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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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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!”

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

500 people are in attendance at the International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College in Gloucestershire. In session one, Christoph Hess spoke about working with the "not so good" dressage horse. Or this could be entitled "Why I love this trainer!” It was such a huge pleasure to hear these words from Christoph. My hope is that his messages reach an even larger audience and this is why I report them.

Christoph Hess gives a thumbs up to Sam Griffiths at the International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media. Christoph Hess gives a thumbs up to Sam Griffiths at the International Eventing Forum. Photo courtesy of Jon Stroud Media.

Christoph Hess is an FEI ‘I’ judge in both dressage and eventing and is currently the Head of Instruction at the DOKR, or German National Federation. He takes every opportunity to promote a horse friendly system of training and emphasizes over and over again that we should work with the horse.

First rider: Australian Sam Griffiths, famous for his partnership with Happy Times, on Rufus, his talented but tense 2* horse.

Christophe worked Sam and Rufus largely in working trot and canter with simple figures using a mixture of light seat and dressage position. These were his truly wonderful key instructions in this first session:

“Dressage is used to promote the mental and physical well-being of the horse and should be logical. Dressage should promote a happy horse: This is our highest goal — a happy horse, a happy athlete.”

“It is important that the neck is open at the throat latch. Too many horses too short in the neck in all disciplines. Today’s horses are always in a frame, but often they don’t seek the contact properly, and you can’t give high marks to a horse that is behind the bit.”

“Opening the neck gives the horse the possibility to use the back. Allow the horse to seek the bit.”

“Use light seat to help the horse use his back. It’s like the rising trot. Too many horses in canter are balanced but not correct because they are not true 3 time with a period of suspension. This must be protected.”

“Taking a strong contact to hold the horse together is ridiculous.”

“Horses benefit from a rider that sits independently without a reliance on the reins for balance. At times, you can ride with one hand and pat the horse, give a long rein to let him stretch. A well-balanced rider can easily retake the reins without too much fussing. I would like to see more dressage movements ridden with reins in one hand!”

“Learn to ride the corners by riding 15-meter circles in each corner. The new FEI event tests emphasize the use of corners and correct bending lines.”

“The normal schooling day to day is the preparation for the new tests. You do not need to keep riding the test because the homework is the test.’’

“This work is for all the disciplines — as much for jumping as for dressage, and it is for all horses and all ponies.”

“What a session! What a horse! What a rider!”

Sam was delighted, saying that Rufus became really rideable with much more swing in his back than in the past.

2nd Rider: Scotland’s Nicky Roncoroni with her lovely grey Advanced horse Stone Edge aiming for British team at European Championships at Blair Castle.

Christoph warmed Stone Edge up in a very similar way but also included leg yielding and asked for more impulsion to keep the quality of the paces. Then he introduced travers and lengthening. Once again, he asked Nicky to work in a light seat at times, particularly in canter and in the lateral work.

It is very important to first get a feeling for the horse.”

“Riders use the spur instead of the calf of the leg. This is wrong. As trainers and judges, we need to encourage putting the rider in front of the leg, NOT the spur.”

“With the bend on the circles and in the travers, it is important to use as little inside rein as possible. If you need the inside rein, there is something wrong with the earlier work.”

“He is a little behind the bridle, so like all horses he must be allowed to stretch, and you must be very sensitive with your hands to go with the movement of the mouth. If necessary with a longer rein but with a contact.”

“You need to produce a walk. So work at the walk as well as the trot and canter. Get a good feeling of the body working in the walk.  The walk is a mirror of the training of the horse.”

“Open the neck. Open the neck. Open the neck. The more you do this, the more he will be happy. Ride with the reins in one hand and give the rein, then make the circle smaller with no rein contact. The horse must seek the rein, and the rider must ride from the front to the back. To ride from the front is WRONG!”

“You cannot ride in collection before the horse is 100 percent in front of the leg, open and forwards. Using the body will get longer steps. So all riders must do the basic work long enough to get this.”

“Happy horses get high marks. Good basics get high marks. Too many horses do the movements held and forced, and this will get low marks.”

“When you drive the horse into a transition, you have to have a bit more the idea of a light seat. When you sit too heavy, you work against your horse. Think of a swinging seat, not sitting harder into the saddle, which is incorrect.”

“Wow! What a lovely horse. Top class. A hero in white with three lovely paces.”

Nicky said he usually goes like a peacock so she feels she can use this way of riding at home to overcome the problem.

No Need to Spot the Genius

We're delighted to welcome William Micklem as EN's newest columnist. Click here to access all of his columns for EN, and click here for much more on his website.

