Cover Thomas Heffernan Ho riding Tayberry during the eventing cross country team and individual session at the Sea Forest Cross-Country Course during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Getty Images)

After competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in eventing, the Hong Kong equestrian rider welcomes Tatler into his world

Among the athletes that represented Hong Kong at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, there was only one who qualified in equestrian sports: Thomas Heffernan Ho represented the city in eventing, a competition that brings together dressage, show jumping and cross-country—the ultimate test of endurance and discipline. Ho, a full-time athlete, competed in Tokyo with his horse Tayberry, who at 20 was the oldest event horse at the Games.

Ho, now 31, had Olympic dreams ever since the Beijing 2008 equestrian sports were staged in Hong Kong. Although he did not end up picking up a medal, he holds the unique and historic honour of being the first ever equestrian to qualify for Hong Kong at the Olympics. No doubt he will have inspired dozens of young riders to follow in his footsteps and build upon the foundations he has set.

Here, he tells Tatler about his life and journey to the Olympics.

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How did you get into horse riding?

I had always wanted to be a jockey from a young age. I was introduced to horses at Pokfulam Riding school when I accompanied my brother, Daniel Heffernan Ho, to his lessons. I loved watching the horses go round and stroking them and feeding them carrots. When I was seven, my parents encouraged me to ride. In the beginning, I was scared of the horses but I grew in confidence.

Describe your journey to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Throughout primary school, I rode once a week and when I started secondary school, I rode every day after school. I started competing in local competitions when I was ten. When I went to university in Switzerland, I was only able to ride at the weekend. 

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My professional journey has been a fairly short one: I have only been representing Hong Kong for eight years, but I have represented Hong Kong at an Asian Games, the China National Games, Asian Championship and this year's Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Along the way, I have won a team bronze medal and team silver medal.

In going to these games I have always believed in my partnership with my horse which I truly believe is the most important thing to have. Also I am a very determined person and I hate being told that I can not achieve something so it is in my nature to keep pushing myself to do better every time I ride my horse.

What are your proudest achievements to date as a rider?

My proudest achievement has to be the first medal I won for Hong Kong which was in 2014 at the Asian Games in Seoul. We won a team bronze, and this made me realise I could represent Hong Kong at a high level.

The second proudest achievement has to be going to the Olympics with Tayberry. He hasn't always been the easiest horse and can be very naughty! In spite of that, he proved a lot of people wrong when he qualified for the Olympics and gave me everything he had in Tokyo, which meant a lot.

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What are the most difficult aspects of your job?

Equestrian sport is largely dependent on your horses. They can get injured or may not reach their full potential. The sport is not just about the rider, we as elite sportspeople are only as good as the horses we sit on at the end of the day.

Also, riding for Hong Kong has meant a massive sacrifice in order to be at a high standard. As equestrian sport is still developing in Hong Kong, most of the Hong Kong equestrian team need to be based in the UK and Europe in order to qualify for big championships. 

As well as training in the saddle, what other regimes do you need to adhere to in order to make sure you're in peak condition?

Twice a week, I work with a really good personal trainer called Katie Bleekman, who specialises in rider fitness. I also speak to a sports psychologist twice a month, which helps to keep me calm and thinking rationally through using The Chimp Model, a competitive performance management system.

As well as focusing a lot on my horses fitness and training I also focus on myself. If I am not fit enough, that will affect the level of performance of my horse and not allow them to reach their full potential.

Read more: Tokyo 2020 Paralympics: 8 Hong Kong Athletes To Watch

Tell us about your horse, Tayberry: what has your history and relationship been together?

I have known Tayberry since he was 13. He was my first horse and always had a strong personality and from day one. Since we have been together for so long, Tayberry knows me better than anyone and I know him: that’s why our partnership is so strong.

Who is your role model and why?

My father was a massive role model still to this day as he always supported me and pushed me to do better than I ever believed I would. He really believed in little Tayberry from day one. Since he passed away, my fiancé and family have been very supportive and have tried to understand my crazy world.

Read more: Tokyo 2020 Paralympics: Hong Kong’s Historic Achievements At The Games

After the Olympics, what's the next milestone you're working towards?

I am preparing for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, mainland China next year. It is always great competing in Asia and being close to home where my family and friends are. After that I’ll be aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympics if I can find the right horse to build a strong relationship with.

What are three things you couldn't live without?  

My horses; my family, fiancé and friends; dim sum.

How would your friends describe you?

I am a very stubborn person, so when I set my mind to something, I try to achieve it. I’m hardworking, passionate, determined and always looking to have fun in whatever I do.

What is something people commonly get wrong about your sport?

They always refer to my events and shows as races and call me a jockey.