Alan Oliver

Acrobatic show jumper

Thursday 22 September 2011 05:30

Alan Arthur Jack Oliver, show jumping rider and course designer: born Kimble Wick, Buckinghamshire 8 September 1932; married 1954 Gene Whewell (marriage dissolved), 1964 Alison Coulton (marriage dissolved); died Dunstable, Bedfordshire 10 September 2006.

Alan Oliver was a beanpole lad of 11 when he first emerged on the adult show jumping scene riding his father's horses and a hunter on loan from a garage owner, Harry Payne. Both his size and his acrobatic style would have made him easily recognisable - and so would the number of prizes won by the young farmer's son.

By his late teens and early twenties Oliver had a wonderful string of horses to ride. He partnered six of them - Red Admiral, Red Star, Galway Boy, Sheila, John Gilpin and Planet - in the 1953 Leading Show Jumper of the Year at Harringay, where he achieved a phenomenal result by filling six of the top seven places. "I just kept jumping them off one after the other," he said:

I won it with Red Admiral and when we walked into the ring and I looked up at the board I thought: "That's funny - there's nobody else up there."

Red Admiral, probably the best horse he ever rode, was also his mount in a memorable duel with the German Olympic captain, Fritz Thiedemann, in the 1954 King George V Gold Cup at White City. Time had not yet been introduced as the deciding factor in a jump-off, so the two riders completed five rounds in an atmosphere of mounting tension before Thiedemann prevailed on Meteor.

By the time David Broome appeared on the adult scene in the mid-1950s, Oliver (though less than eight years older) was already an old hand. According to Broome he was also the friendliest rider of all:

There was never anything aloof about him; he was always prepared to speak to up-and-coming riders and give them encouragement.

Oliver became known to a wider radio audience in 1957 after he "sold" a horse called Red Link to The Archers. The producer's idea was to "buy" a novice horse early in the year and follow its progress through to victory in the Foxhunter Championship at the Horse of the Year Show in October. Oliver did point out that picking just one horse to win at Harringay was about a 10,000-to-one shot, but they still went ahead.

Having become part of the continuing story of Ambridge, he was rather embarrassed when The Archers visited show after show at which Red Link failed to jump a single clear round. Eventually, however, he did win a Foxhunter class and he was third in a regional final, which qualified him for Harringay. The cliffhanger ended with Red Link finishing second in the final which, considering the odds, was a tremendous achievement.

Oliver was a strong contender for an Olympic place in 1952 and 1956, but he was not selected on either occasion - partly, one assumes, because most of his victories were then gained on the home circuit where courses were less sophisticated than abroad. He was to go through a lean period as his great string of horses eventually came to the end of their careers, but he never thought of giving up. "I was always under the impression that, however good you are or whatever horses your ride, you're only a champion for that one day - in this job you're a 24-hour champion," he said.

Though he maintained his slim figure, he did adapt his style before more good horses (including Pitz Palu and Sweep, who was his mount on winning Nations Cup teams at Barcelona in 1969 and London in 1972) arrived at his yard. Courses had become longer and more technical, so it was important to stay closer to the saddle. He believed that his rides in steeplechases and point-to-points had helped him "because it taught me to sit on them".

He had begun course designing before he retired from competition and was therefore able to remain a convivial presence on the show jumping scene. Among many others, he designed courses for the World Cup final in Gothenburg, shows in Toronto and New York, Sydney and Melbourne plus most of the county shows in Britain.

Genevieve Murphy

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments