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William Micklem

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About William Micklem

SPEAKER - AUTHOR - COACH - BREEDER - COLUMNIST "In the proverbial 101 ways, William Micklem has made huge contributions to the manner in which we ride, train, equip, breed, and think about horses. His positive impact spans oceans, disciplines and breeds of horses. If William speaks or writes about it, go listen or read it." Denny Emerson - USA event Team Gold medallist, USEA Hall of Fame, best selling author, and chair of breeders committee of AHSA. SPEAKER: William’s educational presentations are wide ranging, covering all equestrian disciplines and coach education for all sports. In particular he has developed a reputation for his innovative presentations and structures for improving performance in all activities, The GO! Rules, Habitual Hats, and The Winning EDGE. He also presents his one-man entertainment Ride a Cock Horse. AUTHOR: His book, The Complete Horse Riding Manual (Dorling Kindersley 2003 – published in eleven languages), is the best selling equestrian manual in the world and introduced his highly praised concept of using ‘Constants & Variables’ for all riding. In addition he was one of the eleven contributing riders to 101 Exercises from Top Riders (David & Charles 2007) and one of the contributing panel to the BHS Advanced Manual of Horsemanship (Kenilworth Press 1980). COACH: William is a Fellow of the British Horse Society (FBHS), a Tutor for Coaching Ireland and a Level 3 coach for Horse Sport Ireland. He was formerly National Coach for Bord na gCapall (Irish Horse Board), coach to the Irish Junior and Young Rider event teams and Training Director at the Mark Phillips Gleneagles Equestrian Centre. His work to make cross-country training safer has influenced many coaches and he also specialises in the assessment and training of young horses. He champions a kinder and more natural approach to horse training and his ground breaking and more humane Micklem Bridle is now in use throughout the world and fully approved for all disciplines by the FEI. In addition his innovative training ideas for children and young riders have challenged traditional methods. All this has led to him being in demand at training conferences around the world. In 2014 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Eventing Ireland. BREEDER: As well as finding Karen and David O’Connor’s three great Olympic medallists, Biko, Custom Made & Gilt Edge, he also bred Mandiba, the World Breeding Federation event horse of the year for 2010, and Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom, British team silver medallist at both the London Olympics in 2012 & the World Equestrian Games in 2014 and in the top 10 individually in their four 4* competitions. He stands a stallion, their full brother Jackaroo, and continues to breed exceptional event horses. COLUMNIST: William is a columnist for Eventing Nation and The Chronicle of the Horse and is a regular contributor The Irish Field and to equestrian magazines in the UK, USA, New Zealand and Australia. "William Micklem is one of the best minds in the horse world today. He has a unique mixture of practical experience at the highest levels and thorough knowledge of classical principles of horsemanship. Anything William says is worth hearing." Jimmy Wofford USA double Olympian, leading Coach and Author "I first met William when I was thirteen years old. It was exciting for me to learn classical dressage from someone whose passion was eventing, and it was apparent, even then, that William's teaching philosophies were ahead of their time. William has studied horse and human behaviour all his life and has mastered the relationship between the two. His teachings became the foundation for my riding and his horsemanship continues to be the flagship of our training programme." Karen O'Connor Five time Olympian and nine time USA Female rider of the year. From her introduction to William's book, The Complete Horse Riding Manual.

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William Micklem: Safety and Us

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. This is the final column in the series: part onepart twopart threepart four, part five. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

It’s all about opening doors for future generations of riders. William Micklem’s homebred Mandiba is pictured here with Karen O’Connor at Rolex. Photo by Josh Walker, used with permission from the USEA.

Safety is not an ‘us and them’ issue. It is just ‘us.’ The ‘us’ refers to the fact that everyone in our sport has a role to play in safety issues and only by working together can we say we have done our best to keep riders safe. Whether you are a rider, groom, owner, official, supporter, farrier or veterinarian there is no one in the eventing world that has not been personally touched by at least one fatality and no one should fail to take the issue seriously.

How does the world tell the difference

In addition the rider fatalities in eventing do not just reflect badly on eventing but on all of us in the whole sport horse world.  Just as the six horses that died last month during FEI-recognized endurance competitions in the UAE has a negative effect on all horse sports.

As Jimmy Wofford said last week, “Although this scandal is taking place in a separate international discipline, it affects all horse lovers … If we tolerate people who are willing to kill horses for sport, how is the world to know the difference between them and the rest of the horse-loving community?” And similarly (but worst) how is the world to tell the difference between a sport that has killed 65 riders since 1993 and the rest of the sport horse world?

So we as a sport have to take action. It’s not just the ‘powers that be’ but all of us that need to engage with the challenges we have and work to be heard.  But we have failed to do this in recent times. For example the new format for team championships has been greeted with almost universal dismay from international riders from all disciplines. It could have been different but regrettably there was little consultation in advance of this major decision, and that is not acceptable.

So the national governing bodies and the FEI need to remember that it’s not them and us, but just us, and work harder to ensure FEI members and delegates have made a genuine effort to communicate clearly with the riders and all those they are supposed to be representing. And in turn all other groupings need to be willing to engage and communicate … and in the case of eventing all of us should do this with a main aim of eliminating rotational falls.

We can prevent rotational falls

Three of the riders who have died from rotational falls were friends of mine. What has driven me to stay involved in safety issues is that all three of these deaths could have been prevented, as they were all accidents waiting to happen rather than freak and inexplicable accidents.

One of these deaths could have been prevented by using the EquiRatings Quality Index system; one by dressage training that did not create huge resistances; and one by dressage and jumping training that did not enslave the horse. However, and this is the crucial point, almost certainly all three lives would have been saved with deformable technology.

We need to prevent rotational falls because the indisputable fact is that the majority of cross-country fatalities (55%) have been caused by rotational falls. Yes we need to raise training standards, yes many riders need to ride better, yes we need to use data to ensure partnerships compete at the right level, and yes we need to use more horses that are truly suited for cross country with great brains, good gallops and stamina.

However, all this is a medium and longterm strategy that will always miss out some riders. But what we can do in the short term that will protect almost all riders is to use deformable technology. It is difficult to see how anyone can argue against this.

The advantages outweigh the disadvantages

Is it going to encourage more riders to take risks and get away with bad riding? Possibly in a few cases. But surely this is a price worth paying to save lives and surely we can find ways to penalize bad riding more effectively in a parallel strategy to prevent accidents.

The other great advantage of this strategy is that it will allow course designers to continue to challenge the best with the right combination of demands on both bravery and technical ability, without turning courses into lower level challenges with masses of brush for the horses to go through. The talent and ability of the top riders and horses is wonderful and the sport will be the loser if we downgrade the level of the cross country. Especially as the cross country is the central discipline and heart of our sport.

Ironically the new FEI championship proposals, that are intended to make championships easier, actually does the reverse in one way. As Mark Phillips wrote last month in Horse & Hound: “Another concern is that championships and four-stars have historically been run at at least 140m per jumping effort. We are now proposing to come down as low as 126m per effort — halfway to the CIC ratio, but over a ten minute course rather than a six or seven minute CIC track. Isn’t that a safety worry?” 

Yes, it is an obvious safety worry, and one that would have been picked up long ago and changed if it was ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them and us.’

All for one, one for all

Education and shared knowledge between all parties must be at the heart of all cross-country safety initiatives. So we all have to share and let good ideas give way to better ideas, and this includes course designers, technical delegates, riders and the FEI. Anyone who wants to be a success in horses knows that you have to be part of a team, working for each other, and putting safety as a priority.

This was not always the case in the early days of eventing, and sadly occasionally in more recent times, when decisions were not always taken with safety in mind. For example, in 1968 at the Mexico Olympics. Mexico City proved a challenging site as it was 2,300 meters above sea level, resulting in 30% less oxygen in the air.

It was also known for intense rainfall from October to March, a fact that was ignored and which resulted in very serious difficulties for the competitors. Huge rains caused the river at the second last fence on the cross country to burst its banks towards the end of the day and became a 12-meter wide torrent.

Were the competitors stopped on course? No! Ireland’s Tommy Brennan and his horse March Hawk bravely jumped in but were swept downstream in the raging torrent. The horse could swim, but Brennan couldn’t and he only survived by clinging onto the saddle until he was hauled out of the water by the then FEI President HRH Prince Phillip! Another example of the good auld days not being so good, especially as two horses died that day.

Good for the rider …

Tommy Brennan had been fourth at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games on Kilkenny, who was later to find more Olympic glory with Jimmy Wofford. In addition he also rode on the show jumping team at the Mexico Olympics, and after retiring from riding went on to design the iconic track at Punchestown for the European Championships in 1991. So he knew a thing or two about high-level performance.

But at heart Tommy was a hunting man and a people man. He loved the thrill of crossing the country jumping whatever was there in the company of his friends, most of whom were lower level riders. He knew what a huge contribution cross-country riding made to the lives of these people, not just their riding lives but their whole lives.

Riding outside is good for the vast majority of us. It stimulates our brains and allows us to do more with our lives as we feel better and more empowered. We can’t live our lives in some super safe cocoon, and it’s not living if we stay anchored to the couch in front of the television. The very nature of cross country means that there is more risk for rider and horse than in dressage, but riders round the world have had their lives immeasurably enriched and senses heightened by riding across country and we need to recognise how important this is.

What is also true is that horses love getting out and about.  The gradual change the horse world has experienced to riding largely in arenas is probably the biggest challenge we face, both in terms of humane treatment of horses and introducing the next generations to riding.

As Bing Crosby sang:

“Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me ride through the wide-open country that I love,

Don’t fence me in.

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Don’t fence me in.

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle

Don’t fence me in.

The sport of eventing is the driving heart of pleasure riding because the research shows that the majority of us don’t want to be fenced in. In addition the event horse is the ideal pleasure riding horse because we need a horse that can go outside of an arena and easily do a little of everything, rather than be anchored to a sandy rectangle.

This also puts eventing training and riding at the heart of equestrian training. All national equestrian training authorities already agree about this, ensuring that their coaches have a wide training foundation before specializing. This gives eventing added value and unique value at the heart of riding and training … and of course at the heart of eventing is cross-country riding. What it is really all about is opening doors for future generations of riders and realizing the full potential of the sport.

… and good for the horse

What is more event riders will quickly learn to make decisions in favour of their horse rather than their own performance goals. It has to be that way because eventing brings an increased emphasis on horsemastership and partnership. Such lessons are rare in sport, but sacrificing individual goals for the need of others is a vital life lesson and gives added value to eventing.

Yes, a very small number of horses break legs or have other fatal injuries when doing cross country, and to lose even one horse is a tragedy. But the the room for error can be increased, making it safer for horses as well as riders, and I totally believe that the majority of horses would metaphorically vote in favour of cross country.

Who has not observed the pricked ears and enthusiasm of a horse going out for a ride in a bigger area, or who has not experienced the squeals of delight or playful leaps of a horse going across country? The research shows lower stress levels for a horse riding outside rather than in an arena and I believe it puts our sport in profit and justifies the inherent risks to the horse.

Safety and us

It is so easy to do nothing and say nothing about these safety matters, leaving it up to ‘the powers that be’ to possibly take action? But all of us have a stake in our sport and we need an ‘us’ philosophy if there is going to be definite action both to successfully promote our wonderful sport of eventing, within and outside the equine world, and substantially reduce the number of fatalities.

It is not only for what we do that we are responsible, but also for what we don’t do. If we don’t improve complementary training for eventing, and if we don’t use deformable technology to a greater degree, then we are all responsible for the consequences. It is up to us.

Did you miss one of William Micklem’s column in this series?

William Micklem: Safety and Reality

William Micklem: Safety and Trust

William Micklem: Safety and Responsibility

William Micklem: Safety and Blindness

William Micklem: Safety and Forwards

William Micklem: Safety and Forwards

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. This is the fifth column in the series: part onepart twopart three, part four. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

Lucinda Green and Be Fair forwards and in flight over the notorious Fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973. Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

Lucinda Green and Be Fair forwards and in flight over the notorious fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973. Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

Over 4,400 Allied soldiers were killed on Tuesday 6th June, 1944. ‘D’ day in World War II. The Allied landings in Normandy were not for the faint hearted as they came under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, with a shore that was mined and covered with wooden stakes, metal tripods and barbed wire.

Commanding the floating tanks on this day was Col. Errol Prior-Palmer. He went on to become a Major General, and was awarded a Legion of Honour, a Croix de Guerre and a DSO for bravery and service.

His natural modesty meant that few in the eventing world ever knew of his military life, but as many know his daughter Lucinda was for a time the most famous event rider in the world, with six wins at Badminton and seven championship gold medals in the 1970s and 80s. She is pictured above flying high on Be Fair at the notorious fence two at the Kiev European Championships in 1973.

Blood, guts and thunder

So is there some genetic predisposition here? Were father and daughter both natural warriors? Does a good cross-country rider need the attitude of a warrior? One often reads in the sports pages of various individuals or teams ‘going to war’ and the last thing my father always said to me before starting a show jumping or cross country round was “over the top.”

Getting a rider and horse ‘in gear’ for cross country is obviously vital, but does it mean that we should ‘stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood,’ as though we were going to war?

This is a serious point because it is a safety issue. The ‘old school’ riders often describe many of today’s riders as soft, lacking in both physical and mental strength, and forgetting how to ride forwards boldly. Getting your horse to go forwards is vital, but using ‘blood, guts, and thunder’ to put a horse ‘in gear’ will not produce what is required, and will put the rider who does this in danger.

This approach will never produce a partnership. It may produce a horse that submits to the rider’s dominant will, but that horse will run into difficulties as soon as the rider makes a mistake, or it may produce a horse that is so fired up it just runs blind, and that is a result that has killed riders in recent years.

Of course the other side of this coin is a horse or rider that is not in gear. This is a serious problem, particularly at a slow speed, and we all know it will bring things to a grinding halt very quickly. Perhaps this is why it is so tempting to err on the side of a little extra fire and brimstone!

Adrenalin is not the answer

However there is no point riding in a way that creates considerable tension and anxiety, because this tension inevitably has a paralyzing effect on the horse’s performance. And exactly the same applies to you as a rider! No human athlete will perform at their best if they are stressed and tense. Instead they need to be calm, focused and confident … ‘in the zone.’ Without these positive mental qualities high-level physical performance is impossible … and some degree of blind panic is the more likely result.

‘What we need is a bucket of adrenalin’ many will say. But what we need to understand is that although it increases blood flow to muscles and raises the pain threshold it helps neither horse nor rider to think more clearly or more positively. So don’t hope for self-control or good decisions or a positive experience under the influence of large amounts of adrenalin, as it largely just helps the flight or fight response, neither of which are conducive to a happy cross-country experience. A little adrenalin is sufficient.

What is so interesting is that the research shows clearly that the greater amount of adrenalin there is the greater the state of negative feelings. So with humans there is a greater sense of fear and awareness of the things that could go wrong, and with horses there will be the unhappy memories of these experiences. So much so that when in a similar situation they become less willing or even unwilling to perform. This is not uncommon with young racehorses and young sport horses that have initially been asked to perform in a stressful environment that has meant they were full of adrenalin.

Of course there are degrees of all these responses, but it shows clearly how important it is to take the time to build acceptance and calmness alongside forwardness, and take the time to get a horse used to the whole competition environment a step at a time. Then they can be taught to go with ‘controlled impulsion,’ which is another way of saying the horse is ‘in gear,’ and ready for the right exercise in the whole progression of exercises.

Therefore for rider safety it is vital that riders across the board understand what being ‘in gear’ means and understand that to have either horse or rider too full of adrenalin increases the risk of an accident. Our coaches and our training material need to sell this message more powerfully.

Coolness under fire

Looking to the best is a good start to gaining this understanding. Andrew Nicholson, William Fox-Pitt, Michael Jung and their horses always seem cool, calm and confident yet fully committed. And those such as Philip Dutton, Caroline Powell and Mark Kyle demonstrate this same fluid and invariably foot perfect forward style across country. These days we are also lucky enough to be easily able to study these riders as there are hours of film footage available, as well as written details of their training programmes.

There is another rider who opened my eyes to how a supremely positive approach does not mean ‘blood, guts and thunder.’ It was Lucinda Green. In 1973 I was at Badminton to see close up how a 19-year-old first-timer shut herself away in the stable with Be Fair, in advance of what was then called the ‘speed and endurance,’ and put herself in the zone and at ease with the task ahead.

Their partnership across country was extraordinary. They totally believed in each other, as befits a talented pair that had literally grown up into adulthood together with the same ‘yes we can’ outlook, and together they won Badminton. What is fascinating is that Lucinda has a different opinion, feeling that adrenalin is essential! But communication is not easy and I firmly believe that my ‘in the zone’ is her ‘adrenalin.’ To me she has always epitomized coolness under fire, able to think clearly under pressure, unlike competitors who are stressed.

More than just a massive fence

Later that year Lucinda and Be Fair went to Kiev in the British team for the European Championships. This competition has become famous because of the notorious fence two on the cross country. A maximum dimension oxer over a massive ditch off a short right hand turn on hard ground … and yes it was just fence two!

However with the steeplechase and roads and tracks in advance of the cross country horses were more warmed up than is often the case today, and few felt it was going to cause so many problems. Horse after horse struggled over it or fell there, including both Princess Anne and Janet Hodgson of the British team. It was not pretty!

Lucinda was well aware of the challenge when her turn came. Deliberately she approached slightly faster than the turn allowed, meaning that she had to jump slightly across the oxer but was truly in gear. She also took out her stick. “I put my whip like a fishing rod in my right hand. It was something that I have never done before or since.” From the photograph at the top it can be seen that all looked well in mid-air, but this is what happened:

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

So why did Be Fair almost fall on landing? Lucinda believes that Be Fair was simply short of scope, but there were many who fell who had bags of scope, including Princess Anne’s Goodwill who was a high-level show jumper. My theory is that the fence created an optical illusion, as often happens when you get parallel lines with connected offset lines at 90 degrees, and this is something that needs research. In general we need to know more about how and what a horse sees.

For example we all know how much a ground line helps a horse judge a fence but we see tables without ground lines contravening most guidelines. Should this be allowed? Many of the falls at tables are probably caused by poor training and riding, but without doubt horses can misread a fence, particularly without ground lines, and then rotational falls happen. In addition to using deformable technology the whole area of optical illusions needs to be examined to see how they can be countered.

Seeking mastery

In terms of horses being able to read a fence better I was heartened this week, reading on Eventing Nation about William Fox-Pitt’s clinic in Ocala, when he emphasized about a horse looking and thinking for themselves when jumping. “The most important thing is for the horse to be thinking on its own. Unless you’re Michael Jung, you make mistakes and things go wrong. You have to teach the horse the stride isn’t always right, the line isn’t always right, and that’s why we start from trot.”

I was lucky enough to jump Be Fair a couple of times, albeit over small fences, and it was the first time I had felt a horse slightly lengthen or shorten all by themselves. It was the something that I won’t forget, but most of all I will remember from Lucinda that good cross-country riding is not going to war or a kamikaze exercise.

As the Washington Post sports journalist legend, Sally Jenkins says, “What separates risk takers from suicidal idiots is mastery.” The same applies to cross-country riding, so progress must be dependent on establishing quality cross-country work at each stage for each partnership. This quality progression makes riders safer, but it does require specific training for the cross country. It is simply foolish and dangerous to only do dressage and show jumping training.

Relative danger of different activities

It is the accidents waiting to happen because of bad training, bad riding or bad fences that we need to prevent if at all possible, but we should not fall into the trap of thinking that riding across country is in the same category of dangerous sport, as for example motorcycle racing and mountain climbing, or indeed war.

Statistics are notoriously difficult to compare but in terms of the number of fatalities, water sports are the big killers in Ireland, with an average 140 people drowning each year. In 2014, when I last looked at this subject, I found another interesting comparative statistic. That year there was one fatality for every 16,447 starters in FEI horses trials, which means this is almost exactly the same degree of risk as childbirth in Ireland, with the year’s figures showing 1 fatality per 16,666 births … a country that has fewer fatalities in childbirth than many.

Another disturbing comparison is with car driving in Ireland. That years figures show 1 fatality for every 13,025 drivers on the road! While World War II produced a mind-boggling, heart-wrenching estimated total of over 15 million military fatalities.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a generational amnesia about such horrors, and although not comparable in any direct sense it is not surprising that attitudes were different in the early days of eventing. At Kiev, Janet Hodgson and her brilliant Irish partner Larkspur, winners of Burghley the year before, both went face first into the stoney ground on the landing side of fence two. Janet broke all her front teeth in the process and damaged her shoulder, but pouring blood she remounted and completed! Different times and different attitudes.

Sport not war

So when I shout “forwards” in a lesson I often remember my Father having to go ‘over the top’ into battle and how lucky my generation is. I also never forget that horse riding is an activity where peaceful humane attitudes, progressive training and good sportsmanship should always prevail. And when going over the top down to fence one on the cross country riders should have every expectation, not of traps and danger, but of a course that is fair and appropriate for well-prepared partnerships … and a course that makes full use of deformable technology.

Next time: The final article in this series, SAFETY AND US, including the safety issues of the new FEI championship rules and why we should be heartened not depressed about our sport.

William Micklem: Safety and Blindness

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. This is the fourth column in the series: part one, part two, part three. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

Leo Micklem on Arrow Flight getting properly fit for cross country. Arrow Flight is a half brother to Jackaroo and High Kingdom, being out of High Dolly and by the Irish Draught Grange Bouncer. Photo by William Micklem.

Leo Micklem on Arrow Flight getting properly fit for cross country. Arrow Flight is a half brother to Jackaroo and High Kingdom, being out of High Dolly and by the Irish Draught Grange Bouncer. Photo by William Micklem.

If humans could literally look at the world through the eyes of a horse they would be very disappointed. The human eye is an incredible instrument. For example the lens can alter shape almost instantly to change between long and short sight, we can see things in glorious technicolor, and many of us have 20/20 vision. But the horse has none of these powers!

If good human vision is 20/20, a horse rates as 20/60. This means that details a person with 20/20 vision can see at 60 meters are only visible to a horse at 20 meters. They also probably see things in fairly drab hues with no strong reds or greens, more shades of grey, yellow and brown. But worst of all their lens is immobile, so primarily they rely on changing the position of their head to see short and long distance.

In addition they basically look down their noses, so when the head is vertical and they are trying to look forward they see just the ground directly in front of them but almost nothing further forward and higher up. To look further ahead and higher they need to change the angle of the head more towards the horizontal. So a rider stopping a horse from changing the angle of his head in front of the fence is limiting a horse’s sight.

To have a contrast in colours is important, and its absence was probably a factor in William Fox-Pitt’s fall at Le Lion d’Angers. This was probably also a major cause of the difficulties at the final water complex at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy. It was not comfortable viewing as the majority of horses struggled up the bank and bounce in the middle.

When I walked the course after the competition it was obvious that the colour of the water and the bank was almost identical, making it hugely difficult for the horse. The cross-country guidelines also say not to use white fences in water but Will Faudree’s very serious fall, with Hans Dampf at Five Points in 2015, was over a white table in water.

Horses must be able to see clearly what they are jumping. Another example, from last year, when this probably did not happen, was when Liz Halliday-Sharp lost her four-star partner, HHS Cooley, jumping a fairly small but maximum width open oxer off a turn.

Liz said, I arrived at the fence with the correct pace and a good shot and plenty of leg on, and as Cooley jumped he must have suddenly thought it was a bounce, and he came down in the middle of the fence, just in front of the back rail.” Logic and an understanding of a horse’s eyesight would suggest this fence should have been narrower and better defined. The same applies to the increasing use of wide flat tables with a sloping back section that the horse cannot see on take off.

It has to be asked why some course designers and some technical delegates can occasionally be blind to the logic behind the FEI guidelines for cross-country fences? Surely they need to work together more so there can be better checks and balances, combined with being held to account in a more transparent and official process. Such a process would result in higher standards and spread the responsibility, making it a win-win situation for riders and officials, and therefore also our sport. 

Blind to logic

My suggestion in ‘Safety and Reality’ that we need to create more room for error has confused some readers. But the logic is obvious if we look at it like this: There is little room for error, and therefore a higher risk of an accident, if a horse is going close to their maximum scope, or close to their maximum speed, or close to their limit of energy. However if a horse is jumping fences that are well within their ability level, are going well within their maximum speed, and are full of energy there is more room for error, and therefore a lower risk of an accident.

One reader wrote to disagree, saying that it was an important skill to learn how to ride a tired horse. If it was racing I would say yes, but we are talking about eventing. If the fittening and conditioning is as it should be I see no reason why an event horse should finish the cross country feeling tired. In racing it is normal for a horse to be taken to his limit in terms of speed and energy — it is the very nature of the game — but this should not be the case in eventing.

In terms of both safety and success, for the short and long term, it is logical and sensible to have your horse fit enough so that they can do more than what is required in the competition, rather than being only ‘just fit enough,’ as is often the case, or the dangerous ‘not quite fit enough.’ Tired horses are an accident waiting to happen. It also has to be remembered that a horse going close to his maximum speed will become tired much more quickly than a horse going at three-fourths speed.

At some recent championship events, including the last two Olympics and the WEG in Normandy, horses have finished tired or not been able to finish at all as they ran out of steam. Therefore it has to be asked if the right type of horses, with sufficient gallop and stamina, are being used at the higher levels. Fortunately there is now a swing back to more quality horses and more Thoroughbred blood in four-star horses, and I believe this will make for a safer sport.

In addition it is still important that competitors recognize their responsibility to ride according to the ability and fitness of their horse and be prepared to pull up when things are not right. The future of the sport depends both on our success in ensuring the humane treatment of horses, and the public’s perception of the sport that this is true.

However I have no doubt that one of the great strengths of our sport is the wonderful way we look after our horses and example we set for the rest of the horse world. It is always a joy to go to a competition and see hundreds of well fed and happy horses and see new generations learning to both ride well and learn good stable management. The value of this aspect for the horse world in general should not be underestimated when selling our sporting product, because I am not aware of any other equine activity doing it better. 

Blind to dressage coefficient dangers

There is one issue that a number of us have tried and failed to draw attention to for several years. It is the issue of the dressage coefficient. From 1977, when they introduced marks out of 10 for each movement instead of 6, a coefficient or multiplying factor of 0.6 was used on the dressage scores to bring the scores closer together. This had the desired effect of reducing the influence of the dressage mark.

Then in 1998 the coefficient was very quietly changed to 1.5, thus increasing the influence of the dressage and thereby decreasing the influence of the jumping. Apart from having the opposite effect on the relative influences of the three phases than most think is right, it also makes following the scores very difficult for the wider audience. It also means that in the subjective world of dressage judging the bad scores of a judge having an off day have a greater chance of ruining the competition!

The movers and shakers in our sport are always talking about how the influence of the cross country can be increased, but they come to a dead end because of safety considerations. No one wants an increase in fence size or required speed. But by removing the dressage coefficient and reducing the influence of the dressage it automatically means that the influence of the cross country is increased. It also means that the audience can immediately understand the scores, based on a simple percentage, and the subjective side of the sport can be decreased.

But the worst thing about this coefficient is that it impacts negatively on safety. To win at the one-star and two-star level the dressage has to be very good, even more so than at National competitions where there are no coefficients. Therefore the top riders look for horses of a dressage type to win at this level.

Unfortunately many of these horses are not the best cross-country horses, both because of a lack of gallop and lack of efficiency in their jump. Some also have stamina problems. However the obvious result of winning at the two-star level is to take them on to the three-star and four-star level. Then life becomes more of a struggle on the cross country, there is little or no room for error and the risk of a fall and a serious accident is increased.

I have written about this several times and Jane Heidelberg from the USA has sent the FEI full breakdowns of championships events in recent years to show the impact of removing the coefficient. There has been no response, but possibly now is the time for the FEI and all of us to take this matter seriously.

Helping riders see the light

There has been one outstanding addition to rider safety in the last year that the FEI should also grasp. It is the EquiRatings Quality Index (ERQI) run by Ireland’s Sam Watson and Diarmuid Byrne. It operates a simple method to help show at what level a horse and rider should be competing. Without a doubt the evidence is there that its use would have saved lives in the past and therefore the strong probability is that it will save lives in the future. For example, in their first year working with Eventing Ireland falls at two-star level in National competitions fell by 56%.

Irish team member Sam Watson, son of John Watson, who was silver medallist on Cambridge Blue (TB) at the 1978 Lexington World Championships behind Bruce Davidson on Might Tango (TB), explains:

“The ERQI is one more tool in the safety toolbox. It is based on factual results and uses data science to assess both the risk and likelihood of success in the cross-country phase. It works because those with poor form and low likelihood of success are far more susceptible to falls, particularly horse falls at the higher levels. Therefore the system can step in before the fall does. The reaction has been overwhelming positive. The talk of increased awareness, better decision making and more targeted training, all as a result of using the ERQIs, is making our sport safer.” 

Blind to the need for change

A good idea has to give way to a better idea and the EquiRatings Quality Index is a great example of this. There are other good ideas that need to take root in relation to course design, training and progression. Unfortunately a few traditionalists are blind to the need for change. Instead they would like both officials and participants to take a more robust attitude and take a step back to the ‘good auld days’ of eventing.

But a quick look at the old films will show falls galore and many unacceptable sights. In many ways they were the ‘bad auld days,’ with some fatalities of both riders and horses, but records were not kept and as ever memories tend to be blind to the difficult days.

There are better ways that treat horses humanely and avoid the accidents waiting to happen. We can develop the EquiRatings model and have data not just on clear rounds but on the quality and level of risk of a cross country round. We can also improve the cross-country guidelines and the training culture so that horses are always allowed to see clearly what they are jumping.

Next time: SAFETY AND THE FUTURE, including the worst fence ever jumped in a cross country and an unforgivable drowning.

William Micklem: Safety and Responsibility

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. Click here for the first column and here for the second column. Click here to read all of William's guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

William Fox-Pitt and Reinstated at Le Lion d'Angers. Photo by Libby Law Photography.

William Fox-Pitt and Reinstated at Le Lion d’Angers before their fall at the keyhole. Photo by Libby Law Photography.

I sat on the path just staring at the green screens. Any fatality is tragic but what would happen to our sport if this man had been killed? The man who has won more international events than anyone else, and is probably the most recognizable rider in the world. The man who is a role model to thousands, including me, and consistently gets things right.

As we all know William Fox-Pitt survived his fall at the keyhole fence at Le Lion d’Angers in France, and recovered to ride in his fifth Olympics in Rio, but to say the least it was obviously a very close call.

A contract between rider and horse

So was anyone or anything responsible for his fall?

We all have specific responsibilities in our sport … officials, trainers, coaches, riders and of course not forgetting the horses. Let’s start with the rider and horse: I think about it as a contract between the rider and the horse, because both parties need to metaphorically sign up to the deal that is safe cross-country performance.

Initially the rider has a responsibility, often with the help of a coach, to give their horse the right progressive preparation for cross country, and in particular learn how to keep a consistent positional balance so they become an easy load for their horse. Then for each cross country session the rider must first put their horse ‘in gear’ in a very positive manner, then give their horse the right direction and speed for each fence. After this it is the horse’s responsibility to ‘take ownership’ of the fence and do the jumping.

Teaching and allowing the horse to take ownership of the fence is a key part of safe cross country riding … and there is common agreement about this from the best of riders and coaches.

“The horse’s responsibility is to do the jumping and to do this they need a clear view of the fence and a rider who leaves the horse alone in the final strides.” David O’Connor

“When schooling I like to trot to fences on a loose rein … and in canter I want a horse looking at the fence and judging it, deciding to pick up early or late … I like to let go my rein and leave it up to them … I believe my horses have to learn to be wrong.” William Fox- Pitt

And finally Jimmy Wofford with an echo of last week’s article on trust and previous articles about the need for acceptance rather than submission. 

“Certainly we need great movers and powerful jumpers, but above all we need a partner, not a slave … teach him that you will trust him with your life. Give him the education he will need, and then sit quietly while he does the job you have very skillfully and very patiently taught him.”

Fifth leg training

More riders and coaches need to realise the importance of training their horses from the beginning to take responsibility for the jump, and to find that extra leg when required … what I call fifth leg training.

If your horse looks carefully at what they are jumping, is able to make small alterations when getting a little too close or far away from a fence, then produces an appropriate jumping effort and copes quickly with the unexpected slip or stumble, they can be said to have a ‘fifth leg.’

The traditional Irish horse has a legendary fifth leg and this has been a major reason for buying Irish event horses. However there is also undoubtedly a nurturing component to this, with young Irish horses spending their early years in big fields in a more natural environment, and often hunting as young horses. There are also thousands of ponies showing a wonderful fifth leg and a good ‘brain’ every weekend in Ireland, and a little pony blood undoubtedly works well with sport horses.

I will never forget Camilla Spiers on the brilliant little four-star dynamo Portersize Just A Jiff at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, simply dancing through the first water complex. ‘Jiff’ is one-half Connemara and one-eighth Irish Draught and has an extraordinary fifth leg.

There was a big maximum drop, followed by a big brush drop into the water, followed by a wide skinny on a bending line with an awkward distance. Many horses struggled with the skinny and few jumped it cleanly, but ‘Jiff’ turned it into a Pony Club exercise by neatly banking the skinny like a gymnast on a vaulting horse!

If you want to be safe across country the fundamental aim in training should be to develop a horse’s ability to look after themselves, even when in a little difficulty as ‘Jiff’ was in France. Therefore all horses should have a ‘fifth leg training’ programme as an integral part of their preparation for cross country. I believe it is the one area that is often neglected in the training of event horses despite its obvious need. The huge pay off is that training in this way will allow more room for rider error and keep riders safer.

Without exaggeration I make fifth leg training for the horse part of every single lesson in the same way I make ‘feel’ part of every lesson for the rider.

To turn a horse out on varied terrain and hack up and down hills and over all types of ground is fifth leg training. To have a horse in a natural outline with self-carriage and a soft ‘allowing’ rein contact is fifth leg training. To ensure the rein contact is a communication point not a support point is fifth leg training. To jump grids and small fences without a rein contact, while keeping a consistent balance with no body throwing, is fifth leg training. And especially if this type of training starts when a horse is young it is hugely beneficial.

However there are some horses that are slow in their brains and slow to react who may never be suitable for cross country. The worrying thing is that we are probably now breeding more of these unsuitable cross country horses as we move away from traditional event horse breeding, and away from rewarding a good ‘brain’ in young horses in preference for a big trot and an exaggerated jump … neither of which help produce a good cross country round.

The opposite of fifth leg training

It is also a regular occurrence that some horses don’t take sufficient care across country simply because they are listening too much to their rider, a rider who is over demanding and over riding. The root of this is often bad dressage, with a rider who uses the rein too much and seeks submission rather than acceptance. Then when jumping this rider may also distract their horse close to a fence as they dominate, and the result will be a greater risk of an accident.

As William Fox-Pitt says: “I always rides with neck strap … ridiculed but part of my riding … I put a finger in when jumping or when one bucks … it also keeps me from interfering with the rein … a rider interfering with rein on way down to fence is fundamentally dangerous.”

So when a rider is doing this continually, or is obviously out of balance, or has obviously and regularly the wrong speed, we should not be afraid of taking action to send this rider ‘back to school.’ But William Fox-Pitt has no need to go back to school except to teach other riders. He rides beautifully, he is patient and progressive in his training, and he rides talented horses. So although every rider, no matter how good, will have freak falls, it is worthwhile looking in other directions for reasons for his fall in France.

The technical delegate and ground jury

Two horses fell at the keyhole fence, four horses stopped and several left legs, so it did not jump well, especially bearing in mind this was an elite field of some of the very best young horses in the world. However it was reported that neither the technical delegate, the ground jury, nor the rider representatives made any comments about the fence beforehand. 

It is very surprising that they made no comment because this fence had no brush or equivalent at the top, despite the FEI guidelines stating that with a keyhole fence ‘any surface that can be touched by the horse must always be soft.’ British Eventing suggests “at least 25cm brush above the solid part of a keyhole fence.” This is obviously sensible because many horses jumping a keyhole tend to be very economical with their jump because of the roof over their heads.

Then when you add into this equation a large crowd on the road below (it was a main access point), a downhill approach towards the end of the course after a galloping section, with width on the fence and a steep slope on the far side, it all adds up to a very challenging fence. In addition the fence was in a group of trees and all the fence was of a similar colour, meaning the part to be jumped was camouflaged, yet most guidelines state that materials should be of light color in situations where shadows come into play.

The very experienced and well-respected course designer Mike Etherington Smith, who is in the process of updating the FEI guidelines for cross country, thinks that these fences should have no spread. But international stars Buck Davidson, Doug Payne and Lucinda Green all go further and say that they should not be used, especially as Irish rider Samuel Moore was killed in a fall at a keyhole at Blenheim in 1997, and in more recent times Harry Meade had two bad falls over them, and Andrew Nicholson’s bad fall was when jumping a fence under a banner — all in addition to William Fox-Pitt’s fall.

A joint responsibility

It is easy to be wise after the event but in fact coaches and riders have been concerned about keyhole fences for some time, and ways need to be found for us to communicate more effectively on all safety issues. It is also possible that we need a separate specialist cross-country ground jury to inspect the courses, rather than the present system of using a ground jury whose primary task is judging the dressage. It is also possible as Mike Etherington-Smith says that “some of the (cross country) guidelines could become rules.”

So together we should accept our joint responsibility for the future and go forwards.

Next time: SAFETY AND BLINDNESS … including specific ideas for fifth-leg training and further concerns regarding fence design.

William Micklem: Safety and Trust

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from EN guest columnist William Micklem. Click here to read the first column in this series, and click here to read all of William's guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing. Go Eventing.

Sam Micklem on Smart Spirit at the Junior European Championships in Poland. Smart Spirit trusting Sam, and Sam trusting and allowing Smart Spirit to do his job. Photo by William Micklem. Sam Micklem on Smart Spirit at the Junior European Championships in Poland. Smart Spirit trusting Sam, and Sam trusting and allowing Smart Spirit to do his job. Photo by William Micklem.

No trust, no us! Who would argue that riding is not about a partnership … and if we want partnership we need trust, so successful cross-country riding is all about trust. Your horse must trust you not to ask a question that is too difficult and the rider has to trust and allow their horse to deliver; yet if that trust is broken, both the partnership is damaged and safety is compromised. And most of us know what a lengthy and difficult process it is to rebuild trust.

There is a cute story of a little girl and her father who were crossing a bridge. The father asked his little daughter, “Sweetheart, please hold my hand so that you don’t fall into the river.” The little girl responded, “No, Dad. You hold my hand.” “What’s the difference?” asked the puzzled father. “There’s a big difference,” replied the little girl. “If I hold your hand and something happens to me, chances are that I may let your hand go. But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that no matter what happens, you will never let my hand go.”

You and your horse have to also metaphorically hold hands. You must be prepared to hold the horse’s hand and he must be prepared to give you his hand to hold, rather than the opposite way round. This means that the rider has the leadership role, the parenting role. And neither being a bully nor a timid person makes for good parenting, or a trustworthy partner. Instead a trustworthy partner often has to put the other first and always communicate honestly and respectfully.

The FEI and safety 

For the sport of eventing to fulfill its potential all the stakeholders need to trust each other and sadly there is currently a lack of trust between many riders and the FEI regarding safety issues. As explained in my previous article I fully believe that good course design and construction is only part of the safety picture, but the story of our progress towards deformable fences does not paint a picture of a sport on top of this issue.

A question for you all. When were deformable fences first recommended to an official international body looking at cross country safety. (A) 7 years ago? (B) 14 years ago? (C) 17 years ago? The answer, which may surprise many, is (C). It was in 2000 and was made by David Morton to the Hartington Enquiry into Eventing Safety.

This enquiry was chaired by the Marquess of Hartington (GBR), and the committee members were Christopher Bartle (GBR), David O’Connor (USA), Dr. Gerit Matthesen (GER), Lt. Col. Gerry Mullins (IRL), Professor Inggar Lereim (NOR), Michael Tucker (GBR) and the man who played such a huge part in making Grand Prix motor racing safer, Scotland’s Jackie Stewart.

In their report, issued to the FEI on the 27th March 2000, the Hartington Enquiry unanimously recommended “urgent research into construction of deformable structures” … with the “FEI to coordinate all current and future research worldwide.”

An alternative to frangible pins

To be fair it is true that frangible pins were first introduced in 2002 in Britain, when they were trialled at nine events, including the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials. But thereafter progress in their development and use, particularly internationally, has been slow, and fatalities because of rotational falls have continued. However a Swedish designer, Anders Flogård and his colleague Mats Björnetun, working for the Swedish MIM company that has long been associated with safety products, were ahead of the game.

They recognised that if the prevention of rotational falls was the prime objective of deformable fences, then a solution had to be found that would respond to both horizontal and vertical forces when a horse hits a fence. (NB: The frangible pins only respond to downward vertical forces.) Their solution was the MIM clip, which had the additional advantages of use on tables and allowing fences to be quickly rebuilt.

In March 2011 I watched an explanation and demonstration at Red Hills in Tallahassee, Florida to explain how the MIM safety clip worked to reduce the risk of a rotational fall. However the MIM clip for post and rails was only finally approved by British Eventing five years later in 2016, and by the FEI for use in 2013. (The MIM wall and table kit was FEI approved in 2015.) In addition it should be understood that there is a big gap between ‘approval’ and ‘recommended use’, and even last year there was a report of the MIM being impractical for events because of expense!

The United States Eventing Association are now responding to both the research on rotational falls and the opinions of the riders and taking the extra step towards recommendation. On 17th December last year the USEA announced that it was proposing to introduce an “extraordinary” rule change to improve cross-country safety for horse and rider, with a recommendation that the front rails must be able to be lowered by horizontal and vertical downwards and upwards forces, and that the back rails must “at a minimum” be activated by horizontal and vertical downwards forces.”

The way forward

This is reassuring news and it is also reassuring news that statistically eventing is getting safer, but can we do more? This is the question that will be asked at an FEI Risk Management Summit due to be held next month in Ireland, to include not only national safety officials but also athletes, coaches, course designers and technical delegates. Chaired by the very hard working David O’Connor (USA), the group has been set up to look at ways to minimise risk factors in eventing, with a focus on coordinating risk management initiatives on a global basis.

The key need is a sense of urgency so that small steps are taken immediately to improve safety in all areas, including training and riding. The relative inaction after the Hartington report in 2000 was an opportunity largely lost. Now we have another opportunity for progress. This time if all the stakeholders work together and listen to each other then mutual trust can be built and our sport become safer. We are also going to get a better understanding of the statistics and make better conclusions.

For example the 2015 FEI report into risk factors by Charles Barnett was valuable, but in a key area it muddied the waters. It stated that falls at jumps with frangible pins were found to be about 1.6 times more likely than at jumps without frangible pins, with the inference that frangible pins were possibly not beneficial. But to many in the sport this was an obvious result and statistic because frangible pins were used on the fences that were most likely to cause falls.

Surely there is already compelling scientific evidence and statistics, from both British Eventing and the FEI, to say that anyone connected with cross country has a duty of care to use deformable technology wherever possible to keep our riders safer. Surely we should trust our governing bodies to do this? To do more than just approve it but actively ensure it is put into practice. 

The same for show jumping and eventing 

Regarding safety and training my previous article on safety mentioned the connection with show jumping, and I know a number of people have questioned this, but I stand by what I said. As an example Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum has the perfect position in the second half of a jump for a cross-country drop fence. Few event riders do better. Her knee and hip joints open keeping her centre of mass over the horses centre of mass and keeping a strong lower leg position, which both keeps her safer and makes it easier for her horses to perform and turn on landing or simply be ready for the next fence.

This is also what my son Sam is showing in the main picture for this article, with the key being to open the hip and knee joints rather than sit on the back of the saddle with a floppy lower leg. (NB: The fence following this log was a skinny just eight strides away at the bottom of the hill after a 90-degree turn.)

In addition my very trustworthy friend, Paddy Hughes of Horse First, sent me an article a few days ago about the Rio Olympic show jumping silver medallist Peder Fredricson. Peder and his little horse All In have been somewhat forgotten behind the emotional gold medal success of the galloping granddad Nick Skelton, but what Peder said in this interview was pure gold for my argument regarding both the close connection between eventing and show jumping and a safer approach:

“My system is influenced by my many years in eventing, based on inviting the horses to think for themselves, in order to go fast, jump well and keep their own balance. I want a mental dialogue together with my horses. A communication where I receive questions, suggestions, initiatives, thoughts and answers so we together can make decisions. I don’t want to be the dictator telling my horse what to do, just as little as I want to do this with my kids. I’m looking for an honest relationship. A give and take, a mutual understanding, respect and trust. That to me is riding.”

Thank you, thank you Peder. But to my delight there was more! How did the interview with Peder Fredricson end but with the perfect words to link with my previous series on happiness. What better way can there be to finish any article? “Last, but not least … keep the joy of what you are doing. The most important part is to keep enjoying your life and love what you do. Happiness and love are contagious. You can’t build a happy life on success, because you won’t win every day. But you can build a happy life on happiness.”

William Micklem: Safety and Reality

We are delighted to start the new year with a series on safety in eventing from guest columnist William Micklem. Click here to read all of William's guest columns on EN. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

Sam Micklem and Hi Heaven — a full sister of Mandiba, High Kingdom and William's stallion Jackaroo — at Ballinamona in 2015. Photo by Donal O’Beirne/Hoofprints Innovations. Sam Micklem and Hi Heaven — a full sister of Mandiba, High Kingdom and William's stallion Jackaroo — at Ballinamona in 2015. Photo by Donal O’Beirne/Hoofprints Innovations.

The Saturday morning family explosion! Wake up calls, sock hunts, caffeine lifelines. Children and animals to be fed, hockey for Lara, piano for Jack, granny to be collected, shopping and dental hygienist … and of course jumping lesson at 3 o’clock and the entry for that first CCI* to be made. The competition dream lives on!

The reality of life means that for most riders our timetable is a compromise. Our equestrian ambitions are under constant threat from a clutch of competing demands; with family, work and finances forming a three-line controlling collar, often holding back riders to such an extent that their horse is handed over to another rider, who will “make better use of Scout’s great potential.”

Similar compromises and balancing acts often also apply to professional full-time event riders. Their time with their best horses and improving their own riding skills often being restricted, as they rush from giving lessons to managing their barns, from collecting forage to schooling the ‘difficult’ and young horses they are paid to ride … and all the while try to fulfill their family responsibilities and have a work-life balance.

Reduce the Risk of an Accident

As you read this some will smile as you recognise your own lifestyle and the madness of modern life. Cutting corners, burning the candle at both ends and compromises are the reality of so many busy lives. However what most people will not think of is that this probably makes you less safe as a rider. Particularly with cross country safety if your preparation and training is of the ‘just in time’ and ‘it’ll have to do’ variety, and worst still your mind is not fully focussed on the task at hand, then there is an increased risk of an accident.

So what can we do about this? Probably the most obvious way to become both more efficient with our horse time, and become safer, is to ensure we train each of the three disciplines that make up eventing with the other two in mind. It seems a no-brainer and the leading riders in the world like William Fox-Pitt and Michael Jung do it superbly.

“I like to canter my horses myself,” says William, “because the way they canter and gallop has a direct connection with the show jumping and dressage.” While Michael Jung is adamant that “every riding session is part of the preparation for all three sections.” There is no doubt that the training for the three phases can be totally integrated and complementary rather than antagonistic.

Therefore it is surely madness for event riders to work with a coach in any one discipline who neither understands the needs of the other two disciplines and/or fails to communicate with the coaches from the other disciplines. Yet this is what happens on a regular basis.

It is understandable that there is a belief that a specialist in any one discipline will have more to offer and it is common for most sports to use specialist coaches, but they do not do this in isolation. The majority of riders would be safer and achieve more if they and their coaches worked within one overall compatible, integrated structure.

Specialists for Eventing

As ever in equine sports there are considered to be many roads to Rome and our task is to choose a route that suits eventing. The USA eventing world is very fortunate that the light seat show jumping positional balance used by the majority of your leading specialist show jumpers is so compatible with cross country riding.

The equitation classes and work of Bert de Nemethy, George Morris and many others have made life a great deal easier for event riders, in comparison for example with European riders where the deep seat show jumping balance is more prevalent. In addition the skills of the best modern show jumping rider in a jump off against the clock are totally compatible with modern cross country demands.

Eventing dressage coaches have also received a huge boost in recent years by the work and success of Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin. Their harmonious methods and philosophy are 100% suited to eventing, but very different from the use of strength and drilling that is still considered acceptable by some dressage trainers. In terms of cross country safety it sends shudders down my spine every time I look at a dressage warm-up area at an event and see a horse being turned into a machine … a machine that is not allowed to think or react for themselves.

The truly great coaches have a high-level understanding and ability in both dressage and jumping. Bert de Nemethy and Jack le Goff were two such men and their influence was huge. Today the all-round ability of Chris Bartle, now coach of the British team, and USA Chef d’Equipe David O’Connor makes an encouraging statement about the skills required by an event coach.

The key result of this joined-up thinking is a more simplified approach to training. And this is also a key element of rider safety, as in difficult situations the more simple the methods the more quickly and easily a rider and horse can react and respond. In general the Australian and New Zealand riders seem to exemplify this simplified, no-nonsense approach, so perhaps it is part of their national culture. In contrast others suffer from a paralysis-by-analysis culture that springs from a lack of balance between the practical and theoretical.

Prioritising for Safety

A simplified approach to horses and life requires sorting out priorities. One needs to decide between what is important and what is unimportant, and between what is urgent and what is not urgent … and respond like this:

  • Important and urgent – DO
  • Important but not urgent – DELAY
  • Unimportant but urgent – DELEGATE
  • Unimportant and not urgent – DUMP

With regard to cross country safety my most important and urgent priority as a coach is to increase the room for error. So often one is told that riders need to be more precise and make fewer errors, but just think about it … if there is very little room for error then a rider is at more risk. What one needs to do is create more room for error, so that when things go slightly wrong, which is inevitable with all levels of riders, you can still stay safe.

To this end I ask five connected key questions, about horse and rider, for which the answer to each needs to be YES in order to significantly reduce the likelihood of falls and injuries:

HORSE:

  1. Do they regularly receive fifth leg training?
  2. Do they look after themselves when jumping?
  3. Are they fit for the task (not tired)?
  4. Are they jumping well within the limit of their scope?
  5. Are they going well within their maximum speed?

RIDER:

  1. Do they have an integrated training method for the three phases?
  2. Do they strive for simplicity in their method?
  3. Do they have a consistent positional balance?
  4. Do they avoid dominating their horse and over riding?
  5. Do they develop a partnership with their horse?

If the answer to any of these questions is NO then it is more likely that the realities of a potentially dangerous activity will catch up with them sooner rather than later. On the other hand if all the answers are YES there is every reason to be confident that rider and horse will return safely after one of the most exhilarating things any rider can do.

Riding across country is life enhancing and worth every moment of the effort required to make it part of your life … worth turning the dream into a safe reality.

William Micklem: The ‘Straight in the Eye’ Test

William Micklem returns today with the final column in his series on the subject of happiness, which has resonated with many EN readers around the world. If you missed them: part 1part 2part 3, part 4Thank you to William for writing, and thank you for reading.

William's daughter Holly and wife Sarah at Pony Club rally. Photo by William Micklem.

William’s daughter Holly and wife Sarah at Pony Club rally. Photo by William Micklem.

Can you look others straight in the eye? Being confident enough to look someone straight in the eye starts with believing that you have worth and have something to offer in the life of the person you are looking at. Then make a big jump and ask yourself if you can look the world in the eye. As Helen Keller famously said, “Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” The fact that Helen Keller was blind gives this quotation an added poignancy and meaning. The ‘straight in the eye’ test all starts with you, within your head.

Thinking you have little worth, putting yourself second, being humble, and generally sacrificing your potential because there are other priorities in life is self-defeating, because others will be the weaker for it. The others being all those you would like to help and support, your family and friends, your team members and work colleagues, or indeed your horses.

Who am I to be happy?

Nelson Mandela got it right when he quoted Marianne Williamson’s word in his inaugural speech in 1994:

“We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine … It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

However this series of articles has sparked several comments along the lines of  ‘our happiness has to be of secondary importance to our horses,’ or ‘happiness is a selfish quest,’ or  ‘my priority has to be surviving not happiness.’ But my belief is that by being the best you can be, developing your own mental and physical strengths, you will find happiness and be better able to do more with your life. As the footballer and philosopher Albert Camus said, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads.”

Yin and Yang no. 3

So is there a route to happiness and success?  As explained earlier in this series I believe good training and happiness requires both the yin and yang of ‘effort and delight’ and also the yin and yang of ‘realities and possibilities.’ There is a third pairing that is at the very heart of training and is the golden key to performance success. It is the yin and yang of ‘Confidence and Competence.’  They both need each other to function.

Confidence says “Will do,” while Competence says “Can do.” Confidence without competence will always lead to a fall … what is often described as misplaced confidence, but competence without confidence rarely produces success. Performance is a ‘mind game’ and there are tens of thousands of very competent performers who never fulfil their potential because of a lack of confidence when under pressure. The not so surprising thing is that this applies to our horses as well.

At home horses with good training and preparation can gradually become competent in the various exercises required in dressage or jumping. But this competency so often suddenly falls through the floor when a horse is faced with the hustle and bustle and unfamiliar surroundings of a competition, or a rider who lacks the confidence to ride as they do at home.

This scenario shows the wisdom of taking the time to quietly and progressively give both your horse and yourself exposure before taking yourselves anywhere near the limits of your performance abilities. Exposure to travelling and other horses, varying environments and weather, and exposure to a very low level of competition — this must be done until you both develop the confidence to look the competition world in the eye and say ‘I am happy being here.’

I am firmly of the belief that too much stress and unhappiness, early on in the life of a horse, can produce the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, from which the recovery period required can be measured in years rather than months

It’s worthwhile

For the elite rider the pressure of being watched by thousands and having money and championships resting on their performance is huge, but the pressures on a low level performer may also be equally harmful to their possible performance. So the quest for happiness is worthwhile across the board. The kick off point is to look yourself in the eye and accept the fact that as the ad says ‘you are worth it.’

It is worthwhile picturing the thousands of people who never put themselves ‘in’ and have a go and are the poorer for it. It is worthwhile reading the words of the thousands of people who don’t regret the things they did but the things they didn’t do. It is worthwhile remembering that horse sports are a sport for life and sport for all, giving both a bigger window of opportunity and more truth to the phrase ‘allowing ordinary people to do extraordinary things.’  It is also worthwhile remembering that we all start from zero, even the Olympic Gold medalists and world champions.

Particularly in the horse world riders are often put off progressing, because they are told by their trainer or others that there is a rider near by who could do a much better job with their horse. But this will always be the case, and if you took this argument to its logical conclusion all horses would just be ridden by Michael Jung, William Fox-Pitt and Philip Dutton! The bottom line is that people are more important than horses and some compromises will always have to be made, with the potential of the horse being sacrificed for the needs and sometimes safety of the rider.

And finally it is worth remembering that there will always be the people we call in Ireland ‘the hurlers on the ditch.’ The people who sit on the sidelines and criticize and complain. As the great Australian poet Banjo Patterson said, “the race will never be run, on sea or sky, or land, than what you’d get it better done by the Riders In The Stand.” But you have to ride your own race, ignore them, and surround yourself by the positive people who will cheer you in the stand and encourage you to new personal bests.

Happiness equals success, not success equals happiness

So you have a go and delight in life and the opportunity, and you look for the things you love and the possibilities, and you subscribe fully to the idea that things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out. And you do the most powerful performance enhancer of all time, which is you take one small step at a time, because yard by yard things are hard and inch by inch life’s a cinch. And you become competent with the guidance of good coaches. And thus you become confident and happy with what you do, and thus you become successful!

Of course everyone is an individual and everyone will find happiness in different directions. It is vital to recognize the diversity and individual needs of humans and horses because this is the basis of living and working together and the foundation of looking at each other straight in the eye.

Camus and sport

I mentioned earlier, with a twinkle in my eye, that the famous philosopher Albert Camus was a footballer? Yes he did love football and played for many years, but he also saw in sport a way of giving meaning to life. After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport ….”

Camus was referring to such things as the principle of sticking up for your friends, of valuing bravery and fair-play. A real connection here to Ultimate (Frisbee) and their Spirit Award. Camus’s belief was that political, religious, and educational authorities try to confuse us with over-complicated moral systems to serve their own needs, whereas greater simplicity would help us all.

Of course simplicity is the master key for so much in life, and if simplicity is what we need to sum up happiness I don’t think it is possible to beat Mahatma Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” And he also said this: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” So let’s go forward together with a little more peace and harmony … and happiness.

Happy Christmas to you all.

William Micklem: Happiness Challenges

William Micklem returns today with the fourth column in his series on the subject of happiness, which has resonated with many EN readers around the world. If you missed them: part 1part 2, part 3. Thank you to William for writing, and thank you for reading.

My brilliant brother Charlie on Village Gossip at Badminton in 1981. He was one of only two riders clear inside the time. The other double clear: a young Mark Phillips on Lincoln winning Badminton for the fourth time. Photo courtesy of William Micklem.

My brilliant brother Charlie on Village Gossip at Badminton in 1981. He was one of only two riders clear inside the time. The other double clear: a young Mark Phillips on Lincoln winning Badminton for the fourth time. Photo courtesy of William Micklem.

Do people who are very particular about small things drive you mad? There is a solution. What you do is to rename these small things “action steps.” Because the very definition of action steps is that they are easily achievable. The truth is that small things matter, and the importance of both action steps and marginal gains are recognized in sport and business worldwide; and without doubt marginal gains can make a huge difference to both happiness and performance in the equestrian world.

Small gains are everywhere, but in the context of equine happiness there are two regularly used words that hinder our effort to produce happy athletes. The two words are “submission” and “losgelassenheit.”

Look for acceptance instead of submission

Submission is the word that appears at the bottom of every dressage sheet as one of the four collective marks, yet it leads riders astray and does little for the horse’s happiness. I always use the term acceptance instead of submission because there is an important distinction between the two words.

Acceptance leads to trust, partnership and agreement, and requires that the horse understands what is required, while submission produces an unquestioning follower. The difference between acceptance and submission is the difference between a horse that knows he could react differently but chooses not to, and a horse that knows there is no other option.

This is quite a subtle distinction, but it makes a huge difference to the effort that a horse is prepared to put into his work and the amount of work he will undertake. It also makes a huge difference to the attitude of riders, possibly subconsciously, with the rider looking for submission often going on too long and too strong and damaging a young or older horse. So we must not neglect the mental side if we want high-level physical performance. The horse is not a machine and a rider who is just a mechanic will make a poor trainer.

Acceptance cannot be achieved instantly because the horse must first understand your aids and what is expected of him. Your aim and responsibility is to gradually create a mutual respect between you and your horse. Anything less than this is not acceptance but submission.

Look for a horse that is happy in their work and be delighted when they give a squeal of delight when jumping. Be delighted when they move towards you when they see you carrying their bridle, and be delighted when their ears are relaxed, their breathing is regular and they respond willingly during their work. This is an accepting horse or pony, and the key is to allow a horse to think for themselves. Do not over dominate because intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise.

The meaning of losgelassenheit

There is also a problem with the translation of the word losgelassenheit, which is listed as the second part of the German Scales of Dressage Training. What does it mean?

It is now usually translated as looseness or suppleness, but in German looseness is lockerheit, and suppleness is geschmeidigkeit. So why was the specific term losgelassenheit used? It is a noun that has been created from the verb loslassen, meaning ‘to let go,’ therefore losgelassen ‘to have let go’ or be comfortable mentally. (Heit is just an ending that changes verbs and adjectives into nouns.)

The key point is that it refers to a mental not physical state. This makes much more sense as otherwise there would be no parts of the training scale with a specific mental dimension, despite the fact that it is obviously vital to have calmness and mental ease as a basic prerequisite for good physical performance. To neglect the mental component will undoubtedly reduce the potential of your horse.

Thankfully in dressage Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin have changed attitudes. Obvious tension is now more heavily penalized and Grand Prix horses are definitely looking happier and showing more losgelassenheit. But the physical qualities of suppleness and looseness are not losgelassenheit. They are something you develop in a horse over a long period of time, using the beautiful progression of exercises, as you work towards maximum impulsion.

It is also worth pointing out that we are regularly told that the Scales of Training are “classical,” but they only came to prominence in the 1950s. The three fundamental classical principles dating from Xenophon, 2,400 years ago, are: 1) that the horse should be developed naturally, 2) that force should not be used, and 3) that the result should be beautiful and beautifully easy … in short, happy athletes. Trainers who follow these principles “have more common threads than knots,” as a former Canadian student of mine, Paige Wilde, wrote to me so memorably last week.

A powerful tale of three horses

In my last article I talked of four main reasons for a horse’s unhappiness: Isolation, Inactivity, Injury and Insanity. However there is another I to add to the list as a reason for both a lack of acceptance and unhappiness. It is Illness or Ill health.

I have experienced a number of “difficult” or “unwilling” horses in my life that were later found to be suffering from an illness. Probably the most fascinating example concerns three very talented half sisters and brothers that my Father, Dick Micklem, had in Cornwall in the 1960s.

As part of his horse business my father had hundreds of young horses over the years that were backed and ridden away, and most were riding through the quiet Cornish lanes in a matter of days, initially using a method that was similar to that which Monty Roberts uses. However we had three youngsters who tested everyone to the limit. They were all out of the same mare, Black Velvet, who herself became a broodmare because no one could ride her.

Duchess of Argyll

The first youngster was a mare, who we christened Duchess of Argyll after the lady whose divorce was a great scandal in England in the early 1960s. Others had tried to “break” her before but this lady was not for breaking. She was gentle in every way until you tried to ride her, when she would show an impressive athletic talent, culminating in her shooting the saddle over her head by lifting both fore legs to her nose and ducking her head, before returning to her best angelic look.

