“You have a choice and only one life to make it happen. You cannot get back time. I am going to do what I want to do when I want to do it.”
Ben Hobday, 2015’s most fascinating Eventer.
Seven years before he was afflicted with the disease himself, his fight against cancer began when his yard manager Diane Lee was going through cancer treatments. She was losing her hair and she suggested to him to shave his head. Ben gladly did it to draw attention to the cause and raise money for cancer research. At the time, his mother was also in remission with cancer.
Ben Hobday’s cancer diagnosis in June of 2015 was a hard knock. Unfortunately, at only 27 years of age, he was already very familiar with the disease through sharing the experience with close friends and family members who were battling it before him.
An Eventing social media sensation for the past few years, you couldn’t help but be entertained and inspired by Ben and his mounts. We might not have noticed that his accounts had become silent for a month, but when his Tweet hit the airwaves on June 30th, eventers around the world were gutted.
— Ben Hobday (@BenHobday) June 30, 2015
In true Eventing community style, the masses united and an overwhelming sea of support washed over Ben with thousands of messages of encouragement and healing wishes.
Over the last few months, Ben has been sharing his recovery journey with us on social media with poise and grace. Cancer sucks for everyone, however, when a professional athlete gets cancer, recovery is a little more difficult because you rely on your body to make a living. With focus and tenacity Ben has made amazing strides after intense chemotherapy. He is back in the saddle way sooner than many thought possible and planning his 2016 competition schedule. In a one on one conversation with Ben, his charitable mindfulness, optimism and resolve is very motivating. Life can be very random and after speaking with Ben he made me realize that how you deal with the good and the bad is how you prepare for the unexpected.
It all began with naughty ponies
Like many professional eventers, Ben’s first riding experiences were with difficult ponies. His first pony came into his life when his family took it in from a horse sanctuary. It was not a good pony by any stretch and he remembers people laughing about it. At a very early age, this fueled Ben’s competitive spirit. He says, “It sort of gave me the drive to go out and beat everyone and that’s where it began really.”
His next pony came as part of a barter deal as payment to his father for labour for the work on a client’s kitchen. Ben’s reputation for being able to train naughty ponies became a lucrative business earning £300 to £400 a week, while he was still a kid in school. But at that point of his life he admits, “I was quite obsessed with winning and not even money at that age.”
Although his local Pony Club was not one of the bigger chapters, it did provide him the opportunity to attend the Pony Club championships. He credits his Pony Club experience as the foundation for his professional career, “I was lucky I had a lot of training when I was young and rode as much as I could.”
Pippa Funnel – His hero
To many young eventers, Pippa Funnel is an out of reach legend, managing to be the only person ever to win the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. She has to her credit a slew of medals and of course we cannot forget the video games!
So you can only imagine the restraint that poor 17-year-old Ben had to muster when on a ferry ride to Ireland, Pippa sat next to him and offered him a job.
It was a little bit awkward because Ben’s boss was sitting opposite him. He says. “I had a big grin on my face but couldn’t do anything. Later that year, she offered me the job again and I didn’t have one so I bit her hand off and said for sure. I got a phone call from her husband, Will and it was him I went to work for on the jumping side of the business. It was amazing to work for my heroes.”
The year that Ben went to work for the Funnells, he had been selected for the World Cup program in Great Britain and he had to have an interview with one of the selectors. After working for a couple of weeks, Pippa took him aside and suggested that they go to the pub and she would give him some tips about the interview process and what he should say.
Ben was certainly impressed that Pippa would take time out to help him and he admits to being a little star struck. He says, “So off we went after work and sat in the pub and I couldn’t believe it, Pippa is my hero. I remember looking her in the face and I had a pint of lager in my hand. She had I think, a gin and tonic or something and I said ‘Pipp can I just say to you I’m sitting in front of PIPPA FUNNELL.”
Pippa just started laughing and they have been really good friends since. For Ben, she has been an amazing mentor and between her and William they gave him a really good foundation on how to produce young horses. Ben says, “That is key for anyone that wants to take up this job or trade. If you can make your own horses, your own superstars, you will have a better horse and you will probably make more money out of it. You build up a partnership and that is the reason Pipp is still at the top now, as she is so good at producing young horses.”
