Interview: Matt Ryan Settles in Monmouthshire
PUBLISHED: 20:47 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013
The Australian Three Day Eventer and Olympic Gold Medallist Matt Ryan has settled in a small Monmouthshire village. Eryl Sheers spoke to her neighbour about his plans for Little Llandeilo Farm and his hopes of representing his adopted homeland
In the winding lanes outside the village of Llanddewi Rhydderch, near Abergavenny our neighbour's farm had been for sale for a few months when she arrived on my doorstep and proclaimed: "I've come to tell you who is buying our place and I want to see if I get a reaction. It is Matt Ryan." She definitely got her reaction as I spluttered and blustered the Victor Meldrew line: "I don't believe it!"
Matt Ryan is an internationally-known competitor in the equestrian sport of Three Day Eventing and a Triple Gold Medallist as well. Eventing is the ultimate equestrian sport as horse and rider have to perform in three disciplines; dressage, cross-country jumping, and show jumping. For those of you not familiar with the horse world an analogy would be to tell a keen tennis player that Roger Federer was to move in down the road. Having been a horse enthusiast all my life this news was amazing.
Matt is Australian but a great number of Antipodean riders base themselves in the UK because the standard of competition here is the best in the world. Matt has lived in the UK for the past 20 years and most of his serious competing has been done from Britain.
Matt and his wife Marie, also an event rider, duly arrived in Llanddewi Rhydderch in 2004 and set up their yard at Little Llandeilo Farm and they soon made it clear they were keen to become part of the community and their commitment to the area and their farm was one hundred per cent. Our lanes are now graced by perfectly turned-out equine athletes ridden by cheery young grooms and it is a thrill to see a horse that has jumped around Badminton just hacking along in a relaxed manner.
Matt was born in 1964, youngest of four brothers brought up north of Sydney "In the bush near the Hunter valley," Matt explains. His father is a vet (a Fulbright Scholar no less) specialising in genetics. His mother was born in Weston-super-Mare but grew up in India. Both were interested in horses, and so the boys grew up riding and competing in pony club events and local shows. Matt's first memory of riding is slipping off a pony while 'doubling'; another Australian phrase meaning two on a pony bareback. He can't really ever remember not riding, "As the youngest I just followed my brothers."
After school Matt trained in Land Surveying but in 1984 he was given the opportunity to work with Richard Meade, (originally from Monmouthshire) then one of the top Three Day Event riders and a Triple Olympic Gold Medallist. Richard had fallen at Badminton and so needed someone to ride and school his horses for him and Matt fitted the bill. Matt became part of the family and remembers feeding little Harry Meade, Richard's son, now a well-known eventer himself. In 1985 Matt returned to Australia and now there was family farm of 2,500 acres where he worked and rode horses 'part-time'. One of his tasks was to ride the perimeter fence which meant days in the saddle in all sorts of conditions and he recalls how once a cliff he was riding along disintegrated beneath him and he and the horse slid down into a ravine, the horse remaining upright and he remaining in the saddle - good training for the drops in eventing In 1987 Matt moved to be based with his brother Heath, who is an international Dressage and Event rider, at the New South Wales Equestrian Centre and in 1988 was chosen as a reserve for the Seoul Olympics Three Day Event team.
At the Olympics Matt thought that the standard of the Australian riders looked amateurish compared with the Europeans and realised if he wanted to succeed he needed to train with best which meant a return to Europe; so in 1989 he moved to be based full-time in the UK. He brought three horses with him and had a yard and cottage in Leicester. In 1990 he returned to Australia and while competing broke his pelvis and this necessitated a long stay in hospital and so he lost the yard in Leicestershire. However he eventually re-established himself in Wiltshire and in 1992 he had a successful Badminton when he came 8th riding Kibah Tic Toc and this led to selection for the Barcelona Olympics as a member of the Australian team. Matt and Kibah Tic Toc had a magnificent competition as they won individual and team Gold.
In 1996 he was again selected for the Atlanta Olympics but he had the shattering experience of his two horses suffering minor injuries and both were withdrawn from the competition. Disappointment at such a level must be hard to take.
Matt bounced back and was again selected for the 2000 Olympics with a horse called Kibah Sandstone, and this time, in front of a home crowd the team won Gold. Kibah Sandstone is now retired and lives at the farm although Matt did bring him out of retirement last year to perform at a charity open evening. In 2004 Matt and Bonza Puzzle were selected as a travelling reserve for the Athens Olympics but they did not get the opportunity to compete.
By this time Matt had met Marie and moved to How Caple near Ross-on-Wye. They were a little worried that they may have moved too far west as most of the international eventers live in the South of England and many events are in that area. They found, to the contrary, that as communications were good it made little difference getting to events. There was also more opportunity for teaching as there was no-one with Matt's experience in the area. In 2004 they had briefly thought about a return to Australia but Matt felt the Australian system was falling apart. There seemed to be no cohesive management, states were fighting, events being cancelled and no national system. They decided instead to look for a place to buy, access to motorways being a priority. They came to see Little Llandeilo on a crisp snowy day in February 2004 and were overwhelmed by the stunning views of the mountains (Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and Blorenge) and fell in love with the farm. Although nestling in the lanes it is less than two miles to a dual carriageway which leads onto the major motorway network.
Little Llandeilo was transformed into a bustling yard and in 2006 their daughter Millie Morgan was born. Matt's middle name is Morgan and - his mother's family name and they believe they are a branch of the Morgan family of Tredegar House. So really he has come home. In the last few weeks Matt has taken the decision to go one step further and change nationality and apply for British citizenship. This has caused great interest in the horse world as it means he will be able to compete for Britain. The Manager of the British Team, Yogi Bresner said: "It will be great to have someone of Matt's experience and calibre now available for the British team."
Matt has great plans for Little Llandeilo; they have already built a large outdoor school, a lunging ring, gallops and stables and have planning permission to build a further block of stables and accommodation for the grooms who currently live in mobile homes. There are five grooms at the moment and Matt's back-up rider Owen Cooper from Carmarthenshire. Eventing is a tough world and these young boys and girls often have to get up in the early hours of the morning to get the horses ready and then do a day's physical hard work as well, but it is obvious they all love the job. At the moment the overflow horses are kept at the next door farm so it brings a new interest to the farmers and they have become very involved in helping with the mechanical work at the yard.
Matt and Marie also have a breeding programme and hope to produce some top class horses under Matt's stud name of Bonza, the slang word for good in Australian. Matt's two Badminton horses both have the Bonza prefix; Bonza Puzzle was eighth last year at Badminton and the year before Bonza Katoomba was fourth.This year's Badminton did not quite go to plan. Matt was 15th after the dressage, a respectable position from which to launch an attack but although they were clear cross country Puzzle had a trip after a fence. Matt had to think quickly and take the long route which added 20 seconds to his time which put him out of contention. Frustrating after Puzzle had jumped so brilliantly over those intimidating fences. However there are the European and World Championships to come and of course London 2012. So the future looks exciting and the arrival of the Ryans has definitely added an extra dimension to life in Llanddewi Rhydderch.