My father persevered and thoroughly enjoyed working with her but it still took nine months for her to “accept” being ridden. She was fantastic. Probably the best all round horse I ever sat on apart from Karen O’Connor’s Biko. She was sold to Judy Bradwell, the British leading rider, trainer and judge, who was then a teenager. They won the individual Pony Club national eventing championships together and then in adult competition Duchess went on to become her first Advanced event horse.

International rider, coach and judge Judy Bradwell on Duchess of Argyll at her first adult official horse trials in 1966 at Wakefield in Yorkshire. They upgraded to Intermediate in their first year, winning three. Judy was Britain's leading rider for three years, winner of Burghley and in recent times dressage trainer of the New Zealand team. Photo by Judy Bradwell.

International rider, coach and judge Judy Bradwell on Duchess of Argyll at her first adult official horse trials in 1966 at Wakefield in Yorkshire. They upgraded to Intermediate in their first year, winning three. Judy was Britain’s leading rider for three years, winner of Burghley and in recent times dressage trainer of the New Zealand team. Photo by Judy Bradwell.

L’Empereur

Our second offspring out of Black Magic was a gelding named L’Empereur. He was supposed to be called Little Emperor, but my inability to pronounce this to the entries secretary at his first show meant that he became L’Empereur, or Lomp for short.

He was even more difficult, wild and athletic, and once again had learnt all the tricks of the trade from those who had failed with him before he arrived with us. He took a full year to be rideable. A year that included many hours of being driven in long reins by my father, around the Cornish lanes and visiting local pubs, as he sat joyfully on the hood of a car!

I say rideable but Lomp could only ridden by my very athletic brother Charlie, who had to run alongside the cantering Lomp and vault on, as he refused to stand still to be mounted. He was bought by clients of Cherry Hatton-Hall FBHS, the trainer who taught Princess Anne to ride while she was at Benenden school in Kent. Despite being only 15.1 he finished his career competing at the four star Burghley Horse Trials, where tragically he broke his leg in the open water on the cross country.

Third time lucky

The third youngster, another gelding, was the best looking and joy of joys no one had tried to do anything with him before. However it was the same story. This one was not going to be ridden in a few days.

Our hearts sank as we faced a long haul to acceptance. Then after three days my father had him euthanized. My brothers and I were amazed, but the post mortem showed a tumor on the brain. We thought he was just wild but my father knew he was not well, and throughout my equestrian life I have remembered this. I always give difficult horses the benefit of the doubt until I am sure they are not in pain. It shows how wrong it is to assume all “difficult” horses just need to be ridden more forwards.

We should not assume that just because a horse is unwilling, napping, rearing or bucking that they are being naughty and need discipline. A proportion will undoubtedly behave like this because of pain. In addition probably a huge number of horses that are “difficult” have learnt their bad habits while they were in pain earlier in their lives, whether it was from illness or an injury such as a sore mouth or back.

The Last Word

It takes real sensitivity and awareness to distinguish between a horse that is in pain and a horse that has learnt bad habits. Good listening and empathy to horses is both a huge pleasure and a vital part of achieving acceptance and happiness.

As Spanish Riding School legend Alois Podhajsky said, “The first and foremost principle of training is to have empathy with your student.” So as we begin to face up to the idea of what “happy athletes” means we are challenged as people to look at equestrian sports in a new way. Happiness challenges us — to be more inventive, more humane and more holistic in our thinking.

Next time: Yin and Yang number three — the heart of training and happiness, and why your happiness is a priority.

William Micklem: Happy Horses, Happy Ponies

William Micklem returns today with the third column in his series on the subject of happiness, which has resonated with many EN readers around the world. If you missed them, click here to read part 1 and here to read part 2. Thank you to William for writing, and thank you for reading.

Holly Micklem on her 7-year-old 14-hand Connemara pony, Sunny Girl, at Dublin Show this year. Photo courtesy of Matt and Sarah Baldock/E.S. Photography.

Holly Micklem on her 7-year-old 14-hand Connemara pony,
Sunny Girl, at Dublin Show this year. Photo courtesy of Matt and Sarah Baldock/E.S. Photography.

Storybook perfect. A young girl on her Connemara pony at one of the biggest shows in the world, Dublin Show at the Royal Dublin Society showgrounds. Holly, my daughter, loves her pony, Sunny Girl, who has been a major part of her life for the last three years. Bought as a 4 year old, they have grown up together and this summer Dublin Show was the competitive highlight of their relationship.

I use the word ‘relationship’ intentionally, because to Holly it is their relationship that is the best thing about riding Sunny, and without doubt it is a two way street of mutual respect, enthusiasm, freedom and happiness. This enhances everything they do together and there are lessons here for adults who may be more correct, but also more controlling and mechanical in their approach to horses and more focused on competition success. As a result they often have less happiness in their equine relationships and ironically less competition success.

Happy Ponies

Ponies like Sunny are exceptional, not just because they are so attractive but because they are so clever. However in terms of brain-power and personality Holly’s first pony, Buie, has even more to offer than Sunny Girl.

Five year old Holly on 27-year-old, 11-hand Buie (short for Drambuie), jumping her first proper fence. Photo by William Micklem.

Five year old Holly on 27-year-old, 11-hand Buie (short for Drambuie), jumping her first proper fence. Photo by William Micklem.

We all love Buie. Now 36 years young, yet still bursting with spirit and constantly aware of everything that goes on around him. He is just 11 hands. A Kerry Bog pony that was the original riding inspiration for all our children.

He loves to be ridden and can still show his enthusiasm with a little leap in the air, an action that others may misinterpret as a buck! He can open most gates, hear you coming from 60 feet in the dark and respond with an instant soft nicker, and distinguish between the sound of my walk and that of someone else who he knows is not so generous with treats. He also used to be able to jump his own height and literally smile when allowed to gallop. He can even get from one field to the next by lying down by the post and rail fence and wriggling under the bottom rail!

What Is Intelligence?

So are Sunny Girl and Buie more intelligent than most horses? Indeed, are many ponies more intelligent than horses? In general I believe that they are, although it is often means that ponies show this by being quicker to find ‘alternative strategies’ to work … yes the naughty pony is probably highly intelligent. However intelligence, like happiness, can be difficult to define when applied to horses.

I believe a horse with intelligence — a good brain — shows this as a young horse by being alert and interested in what is around them. Then as they grow older they become quick to understand communications with humans and learn from anything that happens in their training. Then gradually they become more independent, able to quickly assess new situations by themselves, and based on their past experiences react thoughtfully, sensibly and safely. In other words they become intelligent. This progression also applies to children!

However the progression will not happen if the horse is not happy. An unhappy horse will usually switch off and probably become unwilling and abnormally quick to respond with the natural flight or fight responses of a horse in stress. Unhappiness is debilitating and can make a horse appear unintelligent.

So what makes a horse or pony unhappy? There are four main reasons, the four I’s: They are Isolation, Inactivity, Injury and Insanity.

Isolation and Inactivity

We don’t use single stables. Even with the competition horses in the competition season they are kept in small groups in as natural a way as possible. We do this because horses are herd animals, naturally sociable and in need of other horses to share the role of look out and protector. They need company and interaction with other horses in order to fulfill their natural herd instincts, including building friendships, mutual grooming and play fighting. To keep them isolated from other horses, particularly if it is in a small stable, runs the risk of damaging their mental health and by connection their physical health.

Without doubt there are possible compromises to this management routine, including regular turnout and riding in company, and being able to see and interact with other horses within the barn and over dividing walls. But to keep a horse in isolation behind high windowless walls, and with bars on the stable door to stop them looking out, is nothing but cruelty and a recipe for stable vices.

Given sufficient space horses in the wild tend to be always on the move. In this way they keep themselves fit and mentally settled. So to leave a horse in a small stable without exercise for even two days at a time is bound to have a negative effect on their well-being, especially when this is combined with too little food to keep them occupied. Even when in work we feed as little hard food as possible and as much clean, low-food-value, hay as possible.

Combined with grazing this means that our horses feeding program largely mirrors a natural regime with the horses eating little and often. With the ponies I also add barley or oat straw, so that even those prone to laminitis rarely have nothing to eat. In contrast to this too many horses are given too much hard food, combined with a low quantity of high-food-value haylage, and too little turnout or exercise. As a result they spend the majority of their time just staring at the walls and quietly going stir crazy!

Injury and Insanity

Even the best of riders can be genuinely unlucky and have an accident causing a long-term injury to their horse requiring long-term box rest. Tendon and ligament injuries are fairly common or it may be a something like a hairline fracture or a serious wound that requires little movement to heal.

In these cases it is important to be inventive to avoid boredom. A window to look out of is a minimum requirement. In addition a change of stable every few days can be helpful, as well as large quantities of low feed value hay, possible in one of the devices that only allows a small amount of hay at a time to be eaten. It is also possible to construct a mobile pen in a field, so that a horse can have some variety in their days and eat grass but not gallop. Even taking a horse to a competition as a companion and leaving them in the trailer can enrich a horse’s life as they recover.

The Insanity I refer to is not with the horse but with certain riders and trainers! It fits with that famous line in Nicholas Evans’ book The Horse Whisperer, “It’s a lot like nuts and bolts – if the rider’s nuts, the horse bolts!” Of course I am not suggesting that many riders are actually insane but sometimes there are levels of ignorance or sometimes cruelty that make me say under my breath “this is insanity.”

In my experience the most common type of injury that is not to do with bad luck is with the spine. Horses that are inverted or locked in the back are often in pain and unhappy. It is commonly because a rider is too heavy or unbalanced, particularly in the rising trot, or they do not know how to train or keep a horse using their back. It is probably that many cases of kissing spine are caused by this.

Physical Is Mental

Combined with back pain, one of the major obstacles we face in the sport as we strive for happy horses, is the tendency for many riders to treat their horses as machines. Most will deny this but an analysis of the pressures they put their horses under in training and competition often shows that a rider’s ambition and determination puts the focus largely on just the physical performance, rather than on both the physical and the mental.

Ironically working mechanically will be counter productive as this will usually create tension and anxiety, a tension that inevitably has a paralyzing effect on the horse’s performance. No human athlete will perform at their best if they are stressed and tense and the same applies to a horse. When did you last do something wonderful that was physical? Think about that occasion. An integral part of your physical performance was almost certainly a mental component. You were probably calm, focused and confident, and you may also have been inspired and ‘in the zone.’ Without some of these positive mental qualities high-level physical performance is impossible.

The Last Word from Buie

Buie is no longer capable of high-level physical performance, but he is still sound and spirited. He is also still a great communicator, if we take the time to look and listen, and he knows it is worthwhile talking to us. Of course he cannot talk but he is capable of an incredibly wide range of communication, and if he could talk I am sure he would echo Albert Schweitzer’s words “If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” He loves his life and those who ride him over a period of time definitely feed off his joy. What more can we ask of a pony?

Holly and Buie enjoying their joint freedom in a field in their early days together. Photo by William Micklem.

Holly and Buie enjoying their joint freedom in a field in their early days together. Photo by William Micklem.

Next time in the Happiness series: The two words that cause such unhappiness to horses and the golden yin and yang that underpin all training.

William Micklem: More Thoughts on the Subject of Happiness

William Micklem returns today with follow-up thoughts on his column about the subject of happiness, which resonated with many EN readers around the world. Click here to read his original article. Thank you to William for writing, and thank you for reading.

Sam Micklem and Smart Spirit on their way to winning the Kilmanahan CCI2* this spring. Smart Spirit is out of High Dolly and a half-brother of Mandiba, High Kingdom and William's stallion Jackaroo. Photo used with permission from EquusPix Photography. Sam Micklem and Smart Spirit on their way to winning the Kilmanahan CCI2* this spring. Smart Spirit is out of High Dolly and a half-brother of Mandiba, High Kingdom and William's stallion Jackaroo. Photo used with permission from EquusPix Photography.

My son Sam on his horse Smart Spirit had some wonderfully happy experiences this year, winning his first Senior CCI2*, despite being a Junior, and winning a Young Rider international in Scotland. But he also had some difficult times towards the end of the year when things did not go according to plan.

So he has to count his blessings, draw on his past experiences, both good and not so good, and get through this with the help of his support team. Onwards!

Training for Life

All these challenges are going to be of huge value in Sam’s life as a whole, and he is very lucky to be involved in a sport that will do this. In Germany this year a study showed that horse riding builds character and promotes social development. Commissioned by the German Equestrian Federation, it investigated what character elements were engendered through horse riding.

The study involved 411 riders aged 14 to 65, 91 percent of whom were women and 9 percent male. For comparison, the researchers surveyed 402 non-riders who collectively met the same gender distribution, age and income bands of the riding group. Riders, it was found, were generally more determined, enthusiastic, structured and balanced than their non-riding counterparts. They also showed greater leadership, were more assertive and competitive, and demonstrated greater resilience.

“We have always been convinced of the positive impact of the horse on the development of children and adolescents, because it corresponds to our experiences and observations,” Soenke Lauterbach, the federation’s secretary general, said, “and now we have some good evidence.”

Mental Health and Sport

A much bigger, totally independent, and long-term study published their results this week. Researchers from Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities studied almost 10,000 people born in 1958, as part of the National Child Development Study, and assessed their mental health in relation to their participation in Scouting. They discovered that those who joined the Scouting movement as children had an 18 percent lower risk of suffering anxiety or mental ill health in middle age.

Their conclusion was that spending time outdoors, learning practical skills, working in teams, moving out of one’s comfort zone, developing self-reliance, perseverance and a desire for self-learning, all help to build lifelong emotional resilience. Emotional resilience is something all of us need to develop in a world where instead so many expect others, including the state, to ride to the rescue at the first sign of difficulty.

My suggestion is that all these things are also very much part of horse sports and that horse sports are good for our mental health and happiness.

Pull Like a Dog

It is obvious that a key part of the value of scouting and horse riding is EFFORT. In my previous article on happiness I talked about the essential yin and yang of performance was effort and delight. As effort without delight usually leads to giving up, while delight without effort usually leads to no progress. 

There are two special young men who have epitomized ‘effort and delight’ this year.  Two young men who were wildly cheered as they rowed on the Charles River in Boston last month. “Pull like a dog,” the spectators shouted, as they also wore T-shirts with the same slogan ‘Pull like a dog.’

They are the Irish brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan, who won the silver medal in the lightweight double skulls in the Rio Olympics. They come across as though they are having the greatest time in their lives and they now have a worldwide fan club who love their affable nature and sense of fun. “It isn’t too complex really,” says Paul, “you go A to B as fast as you can go and hope for the best. Close the eyes and pull like a dog!”

The reality is these two lads have made a huge daily effort, ever since they were 10-year-old boys in the tiny town of Skibbereen in Cork and had the dream of going to the Olympics. Their continuous effort has been extraordinary and their medal was no fluke.  The fact that they take their effort and work very seriously, but not themselves, is a powerful practical philosophy that could help many of us mentally.

It is so true to say that the world is littered with talented people who fail to fulfill their potential because of a lack of effort — their inability to pull like a dog! Famous Irish writer and school teacher in the USA, Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, said something that directly links with this. “Now I think it is time to give myself credit for at least one virtue, doggedness (tenacity & grim persistence). Not as glamorous as ambition or talent or intellect or charm, but still the one thing that got me through the days and nights.”

Committed to Praise and Training 

I met another famous Irish writer this week, Roddy Doyle, the author of The Commitments, among many other books. I reminded him of the time he said this of an essay he wrote at school when he was 9. “… It was my first essay….I got it back and he praised me to the hilt … I have been feeding off that praise ever since.”  It is a quote I often use for coaches as an example of the power of a little praise. It certainly brings happiness.

The reason I met Roddy was because eight years ago he started a creative writing program for children called Fighting Words. They have four centers in Ireland at the moment with four more about to open. Last year they worked with 10,000 children and they are booked up six months in advance. There are no examinations or tests, just tuition and support and encouragement to write. The bottom line is that large numbers of children enjoy the training, improve their writing skills and sign up for more.

There are lessons here for all those involved in teaching and trying to improve standards. And in case you are reading this and thinking that this type of philosophy can’t really produce quality work, then you should read the books of stories that have been gathered from these sessions and successfully published. 

Realities and Possibilities

Sadly there are many who associate a positive approach with not telling the truth but instead telling people what they want to hear, of living in a fairy tale and failing to address what isn’t working. However I always tell the truth as well as have high expectations. The key to doing this constructively is to work from another key yin and yang of training, to focus on both ‘realities and possibilities.’

Once again they both need each other, and a focus on both is needed by all performers and coaches. Focusing on realities without the possibilities will stop you aiming for new directions, higher levels and fulfilling potential; while focusing on possibilities without facing up to realities are just pipe dreams and fairy tales.

It is common for many elite riders to only focus on realities when they start coaching. Failing to see the potential of their students — failing to show them what is just across the river and on the horizon. As a result they tend to depress their students and they give up.

Instead we should remember that we all start from zero and some of the most unpromising students turn out to be world champions. This is particularly true in horse riding which is a sport for life and sport for all, rather than just a sport for a few years and for exceptional specialist physical gifts.

I always remind myself that Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest swimmer of all time, was once a bored underachieving teenager with ADHD. So I tell the truth, but I still do it by being quick to praise, by working from what is good, by recognizing Personal Bests, and by telling people what they should and could do rather than what is wrong.

John Lennon 

In this way both doggedness and happiness have a chance, and Sam has a chance to improve and keep going. In this way it is possible to get the right result both on the scoreboard and on the faces of the performer, and a smile always speaks volumes. As British international team rider Daisy Berkeley (née Dick) wrote to me after my last article “grinning and winning go hand in hand.”

Once again I leave the last word to a genius, this time to John Lennon. “When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’  They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

William Micklem On the Subject of Happiness

William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero after winning Rolex in 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry. William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero after winning Rolex in 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Sam, my son, turned to me with the most enormous smile on his face. The image of that smile has remained with me over the last year, in particular because of its timing. He smiled as he landed over the second fence of a very challenging cross country course, which had produced just one double clear after half the class had gone. It was not just any old competition but the FEI Junior European Eventing Championships in Bialy Bor, Poland, but as far as Sam was concerned he was in heaven!

 Brain Freeze

For any competitor to give of their best in competition they need to be in ‘the zone,’ totally focussed on the task at hand yet sufficiently stress free and happy, as Sam was in Poland, to allow their brain to work efficiently. Unfortunately it is very common for competitors to suffer ‘brain freeze,’ or what I like to call ‘brain glue,’ as a result of being overstressed and unhappy.

The research has shown that for most of us the brain works very badly under stress, with our cognitive function being only at a level between 3% and 30% of normal. Therefore the term ‘blind panic’ is very apt when describing our reaction to an accident or when being attacked.

Stress is also the reason we so often take the wrong turn when late for an important appointment, or the mind goes blank during a presentation, or we make silly mistakes trying to finish an assignment that has to be completed in a very short space of time. And yes those regular errors of course in the dressage or show jumping also fall into this category of mindless mistakes.

Happy Athletes

To help avoid this many sports practise doing various drills under pressure. For example, pressure from other players approaching at speed, or time pressures, or pressure from noise and conflicting shouts and commands. They call this T.CUP training, which stands for Thinking Clearly Under Pressure.

It is why it is important for riders to get regular competition experience. It is also why it is important to get help from a coach who realises that their main task is to make a student independent rather than reliant, so that they can stand on their own two or six feet in competition. It is so true that the sign of a good coach is not how much they have to do for their student but how little. A chattering coach can do as much damage as a competitor with a chattering mind.

However all the T.CUP training in the world or competition work will be ineffective if the performer is not enjoying the work. They need to be ‘happy athletes’ if they are to maintain motivation and avoid anxiety, as anxiety will obviously increase rather than decrease stress. Without doubt loving the sport and one’s journey within the sport is the heart of being a ‘happy athlete.’

The fascinating thing to consider is that the term ‘happy athlete’ is the official term now used in the FEI dressage rules about horses in sport. (Article 401.1 of Object and General Principles of Dressage states: The object of Dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education.)

There certainly is no doubt that horses will also make ‘mindless mistakes’ if they are unhappy athletes, being obviously stressed and anxious. In this case to some degree they will lose their athleticism, be slower in their reactions, slower to read a situation, and quickly find they do not love what they are being asked to do. Of course all of this also increases the risk of an accident to both horse and rider.

The Yin and Yang of Happiness

So how can we move forward in our efforts to produce happy athletes? My overriding belief is that for both riders and horses the foundation for this has to be both effort and delight. They are the yin and yang of a training foundation; in other words they need each other. Effort without delight will lead to disenchantment and a mechanical approach, while delight without effort will lead to wasted time and potential and a dead end in terms of performance.

The phrase ‘training needs both effort and delight’ comes directly from the hugely successful world of Suzuki violin training. Currently there are more than a 250,000 Suzuki students being taught by over 8,000 teachers worldwide, and it is not a surprise that ‘where love is deep’ is another key phrase of this movement.

