gave us that. Thank you, Keyflow, and a special thank you to his owner Peter Eck for this unforgettable time.”

Getting the chance to see Keyflow living his best life as a pervy old man with a very young girlfriend was truly one of the highlights of this journalist’s year last summer, and all of us here at Team EN send our most heartfelt condolences to Tim Lips and Tim Price, and all those connected with this one-of-a-kind Thoroughbred who had such an enormous heart. We hear there are no left-handed corners in horsey heaven, old boy.

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