January 10, 2003, New Zealand — A very big little horse named Charisma died on January 7, 2003. At his Rivermonte Farm in Cambridge Olympic champion Mark Todd said good-bye to the 30-year-old horse that carried him and his nation onto the world stage of equine celebrity.
“World’s Greatest Horse Dies” was the headline in New Zealand. Those who remember seeing this horse compete would nod their heads in agreement.
Mark Todd and Charisma seemed to come out of nowhere to take gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. At that time, New Zealand was virtually unknown in FEI international circles, and much of the tiny nation’s ascent in world competition can be attributed to the “buzz” around Charisma and Mark Todd. Their meteoric rise to superstardom in the horse world is especially poignant in hindsight, when one realizes that their Los Angeles Olympic victory coincided with the beginning of tremendous growth in the popularity of combined training worldwide. It is hard to separate one phenomenon from the other.
For many fans and aspiring riders, and especially impressionable young Pony Clubbers, Charisma was a fairy tale horse of insignificant size (just 15.3hands), breeding and origin who conquered the world.
Foaled in New Zealand’s Wairarapa out of a show jumping and polo mare named Planet, Charisma was by the New Zealand stallion Tira Mink. In 1975, Mark Todd, then a farm worker milking cows, remembered watching the three-year-old in a field and remarked that it was a shame the horse, known as Charisma, wouldn’t be big enough to compete. As fate would have it, the two found each other eight years later and soon had won all the events that New Zealand could offer at that time. They boarded a plane for England, and soon placed second at Badminton, the world’s premier three-day event, before heading to America for the 1984 Olympics to represent New Zealand.
Charisma’s long list of achievements included two Olympic gold medals, two second-place finishes at Badminton (UK) 3-Day Event, a second-place finish at the Burghley (UK) 3-Day Event, and two victorious British Open Eventing Championships, among many other event placings. The horse is equally legendary for his personality and unpredictability during competition.
Following Todd and Charisma’s Olympic victories, New Zealand enjoyed a healthy growth in sport horse breeding ventures as well as a crop of world-beating horse-and-rider combinations who followed in Charisma’s hoofprints. Today, “New Zealand bred” sport horses are found in all corners of the world and continue to excel. Similarly to Ireland, horse breeding is a respected sector of agriculture in New Zealand and young horses are brought up to be tough, sure-footed, and naturally athletic.
When Mark Todd retired from eventing in Britain to train racehorses back home in New Zealand, Charisma, nicknamed “Podge”, returned to his native country and began a second career himself, as a touring celebrity. His fame in New Zealand would equal that of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods in the US, and he was trotted out for countless events. On a daily basis, he served as a “nanny” horse for Todd’s racing string, acting as the calm one during transport, or as a lead pony. His last public appearance was a dressage demonstration in December 2002 at a fundraiser for an injured steeplechase trainer/jockey.
Todd’s New Zealand web site, www.marktodd.net, has set up an online book of remembrance so that Charisma’s friends from around the world can post messages to Mark.
Additional information about Charisma may be found through these sources:
Books by Mark Todd with more information about Charisma:
So Far So Good (autobiography)
Charisma (biography of the late Charisma)
Mark Todd’s Cross-Country Handbook
Freelance writer Fran Jurga writes about horses from her home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where she frequently runs across New Zealand-bred event horses. Besides writing about the international horse world, Fran publishes Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science (www.hoofcare.com).