Time and time again it is proved that ‘loving what we do’ is a golden key to training. There is much truth in the phrase ‘if you love what you do you’ll never have to work another day in your life,’ but I believe that this is not the key strategy we have to focus on. 

Enjoying the Journey 

The key strategy is this: A performer needs to achieve happily rather than achieve to be happy. This makes all the difference. If life is entirely dependent on competition success or examination results then disappointment is largely inevitable.

Whatever their level all performers need to keep their achievements in context, and as is often said ‘we need to enjoy the journey, as the meaning of life is in the journey not the destination.’ It is a key part of what has become to be known as ‘mindfulness.’ However it is a mistake to think that mindfulness is only for those not interested in winning.

In tennis Novak Djokovic, the current world No. 1, has had a difficult and less successful year since winning the French Open and becoming only the third player in history to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time. What has gone wrong? He thinks he knows the answer: “I have been spending the last few months trying to regain the simple enjoyment of tennis. That is what I have to do.” This is pure mindfulness.

At the same time the bad boy of tennis, the Australian Nick Kyrios, is in the top 20 in the world but in most people’s opinions is an underachiever in terms of his talent. He continues to melt down, break rules and receive fines and a ban.

The likely answer to his difficulties was signposted by Rotterdam tournament director Richard Krajicek, when he was excused from competing in next year’s competition so that he can instead play in an All-Star Basketball weekend in the USA. “Nick prefers his passion beyond his profession,” said Krajicek, who is a former Wimbledon champion himself and knows how vital it is to be able to throw your heart into each point.

The Happiness Road

Dr. Anthony Sheldon is Headmaster of one of the UK’s most famous and successful schools, Wellington College. He is also pioneer of strategies to promote mental well-being in schools, including ‘Action for Happiness.’

He believes we need a different understanding of success: “Young people are now being brought up grasping for what they don’t have, rather than appreciating everything they already do. If we don’t act now we are likely to see increased levels of adolescent suicide and mental illness, and a culture in which taking anti-depressant drugs is the norm.” At first he was mildly mocked for his views but the overwhelmingly positive results with his students over the last five years has proved him right.

Much of his strategy for teachers comes straight out of the good book of positive thinking: Catch your students doing something right rather than catch them doing something wrong; work from what they can do rather than what they can’t do; and the importance of recognising a Personal Best.

But it goes beyond that to recognise that all of us are more than just the sum of our intellectual and physical abilities. That to be contented we have to be true to ourselves, which means understanding our emotional and individual needs.

Individual Happiness

In Bronnie Ware’s inspiring book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying the number one regret is made clear by patient after patient. “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” The lesson for us all is that there is nothing wrong with being different.

If only Nick Kyrios had been able to follow a life true to himself. “I love basketball, I don’t really like the sport of tennis that much. I don’t love it,” he says. “It was crazy when I was 14. I was all for basketball and I made the decision to play tennis. I got pushed by my parents and to this day I can still say I don’t love the sport. It is just crazy how things go. But I just love basketball, I always have.” 

And of course every horse is different as well. To hear this echoed in every reported sentence offered by William Fox-Pitt in California this week does not surprise me. His training is based on this and on gaining acceptance not submission, and as a result his horses are willing, spirited and happy. “If your horse shies at something, then move a little away from it and then gradually move closer as he trusts you more. To force him to it will only create bigger problems in the future and in your relationship with him.”

And as reported in EN, ‘The idea of encouraging horses to enjoy their jobs was prevalent throughout everything William had to say; simply put, the sport is just not as enjoyable with a horse who is sour or hates the job.’

Hallelujah Happiness

So respecting both people and horses as individuals, with individual strengths, weaknesses and needs is at the heart of producing happy athletes. It is essential with not only competitors, but also coaches, exam candidates and all those who are trying to learn and progress. Without this approach performance will always suffer.

And Sam in Poland? A great clear with just 0.4 of a time penalty to almost join the only nine double clears in 77 runners. Delighted. Still smiling! But I leave the last word and inspiration to the genius Leonard Cohen: “I studied deeply in all the great religions and philosophies of the world, but in the end cheerfulness just kept breaking through.”

William Micklem: Release Yourself from the Training Straitjacket

Mich

Riders like Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt have shown what a truly balanced position should be and how the training for the three phases can be totally complementary rather than antagonistic. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

For all my life I have always been part of the equestrian examination structure, being a proud Pony Club A tester, a fellow of the British Horse Society and a qualified tutor and coach educator for Horse Sport Ireland. But the problem with examinations, particularly those linked to a fixed system, syllabus and manual, is that they are often restrictive, being unable to offer training routes for those that do not fit the mould, or cope with individual brilliance and new ideas.

When well used, examinations can be both motivating and a valuable assessment and quality control tool, but when badly used, they can become a straitjacket and negative influence on performance.

 The Most Successful Riders in the World

Are examination administrators and advisors looking at the best riders in the world?  There is much to see. Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin have broken the mould in dressage with regard to greatly increased levels of acceptance and harmony, and paying increased attention to guarding and developing the natural outline and paces of the horse.

In eventing Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt have shown what a truly balanced position should be and how the training for the three phases can be totally complementary rather than antagonistic. Finally, in show jumping Nick Skelton, Rich Fellows, Beezie Madden, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Eric Lamaze, Kent Farrington and many others have also shown that the old-fashioned, European, heavy-seated show jumping balance is on its last legs and forward riding is king.

For good measure the total brilliance of Andrew Nicholson and Philip Dutton, riding across country on numerous horses over the last 30 years, has set new standards for cross-country effectiveness. I would suggest that their techniques are quantifiable, measurable and repeatable, but as both, to some degree, are mental mavericks and out of the established training loop, they are written off as freaks, exceptions that do not obey the rules and cannot be copied.

On the contrary I believe that all these riders are also brilliant role models, but sadly I see their various influences being slow to be reflected in the manuals and dictates of the modern equestrian examination and coaching structures. What is required by those running these structures is a different attitude of mind, not only more open but also more imaginative and flexible, and one that has a better balance between the theoretical and practical. Less theoretical and more practical.

To explain better what I mean here are three examples from three diverse non-equestrian worlds: publishing, sport and university education.

Publishing

The Spectator magazine is both a British institution and a publishing superstar. On a weekly basis it specialises in right-wing politics and culture from all mediums. Having been first published in 1828, it is the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language. It is a success story, with more than 4 million paid readers online and weekly sales of more than 75,000.

The magazine is particularly known for the quality of its writers and famous editors, but what is so remarkable is that The Spectator has a no-CV policy. They hire and accept interns on aptitude tests alone. Fraser Nelson, the current editor explains: “Frank Johnson, an outstanding editor of The Spectator in the late 90’s, had very little formal education, and it’s in honour of his memory that we today recruit on ability alone. In journalism all that matters is whether you can do the job.”

I would suggest that this actually applies to most activities. All that really matters at the end of the day in business or sport is can you do the job. Although to some extent this devalues qualifications and contacts, in no way does it devalue training and education; rather it just widens the scope and timetable of how that education and expertise is achieved.

In fact if the acid test is ‘can they do the job,’ it increases the value of training and education that has a specific focus on ability and experience, rather than the performance straitjacket of often misleading examination results and the influence of family and friends.

Sport

This summer my eldest son, Leo, was in the Irish team for the World Junior Ultimate Championships for ultimate disc/frisbee) in Poland. Without doubt it was my personal highlight of the year so far. With more than 40 teams and 1,000 athletes, it was a hugely competitive tournament with very high levels of fitness, skills and teamwork required.

It is also very popular, being a truly worldwide sport, with currently more than 55,000 registered players in the USA alone. (This compares well with the current USEA membership of just over 12,000.) The open tournament was won by the USA and the women’s tournament by Canada.

However, the extraordinary thing about ultimate is that it is self-refereed. There is no referee to hide fouls from or argue with. There is no referee to blame. The players are all referees and there is an established process to resolve all situations within seconds.

In addition there is a greatly prized tournament Spirit Award to reward those who play by the rules and show good sportsmanship, and this Spirit Award is decided on by all the players themselves rather than by outside officials. Without doubt the spirit that this World Championships were played in was exceptional with real mutual respect and support. Even at key moments near the end of very competitive close games, the self-refereeing process worked well.

The fundamental reason why this works so well is that each and every player is respected as an individual and is given the responsibility to sort things out rather than create conflict. They have no straitjacket. It is a mindset that could work well in so many areas of our lives and conflict situations, even with relationships between countries.

This respect for individuals and empowerment of individuals should be a key part of coaching horse riding and training coaches. We need to understand and put into practise that learning is best achieved by those who are actively involved, taking responsibility for their own learning and themselves.

University Education

Applicants to the world famous Oxbridge universities in the UK are also finding that examination results are not enough. The director of admissions at Cambridge University, Dr. Sam Lucy, says: “Everyone applying to us has a strong record at school, and it can be hard to distinguish between them on paper, so interviewing and testing helps us to identify the ones with real academic potential.

“Contrary to popular belief, potential undergraduates are assessed on what they say rather than how they look. (Oxbridge hopefuls are just as likely to be accepted if they turn up wearing jeans and a T-shirt rather than a smart suit.)  We are looking for people who are extremely enthusiastic about the subject they are applying for, and have got the right aptitude, attitude and prior knowledge. Interviewers are not necessarily looking for the right answer but one that shows innovative thinking.”

She also says that companies offering advice to help candidates with their entrance interviews were a waste of money.  Applicants are often stopped if they turn up with scripted answers.” So why are equestrian students often encouraged and trained to produce identical, scripted and prescribed answers and methods in equestrian examinations?

We need to get rid of this approach. It produces clones, keeping the student passive or even subservient, which is nothing but a straitjacket to their progress and allows a proliferation of regimented and often old-fashioned ideas.

The Main Lessons

First, training is the key, not examinations. We need to get as many students as possible from all levels regularly training, regularly enjoying training and regularly exposed to greatness. Unfortunately examination structures often end up both excluding too many students and failing too many students, thus removing them from the long-term process of raising standards on a wider scale.

The real test of learning is not an examination result but the result on the scoreboard or in the sales figures, the result in the customer satisfaction levels or in the financial returns.

Second, treat people as individuals. Treating people as individuals is a prerequisite for maximum performance. It’s all about avoiding the mechanical and respecting human individuality. It’s all about working from the strengths of individuals and continually creating opportunities for individual contributions and involvement.

It is important to recognize that many students are exceptional in small areas, despite the fact that they would be unable to pass an examination on a larger range of skills and subject matters. As I often say, a good idea has to give way to a better idea, but these better ideas often come from the students themselves. This attitude releases a performer from the straitjacket of fixed ideas and negativity and releases them from being spoon-fed and unable to stand on their own feet.

Finally, work on the attitude. To get the right results both on the scoreboard and on the faces of the students comes primarily from the right attitude of mind. Part of this attitude is all about ‘having another go!’, as discussed in my last article.

Of course it’s also about prioritising positivity, generosity and belief, and working from what can be done well; not to forget being enquiring and demanding, constantly testing what we do and looking for marginal gains. But in particular it’s also about prioritising simplicity, the most important word in training and education.

Simplicity is at the heart of the attitude of mind, the philosophy, that leads to special achievement, particularly with horses and young people, and I believe it is the key quality of all those riders I mentioned earlier. It is the ultimate key to releasing yourself from the training straitjacket.

Have Another GO! Coaching Gold from the Olympics

I am in heaven! What coach could not be in heaven watching the Rio Olympics? Every day produces more stories of great coaching and extraordinary exploits that coaches and competitors can use to take their own performance to new levels of excellence. Some only look at their own sport for wisdom but that is foolish. The fundamental lessons are evident in all sports and the cross fertilization between sports is a hugely valuable resource.

I always look at other sports to test my own core values and training ideas. Not a championship goes by without a little tweak here and there, and I find the Olympics a nerve jangling powerhouse of ideas and stories that can only add to my coaching, and add to what I call ‘The GO! Rules.

I am so proud of my Micklem bridle and the now tens of thousands of horses who have a more comfortable riding life, but in truth I am most proud of two other creations of mine. Firstly my structure and priorities for all riding both in dressage and jumping, ‘Constants and Variables,’ and secondly ‘The GO! Rules,’ that is my structure for improving performance for all performers. Rule No. 2 is ‘Have Another GO!’ (with the help of a coach to create a new personal best).

The Sophie Hitchon Story

As I watched the female hammer throw competition a powerful new story was added to my coaching weaponry in relation to ‘Have Another GO!’ The young British thrower Sophie Hitchon came to Rio with the hope of being competitive despite never winning a senior medal before and history being against her. No British woman had ever won a medal in a throwing event and the last man to do it in the hammer was in Paris 92 years ago.

From the start things did not go well. She only just qualified for the final, 11th out of 12, and then mistimed her first throw in the final, sending the hammer pounding into the side netting. Her head dropped and for a brief moment she thought of the times in the past “when I was ready to not do this anymore.”

Then she looked at the unmistakable sight of her moustached and rock solid Swedish coach Tore Gustafsson in the stand and she knew that it was worth having another go and giving it her all. “He’s the best coach ever,” said Hitchon afterwards, “we both knew that I had it in me.”

Her second throw left her in bronze medal position but she was soon pushed down into fourth place, and the throwers in front of her were producing extraordinary throws, including a new world record byPoland’s Anita Wlodarczyk who bettered her previous mark by more than a metre. This was disheartening especially as Sophie’s next throws were not her best. My fourth and fifth rounds were a little bit shaky.”

But as Sophie approached her last throw she did not give up. “I was just trying to execute my technique. I knew I wasn’t quite pulling it together and I knew if I could pull it together it was going to go far. I just kept believing that.” So with the mental support of her coach Tore Gustafsson in the stands Sophie had another GO! It worked! With her last throw she secured a bronze medal with a new personal best and national record.

The Al Oerter Story

This story has special resonance for me because it links beautifully with my favourite Olympic story of all time: the story of USA discus thrower Al Oerter at Tokyo in 1964. Despite having won gold medals at Melbourne and Rome he was not considered a favourite to win a third gold medal, as Ludvik Danek from Czechoslovakia held the world record and had won an incredible 45 consecutive competitions. In addition Oerter was forced to wear a neck brace because of what was described as a “chronic cervical disk injury.”

However about a week before the start of the Olympics, Oerter slipped and fell while practicing on a wet field. He tore a huge section of cartilage in his rib cage. As he recounted to Bud Greenspan in 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History, “I was bleeding internally, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t sleep and I consumed bottles of aspirin to alleviate the pain. I went through ice treatments to minimize the bleeding and the doctors ordered me not to compete. But these are the Olympics and you die before you don’t compete in the Olympics.”

Oerter competed with his rib cage heavily taped and packed with ice, and not even three shots of Novocain could dull the pain. After four rounds (each competitor gets six throws) Oerter was in third place, a remarkable enough achievement given the circumstances, but still more than seven feet short of Danek’s best throw. Despite this and the huge pain he decided to go for broke in the fifth round and have another GO!

His last throw of 61 meters was a new Olympic record and nearly half a meter better than Danek’s best toss. Oerter never saw the discus land. He was lying on the ground, doubled up in pain.

The full story of Oerter’s discus career has many other lessons for us. But the other one I always use for coaches is his almost mythical beginning: While running on his high school track (Oerter began his high school track and field career as a miler), an errant discus fell at his feet. When Oerter threw it back his toss went so far that the coach immediately talked him into competing as a discus thrower. As I often say, ‘talent is where you look for it.’

Oerter’s career blossomed at the University of Kansas under legendary track and field coach Bill Easton. Easton guided Oerter in his early career that included making his first Olympic team in 1956.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

The Rio USA Eventing Team Story

The lessons to be learnt from the USA Eventing Team performance in Rio are different but no less valuable. A team medal is rarely won by the exceptional brilliance of one team member, although it is true that in dressage Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro have done just this for Britain, but sadly in modern eventing team medals can be easily lost by falls on cross country when all team members have to complete.

Lauren Kieffer and David O’Connor will have to live with their decisions on the day, and there is no doubt that these type of decisions are never 100 percent black and white. The question they must both ask themselves is this, given the same situation again would they make the same decisions?

Lauren in effect answered this question herself when saying, “My job was to get a clean round, first and foremost, and it’s pretty disappointing to let the team down.” However Lauren is a huge talent and her ‘fire and flair’ across country is what makes her special and an almost certainty to be a USA team member for years ahead because of this ability. In addition everything about her says she is a wonderful student of the sport so I have little doubt that next time she will play the percentage game.

Certainly, if the assumption is that Lauren and Veronica would have completed the rest of the course without a fall, then a team medal was lost and this will remain a huge blow both to David and USA eventing. But his response is very encouraging for the USA team. “I’ll take the responsibility,” said David. “If everyone feels like she should have taken a conservative route and I should have told her not to do it, I’ll take that.”

David probably did make a mistake but he is not blinkered or dogmatic. Therefore the positive take on Rio is that without doubt David both brought the USA tantalizingly close to a medal and will learn from the Rio experience as he has another GO!

William Micklem: Sunny Side Up

EN guest columnist William Micklem returns with words of wisdom that are valuable not only during this long winter season, but any time of year. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Be sure to share your own thoughts in the comments below.

It is so easy for us to have our sport ruined by a bad coach. The coach who focuses on everything that has gone wrong, the coach that winds you up into a ball of stress, leaving you tense and with that paralysing F word absorbed into every corner of your mind … FAILURE! With great certainty I can name one of these bad coaches. It is someone much closer to you than you probably realise. It is often you!

The research shows that even those who are outwardly positive often let this bad coach into their competition performances and lives at key moments. This coach is ‘the maggot in your mind’ that invariably means you perform at your worst when the whole family is watching, or when you are within touching distance of success.

However this maggot doesn’t suddenly appear from nowhere. It is given birth in those early rides and lessons when you compare yourself with others rather than on your personal best, when you blame your lack of talent for a poor performance rather than your lack of hard work and determination, and when you fail to develop your ‘sunny side.’

It doesn’t have to be like this. It is easily possible to make a new personal best your aim, to work harder, to become sunnier, and to practise other simple attitudes of mind that will make the maggot in your mind shrink and disappear. You can have a new mental attitude that will allow you to habitually make the best of your opportunities. But the key word is practise, practice on a daily basis, so that you regularly become a great coach to yourself and this good attitude of mind becomes an established and easy part of your performing life.

So learning good coaching skills is vital for all riders, even if you don’t teach others, because ‘we are all our own coach’ … usually the most influential coach we will meet in our whole life. In horse riding there is an additional powerful reason for studying how to coach, which does not apply to any other sport. It is this: Every time you work with your horse you are having a training effect on him, good or bad. So if you are a rider you are automatically also a coach to your horse, and good coaching skills work equally well with both horses and humans.

A core part of the skills of a wonderful coach is to have their ‘sunny side up.’ It is well known that positivity builds while negativity kills, but being sunny is more than just having a positive attitude because it also requires great generosity. I see generosity as a golden key for accelerated progress in training. Being generous means giving your student the benefit of the doubt, rather than being too quick to judge or making negative assumptions based on minimal information. Who has not done this at some time and as a result underestimated ability and other good qualities, or worst still become impatient and ended up in an argument?

Being generous also means that a coach must keep looking at and responding to students with the vision to see what is possible in the future. This is both the essence of treating your student with respect and the foundation stone of building belief. Connected to this is the strategy of ‘paying things forward’ rather than ‘paying them back.’ How many trainers limit progress and damage coaching relationships because they are more concerned about punishment for bad behaviour rather than rewarding good behaviour, and in addition going the extra mile to do things for their student as a vote of confidence in their future?

So at this point of the article are you relating this to training horses or training humans? Which ever you are thinking off, read it again. You will see that it applies to both four legged and two legged students, and in particular you will also see that it applies to coaching yourself.

Being sunny and generous is not just about an easy going affability. It requires action in three key areas: Firstly it requires that you take active responsibility for working from what you and your students do well, from your strengths. Secondly it requires that you take active responsibility for being quick to recognise progress, and thirdly take active responsibility for thinking big and saying “why not?”

As you think big this is when the ‘maggot’ often tries to make their reappearance. “Who are you to be so big headed and ambitious?” The maggot may say, “Get real!” But as the blind and quadriplegic Irish motivational speaker, Mark Pollock, says, ”Don’t respect the gap between reality and possibilities.” For Mark this is both the thought that keeps him sunny and the motivation to think outside the box. We can immediately all see and understand how this is a vital and effective strategy for Mark, so why are we slow to see that it also applies to ourselves?

For some final food for thought on this subject it is worth mentioning that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says that “generosity is the key for a society worth living in.” Further confirmation that, as with most key coaching skills, they are transferable and have huge added value and a wider application. Good coaches can make the world a sunnier place.

Indoor Cross Country Preparation with Andrew Nicholson

The 2016 International Eventing Forum was held today at Hartpury College, with Jimmy Wofford, Lucinda Green, Eric Smiley, Angela Tucker, David Kearney, Andrew Mahon and John Killingbeck all speaking. In honor of this year’s forum, William Micklem has written an all new report on Andrew Nicholson's jumping exercises demonstrated last year.

Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

Without doubt Andrew Nicholson is one of the greatest cross country riders of all time and any opportunity to learn how he achieves his extraordinary results should be treasured. At last year’s International Eventing Forum, Andrew began his session on jumping exercises for cross country preparation with these general thoughts:

  • “When I ride a young horse it will be only for 20 minutes, but I expect them to work hard. I like doing things that make them tired; it makes them sleep better!”
  • “As you warm up on the flat always play a little, move them around, go faster and slower — always thinking of the future, which is jumping and cross country is the most important bit.”
  • “Avoid arguments with young horses. Every negative can be turned to positive. For example, if they shy away from a fence, use the opportunity to teach them to move away from the leg.”
  • “Make everything very clear — nothing half hearted. Not ‘would you like to walk’ but ‘walk!’”
  • “They need to understand what I want as soon as possible, but you should not jump until there is this understanding.”
  • “Jump at the right height to begin — not too big, it must not be too big, which is a common mistake — and jump twice a week using these exercises to develop ‘quick thinking’ regularly.”
  • “Let the horse glide up to the jump.  The aim is an easy jump, not an exaggerated jump.”
  • “Riders often ride backwards before they go forwards, which is very time consuming and ineffective. Ride forwards and let the horse do the jumping.”
  • “With your position it is an ideal opportunity with these small schooling fences to learn to sit behind young horses, but do not hang on to the mouth or sit on the back of the saddle.”

‘Hunting’ or ‘Fifth Leg’ Exercises 

With each horse he did a series of what I would describe as “hunting” or “fifth leg” exercises, what Andrew described as “quick thinking” exercises. The sort of exercises that would substitute for the type of jumping that is often required out hunting:

  • Jumping from a very slow speed.
  • Jumping small fences without guiding the take off spot. (“Ride the canter, ride the rhythm, and let them sort it out.”)
  • Jumping using severely angled lines both on the approach and departure, and jumping fences with little room on the landing side of the fence to go straight forwards.

I was delighted to see this, as without doubt these exercises are vital in the preparation of a horses that will look after their riders across country, taking responsibility for making small adjustments and keeping themselves, and therefore also their riders, safe.

Circles of Fences

If you are as old as I am, there is a certain déjà vu about a circle of four small (60 to 80 centimeters or 1’9″ to 2’6″) fences with three, four or five strides between each fence being shown at a conference. (Distance from the centre of the circle to the middle of each fence is 10 yards or 9.15 meters.

It was something that Dick Stillwell, the British trainer who produced most of Richard Meade’s horses, used regularly in the 60s and 70s, and even Rodrigo Pessoa used with show jumping students. That does not make it any less valuable of course, and probably it is even more valuable in the modern era with an increased number of tight curving lines between fences.

What is interesting though is that Andrew prefers initially jumping off a turn with his young horses rather than going straight down a grid. He finds it easier to soften the horses off a turn or circle, and I suspect it also ensures each horse strengthens their weaker side and weaker hind leg so that when he begins to jump a grid they are straight and take off with their hind legs together as a matching pair.

Andrew just used single horizontal poles on each fence to keep it simple: “Single poles because they get into less trouble if things go wrong, avoiding too many loose poles, and it allows the horses to learn to get very close to the fence and deal with problems. The circle is good because I can move in or out. Therefore don’t use cross poles with young horses. If they go disunited just keep going.”

The key point of the exercise was to leave as much as possible to the horse. However without doubt Andrew made this exercise look easy because he consistently kept the right canter and line. When he alternated between first five and then four strides it was obvious to see the level of partnership and how Andrew’s aim of eliminating extravagant jumping had been achieved.

All the horses did this exercise very easily with the exception of Zacarias, whose size and slightly flat canter made the exercise quite testing, particularly on the right rein.

Slalom Line

After the circle exercise Andrew moved to a use of a slalom line, with continual changes of direction and a logical progression, in the same way that in dressage one might go from circles to a serpentine. All the horses coped very easily with this despite some fences being very close together and were obviously learning to look ahead and think ahead.

Grid

A balance to the “quick thinking” exercises was provided by a grid, coming out of canter, using a vertical to a cross pole to a vertical and then oxer, all on standard distances and at a slightly bigger size than with the other exercises. Andrew likes to put a small challenge in each grid, so there is added value, and tends to keep all the fences in the grid of a more similar size than is often seen.

Single Fences

Andrew jumped some larger fences on each horse, both oxers and verticals. He made the oxers square, with a ground line in line with the front pole, to encourage a better shape, but when jumping larger verticals he used a pulled out ground line, as with most modern trainers.

In relation to ground lines I recently read Mary King’s account of her show jumping warm up at the World Equestrian Games at The Hague in 1994. She was riding King William, who almost always produced a wonderful dressage and cross country performance but was rarely clean in the show jumping.

King William was going badly in the warm up, jumping without any confidence, but British show jumping legend David Broome was watching and jumped in to help. “He gave him a vertical with a really big ground line,” said Mary“This restored his confidence and he went in and jumped well, with just two down instead of the normal five or six fences, sufficient to win the team gold medal.” 

Comments from William Micklem

Beware! As with all exercises shown by high-level riders and trainers such as Andrew, a word of warning is advised. They are not necessarily using exercises a coach would use as safe exercises for lower level riders on comparable or less talented horses. Do not copy everything you see and hear because depending on the circumstances it might lead you astray!

I admire Andrew’s work greatly, and his training exercises are great to use with medium and advanced level riders, but the more novice rider and trainer should not seek to follow precisely in his footsteps to begin with. For example:

  1. Accelerated progression. Andrew can take a 4-year-old train them over the winter and then produce them at Novice level with just a couple of cross country schools. He can do this because he has a superb basic technique, a superb feel and eye for a stride, his horses really trust him and he only works with a horse with special ability. Yes, Andrew has worked with plenty of bad ones in the past and is always attracted by a difficult horse, “but this is a habit I have tried to wean myself off.” These days he tries to put his time into more straightforward and more talented horses.
  2. Not jumping out of trot. Andrew said that he “has always felt uncomfortable jumping from trot.” However he can substitute jumping out of trot for jumping out of canter because he has such a good feel and eye for a stride. Lesser riders can take advantage of jumping out of trot to set a horse up better for a grid or single fence, particularly with the use of a placing plank.
  3. Jumping into the boards. Coaches should beware asking their students to jump fences into the boards just 5 meters away.  With the right progression of exercises and with students with good secure positions there is little risk, but with less experienced horses and less experienced riders the chances of falling off head first into the boards are too great. If it was a hedge out hunting it would be more forgiving!
  4. Cross poles in grids. The use of a fairly high cross pole as the second fence in his grid ensures a straight line at the start, but high cross poles in lines of fences are the cause of many accidents with novice riders when the horse veers one way or the other, jumps the higher outer side and the rider falls off. As ever a gradual progression is the key and using a cross pole just for the first fence is the safer option for novice riders at the start.
  5. “Hunting” jumping exercises. The excessive use of small “hunting” fences (on any take off point and from all angles and combinations, can be an encouragement for “stepping” over the fence rather than jumping, with the hind legs apart on take off.  Andrew ensures this is not the case by continually mixing both grids and bigger single fences, which he jumps very accurately using his phenomenal eye for a stride. It would be easy to do too much of the hunting exercises.

Relive last year’s International Eventing Forum with William Micklem’s exclusive reports:

Andrew Nicholson on Song: A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Look at His Program

Fittening the Event Horse a Hot Topic at International Eventing Forum

Christoph Hess on Working with the ‘Not So Good’ Dressage Horse

Meet the Horses Andrew Rode

1. Zacarias, 5 year old, 16.3 hand grey gelding. Pre-Novice, not competed. Bred by Ramon Beca.

Andrew’s opinion: “He’s a real four-star prospect. It’s his attitude that makes him so special … very cool … never been out before apart from some cross country schools.”

Sire: Meneusekal, French Thoroughbred. He is a new Thoroughbred sire Ramon Beca bought when he retired from racing in France and is now using to cover his mares. Fantastic back pedigree for event horses, including Precipitation, Hyperion, Fair Trial, Fortino, Relic, Djebel and Big Game.

Dam: Golosa 45 by Golfi, Hannoverian. Related to Berganza, who is the mother of Nereo, Armada, Fenicio and Oplitas.

2. Yacabo BK, 5 year old, 16.2 hand black gelding. Novice, one event. Bred by Ana Beca.

Sire: Lacros, Holsteiner that jumped in Olympics and World Equestrian Games with Schröder Dirk. Sire of Quimbo, Qwanza and Sintra BK.

Dam: Mamurra 72 by Histeo, Hannoverian. Half sister to Quimbo.

3. Jet Set 8 year old, 17 hand bay gelding. Two-star level. Bred by Luis Alverez Cevera.

Andrew’s opinion: “He is my hope for Rio. Hugely talented. In a different league.”

Sire: Nordico, KWPN (56.5% Thoroughbred). Jumped in Nations Cup show jumping by Luis Alverez Cevera.

Dam: Carina, an Argentinian Thoroughbred.

4. MHS King Joules, 10 year old, 16.2 hand black gelding. Three-star level. Bred by Tom NS John Brennan (breeders of Mary King’s Imperial Cavalier.)

Andrew’s opinion: “A former Mary King ride who needs settling.”

Sire: Ghareeb, Irish Thoroughbred.

Dam Gowran Lady, Irish Sport Horse (62.5% Thoroughbred) by Cavalier Royale

Dressage Gold with William Micklem: The Constants for Dressage

We're loving all the wonderful feedback to William Micklem's four-part "Dressage Gold" series. Be sure to read the first two installments, "Good Dressage Equals Medals and Money" and "Standing on the Shoulders of the Wrong Giants." Now William delves into the real heart of this series: the Constants and Variables of dressage. Today we examine the Constants. Be sure to click here to learn more about the Micklem bridle, which is part of William's personal drive for more humane training.

The constants 10x15

A good idea has to give way to a better idea. It happens every day in some way. It is the way of the world. It was what stimulated me to invent the Micklem bridle and about 30 years ago led me to put together the training structure that I call the Constants and Variables. There are five CONSTANTS, so called because they are all constantly required, and five VARIABLES, which are all required in varying amounts and ways according to the individual needs of each progressive exercise being used.

It is a structure and recipe that works for all levels of riding and training. It owes much to those two great coaches, Jack Le Goff and Bert de Nemethy, and there are also some connections to the German scales of training, but it is simpler, more memorable, and less open to varying interpretations.

At the heart of the five Constants are what I call the three musketeers, CALMNESS, FORWARDNESS and STRAIGHTNESS, and to these are added ACCEPTANCE and PURITY to make a circle of strength.

THE FIVE CONSTANTS

ACCEPTANCE – Acceptance refers to the mental acceptance by the horse of the rider’s presence, weight, and leg, seat and rein contacts, including language. Acceptance opens the door to trust, partnership and agreement.


CALMNESS – Calmness refers to the need for the horse to be mentally calm in order to avoid the paralysing effect of mental tension, and allow an unconstrained basis for all the work. Calmness opens the door to the horse letting go and working with confidence.

FORWARDNESS – Forwardness refers primarily to the horse thinking forwards, whatever the speed mph, and being willing to respond to the rider’s forward aids. Forwardness opens the door to a horse being courageous and focused.

STRAIGHTNESS – Straightness refers both to the equal and even development of both sides of the horse in each pace and in particular to the precise positioning of the forehand, which together produce straightness. Straightness opens the door to athleticism and maximum scope.


PURITY – Purity refers to the purity or naturalness and correctness of the paces (and jump), including both a natural and regularly repeated sequence of steps, a natural outline, and natural use of the head and neck and body of the horse. Purity opens the door to a horse going close to perfection. 

Acceptance

The meaning of Calmness, Forwardness and Straightness is fairly obvious, but “submission” is the term more normally used instead of acceptance. I use the term acceptance because there is an important distinction between the two words.

Acceptance leads to trust, partnership and agreement, and requires that the horse understands what is required, while submission produces an unquestioning follower. The difference between acceptance and submission is the difference between a horse that knows he could react differently but chooses not to, and a horse that knows there is no other option.

Purity

I use the word purity to encapsulate not just the rhythm and regularity but also the natural paces and natural outline of the horse, avoiding anything in the way of going that is unnatural or superfluous. It is the golden thread running through every movement and exercise and refers to the whole way of going in each pace — what the Germans call “reinheitergange,” which translates as purity.

We have to be constantly aware of maintaining the Purity of the paces, because physically everything begins and ends with the purity of the paces. As the Portugese dressage maestro Nuno Oliveira said, “Look for the purity of the three gaits. The rest will follow easily.” (The same applies to the purity of the jump.)

Purity can only be achieved if the horse can use their back … often not easy when a rider is sitting on it. If your horse is stiff or dropped in the back you can use lungeing, rising trot and a light seat in canter, combined with simple and easy exercises to allow the back to begin to work.

In addition you can make life easier by working in areas where there is already purity. If the right tempo and regularity of steps exists only in the working trot then this is what you must work in initially, but if your horse has no period of suspension in the canter you only do a minimum of canter to begin with.

To do otherwise would run the risk of confirming the fault because practice makes permanent, not perfect. In this way every main exercise you do should develop and improve the purity of the paces, because you will not accept any work where the regularity of the paces or natural outline and way of going is lost.

Acceptance, Calmness & Forwardness Together

Acceptance, calmness and forwardness are all primarily mental qualities, and their foundation is understanding, combined with the rider not asking their horse to do things beyond which they are capable. This is a key point and leads us from the start to reject the mechanical and forced. If you force things then almost certainly the horse will be restricted both mentally and physically.

The beginning and ongoing demand of our daily training journey has to be acceptance, as we ask our horses to accept the varied and what to them must seem the often strange demands of our sport. If only calmness was required then our horses could stay in the field. Instead we work with each horse, using a solid understanding of the nature of horses and humane, effective methods, progressing a step at a time that allows trust to be developed. Then calmness will go hand in hand with acceptance.

The basis for calmness comes from an environment that is as natural as possible, including equine company and regular steady work. Calmness becomes a habit if the trainer gives the horse sufficient time to settle before progressing with new demands, and is willing to back off and make things easier if tension appears.

It would also be normal to have rest periods during a riding session and keep returning to easy work with an easy rein. In addition lungeing is great for calmness, as is hacking, turning out, being calm yourself, and never abusing the horse’s trust and abilities.

During work each horse has to be very clearly and positively asked and allowed to go forwards, but horses are fundamentally very willing to do this for their riders if they understand what is required, have confidence in their ability and are free of pain. If this were not the case we would never have developed equestrian sports as we know them. As we ask for more forwardness there may be some loss of acceptance and calmness, so a step back is taken.

Equally as you achieve better calmness with slow regular work, it is possible that your horse will become a little backward thinking, so immediately you prioritize forwardness by riding out in company, or cantering with a light seat, or possibly jumping.

But probably nothing encourages forwardness more than an enthusiastic rider with a good balance and a soft allowing rein contact.  Then if the calmness is being lost you can once again make the work less exciting. In this way you can gradually progress with both calmness and forwardness.

Therefore there is a continual need for awareness of the changing state of the horse’s mind and on our part a willingness to act and react, asking a little more or a little less according to the situation.

Calmness, Forwardness & Straightness Together

All levels of horses should be calm, forwards and straight, and there is no phrase in equestrian education and literature that is used more frequently than this. They are continually identified as the supreme priorities, and they work as team.

Calmness without forwardness does not get you off the starting blocks, while forwardness without calmness can lead to speed but never to impulsion. When forwardness is added to the acceptance and calmness the horse will have everything in place that is required for improving the straightness.

But straightness in any quadruped is always a rarity and not easy to achieve. It is initially done by achieving an even bend on both reins in walk and trot and then, as your horse comes between the aids, by beginning a very small degree of shoulder-in (called position to the inside). As control of the positioning of the shoulders is achieved on both reins then straightness on straight lines also becomes possible.

As a horse becomes more advanced and medium paces are introduced they may become a little crooked once again. Then as we work to straighten them it has a tendency to reduce the forwardness. So it is necessary to keep alternating between riding forwards and straightening, until you can ride forwards with a straight horse. This is a process you will repeat often.

But whatever you do to improve a particular constant you also have to guard the purity. For example it is hugely damaging either to get acceptance by using a gadget that produces an unnatural way of going, or to force straightness and therefore lose the regularity of the steps or the period of suspension. Unfortunately this is a common sight in show jumping.

Controlled Impulsion

The five Constants can be established from the beginning even with young horses on the lunge. Then they will all work together to produce what is the gold medal of dressage training, the key ingredient for performance, controlled IMPULSION. Whether it is for dressage, show jumping or cross country we need this controlled impulsion, or another way to say this is that the horse needs to be “in gear.”

Lungeing is not an easy skill to do well but it is a great tool to establish the basics so that retraining is not required … and what a huge difference good lungeing can make to the longterm potential of a horse and to their attitude to work. But beware lungeing pens because they make a horse crooked as they cling to the outside wall. Horse walkers have the opposite effect, which is good for straightness, as the horse gravitates to the inside wall.  Because of this they are naturally “position to the inside.”

We need to maintain all the Constants as we work through the beautiful progression of exercises. But the most important point and simply brilliant result of this is that we can keep building controlled impulsion. Quality work requires bags of impulsion, with the horse using the back and working as one connected athletic unit.

However the other side of this coin is that even if one of the Constants is insufficient good controlled impulsion is simply not possible. Without acceptance it will not be controlled, and without calmness the impulsion is inevitably restricted by the paralysing effect of tension.

Without forwardness impulsion cannot exist, as willingness to go forward is the basis for impulsion, and without straightness impulsion is restricted, as one side of the horse is used less than the other. Finally without purity the horse does not work naturally, with a natural outline and paces, as one whole connected unit, which is essential for both impulsion and for “classical” and humane training.

If any of the constants are weak or missing the controlled impulsion immediately deteriorates, therefore we have to continually revisit and guard the constants in the daily training. In every training session you will start by first re-establishing the acceptance, calmness and forwardness in the warm up period, before going on to add and confirm the straightness in the suppling period, before carrying all the constants into your main work as you develop more impulsion and athleticism.

Then this process is carried out in reverse as you cool a horse down and finish with them happy and accepting. The practise of revision and re-establishing the basics is part and parcel of daily horse training, part of a circle using all the five Constants.  Then in competition the variable components take priority as the constants should be automatically maintained without any actions from the rider.

First and Foremost Training Priority

Is this all easy? No! But it is very possible, especially if you have a little patience and empathy with the horse. As Alois Pojaisky said, “The first and foremost training priority is to have empathy with your student.” Add a balanced, harmonious position and a guided trip along the beautiful progression of exercises and you can turn a wide variety of horses into happy athletes.

It is also to a large extent an art, which is why Guérinière, who invented shoulder-in, had this carved on the entrance to his arena: “Where art ends, brutality begins.”

Next Time: Part 2 – The Variables of Dressage

Dressage Gold with William Micklem: Standing on the Shoulders of the Wrong Giants

This is the second article in William Micklem's four-part "Dressage Gold" series. Click here to read the first installment, "Good Dressage Equals Medals and Money." Keep coming back this week for the next articles in his series, and be sure to check out the Micklem Bridle, which is part of William's personal drive for more humane training.

Ingrid Klimke and FRH Escada JS at Aachen CICO3* 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry. Ingrid Klimke and FRH Escada JS at Aachen CICO3* 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The German scales of training have become predominant in dressage training in every European country in recent years. There is not a coaching manual or book that does not mention them, but on examination there is sufficient confusion and misunderstanding to ask if they really are the best structure for us to use for dressage training.

The sheer number of contradictory books on the scales of training, the rejection of the scale by experts in biomechanics, and the major concerns of those two hugely well respected equestrian professors, Dr. Thomas Ritter and Dr. Andrew McLean, all suggest we should at least keep looking for improvements. In particular we need to find ways to make this type of information more accessible and memorable to those with an interest in dressage.

A Search for a Better Way

In the dressage world Herbert Rehbein was considered the professional’s professional — a humble genius. He won the Hamburg Dressage Derby eight times and seven titles in the German Professionals Championships. He was also voted Trainer of the Year by the International Trainers Club in 1991 and in 1994, and the German Federation conferred on him the title of Riding Master.

In the 1970s I was lucky enough to spend two short periods at his training stables, Gronwoldhof, when he explained to me that most people misunderstood and incorrectly translated the scales of training. This started a personal quest to study the subject and led to me producing a new structure 30 years ago that I call “the Constants and the Variables.” The bones of this structure are described in my book The Complete Horse Riding Manual published in 2003.

