Interviews & Profiles

Michael Blake: “I Always Thought I Was Going to Set the Bareback Puissance Record”

From a borrowed horse to a gifted wet suit to a run in with the police, Ireland’s Michael Blake shares his year long journey to set the bareback puissance world record that stands today. As told to Carley Sparks.

I always thought I was going to set the bareback pussiance record eventually. The horse I used, King Logan, was so scopey, he could jump eight feet.

But it was a bit of Irish luck that brought us together in the first place.

It all started in Clonshire in 1994.

I wasn’t competing that weekend but I went to the show to observe and brought my riding gear just in case—I’d ride anyone’s horse back then. That night was the puissance. In America, the pussiance isn’t such a big deal. In Ireland, it’s like a blood spot. People want to see carnage. And they will.

That night in Clonshire was no exception.

A very good friend of mine, the late Maxie Scully, had two horses in the class. Maxie held the world record at the time, but that evening he fell off the first horse and was taken away in the ambulance. This was bareback by the way, no saddle.

Before they drove off, I asked him for the horse.

Maxie said, “No,” but his sister was there and she told me to go on.

So, I did. I got on King Logan—he was a massive thing, 18.1 hands—and galloped down to the fence. Well, on the first attempt, I turned upside down and knocked the lens out of my glasses.

The second attempt, we hit the jump.

For the third try, I thought I’d better find my lens before we gave it another go. I was out there in the ring crawling around on the ground, but I did locate it and that did the trick. We cleared the jump on the last attempt and I divided the puissance that night. We didn’t break a record, I think we jumped six foot eight. But it would’ve been near enough to a world record on the night.

After that performance, Maxie decided to give me the horse.

I just knew King Logan could break the world record, so that’s what we set out to do. I gave myself a year to get him ready for it.

When I train for anything, I do a reverse job. I say, well, on such and such a date, I want to achieve this and then I work backwards from that date. You always need to allow a few percentage for disaster, because disaster can and does happen. And then you probably want to light a candle and pray a bit.

The first task was to get him fit for it. King Logan was not the soundest horse in the world so we used to swim him in a big lake nearby. I didn’t have a wet suit or anything. I’d be blue with the cold swimming him around that lake. In October, it’s almost ice water. I thought I was going to catch pneumonia.

One day, as I was swimming him, this guy drove all the way around the lake and said, “I told my wife that I wasn’t seeing things, that there was somebody swimming in the lake!”

He brought me a wet suit, so that helped tremendously.

Training the jumping part was a separate job.

I’m not what you call a talented rider. I’m more statistical. I calculate things. In a puissance it’s all about getting to the spot. You need to get quite deep. If you stand off [the fence], you’ll plane across. You need to get in deep, get the hocks and get up high and get up quickly. So, I had his stride trained to exactly 12 feet. Not an inch more. Not an inch less.

And you practice bareback, of course. You have to. The controls are completely different when you’re riding bareback versus in a saddle. You’re going down to a fence and if you have a horse that’s inclined to shake its head a little bit, you have no martingale—you have to think it through a little more.

It took a full year. But when I had him ready, he was ready.

I think he broke the world record three times in a week. He jumped jumps that no horse had ever jumped—he was so fit, so ready and so scopey that it was easy for him.

That first title didn’t last long, though.

I broke the record and then Shane Breen, another Irish rider, broke it again. It hadn’t been broken for god knows how long and it was broke twice in a week!

So, I said, “This is not good.”

A few weeks later, I was going to a show to try and regain my record. I was driving down the road and a headlight went on my lorry truck. Just outside the city, a police officer pulled me up and gave me such a hard time. He said he wanted to impound my truck. But as I threatened to take the horses out and ride them to the show, he ended up giving me an escort.

That night, we didn’t break the record, but I won the class. And with it, a new trailer.

When the newspaper got hold of the story, the headline the following day was “Blake Scales Mountains.” Then that night its “Lights Go Out on Blake’s World Record Attempt.” The following day, because it was running every day, it was “Will It Be High Jump or High Court?”

Eventually, I got a whole load of subpoenas to answer for all these traffic violations.

By then, it was just before Christmas. Let me tell you, the judge frightened the life out of me—I thought I was going to be in jail eating porridge for the holiday! I looked around that courtroom and there were people who hadn’t had a job for six generations, murderers and robbers and the like.

But, as I said, I calculate things. When the judge said, “Is the defendant here?” I stood up and replied, “I’m here, yes. Your honor, I took a day off work.”

“Someone with a job!” he said.

I knew then I was on the good foot straight away.

He asked me what I was doing.

“I was going to try and break the world record and raise money for multiple sclerosis,” I said, which I was. My sister-in-law has that debilitating disease. I’ve walked the Camino to Santiago in Spain four times to raise money and awareness.

He asked me how I raised the money and I told him about the puissance.

“What did you win?”

“I won a horse box when I won that event.”

“Is there lights in it?”

“There is, your honor.”

“So, you won’t be driving around with something with no lights in it anymore.”

“No, your honor.”

To make a long story short, he dismissed the case. The guard was none too happy.

A few weeks on, I went head-to-head with Michael Whitaker—he was a previous world record holder—in Mill Street, Cork.

It’s an indoor show. You’re allowed to walk the track before the class, so the first thing I did was mark out a 12 foot stride. I got to my fence and I walked my three strides and six feet and I drew my heel across the ground. People thought I was mad.

I knew, all I had to do was hit that spot with his front feet and the rest was going to happen.

And it did.

We broke the world record that night. It was 1995 and it was 2.17m or seven feet, two inches in your money.

And the record still stands.

People asked me after, “Did you know he was going to jump it?”

Absolutely, I knew.

I knew.