Life after Pippa
While working at the Funnell’s yard, Ben was offered a very good job to be based at an owner’s yard. With the job came a couple of Advanced rides. He went from riding ten horses at Pippa’s and mucking out ten stalls, to riding three or four horses and not doing a lot. However, it was not quite what he expected. He explains, “When someone says, ‘we have a few Advanced horses here and a base’, it sounds good but you row your own boat and have to make your own opportunities. It did not quite work out. From there I started my own yard and started taking on people’s horses and built up my own name producing my own young team.”
Ben completed his first four-star at the 2010 Pau on Gun-A-B-Good. Ben recalls, “He was a very nice horse. He lacks talent in a lot of ways; he did not jump very well. We made the best of what we had and he had a really big heart. I travelled with a very good friend of mine, Georgie Spence. That is actually the first and last time I will ever travel with Georgie. She is a great friend but people deal with pressure differently. I am a very positive person and Georgie will admit herself, she gets quite nervous and doubtful. I remember starting the cross-country after spending a bit of time with Georgie, thinking my god I’m going to die. Luckily, I got out of the start box and got back to my usual self and had a good round. Now I make sure I do everything my own way and take my own box. If we have a certain routine we make sure we stick to that system. It helps the horses and my mindset.”
Placing 24th at Pau, from there they went on to compete at Burghley in 2011 and 2012 with unexpected results.
Gun-A-Be-Good…er than anyone could have imagined
“I had one of the best rides I have ever had on Gun-A-B-Good at our first Burghley in 2011. He just cantered around, for me. Burghley is one of the biggest four-stars out there. At every fence, if you got it wrong you’d be on the floor. If they weren’t technical they were massive. He gave me a great ride. He was a very weak show jumper and I said to my mother after cross-country, ‘We had a great round and the horse has never jumped clear at a three day before so lets enjoy this moment.’
So with no expectations for the show jumping phase the next day, Ben went out celebrating with his friends and had a few drinks. Everyone was advising him to get to bed and being quite certain he would have at least five down the next day, he chose to enjoy himself. He says, “So that was that. I came back early in the morning, checked the horse and he was fine and jogged up all good. When it was time for show jumping, I thought here we go so lets just enjoy this. In the collection ring he had every single fence down. Then we went in the ring and he wouldn’t touch a thing and jumped a clear. That year, there were only three clear rounds at the entire show. I was the only male British rider to jump a clear.
I did not by any means at that point think I made it, because I still don’t feel like that. But it was a good achievement, with a horse that everyone had written off. He had jumped double clear around the biggest track there was. It opened my eyes to that maybe with a little TLC and time, any horse could do this with the right attitude and training.
Defying the odds
The following year they went back to the 2012 Burghley and again, Ben cautioned his mom to not expect anything. Ben recalls saying to his mom, “Look we are probably going to be disappointed tomorrow. He had a clear round last year but he never does that, lets just enjoy ourselves.” He adds, “The horse did a better dressage, the cross-country was wetter so that took a lot out of him but he show jumped a clear round again. People said, ‘Ben it is not going to happen twice’ and I said it is not about that.”
The horse again had all the jumps down in the collection ring. “But I had a quiet confidence, I don’t know why, but he jumped his second clear round at a three-day and it was again at Burghley. My groom and my mom were both crying their eyes out. Everyone that had an association with the horse was crying. We were not in the top ten but the horse that could not jump had jumped another clear.”
“That year we were actually the best under 25 and won a lovely tailored jacket.”
Ben has certainly enjoyed some highs in his career and challenges like every Eventer but this year he was dealt a big blow impacting his career, livelihood and life.
Looking back he says, “I was feeling quite lethargic. After Tattersalls in May, I went to the hairdressers on a Friday before a show and I noticed that I looked like I put a bit of weight on. But it was my right neck glands that were swollen.”
Ben went to the doctor a little bit concerned and he was initially diagnosed with glandular fever or mumps. So he tried to take medical advice and rest but decided to go to Bramham and compete. It was not that noticeable, but some people did point out his swollen appearance. He returned to the doctors for more check ups after that and they said again it was glandular fever and just to rest.
