The Four Stars of Tom Crisp: Britain’s Under-the-Radar Superstar Reflects on 2018

Tom Crisp and the exceptional Liberty and Glory make easy work of a tough and influential Pau course. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Great Britain’s Tom Crisp has earned himself an interesting and impressive statistic this season: he’s the only rider to complete all four of the European four-stars in 2018. Two of those were on his top horse, the seasoned Burghley campaigner Coolys Luxury — he added a fifth trip around the Lincolnshire fixture to his copybook, just months after giving Tom his first Badminton completion — while the other two were on his Pau mount, Liberty and Glory. Owned by Tom’s wife Sophie and father-in-law Robin Balfour, the homebred eleven-year-old mare pulled off a remarkable sixth-place finish at Pau earlier this month, giving Tom his best-ever result at a four-star. In doing so, the pair made the biggest climb of the week, leaping 48 places up the leaderboard after their first phase standing of 54th (37.8).

Liberty and Glory, so named because she was born on the fourth of July, had rather more mixed fortunes at Luhmühlen, her four-star debut — an honest, green mistake meant that she missed a flag and then clocked up a 20 when she wasn’t quite sure what she was meant to jump next. But, nonetheless, she completed the competition and evidently learned an enormous amount in doing so, which allowed her to come to Pau at peak fitness and with the competitive maturity of a much older horse. For Tom, whose trip to Pau marked his twentieth four-star start, their top ten finish was the culmination of a long-held aim and an incredible amount of hard work.

“It’s always been a bit of a childhood dream to come in the top ten at a four-star against the best in the world,” he says. “She’s been unlucky with some of these little whoopsies so far this year, but I’ve felt so close to a big result with her, and it luckily all came together this weekend, which is nice for everyone.”

Armed with this considerable experience, Tom is in the best possible position to compare and contrast these four unique events, and so we decided to pick his brains about Pau and its continental compatriots. Someone get the man to Kentucky and Adelaide, so we can get the Crisp analysis of all six events!

“This year’s Pau course wasn’t as twisty as previous years — I thought it had a nice flow to it,” reflected Tom in EN’s analysis of the course. “As a course builder, Pierre questions the horse by using open striding. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? It just is what it is, really, and you have to go to Pau prepared for it. When in France, ride like a Frenchman; be open and attack the distances. Oddly enough it did work; there were certainly places where you’d walk it and think it wouldn’t, but it worked for me and it worked for most of the people who rode it positively.”

Tom Crisp and Liberty and Glory. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“Pau’s course was set in such a way that people would get round if they wanted to,” he says. “Luhmühlen was a little bit the opposite — you either jumped clear, or you walked home. There weren’t any particularly friendly options if you did have problems; you either had to choose a difficult alternative or jump the same fence again, and for whatever reason, it was never easy to get to the option you chose. It was the toughest course I jumped this year, just a serious challenge from beginning to end, and no options if you just wanted to complete rather than compete. You tend to see that, though — one year, a competition will be nice and easy, and the next, they beef it right up. Then it’ll quieten down a bit again. Each of the course designers have their own ideas, their own flavour.”

As if four CCI4* completions in a season wasn’t quite enough to be getting on with, Tom and his family saw their season punctuated by a catastrophic fire, which destroyed part of their East Sussex yard while they were at Luhmühlen. The cause of the fire was never confirmed, and fortunately, the barn’s residents were turned out at the time, but the ongoing rebuild has added an extra dimension to Tom’s busy schedule. Alongside eventing full-time and ensuring sons Harry and Hugo have plenty of opportunities to compete their own ponies, Tom works as a retained firefighter, too, and is busy building his own house. Despite all of this, he and his team regrouped and headed into their late-summer three-days without missing a beat.

Burghley has historically been a happy hunting ground for Tom, whose best four-star result prior to Pau was eleventh at the Stamford estate in 2014, aboard Coolys Luxury. With its long, stamina-sapping gallop stretches, its intense natural terrain, and its dimensionally massive fences, it’s a far cry from Michelet’s tight and technical course. This year, the final third of the Burghley course featured exclusively single fences — a new tactic by Mark Phillips that tempted complacency.

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Sitting 21st overnight after a clear round around one of the biggest and boldest tracks there is!! We're all super proud of Tom and Cooly! Cooly's looking great ahead of tomorrow, still dragging me around the field for the perfect spot to roll!! A massive shoutout to all our team, sponsors, owners and supporters, we simply wouldn't have these kind of opportunities without you all! With @londoncapitalandfinance @highwealdhorsehydro @baileyshorsefeeds #londoncapitalandfinanceplc #teamlcf #LCF #highwealdhorsehydro #baileyshorsefeeds #fedonbalieys #voltairedesign #voltairedesignuk #burghleyhorsetrials #burghley #burghley2018 #lrbht #lrbht18 #lrbht_official Photos thatlnkd to @equusphotouk

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“We all thought that the finish at Burghley walked very friendly this year, without anything too testing, but the horses made hard work of the last few fences. I don’t think you can ever underestimate how much that track takes out of them, though, particularly the long gallop up Winners’ Avenue towards the Cottesmore Leap. Even if there’s nothing technical, it’s always relentlessly big. At Pau, there was the big white table at 16, probably a couple of single fences that were up to four-star height, but every single fence at Burghley, even the let-up fences, are at the maximum dimensions. Whereas at Pau you can canter around the racetrack and think the fences don’t seem too big, at Burghley they’re eye-poppingly massive and physically demanding.”

Tom Crisp wins the Laurence Rook trophy for the best British rider completing Badminton for the first time. Photo by Kit Houghton/Mitsubishi Motors.

Badminton, too, offered a sufficient challenge — though for Tom, much of it was mental.

“Badminton was one of my best results this year, even if, at 19th, it wasn’t one of my best placings, just because it was my fourth attempt and me and Coolys Luxury actually completed. It had become a real nemesis for me,” he explains. “I really thought, ‘it’s just never going to happen for me.’ Last year I said, ‘I’m not even going to try again; I’m not going to put the horse through it; I can’t get him right and ready in the spring.’ And you listen to what people say, too, about your record with an event. It’s so easy to give up and to give in, but if you quit, it lasts forever. Pain is temporary. Trials, tribulations, all the hardships of eventing, they’re temporary, but giving up is permanent. You’ve got to push on, and push on, and there are times you feel like you don’t even want to do it anymore, you can’t do it anymore, why are you even doing this? But these are normal feelings, and we all have them, and it makes it all the more special when you keep digging and you find something positive at the bottom of the pile, and it all comes good. And that’s really what Badminton was.”

Tom Crisp and Coolys Luxury at Badminton. Photo by Kit Houghton/Mitsubishi Motors.

It’s easy to forget, when we’re not the ones in the irons, that much of what makes the eventing game such a tumultuous one is the mental battle that must be fought, often before an event is even entered, and then over and over again on the way to triumph or disaster. It can make it rather hard to quantify what makes a course fair, or tough enough, or readable enough, but it can also turn statistics topsy-turvy, too.

“Lori goes into next season with a combination of Pau and Luhmühlen to take forward — it’s all experience, and it’s all progression. Luhmühlen didn’t look good on paper, but it prepared her for Pau more than anything else. It was a good round for her, and we learned that she can dig deep, and if things go wrong she doesn’t take it badly — she just keeps thinking forward. I thought then, ‘this horse is going to get some really good results; I know this horse is capable,’ and I felt so excited and positive about it. But in eventing, and especially at the four-star level, it’s all narrow margins — you don’t have to do a lot wrong to have a 20 slap you in the face; sometimes it comes down to not doing enough right.”