Rehbein pointed out a number of things to me, the first of which was that the scales are not classical principles in the real sense, because at that time they were barely 50 years old. He said they had only recently gained such credibility because coaches and riders everywhere were desperate to grab on to something that was simple and credible in a dressage world that at that time was being pulled apart by contradictions and conflicts between different dressage schools and traditions.

However, even today our student coaches are told that they are classical principles. The three fundamental classical principles dating from Xenophon, 2,400 years ago, are that force should not be used, that the horse should be developed naturally and that the result should be beautiful and beautifully easy.

Since that time the poor horse has gone through centuries of abuse, much in the name of classical equitation, that has seen the use of the strongest bits, sharpest spurs and all manners of gadgets. So attaching the word “classical” is often more marketing than truth.

A Training Dynasty

I was delighted to find that one of the retired equine residents at Gronwoldhof was Alwin Schockemöhle’s great show jumping World Champion Donald Rex. However I was even more delighted to watch an athletic 4-year-old working, who was the apple of Herbert’s eye — his name was Pik Bube.

It was no surprise that he went on to become world famous, both as a multiple Grand Prix winner and as a dressage stallion. His success further cemented the reputation of the Hannoverian stud book, despite the fact that he was half Thoroughbred, as was Reiner Klimke’s greatest dressage horse, the “Westphalian” Ahlerich.

Herbert Rehbein trained with Bubi Gunther, who together with Willie Schulteis and Joseph Neckermann were trained by the father of modern German dressage, Otto Lorke. They in turn trained Harry Boldt, Reiner Klimke and the majority of today’s top trainers including, Conrad Schumacher and Jean Bemelmans. What a dynasty! What they have collectively achieved means their words have huge significance.

Not Perfect by Any Means

What we must acknowledge is that the scales are not always perfect in concept or use and that students should be encouraged to keep an open mind and test things to see if they are good or if they can be improved. As Jean Bemelans said at the Global Dressage Forum in 2007:

“In Germany we have the classical training scale. … If you have a perfect horse with a perfect character with no problems, then you can stay on the classical scale of riding, and step by step you come to the Grand Prix. But there is no perfect horse! You can have a nervous horse, there are many problems, then you have to find out the right way to come to the end with that horse. We have our rules where we go step by step, but on the other side we cannot be like a policeman and say, ‘there is only one way!’”

Conrad Schumacher echoed this in September 2008: As a trainer of trainers I want to help other trainers find the best way to help his or her students, and sometimes that means being less standard in their approach and more creative in their application of the scales of training and traditional training techniques to get the best result.” Now that’s an open door!

A Different Order

There are six scales of training, presented in a linear form, the first of which is RHYTHM, followed in strict order by LOSGELASSENHEIT (currently translated as suppleness or looseness), CONTACT, SCHWUNG (currently translated as impulsion), STRAIGHTNESS and finally COLLECTION.

It is now commonly suggested that the order of the scales can be improved. From both a practical training and a biomechanical point of view there is a growing consensus that straightness should come before schwung and there are many who put losgelassenheit ahead of rhythm.

For example Reiner Klimke always put losgelassenheit first. Now his hugely successful daughter Ingrid, who was lucky enough to learn to ride on a Connemara pony, says the same. Her conveyor belt of top horses shows that the Klimke system works and it is of huge value to look at their personal three top training priorities.

Ingrid says, “My Father always strived for Olympic glory, but he was well aware that he would not reach this goal if he took shortcuts. He knew it was better to wait than rush a horse’s training. Our highest aim is to make our horses more beautiful and keep them healthy through their training. To achieve this the three daily priorities with all horses are 1) take small steps, 2) keep variety in the training and 3) foster the horse’s personality … which means we should never dominate our horses.

Translating Losgelassenheit 

The first real difficulty in the scales of training is the translation of losgelassenheit. What does it mean? It is now usually translated as looseness or suppleness and at times relaxation, but in German looseness is “lockerheit,” suppleness is “geschmeidigkeit” and relaxation is “entspannung.” So why was the specific term losgelassenheit used?

It is a noun that has been created from the verb loslassen, meaning “to let go,” therefore losgelassen “to have let go” or “be comfortable mentally.” Heit is just an ending that changes verbs and adjectives into nouns. The key point is that it refers to a mental not physical state. This makes much more sense, as it is obviously vital to have acceptance and calmness as a basic prerequisite for good physical performance.

Rehbein confirmed this by saying that suppleness is what you develop in a horse over a long period of time using the progression of exercises as you work towards impulsion. As you will see the latter part of this sentence about impulsion is of huge importance in defining schwung.

Schwung Is Not Impulsion

The definition of contact, the third in the scale, is less contentious but it’s meaning has definitely changed as emphasis is now put on both leg and rein contacts, rather than just the rein contact as in the original German manual. However the definition of the fourth in the scale, schwung, is really interesting and worthy of special thought.

The majority in the English speaking world describe this as “impulsion,” but I believe this is wrong.  It means “spring” and it is close in meaning to that now less used word “cadence,” which is about a bigger period of suspension and a shorter stance time for each step. This is confirmed by the fact that it clearly states in the German manual that you cannot have schwung in walk, because there is no period of suspension. Yet we can obviously have impulsion in the walk.

I believe that where the German manual talks of “developing propulsive force” is what we mean by impulsion, and that impulsion comes as a result of putting in place all the elements of the scales of training. This gets to the heart of the problem of incorrectly describing the scales as a pyramid rather than a scale. A scale is like the notes on a piano that are all used together for top results.

The development of controlled propulsive force, or controlled impulsion, is in practice the main aim of the scales as a whole. And they are scales, to go up and down continuously. Hence the name scales, not pyramid! A pyramid makes a very pretty illustration but it is fundamentally wrong to look at the scales in this way. This is certainly different from many people’s understanding of the scales but it makes obvious logical sense and can be seen in the original German manual.

Thankfully we have moved on from the early aims of so-called “classical” dressage, which did have collection as the ultimate and single aim. This resulted in disastrous and often cruel consequences for horses. No, surely our ultimate aim is to have a happy athlete doing a whole range of exercises within a range of both collected and extended paces and varied activities, all of which fundamentally require impulsion.

Let’s Keep Talking and Thinking

I am only too aware that this subject stirs the passions, however it is important not to get too emotional. None benefit if there is a breakdown of constructive discussion and research or we lose our sense of humour. A very bright local Pony Club rider, having heard me talking about the scales of training, emphasised this when looking at the flaking skin of a dressage coach that had seen too much sun and too little moisturiser.  “Look,” she said, “the scales of training!”

Dressage Gold with William Micklem: Good Dressage Equals Medals and Money

We're thrilled to welcome William Micklem back to EN with his first guest columns of 2016! This is the first post in his four-part "Dressage Gold" series, which will address the training scale, constants and variables of dressage. Keep coming back this week for the next posts in his series, and be sure to check out the Micklem Bridle, which is part of William's personal drive for more humane training.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro competing at 2014 London Olympia. Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton/FEI. Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro competing at 2014 London Olympia. Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton/FEI.

Good basic dressage training skills are the most important and most powerful skills for the whole horse industry. They are the key to opening doors to fulfilling potential in all equine activities for both horse and rider, and the key to more success and higher prices.

This is true even for horse racing. One of the great secrets of modern National Hunt trainers in Ireland and the UK is their use of horse trials and show jumping riders to school their horses. I know of no top trainer who does not use such riders but they are reluctant to talk about it because they feel it gives them a winning edge that they are hoping not everyone will copy! Higher praise for dressage you could not find.

Dressage For All

Coneygree, last year’s remarkable winner of the UK’s top race over fences, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is even show jumped by his trainer’s son, Alfie Bradstock, who used to be on the British Pony Event Team. Willie Mullins’ Djakadam, runner up to Coneygree, is the choice of every event rider looking for an international event horse with a ready made competitive dressage. For the reason behind his superb way of going look no further than the influence of international event rider Sam Watson.

If the hugely competitive and well-resourced racing world realize the importance of dressage then it should not be difficult to convince other disciplines.  Of course the wonderful flat work and statements endorsing dressage of top show jumpers such as Billy Toomey, Cian O’Connor, Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut, Scott Brash, Ben Maher, Michelle Meredith and McLain Ward should be more than enough to convince all young show jumpers that their flat work is a non-negotiable top priority.

Even for novice riders, good basic dressage will make them safer and more effective. For example a balanced rising trot is the basis for a balanced position for jumping, and an understanding of how to use aids rather than force to achieve their aims is the key to partnership and accelerated progress.

Novice riders can also quickly gain an idea of training priorities and a roadmap to follow. But beware the brain torture of the over 1,000 dressage books that are currently available to a USA audience. No other sport can match the variety of methods and complications available to the keen student!

Golden Keys

However, as with most activities, when dealing with horses simplicity is a golden key. The oldest (150 years) and simplest statement of training priorities that no one disputes in our modern age is Germany’s legendary dressage author Gustav Steinbrecht’s directive “Ride your horse forward and straight,” only improved subsequently by the equally famous General L’Hotte with “Your horse must be calm, forwards and straight.”

At a similar time another Frenchman, Captain Beudant, carved his name into the training manuals with “Ask for much, be content with little, and reward often.” Advice that has also stood the test of time, together with Xenophon’s “nothing forced can be beautiful” written 2,400 years ago!

In 1886 Steinbrecht also wrote probably the most used paragraph of all time about horse training:“… all [training exercises] follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever interfere with the relationship between horse and rider.”

This reminds us that as well as key aims it is vital to use a coach to show a step by step method that really works and allows a steady progression to not just a high level, if the rider desires this, but also works for all of the major activities. This is why training of equestrian coaches in all countries demands an understanding of all the main disciplines before specialization.

It also shows the importance of eventing as a catalyst for training that is flexible and complementary. Top level eventing dressage has progressed to such an extent that Carl Hester says that it is as good as pure dressage at the equivalent levels.

Rollkur and Hyperflexion

In recent years the use and examination of the practise of rollkur or hyperflexion (where a horse is ridden in an unnatural shape, with the head very low and the neck very round) reflects well on the dressage community. Not because I enjoyed seeing a horse being ridden in rollkur or looking at the harm it did to both horses and our sport. However it is important to examine new things to see if they are good and in this case it has been done.

In any sport methodology has to evolve.  The essential search for incremental improvements inevitably involves change and an open mind, but this is not something that many in dressage training find easy, particularly as it is a sport that is full of mandatory ‘classical’ principles, revered truisms and largely subjective judging.

Whether we are concerned with the welfare or the performance of the horse the development of the natural paces and outline of the horse is a key performance goal.  But this is often not easy or quick, so it is not a surprise that so many resort to gadgets or strength to get a quicker result. A result that is rarely long lasting or fulfills the potential of the horses trained in this way or guards the welfare of the horse.   This is why the FEI has ruled against hyperflexion, citing that it’s “mental abuse” to the horse and “a result of aggressive riding.”

Last summer, at the 11th International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held in Vancouver, the results were presented of a review of 55 scientific articles dealing with the effects of head and neck position on various types of horses’ welfare and/or performance.

The review was carried out by Uta Koenig von Borstel, PhD, BSc, a professor at the University of Gottingen’s Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics in Germany, and Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), Cert CABC, animal behaviour and welfare science professor at the University of Sydney.

The review authors concluded that although some hyperflexion can lead to more expressive movements “the presumed gymnastic benefits are by far outweighed by both reduced equine welfare and undesired gymnastic effects.” 88% of these studies indicated that hyperflexion negatively impacts welfare via airway obstruction, pathological changes in the neck structure, impaired forward vision, and stress and pain due to confusion caused by conflicting signals and the inability to escape pressure. Their summation was very clear: “The FEI rules are there for good reason and hyperflexion is difficult to justify.”

A Happy Athlete

In terms of basic principles there is surely nothing more important than producing what the FEI describes as a “happy athlete.” In practise this is not something that is always in evidence but in recent years Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester in pure dressage and William Fox-Pitt and Michael Jung in eventing dressage have shown that this is not only achievable but without doubt produces gold medal performances.

But the fact that so many attribute their work as ground breaking and changing dressage judging values suggests that it is only fairly recently that happy equine athletes have been recognised and fully rewarded on the score board.

Now softness, lightness and ease are more than just an aspiration but a requirement for high level marks. Much of the credit for this must go to the leadership of FEI Judge General Stephen Clarke who for many years has seen the need for the work in the dressage arena to more closely match the stated aims of dressage listed in the FEI rules, foremost of which is this:

 ‘The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.”

Therefore Stephen continually talks of the judges now wanting to see the work look easy, effortless, beautiful and most importantly natural. As a result of this judges are beginning to put lightness and softness in front of flashy paces.

The most obvious recent example of this at Grand Prix level was the self carriage and softness of Charlotte Dujardin’s Valegro beating the huge power and extravagant paces of Adelinde Cornelissen’s Parcival in the 2012 London Olympic Games. So stress-free, horse-friendly, no-force dressage is now at the top of the training agenda and as a result dressage has never been more appealing.

Running Reins

One area that is not appealing to the public or most dressage coaches is the use of running reins (in effect a pulley giving extra strength) by international show jumpers, even when they go into the prize giving. Recently Switzerland has banned their use at shows and a number of other countries are considering doing the same.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this what is certain is that too many young riders use running reins inappropriately and before they have learnt basic dressage essentials. This was confirmed when German show jumping World Champion Ludger Beerbaum came to teach the top British juniors. He made them all take off their running reins saying, “first you must learn to ride without them.”

The problem for Grand Prix jumpers is that the rules require them to go at 400 meters per minute, but most horses have a longer canter stride at this speed than the standard 12 foot (3.66 meter) stride used by many course designers. Therefore their stride length has to be reduced, something the use of running reins does admirably.

In the process it also means that the natural canter and outline of the horse is compromised. The solution is a small reduction in the required speed and I hope show jumping is open minded enough as a sport to look at this option and then test it in practise.

In Praise of a Few Slightly Older Good Men

EN guest columnist William Micklem brings us his latest thoughts after a weekend spent at the FEI World Eventing Championships for Young Horses at Le Lion D’angers. Click here to read all of William's column for EN and here to visit his website.

Jonty Evans at Luhmühlen last year. Photo by Jenni Autry. Jonty Evans at Luhmühlen last year. Photo by Jenni Autry.

With youth and support and opportunity, life is full of sporting possibilities. Mix this with a little passion for what you choose to do, stir in the ability to get out of bed each morning, and relatively speaking life is easy and success is inevitable.  

Then as the years pass by, things get more difficult. More responsibilities, less time, less support and in the case of horse riding less suppleness and probably less nerve.

So as I sat at Lion D’angers at the FEI World Eventing Championships for Young Horses, I reserved my greatest admiration not for the young bloods but for the slightly older riders, who have resisted the temptation to change their focus to the gentler climes of pure dressage or show jumping and are still challenging themselves by galloping across country.

Jonty Evans is an elite rider, a member of the Irish senior team that won at Boekelo last week ahead of the USA and New Zealand, and a man who sees the Rio Olympics at the end of his current list of action steps and short term goals. Yet Jonty is 44!

His natural modesty and manners endears him to everyone, but it is only in recent times that either he or the eventing circus have started to believe that the highest honours are within touching distance — if the next 10 months and 300 days of supreme dedication and effort can be described as touching distance!

 “I want this more than I have ever wanted it,” he says, “and at long last I now believe it is possible.” His holistic preparation has meant shedding over 30 ponds in weight from his 6 foot, 6 inch frame and an equal amount of doubt from his mind.

He remembers, as a psychological turning point, the time when Andrew Nicholson telephoned after completing Burghley and said to him “that was really good … you were up with the best there.” After a three-year stint working for Andrew, he knew that this was huge praise from a man not known for putting any gloss on another rider’s performance.

But Jonty is astute enough to realise that the real key to his mental strength and positivity is not to compare himself with Andrew, but instead to keep achieving a new personal best. His competition is with himself, and he loves the fact that in this sense he just keeps winning … and winning becomes a habit.

Jonty’s story of quiet progress from “average” to “excellence,” and his current competitiveness at the highest level despite limited resources, is one that needs a wider audience because it is inspirational. And yes, I know that William Fox-Pitt is 46 and Andrew Nicholson is 54, but they are both definitely on a freak spectrum that is almost impossible for most of us to relate to. Indeed, they have each been winning international events for over 25 years.  

In many ways it is both more interesting and more valuable to study Jonty’s journey and see that it is possible to make extraordinary progress from a fairly low base even as the years move on.

Like almost every rider in the two classes at Lion, Jonty is a full-time rider with many horses to ride. So in truth I have even more admiration for another Irish rider who was also there. He is in the same age bracket, at 48, and yet is also an amateur rider who is only able to ride one or two horses very early in the morning before his day at the office.  

Aidan and Master Tredstep (aka Wilson) at Pau, Photo by: Jenni Autry

Aidan Keogh and Master Tredstep at Pau in 2013. Photo by Jenni Autry.

His international timetable also means he is away from home and his horses for weeks at a time. What he has achieved in the circumstances is simply outstanding. His name is Aidan Keogh, the founder and CEO of the very successful and innovative Tredstep Ireland. I have to declare an interest, as I have worked with him as a coach ever since he was a very skinny 11-year-old boy on a palomino pony called Primrose.

At Lion D’Angers Aidan rode a 15.3-hand mare called Pride of Tredstep, aka Molly, who is by the Thoroughbred Lord Noble out of a coloured pony mare! She looks somewhat like a cob and was inexpensive to say the least, but with Aidan was the leading Irish horse in the 6-year-old class at Lion D’Angers last year, beating many of these truly beautiful and hugely valuable event types that are at these world championships.  

Molly breaks the mould of assumed expectations, just as Aidan and Jonty break this mould. Molly was found for Aidan by the world famous Paddy Hughes of the equally successful additives and supplement company Horse First. Paddy also found Master Tredstep for Aidan, and they completed the four-star at Pau two years ago. A huge achievement.

With both riders and horses it is foolish to just dream of possibilities without being honest about realities, but Jonty, Aidan and Molly all remind us not to make assumptions about ability and potential at too early a stage. Why should the slightly older man not challenge himself and go beyond expectations? Even if they do not end up at the Olympics, they will be happier men at the end of their lives than those who quickly build barriers to their own progress and have nothing but regrets to sustain them.

Yes, I haven’t written about female riders in this article, but I did mention Molly! In addition, my article “In Praise of Women” appeared earlier in the year.

Not So Glorious Mud: How Should the FEI Address Exceptional Weather?

In his latest column for EN, William Micklem asks how the FEI should deal with exceptional weather conditions on cross country following the European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle, which saw the footing deteriorate as the day went on and more rain fell. Click here to read all of William's EN columns and here to visit his website.

Michael Jung and fischerTakinou on cross country at Blair. Photo by Jon Stroud/FEI. Michael Jung and fischerTakinou on cross country at Blair. Photo by Jon Stroud/FEI.

There is room for a debate in our sport regarding the level of severity of the cross country course in relation to changing ground conditions. Not to reduce the maximum allowed level of demands, but how to ensure the level envisaged by the course designer is largely level on the day of competition. The brilliant Ian Stark produced a magnificent championship course at last weekend’s European Championships, at Blair in Scotland, but the rain obviously meant that the level of severity was increased, particularly in the second half of the competition.

Is this just the nature of the sport, as British Chef d’Equipe Yogi Breisner suggests — “It is an outdoor sport after all” — or are there things we should do in response to exceptional rain to ensure the level of severity remains more consistent? A plan B, and even plan C, according to the changing conditions. Plan B for the ground jury at Blair meant hardcore being put down on some take offs and landings halfway through the competition and then subsequently the removal of one fence. Should changes have been made earlier, or for example should it be possible to increase the time allowed either before or during a competition?

Personally I believe it is vital that the cross country at each level of competition is not diluted, but this is not my point.  What I am talking about is making the competition level of severity more consistent with whatever star level it is supposed to be throughout the competition. The footing can never remain exactly the same, and this and changing light conditions, including the position of the sun, are all a normal part of the sport, but in exceptional circumstances should we do more to make things fair?

I was at the European Championships at Achelschwang in 1993 (long format days) when the rain made the cross country footing even worse than Blair. As Kristina Cook, the 2009 European Champion, confirmed: “Blair was reminiscent of my first Senior Championships, at Achelschwang in Germany in 1993, where it poured with rain on cross country day and the ground turned into a bog.” A section of the course was taken out but the end result was still not pretty, with I believe 12 horses either stopping or falling over the last two fences.

Then last year in France, at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, the cross country course at Haras du Pin once again had a greatly increased severity because of the weather conditions. As in Achelschwang a section was taken out before the competition started, but when I walked the whole course at the end of the cross country it was obvious to see by the hoof prints, 15 centimeters into the holding ground, that the level of the cross country test was much greater than envisaged by course designer Pierre Michelet. As a result it was not a pretty sight once again, with many tired horses near the end of the track.

Some say this was because the horses were not fit enough or because they lacked Thoroughbred blood, or because the riders did not adjust to the conditions, but this does not alter the fact that without the rain the course would have been a significantly easier test.