Ben decided to go to Newcastle to his girlfriend’s place to take it easy. Ben started to feel a little more concerned and sought further advice from a doctor that knows his girlfriend’s family. This doctor advised him to get to the hospital immediately for a check up with experts that specialize in head and neck cancer. He was told that he needed a biopsy and that it was cancer, an abscess or a cyst. Unfortunately, it was not the outcome Ben wanted. “The good thing was they got the biopsy done quickly and the results. I got the phone call on Monday morning and I drove up to the hospital immediately. They gave us the news and an hour later I was in a hospital bed starting my treatments. I am very grateful to the team of doctors and nurses who worked endlessly. It was an aggressive type of Lymphoma called Burkitt non-hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
The doctor explained to Ben that his treatment would be intense and he must remain in the hospital for six weeks. He had four cycles of chemotherapy. He was allowed out of the hospital in-between some of those cycles but he had to stay within 20 minutes of the hospital. Sometimes he developed infections requiring him to return to the hospital.
“Most of the time I spent sitting in the hospital doing nothing, while they pumped me full of juice trying to fix me,” he says. “I thought I would watch some TV but it is surprising how bored you get of that really. I am not a big reader; I only read horsey stuff. So I kept up to date with all the horse stuff. The first few weeks were quite difficult sleeping and the thing that saved me in my mind, was that I was very fortunate to get lots of messages from people. That really filled my days.”
It was an emotional roller coaster reading the messages. He says, “It is a tricky one because I got some messages I did not want to read. I have learned that cancer is a bad thing and makes you suffer, but a lot of people overcome this suffering. There are a lot of things the doctors are doing that work so you can look forward to the rest of your life. A lot of people messaged and said, ‘I had this and I had that but I’m fine now’ and they really picked me up because other people I know die of it. It is hard to hear but at the end of the day whether it is cancer or you get run over by a bus, you are going to die one day. You just have to enjoy the days you’ve got and think positive and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Cancer is one of those diseases that everyone knows someone with it but we are at a loss for words and do not know how to talk to our friends and family members who are afflicted. Ben advises, “Treat people like they are normal. I remember when I came out of hospital that I felt conscious because I did not want people to look at me and think oh he’s ill. Not everyone is like me, but what helped me was talking to people and being as normal as possible.”
The love in his life
Ben credits his girlfriend Emma for getting him through his darkest times in 2015. “Emma was in the hospital every day with me. She has been an absolute rock to me. I try to keep an upbeat attitude but you cannot do that all the time. When you are stuck in bed all day and all night, it is hard. She was there by my side every day and every night. We had 11 horses at her yard and she was riding every day. She would go home, ride, comeback and she was relentless like that.”
The hospital was three and a half hours from Ben’s yard. He could’ve gone to a closer one but because he was diagnosed there and his girlfriend’s family lived close, it made sense. “It did not matter where my bed was, I was not going anywhere. It was probably harder for my parents because they had to travel. Emma’s family were very, very nice and I could stay at their place, they are a second family to me.”
Back in the saddle
“The main word is I probably was not allowed to get on a horse when I did. When I did get on one, the reality was if I got an infection that could’ve set me back weeks. The other thing was if something happened and I fell off, my blood count was so low; I would technically bleed to death. That was their worry.”
Let’s face it – you can’t keep eventers out of the saddle. Ben was determined to get back on as soon as he could. He chose a safe horse and rode down the road. “That made me feel so happy. I remember when I first properly rode… when you ride a lazy horse or a hot one, you get that shot of adrenaline because you are trying to get a lazy one to move on or stay on a hot one that is too fresh…well that adrenaline tired me out and I remember feeling absolutely exhausted within seconds. The downside to the chemo is you tire quickly. But now I can ride five comfortably. My theory is as long as I listen to my body I can keep pushing it to improve. When I feel I need to rest, I do.”
Ben is back riding and working towards a productive 2016. “It is obviously going to take time. I can manage the five no problem but some days I get more tired than others.” I am only 14 weeks out from my treatment. The doctors reckon I won’t be at my full fitness until a year after I finished. So I am going to be working hard over the winter to get myself fit.”