Robin Balfour, Harry Crisp, and head girl Amy Akehurst with Liberty and Glory at Pau. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

This is a particularly familiar concept for anyone who’s trained or competed a quirky horse. Tom’s wife Sophie initially produced Lori to the BE100 level, and Tom took the reins in 2015 to make the move up to Novice and one-star. By the end of the next year, she was an established Advanced competitor. Often, the road to the top is punctuated with a variety of potholes; for Lori, these manifested themselves in her formative years.

“She’s always been a little bit funny; the first time she went cross-country schooling, she just laid down and wouldn’t go anywhere. It took her an hour to get in the water the first time. Sophie really struggled with her — she used to refuse to leave the start box. At the beginning I said ‘look, let’s just get rid of it,’ but she’s always been a textbook jumper and a flashy mover, she just wouldn’t apply herself. So I just took all the pressure off her, never used my legs or spurs, and then we just clicked from there. We get along well, although she’s still a funny thing — she doesn’t let just anyone into her stable, and she can’t be tied. She even fractured her skull once while she was being plaited because she didn’t like that she was tied up.”

Strip away the pressure, work with your horse’s natural tendencies, and take it on the chin if it doesn’t go to plan: Tom Crisp has developed an formidable battle plan – and a good sense of humour – over his years in the industry. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Removing the pressure and nurturing that innate spark has created an impressive competitor: Lori attacked the Pau course with aplomb, opening her stride to find those famously French forward distances. Earlier in the week, Tom had half-joked that the diminutive mare was his FiscerRocana — on Saturday, it was easy to see why. Now, he has a result in hand that proves that his faith in the horse was well placed. Sometimes, he stresses, it can take all too long to get to that point.

“You can be confident in knowing that your horse is capable, and you’re capable, and on a good day, everything will come together and the results will follow. It’s all a bit of a mind game — you know you can do it, and you know your horse can do it, but if you let the occasion get to you, or the placings get to you, or people’s expectations, or anything, really, it allows that bit of tension to creep in and that’s enough to block the communication between you and your horse. You’ve got to relax and do what you know you can do but that’s sport, that’s the beauty of sport, that’s what we love about it. The occasion, the expectations — it’ll always mean something.”

Tom and Lori at Pau. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Though outwardly cool and calm under pressure, Tom recognises that those moments — and those good days — are worth celebrating, though he’s not immune to that age-old sportsman’s curse: he’s already hard at work and looking ahead, trying to set himself up for an even better 2019.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, to be honest — you sort of think, ‘my god, a week’s gone by already,’ and that’s that; it’s already history,” muses Tom on his incredible end-of-season result. “I’m never satisfied; that’s my mindset — I’ve got a good placing, and no one can take that from me, butI’m already thinking about next year: what I can do, the horses I’ve got coming through the ranks, how I can improve. But that’s kind of a self-destructive way of thinking, isn’t it? Never being satisfied with what you’ve done — that’s such a familiar trait for sportsmen.”

Tom Crisp and Liberty and Glory at Pau’s final horse inspection. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

One of the most impressive things about Tom, other than that endless tenacity, is the self-awareness with which he tackles his role in the sport. While the impetus behind his drive to succeed might be the horses themselves, he takes some of his inspiration — and those moments of calm contemplation — from an unlikely source.

“I really love watching golf, and I think there are some comparisons that can be made between the two sports,” he explains. “Winning the Masters in golf is so rare; you see some players who have been out there for 30, 35 years, and they’ve always been in the top twenty or so, but they’ve never won a Masters. Then, all of a sudden, they come out and they win it, and it’s so lovely to watch. There’s a few stories like that, and you can always see just how much it means to them. They must have thought they’d never achieve it. But you’ve got to have goals, no matter how impossible they might seem, or what are you working for?”

For Tom, with twenty four-stars under his belt and so many years already spent chasing his goals, it looks as though the very best is yet to come. Go Eventing, and go Team Crisp!

You can keep up with Tom and his team on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, or check out his website for information on forthcoming clinics, training opportunities, horses for sale, and much more.