David OwenIt is a mark of the vast experience in the British eventing squad which is heading to France to defend its World Equestrian Games (WEG) team title that the "baby" of the bunch, 31-year-old Oliver Townend, finished 11th in the 2006 Games.

Shropshire-based Townend has said it was "a really nice surprise" to hear of his call-up. But with recent results including the runner-up spot at Badminton and fourth at Luhműhlen, aboard Black Tie II, the former racehorse set to be his mount in Normandy, this likeable Yorkshireman is plainly bang in form.

It is now four years since Townend's annus mirabilis, when wins at Badminton and Burghley on the greys Flint Curtis and Carousel Quest propelled him into the public eye and set him up for a stab at the sport's grand slam, a rarely-won six-figure jackpot for claiming three consecutive top eventing titles.

It was at that point that Eyjafjallajökull exploded into the storyline.

The disruption to European air travel caused by the immense ash cloud produced by the now notorious Icelandic volcano's eruption took effect just as Townend was setting out for Kentucky and that all-important third event.

"It was a nightmare of a journey in terms of everybody seemed to be trying to get home and I was trying to get away," he recalls in an interview.

"When you are walking in the opposite direction to thousands of people trying to get somewhere it's fairly tricky.

"I ended up getting a train from London to Paris because I had heard that the last flight was from over there, and then when I got to Paris everything was cancelled and everybody was in deadlock there."

The ash cloud caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano made Oliver Townend's journey to Kentucky fraught ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe ash cloud caused by the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano made Oliver Townend's journey to Kentucky fraught ©AFP/Getty Images

So he jumped into a taxi and embarked on a 16-hour, €1,500 (£1,200/$2,000) cab-ride to Madrid, from where he eventually did get a flight.

At least his horses had already made the crossing, but it was hardly ideal preparation for such an important competition.

"Obviously I arrived quite tired, but I don't think it affected the performance," Townend says.

"I had two horses out there. One young horse jumped around clear, one second outside the time."

The other, however, took a fall, leaving Townend with cracks to his sternum, both shoulders, a collar bone and four ribs.

These injuries ruled him out of the decisive show-jumping phase and hence ended his grand slam hopes.

Since then, with those star grey horses having reached the end of their competitive careers, Townend has had to show patience, even if his record at big competitions has remained admirably consistent.

"It just takes a lot of time and work," he says.

"Somebody was interviewing me the other day and said, 'How are you doing horsepower-wise?' I said, 'I've got the best bunch I've ever had in my life.' He laughed and said, 'You said that two years ago.' I said, 'That's because it's the same flipping bunch.'

"It just takes a long, long time.

"You can't just wave a magic wand and they arrive at top level. It takes a long time to get them there and when they do get there, they don't have a lot of years - three or four max."

The fall in Kentucky left Oliver Townend with cracks to his sternum, both shoulders, a collar bone and four ribs ©Getty ImagesThe fall in Kentucky left Oliver Townend with cracks to his sternum, both shoulders, a collar bone and four ribs ©Getty Images

Athletes such as Townend, who have to make ends meet in what is a costly sport, are also faced with a continual dilemma: can they afford to keep their most promising horses, or should they cash in their chips to provide the working capital they need to keep their businesses ticking over?

"I sold a lot of good horses that probably would have stepped up," he admits.

"I sold Land Vision that won Badminton with [the New Zealand rider] Mark Todd in 2011.

"Those horses don't come along very often, but at the same time it gets to the stage that it's not a choice...

"At that stage, I did have to do that to keep the business going.

"At the same time, it was as positive as winning Badminton/Burghley, if not more positive - financially."

Townend says he thinks there are "only possibly two handfuls of us in the country who are actually making what I would class as a proper living.

"It's an incredibly difficult thing to do.

"It's a very, very difficult balance; you either have to teach or deal in horses basically.

"But still for me it's very nearly an impossible thing at this stage to make a living out of."

An improvement in a level of prize money that he describes as "fairly pitiful" would help.

"I think it's discussed a lot, but it needs to progress soon, hopefully," he argues.

"Otherwise I think we'll be missing out on some future stars, because it is so difficult to make a living."

Townend has also had to cope with a two-year driving ban, which one would have thought might amount to a significant impediment for someone whose career depends, in part, on the transportation of competition horses from place to place.

A two-year driving ban for Oliver Townend has not stopped him thanks to help from the staff he employs ©Getty ImagesA two-year driving ban for Oliver Townend has not stopped him thanks to help from the staff he employs ©Getty Images

"I'm very, very fortunate with the staff I've got at home," he says.

"We have got two people who can drive the wagon. I employ up to 11 people. Most of them have car-tests. Hopefully I'm not that bad to be around that they don't mind coming to the events with me.

"I don't really drink that much.

"It was a stupid, stupid mistake and nothing but a stupid misjudgement.

"I didn't get in the car after a wild night out drinking, knowing that I was over the limit, you know.

"I went out for a meal, had half a glass of wine too much and paid the consequences, but at the same time there's still obviously no excuse whatsoever for it."

To my surprise, Townend tells me, "I'm not going to drive again".

While he did not have the privileged upbringing enjoyed by some top equestrian athletes, other elements in his background equipped him perfectly for a career as a skilled and versatile rider.

In this way, his story should provide encouragement for those who wonder how they can ever make their way in this risky and demanding profession without access to a comforting cushion of capital.

Confirming that his father used to trade horses "as a hobby", Townend tells me he "got put on everything: things that stood up; things that laid down; things that were ungenuine; and obviously, through that, some very good ones came out as well...

"There's only one way to learn how to ride properly and that's to ride everything you get given to ride = and you know a hundred, a thousand of them...

"Being very aware that we didn't have an endless pot of money to support a career was something that has given me the hunger, but at the same time I couldn't have had better support from my parents."

Oliver Townend is eyeing a strong run at the World Equestrian Games in France which begin tomorrow ©Getty ImagesOliver Townend is eyeing a strong run at the World Equestrian Games in France which begin tomorrow ©Getty Images

He describes his present crop of good horses as "a mixed bunch...I still take a few of other peoples' that they are not getting on with for whatever reason, but at the same time I've got some of my home-grown bunch coming through as well, that I've had from four and five-years old.

His WEG mount Black Tie has been with him for four years.

"His owner Karyn Shuter helps run my business at home so it's very special for her," he says.

"She bought him out of a free-ads magazine in New Zealand - she's from New Zealand herself - for very little money."

Armada, whom he rode to second-place at Badminton, is, he says, a former ride of Andrew Nicholson, another top New Zealand eventer.

"Andrew at the time had a serious amount of four-star horses and Armada is very time-consuming," Townend confides.

"He was very hot and very feisty and took a lot of time to settle. He had lots of personality you could say."

Of his latest Badminton exploit, he says: "I would have certainly signed for second after dressage.

"Certain bits of his dressage test were fantastic but there were two mistakes in there that you can't afford when you are trying to win Badminton.

"As I was walking the [cross-country] course, I just quietly said to Piggy French who I had bumped into, 'I could just do with it starting to rain now.' She said, 'Don't say that, you'll probably slip over.'

"And then it did start to rain, and it rained and rained and rained.

"I knew that would suit him because he is a phenomenal galloper and has a lot of scope: cross-country would be his strongest suit."

I ask Townend if this year's performance at what must still be the best-known three-day event among general sports fans had felt as good as winning in 2009 - and got the answer I should have expected from such a fierce competitor: "Not quite".

But, I persisted, it meant you were back, didn't it?

"Back from where? I've never gone anywhere. Everyone just stopped watching me.

"I never went anywhere. It was their eyes that were missing."

Not any more they're not.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.