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Ben Maher: Ready for the Olympic hurdle

  • Story Highlights
  • Britain's Ben Maher rides Rolette at Beijing Olympics team show jumping
  • He recently received new Scout Association award for equestrian excellence
  • At 25, Maher is the youngest member of the UK equestrian team
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By Tiffany Wong
For CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Young British show-jumping rider Ben Maher is refreshed, having just returned from the opening ceremonies of the Olympic equestrian events in Hong Kong. Before he left England to make the long first-time trip to Hong Kong, he was named a new Scout Association award recipient for equestrian excellence.

Ben Maher jumps with his horse Rolette.

This award has been granted in the past to big name UK celebrities such as chef Jaime Oliver and actor Ewan McGregor.

He does not consider himself a celebrity, despite already being named a top-10 rider in the UK.

He bounced back this year after what he believed to be an unsuccessful 2007 and a key win at the Hickstead Derby in 2006 that propelled his riding career to where he is today.

Soft-spoken, calm, polite and modest, 25-year-old Maher is a consummate riding professional that belies the fact that he is the youngest member of the UK equestrian team.

He shows no sign of anxiety settling in, relaxed at his team's hotel lobby in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, in preparation for the Olympic Games that kick off the same night.

Maher sits down with CNN to chat about his horse, Rolette, while experiencing Hong Kong and the Olympics with fresh eyes.

CNN: What are your impressions of Hong Kong so far?

Maher: Fantastic city. Very busy, never sleeps by the looks of things.

It's my first Olympics, [and] I wasn't expecting the facilities to be as good as they are. The stables have air-conditioning, the grounds for the show jumping, in particular, which I do, was perfect. I look forward to competing next week.

CNN: Is it a dream come true?

Maher: Absolutely. I'm quite young compared to the other people on my team, so I have got a lot of experience from them to try and help me... Maybe not so much is sort of expected of me. But equally where we are, there is a lot of pressure, and it's quite hard to make our team in Britain. It's not easy, we have a lot of good riders and good horses. I just have to do my own thing, really, and I'm expected to jump clear rounds, as the others are, to try and win. I think we can do quite well here.

CNN: What advantages do you think your team has over some the other ones in this year's event?

Maher: I think we have a lot of experience on our team. Not necessarily with myself, but [with] the other riders that we have on our team. This will be our first time as a combination team that we're together all at once, and I think that if we produce the results that we've had, we should stand a good chance. We do everything together, we train together; we go out together while we're here, and we look to try to help each other in every way possible.

CNN: How have you prepared or trained differently for the Olympics as opposed to other competitions in the past?

Maher: We've spent a long time with fitness work [for the horses] and preparing them for the journey and the heat that's here. I think the horses have been prepared very well, and they should cope with the different weather situations.

CNN: Are there any concerns about typhoons? It's going to be thunder-storming for the rest of the weekend...

Maher: Obviously, we're not used to this weather in England. We're used to rain, but obviously not with it being so hot. Again, I think our horses are in fantastic facilities with air-conditioning, and today I rode in the indoor arena with air-conditioning and you don't know the difference with the weather outside, actually, and the horses seem to be coping fine.

CNN: Can you tell us a bit about your horse, Rolette?

Maher: Rolette is a 10-year-old bay mare. I've been riding her for almost a year now. We were in America for two months in the beginning of this year. Maybe a little bit inexperienced obviously at this level...

CNN: How would you describe the chemistry between you and Rolette? Why did you choose Rolette?

Maher: She's the only horse I have that has the ability and the potential to jump the fences that we're going to try and jump here. But I get along great with her -- She's a bit temperamental sometimes. This morning I rode her, and I haven't ridden her for a few days, obviously, because she has been flying in here [from the UK].

She's getting very well pampered at the moment. A lot of people were around just her... We work very well together. She trusts me and I trust her.

CNN: What makes a good show-jumping horse?

Maher: I think they need to have the ability, and most importantly, is a big heart. If they want to do it for you and you have good communication, then you can normally come ahead of the rest of the pack.

CNN: What do you think are the dangers of sport-enhancing drugs in horses in the competitions?

Maher: As far as I'm aware, our sport is a very clean and healthy sport. In England, we have one of the best doping programs there are in the world, in fact. As far as I'm aware, the horses are all very fit and healthy, and we don't have any problems.

CNN: Last year was difficult for your riding performance. Why?

Maher: I just had a bad year. I struggled a little bit with a lack of top horses. It was just genuinely a difficult year. I think everybody goes through these stages, and fortunately enough, it didn't last too long and we've come out. And at the moment, everything is going great. I've won this year in one month what I won the whole year last year, so at the moment I'm riding the top of the wave. I have a good selection of horses at home and I try not to think of those [difficult] times too much (laughs).

CNN: Who is your biggest competitor?

Maher: I think Germany is always the biggest rivalry. They are for sure the favorites going into the competition. I think anybody on their given day, really. I would say that Holland, the United States along with us, [they all have] a similar kind of ability. Like I say, you never know, Germany may make mistakes...

CNN: One of the local favorites is rider, Alex Hua Tian, who is 18 years old, and half-British and half-Chinese. He's competing on behalf of China.

Maher: I think he's lucky to represent his country in the Olympic Games when he is only 18. I met him earlier today, actually, just in passing for the first time, and he seemed very polite and said hello. It's great for China and, obviously, he's generating a lot of publicity for our sport and yeah, I hope he does well, he deserves it.

CNN: Would you rather have him compete on the British side?

Maher: Absolutely. Any good riders and horses, we welcome. If he was on the British side, then it's another person to try to compete against and to make the British team. But obviously, if in the near future he decides to change to ride for Britain, then it would be to our advantage.

CNN: Do you have any favorite horse or rider combination that you're looking out for?

Maher: I think that [Dutch rider] Albert Zoer with Oki Doki, the horse, before the Games, would have been the favorite to win here, but unfortunately, I think the rider had a small accident so that he wasn't able to compete now. There are so many good combinations here. It would be hard to decide who was going to win. I think that the Olympic Games can produce an "outside winner" a lot of the time with how the system works. We'll see everybody has a chance.

CNN: If you weren't in riding, what would be your other career?

Maher: If it was to be sport, I would like the idea of being a Formula One driver or a golf player or something, but I'm not, so... (laughs) I love what I do, and hopefully we can get some good results here that can keep me on the right path.

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CNN: What are your plans after the competitions?

Maher: Obviously, a lot depends on the result from here. It's possible that I will go to Spruce Meadows in Calgary [Canada] and then... [I'm] probably going again to Florida in the beginning of next year, building up again, then toward the London Olympics in 2012. Having an Olympics at home [will give me] a clearer advantage, because it gives me the experience already. Hopefully, I'll have the right horses when the time comes around.

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