“We ride outside, you have to be tough. It is raining quite a bit. It is good for the horses too because you have to get on with it when you compete. My young horses go in the field every day and I ride every day. We plan to compete show jumping and dressage shows this month. The advanced horses are doing hacking to build up their fitness. I am trying to enjoy life a bit as well, meet up with my friends regularly. Things we naturally take for granted. I never realized how much I loved my job until I was not allowed to do it. I cannot see myself doing anything else, I love doing it, and I feel very fortunate to be able to travel to other countries doing it.”
Mulry’s Error a worldwide fan favourite
“This year has obviously been a bit of nightmare. But I am very fortunate to be okay now and back on the road. I used to teach Sallie Ryle, the lady that owns Mulry. She’d come for lessons every week, but would never let me ride him because he did jump well and was her fun horse. He is half Clydesdale; his feet are the size of dinner plates. I started riding him because she wanted to do a one-star at Tattersalls and bailed last minute. She asked me four days before the show if I would ride him. The horse was 35 seconds inside the time and I have not looked back since.”
The same year, Mulry’s Error, in the Open Intermediate won £2000. He got a lot of respect from Ben for pulling his weight in the yard. Together they have stepped up the levels. They competed the three-star at Bramham in 2013. This was his owner’s local event as she is from Yorkshire. Ben says, “He jumped around brilliant. We later went to a young horse show and I was walking the course with students and Sally said she didn’t want him to do four-star because she did not know if he could do it. So I thought alright, I brought the Budweiser with me and on the course walk with Sally. I just remember slipping it in gently so she would think we should take him to Burghley. I do not know why, but she said yes.”
They completed the entry and Mr. Mulry delighted fans with his unconventional breeding and jumped around Burghley like a pro. Ben admits that he is at a bit of a disadvantage in the dressage but it is always improving and he is a fantastic jumper. “He has those big feet, so if he touches a pole it is down. But he jumped a double clear around Burghley. I was very cautious when I took him up to four-star that I did not use all the petrol right away. I did not want him to get to the end and him be knackered and everyone tell me that I told you so. So I have been quite cautious with the four-stars, giving him a good ride. He had rails down at Badminton and I sat down and analyzed it with Sally and honestly he was too fresh. Maybe if I went faster on cross-country, he would have been a bit more relaxed. Our next four-star if we get in, will be Badminton and I will be taking the handbrake off and going for it.”
Return to the spotlight
While in treatment and recovery, Ben cancelled quite a few training and demonstrations but he kept one show in the schedule, a master class at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire. “It was quite a big event and was sort of a comeback show for the public. It was very nice. A lot of people were very kind and supportive. We will be releasing 2016 clinic dates very soon. I want to do what I normally do and carry on riding and meeting people.”
Competition plans for 2016 are full steam ahead. “I have a very nice horse called Ramilo. He was meant to go to Burghley this year. But due to circumstances, he did not step up to the four-star. He has done one CCI before and a few CICs. He will potentially go to Luhmuhlen next year.”
His horse It’s Just Jazz will compete at another CCI3* and Ciletto H will compete at a two-star with loose plans to maybe tackle a three-star.
Ben is very pleased with his team and is excited about the horses that he is bringing up the levels. “We are getting there with our team. But it is very difficult because it takes so long to produce these horses. They’ve got to be good movers and jumpers, but they also have to be as brave as lions. It is a hard combination to get together. I have a good team – some with weaker jumping and some with weaker dressage, which we are ever improving. I have some nice six and seven-year-old horses coming through. They will hopefully be starting their international campaign at one and two-star competitions next year.
Ben’s business, Shadow Sport Horses focuses on producing top quality horses. With a few horses now ready to compete at the higher levels, Ben is looking for new owners to get a few more horses that have the ability to go to championship level.
Thank you Ben for sharing your 2015 journey with us. You are a fighter and a realist. With your attitude, your future is bright regardless of what life throws at you.
Ben is available for clinics and training all over the world. He is very keen on visiting North America, so if you are looking to host a clinic with a great horseman and teacher that knows how to keep it fun and entertaining, contact him.
Follow Ben on Twitter
All photos courtesy of Ben Hobday.