Is what happened at Normandy and Blair what we want? Is the impression this gives to the viewing public acceptable? Is it fair to less experienced teams who are only just at the level of track that could be expected in normal conditions? And is it a level playing field for all competitors from the start to the end of the competition? Most agree that an all weather dressage arena is desirable in championship competitions, so that it is fairer to all competitors, so should this logic be applied to the cross country?

To be fair most top events now try to do this with a dedicated cross country track, extra drainage as required and generally improved footing. Certainly our top riders and trainers consistently seek good footing for their horses and most feel this creates better competitions and more attractive viewing. They are also not slow to withdraw their horses if the conditions do not suit, but this option is usually not possible in a championship team competition.

An all weather track would not be practical or desirable, although this already happens naturally at some locations, in California and France for example, but there are the other options of changing the required speed and/or distance that could be used more readily in exceptionally bad weather.

Because of the Atlanta Olympics the FEI rules already allow changes for specific high temperatures, so should it also be normal to allow changes according to the state of the footing? I am not talking about soft going or a little mud, but in the case of exceptional muddy conditions such as that experienced at Achelschwang, Normandy and Blair. Some will say I am just “too soft” but many also said the same thing about the introduction of short format and automatic elimination after a fall. So we need a debate and once again the FEI needs to see if a good idea can give way to a better idea.

#Blair2015: WebsiteFinal ScoresTeam StandingsEN’s Coverage

The Best Coach in the World

From left, Yogi Breisner, Karen O'Connor, David O'Connor and Christopher Bartle. Photos via EN Archives and Wikipedia.

From left, Yogi Breisner, Karen O’Connor, David O’Connor and Christopher Bartle. Photos via EN Archives and Wikipedia.

Tennis is a big sport. It gets the sort of media coverage and sponsorship equestrian sports can only dream about, and since London 2012, it is once again an Olympic sport. As many of you will know, the gold medallist in London was Scotland’s Andrew Murray. The following year he went on to win the biggest tournament in the world, Wimbledon, but since then has suffered with a back injury and back operation and has slipped down the rankings.

Then last year he brought in a new coach to lead his team. Breaking all the “rules,” he hired a woman! Amelie Mauresmo, a French former World no. 1 took over as his coach when Ivan Lendl, who had guided Murray to his Olympic and Wimbledon titles, decided he could not stay on the circuit full time.

A gender issue

The general reaction from the tennis world was negative. Tony Nadal, coach and uncle of the great Raffa Nadal, publicly said what most were thinking: “A female coach has no place in the world of men’s tennis.” Murray responded by saying, “Some people will never be satisfied unless I win a Grand Slam with Amelie. People will say she is not a good coach, but I know the reality. She is a good coach.”

Then a few weeks ago, Murray was a finalist in the Australian Open and by general consensus is back in the big time. There is a noticeable new sense of joy and calm in the Murray camp, and Murray is quick to credit Mauresmo. “I see no reason why female coaches should not become the norm in men’s tennis. It is just incredible that so many find it extraordinary that one of the world’s best tennis coaches could be a woman!”

The bias against female coaches in male sport sits alongside the myth that you have to be a top performer to be a top coach. Soccer’s current crop of top managers and coaches disprove that totally, with those such as Jose Mourinho of Chelsea and Arsene Wenger of Arsenal ruling the world roost in the most competitive and best funded world sport of all, yet both only played low level soccer.

Mexico did it!

The uncomfortable fact is that the international horse world has a great deal to learn from all this, with the majority of national coaches being both male and past Olympic medallists.

If there is one sport where coaching should not be a gender issue, it is equestrian sports, as in all the main disciplines women and men compete on equal terms together. So if national associations paid less attention to the gender of applicants, more women would undoubtedly be appointed. Mexico recently ignored the prejudice against women and hired Karen O’Connor. They should be congratulated on hiring a great coach and leader.

It is so easy to just go along with the norm, the accepted fashion and in the process make decisions that are not the best. At some time in the future, the world’s best coach in eventing will probably be a woman who never won a gold medal.

The important thing is to leave the mind open for such a possibility — especially as without a doubt at the lower and intermediate levels the majority of eventing coaches are already female! This has much to do with the nature of eventing, with high levels of female participation, but it is also a good example of eventing being ahead of the game and less traditional than many suggest.

Antagonistic or complementary phases?

However, what is certain is that future top coaches will truly understand the sport of eventing and be experts in all three disciplines. They will be the heirs of Jack Le Goff, Christopher Bartle, David O’Connor and Yogi Breisner.

I was asked last month by the legendary trainer and rider, Lucinda Green, whether the three phases of eventing are in fact antagonistic rather than complementary. This gets to the fundamental requirement of eventing training. To be efficient and to be humane, the training for the three phases must be complementary. This is where a number of riders are digging themselves a big dangerous hole for themselves that one day they will fall in.

In recent years we have often been led astray by choosing to use specialist trainers, however brilliant, whose work does not suit the needs of the other two disciplines. Therefore the national coach or lead trainer must have an in-depth knowledge of the training required for eventing as a whole and only employ other trainers whose work fits into this programme and who also fully understands the training priorities of the other two disciplines.

In my opinion, this strategy also should apply at the lower levels, and making progress towards this goal would significantly improve both safety and performance achievements.

The method at fault, not the activity

Look at the truly brilliant William Fox-Pitt and Michael Jung’s riding and their very public description of their training — the training for one phase is without doubt the training for the other two. Everything should blend and then there will be synergy, and this is what the great riders and coaches achieve. This is what Bert de Némethy and Jack Le Goff did because they had a complete training themselves.

But instead, what do we so often see? Training that is antagonistic. In particular dressage training that is strong, mechanical and uncomfortable, and show jumping training designed to trap and rap. My biggest concern is the dressage training that takes the initiative and fifth leg away from the horses. But let’s be clear, it is not dressage or the level of dressage that is causing the problem. It is some of the dressage training methods themselves. But it does not have to be this way.

Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin have changed the face of competitive pure dressage training worldwide by showing true harmony and natural outlines and rejecting force. Sounds like a good recipe for cross country training to me — and also a method that more mares will like! It is true that in dressage training there is also a gender issue because there are fewer mares at elite level than in either show jumping, where there are many, or eventing, where there are an increasing number.

The bottom line

So more elite mares are a by-product of better training. And more elite female coaches, and more elite coaches who have not won gold medals, would be a by-product of more open minds that might well bring huge success. Because such a coach could be the very best in the world.

Andrew Nicholson on Song: A Rare Behind-the-Scenes Look at His Program

Editor's Note: We were very lucky to have William Micklem attend the International Eventing Forum yesterday at Hartpury College to bring us reports on the sessions. Click here for William's report on Christoph Hess' session on working with the "not so good" dressage horse and here for his report on the open forum with Hugh Suffern, Charlie Longsdon and Andrew Nicholson on fittening the event horse. Click here to visit his website for much more from William.

Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Andrew Nicholson at the 2015 International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

For two hours Andrew Nicholson rode and talked non-stop to the delight of his audience at the International Eventing Forum. Not that such labours are unusual or difficult to a man who often jumps 16 horses in a day at his home base in Wiltshire. As Andrew says, “being able to do this doesn’t come from muscles but from balance and an easy style.”

The aim is to be fast and safe across country

The key point of his presentation was about this easy style for both rider and horse, especially preparing his horses to go across country wasting the minimum amount of energy and always with the intent of coming home within the time, whatever the class. “There is no point jumping beautifully and going slowly,” says Andrew, “as that will win nothing.”

This is a philosophy that well suits one of the most talented cross country riders in the history of eventing. A rider who admits he likes to live a little on “the edge.” Yet finding that edge is not a regular occurrence for a rider who finds it all so ridiculously easy, like a horse that is galloping well within itself, and has a well practised method to prepare his horses.

A method for cross country

He emphasizes that this method is not designed to produce a show jumper but rather a cross country horse that needs to “be smooth” and “glide” down to the fences with the minimum of changes and then “jump economically, without any extravagant bascule and taking responsibility for looking after themselves.” So how is this achieved?

Using four horses, two 4-year-olds and two older horses, he showed a variety of exercises that in many ways come from a different song sheet from that of some modern trainers, but in other ways are traditional methods that have stood the test of time.

Riding the rhythm

He believes in sitting as still as possible down to a fence, as he “rides the rhythm.” His cross country riding is not about crescendos and the big base drum but about an understated and consistent flow of notes and subtle changes from first fence to last fence. In this way he saves energy, goes faster and is safer because he allows the horse to concentrate on the fences in front of them rather than be distracted by the rider.

To some this may give the impression of just galloping down to the jump with a death wish, but on the contrary, he says, “I like to be in control, and I like to find those perfect take off spots, but from the beginning I work at doing this with the minimum amount of effort and changes.”

Therefore, he does not want to create a big flashy jump with the horse hugely above the fences, as this also wastes time and will lose their confidence, particularly when jumping into water and going down drops. Therefore, he tends to jump regularly but with small fences and teaches them to get close to their fences and cope with jumping from all angles and on all distances. “The key is repetition,” he says.

Nicholson brilliance … unmentioned

As we watched Andrew ride, talk and jump, it was obvious to me that there are at least three areas of brilliance that at no time he acknowledges or mentions. Firstly, his balance over a fence when training is quite exquisite. Exquisite may seem a strange word to use, but it is accurate because his balance is extremely beautiful, and he is so sensitive to every little change.

Watching him down a grid is very similar to watching the elite show jumpers Nick Skelton or Eric Lamaze ride down a combination. All three tend to ride a little shorter, but all three are uniquely still and such easy loads for their horses. Because their balance is so good, they don’t even have to worry too much about a perfect lower leg position.

Secondly, he has a superb eye and feel for a stride. He is not always credited for this, but it makes a simply huge difference, and I have no doubt he could show jump successfully at a high level. The counter argument is that this cannot be true because his show jumping record is not the best.

This is true, but as he himself explains, “my method makes my horses very brave and confident across country but this sometimes makes the show jumping go pear-shaped.” I have a feeling that he is now getting the training balance right and producing horses that are jumping more clean rounds. Certainly this is what the score sheets suggest.

Thirdly, he has huge belief in his horses … to a fault he would say in the past. “I have had a bad habit of taking on a horse with a problem because I believe I can fix it. I have learnt, slowly, that it is better to start without major problems.” However, this sense of belief transmits to all his horses, and he always focuses on what he needs to do rather than focusing on what is wrong.

Throughout the afternoon, his whole thought process was a lesson in positive thinking. Combined with this, he believes in his method and he believes in himself. This sense of certainty is what may sometimes cause a clash with those of a different opinion but is undoubtedly the mental core of a competition rider.

These three areas of brilliance are also the core of his relationship and partnership with his horses and the core of his success. He loves them, and they love the fact that he is such an easy load and presents them so well to a fence. And they love the fact that he makes it so clear and simple about what they have to do, rather than what they shouldn’t do, and with this process gives them a “can do” and “will do” attitude.

This trust and belief is emphasized from an early stage because, although he doesn’t have any cross country fences at home and starts his young horses at the British Eventing Novice level (1 meter cross country and 1.10 meter show jumping), they have the confidence in him to do well from the beginning. He does do a small number of cross country schools in advance, but they trust him after such a short amount of time and are prepared to respond positively to new questions.

Annabel Scrimgeour and King Joules at the International Eventing Forum. Photo by William Micklem.

Annabel Scrimgeour and King Joules at the International Eventing Forum. Photo by William Micklem.

Team leadership and team building

The other thing that marks Andrew out as special is the team that he has built around him. No one can do this sport without help, and Andrew is quick to credit both the huge part his wife Wiggy plays in his competition life and the three other people who have all been very much a part of the success story in recent years: Annabel Scrimgeour, Julian Trevor-Roper and Luis Alvarez de Cervera.

Dressage trainer and international judge Annabel Scrimgeour has worked with him since Avebury reached two-star level and usually rides four horses every day and quietly nudges Andrew into the right direction with his dressage training. As Andrew says, ”I feel she has made a big difference and that the horses are going better all the time.” What makes all the difference is that Annabel was a competitive event rider herself and is able to fit the training of the three disciplines together.

Julian Trevor-Roper is also a highly skilled event rider who has competed for over 20 years and still rides at two-star level. He is related to a World War II flying hero and has the same brand of quiet unflappability and determination under pressure. He is both a beautiful rider on the flat and a superb jump rider and is the only other person who jumps the young horses apart from Andrew. “Julian’s experience and knowledge have been an enormous help,” says Andrew, “and it is a real pleasure to watch him jump the horses.”

Spain’s Luis Alvarez de Cervera is one of those very rare riders to have had success at the highest level in more than one discipline — in his case, show jumping and eventing. A six-time Olympian, he has helped Andrew for over 20 years, and, as well as being New Zealand’s show jumping coach at competitions, he comes to Andrew’s yard about six times a year. He also bred Jet Set, Andrew’s rising star.

“He has taught me to jump my young horses more often at home. We do a lot of exercises which are small in terms of height but using difficult stride patterns. He is a true horseman and a very good friend,” Andrew says.

The main topic of conversation

The International Eventing Forum attracted an even larger gathering than usual of the great and good in international eventing. We had Olympic judges, selectors, course builders and national team trainers; international coaches from Ireland, Kuwait, Japan, USA, Germany, Holland and of course the UK; and enough top riders to make three Olympic teams! They were there not just for the lunch but to witness one of the world’s great riders give a very rare public explanation of his training methods.

However, sadly, much of the break time conversation was about Andrew’s treatment by the ESNZ (Equestrian Sports New Zealand) and how they are singing from a different song sheet from those in the sport. The general feeling was that ESNZ have lost their intended focus and the confidence of the riders and they now have little credibility.

What has happened is not good for our sport as a whole, primarily because we need to reward those who treat their horses humanely, and secondly because we need to do everything we can to support and develop our few genuine superstar riders. It is these riders who bring our sport to a wider audience, to the benefit of us all.

ESNZ actions in this case also shows a huge lack of respect for one of the most successful sportsmen in the history of New Zealand sport. As one junior international rider said to me, “they should double his money, not take it away, and get him to do one of these demonstrations every week!”

Part 2 coming soon with details of his exercises and the horses he used, plus training strategies for difficult horses.

Fittening the Event Horse a Hot Topic at International Eventing Forum

Andrew Nicholson and Avebury at Rolex. Photo by Kasey Mueller. Andrew Nicholson and Avebury at Rolex. Photo by Kasey Mueller.

Prominent vet Hugh Suffern and renowned racehorse trainer Charlie Longsdon joined Andrew Nicholson to share their insight on the topic of fittening the event horse today at the International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. Read on for their thoughts, which are grouped under a brief explanation of their background (though Nicholson hardly needs an introduction!).

Hugh Suffern, MVB, MRCVS

His keen interest in equine sports medicine and his own experiences as a competitor at the four-star level eventing were the perfect grounding for looking after equine athletes. He has been an FEI vet for over 20 years and the Irish team vet for 13 years, though three Olympic Games, three Worlds and six European Championships.

Hugh is also the race course vet at Down Royal and Downpatrick, a committee member of The Association of Irish Racecourse Veterinary Surgeons, sits on the Tattersalls Ireland and Cavan Sales Veterinary Panels, Goffs Sales Wind Referee Panel, Goresbridge “Go for Gold” sale Radiography Panel and Irish Horse Board Stallion Inspection Veterinary Panel.

He is a member of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association Veterinary Committee. High is also a National Hunt stud owner, breeding Cheltenham winner and multiple Grade 1 performer Dorans Pride, Harcon and Premier Victory among others. He also stood national hunt stallions Zaffaran and Insan and currently stands the Irish Derby winner Winged Love.

Here’s what Hugh had to say about getting event horses fit:

  • “The short format has brought changes. There used to be two main events each year and a long focussed fitness programme towards these events followed by a rest.  Now there are more events with horses kept at a level of fitness. This requires special skills.
  • “Every horse is different, and most facilities are different. Not one box fits all, but interval training is the best way forward with the least possibility of injury. But keep a note of everything day by day and year by year.”
  • “Blood tests will never replace good management and feel for your horses, but blood tests will show you what the norm is for any horse that can be useful when a horse is off form.”
  • “Surfaces have improved, and therefore there are fewer joint problems, but some riders do too much in the dressage arena with too much turning. So in the programme, you must hack and go through forests and ride on the road at times. Variety is vital.”
  • “It is not required to start with too much galloping. Long and slow and using the competitions themselves to build fitness works well initially. Also, it is a balance initially with doing all the required training for all the phases.”
  • “Blood is important, and those horses that are not Thoroughbred have higher levels of body fat, do not utilize oxygen as well and tend not to travel as well. Therefore, they need more work. Watching bodyweight is important.”
  • “Heart rate monitors can be used to tie in with GPS and there can also be linked in with measuring lactate levels. It’s fun to use but not vital, although it deepens knowledge and understanding.”
  • “Bowed tendons and suspensory branch problems are in evidence as much as ever, but more back problems and more repetitive strain injuries probably caused by work at home rather than competition strains.”
  • “We are all on a progression of learning…we have to keep studying our subject.”
  • “Jumping gymnastically and doing standard training at a slower speed is sufficient in training rather than too much jumping at speed.”
  • “There is an an overriding problem of feeding event horses too much. Overweight is baggage and causes many problems. Horses don’t need so much food. Many horses don’t need more than approximately 8 pounds of hard food a day.”
  • “Modern courses require both aerobic and anaerobic use, and the horses have to learn to cope with the lactate levels in anaerobic work.  They have to be trained for the turning and changes of speed.”
  • “A fit horse will hit less fences on show jumping day.”
  • “I like swimming horses if they have leg problems.”

Charlie Longsdon

Charlie has already packed a tremendous range of experience into his short career, including spells with Oliver Sherwood, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Kim Bailey, Nicky Henderson and, in the U.S., Todd Pletcher. Notable horses under his care with Nicky included Bacchanal, Marlborough, Trabolgan and Fondmort, and in the U.S., Ashado and Speightstown (one of whose Group 1 winning sons, Lord Shanakill, was trained by Karl Burke).

Charlie has made a considerable investment in ultra-modern facilities at his stable in Oxfordshire, which he said has paid off. Brand new stables, 5 furlong woodchip gallop, 1 mile 2 furlong grass gallop, huge outdoor school for basic ground work and loose schooling, new horse walkers and turnout paddocks located in 450 acres of grass and arable land all contribute to strong, healthy, relaxed horses.

Here’s what Charlie had to say about getting horses fit:

  • “In racing in old days, horses cantered twice a week. Now they canter each day with interval training on hills. Horses are fitter now. Horses are also smaller, not so much the big old fashioned horse, but lighter more athletic horses take the training better.”
  • “Having a history of what works for you is vital. Keep records! We keep a precise daily log and weigh them every week and before and after racing. It helps us to see if they have done too much work or a race has taken too much out of them, in which case we back off them for a while.We also do blood tests every week. With so many horses, it is like having another pair of eyes.”
  • “Our horses don’t go on the road. We use all weather surfaces, which makes training so much easier. We have both woodchip and polytrack. The woodchip gallop is a little slower. The 5 furlong gallop rises 150 feet and the hills mean going a little slower to do the same work. We also have grass gallops and try and use a variety of gallops. The National Hunt (jump racing) surfaces are slightly deeper.”
  • “We don’t use a heart rate monitor, but I think it’s a good idea if you know their norms first of all. Some of the flat trainers are now using them.”
  • “We still get injuries because of speed on firm ground, but generally our surfaces are beautifully cared for, whereas an event horse has to cope with a less consistent and prepared surfaces.”
  • “We jump twice a week in training, starting with loose schooling and usually at speed. In France, they tend to jump every day.”
  • “We changed to haylage two years ago, but our horses blew up. It was too high a feed value. We changed back to hay, and our results immediately improved.”
  • “I gallop according to their individual needs. As 3 year olds, they just canter steadily. It takes six months to 18 months to get them ready for racing.”
  • “I don’t use swimming or tread mills, as I prefer using the right gallop surface and keep it simple.”
  • “Eventers need to be more consistent with their training. I see too many tired horses and riders! This will improve; I have little doubt.”

Andrew Nicholson

  • “My horses now are probably fitter than they used to be. Half-bred horses need more fittening work. In addition, with so many jumping efforts close together in modern courses, it requires greater fitness. The steeplechase was easier because it is a consistent speed.”
  • “I start galloping my horses at 400 mpm as 4 year olds once a week, and they finish tired. This helps all the work in the other disciplines. The four-star horses gallop every four days up a hill, which they do up to three times up to slightly quicker than they do in a competition. The heavier half-bred horse can be breathing more heavily at the end of a gallop but often recovers more quickly than the Thoroughbred.”
  • “They don’t do road work, but they go into a national park and trot up hills on tracks that are fairly firm. They do this approximately every third day. The hill is steep!”