Kim Severson and Fernhill Fearless at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Fernhill Fearless in his Micklem bridle at WEG 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The race for the Oscars is gathering pace. The leading runners are on the promotional round that leads to short-term glory and long-term inclusion in the history books. Out of all the nominations, I recommend The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and mathematician.

Turing’s success at decoding German messages in World War one probably shortened the war by one to three years and saved seven to 21 million lives, based on the seven million lives lost each year of this brutal carnage.

So what has this got to do with horses? The first and most important point is how lucky we are to live in relative peace in the horse world. Sometimes equestrian tunnel vision, made worst by competition emotions or positions of power, make us blind to wider priorities and to our ability to simply treasure health, friendship and the sheer pleasure of working with sport horses — things denied to so many of our parents and grandparents. We should all give thanks for our many blessings and be a little kinder to each other in the horse world.

Of course, people were not kind to Alan Turing, a homosexual when homosexuality was illegal. He chose chemical castration rather than imprisonment for this crime, and when just 41 took his own life. Alan Turing’s first love was a friend at school who said this to him: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

He carried this thought with him through his life as an oddball who was not afraid to break new ground, be different and dare to dream beyond the norm. It gave him both a sense of self-worth and purpose.

In Ireland we have a blind and paralysed motivational speaker called Mark Pollock. He echoes the second part of this quote when saying that we should “challenge conventional wisdom,” and that we should not “respect the gap between reality and fantasy.” He believes that “we all have the innate ability to invent and solve problems.”

This attitude of mind needs to be an integral part of a developing horse world, but it is the first part of Turing’s philosophy that is the most important … ‘the people who no one imagines anything of.’ How many people do we dismiss or undervalue for all sorts of different reasons? Because they look odd, speak strangely, went to a bad school, write badly, are emotional, or possibly are hot headed, or worst still are different!

A good idea has to give way to a better idea, and the better idea doesn’t always come from an Olympic rider. (It is not the same with spotting potential and worth in horses?)

I have been fortunate enough to break new ground successfully with my Micklem bridle, my idea of Constants and Variables when riding, and with my GO! Rules to improve performance. But I am not a genius — just someone who tries to keep looking at things from a new viewpoint.

There are others who can do the same and then test their ideas to see if they are good. However, they need continuous encouragement and support to do this. Therefore, I welcome this week’s new competition for event riders at Wellington, just as I welcome new ideas to ensure more humane training methods in dressage.

However, the area I would most like to see new thinking is in the promotion and marketing of eventing. It is the core discipline. It takes its place at the centre of all horse sports because of the all around nature of the training required and the type of horse it produces, which is what I would describe as the ultimate leisure riding horse.

It is probably good for the whole horse population of the world because of the very high standards it produces for both stable management and training, and, for many, it gives a sense of excitement, achievement and satisfaction like no other. And for good measure our top riders are under-promoted gold. It does not take a genius to realise that in the world of eventing, we undersell ourselves!

Own Goal New Zealand

We're delighted to welcome William Micklem as EN's newest columnist. Click here to read his first column for EN, and click here to read all the latest updates on the Andrew Nicholson debacle.

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry. Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I hope that the management of Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) are not trying to be horse trainers or elite riders or coaches, because they would probably fall flat on their faces very quickly, particularly if they were faced with the inevitable “difficult” horse or student.

For the moment, let’s define “difficult” as being unwilling to be submissive, a little emotional and possibly even anti-social. Of course, there are degrees of being difficult, and it is certainly true that even the best of horses and humans have their difficult moments! Therefore, this is a key area that is widely required and needs an effective strategy.

So what does a good trainer do with a “difficult” horse, a coach with a difficult student or even a parent with a difficult child? How do they cope with those difficult moments? Let’s take the child first. In the past, a good measure of violence, under the banner of corporal punishment, or threats of physical pain were a common method for dealing with a difficult child.

But we have moved on to a more positive approach, as it became clear that this damages children. Instead, by rewarding the behaviour we want repeated and focusing on what is required, rather than what is not required, much more is achieved both in the short and long term.

The same applies to a difficult horse. Getting into a major fight with a horse invariably has two unsatisfactory outcomes. Either it leaves you losing the battle or leaves the horse mentally broken and dispirited, with a grudging acceptance of what you are asking and little enthusiasm for the next lesson or giving more than the minimum.

Instead, what the trainer has to do is keep the task at hand easy and simple and then react instantly and positively to anything they do well. It may be as simple a task as getting the horse to move around you in both directions. But good trainers show day in and day out that once there is a little trust and understanding, the floodgates of extraordinary progress are well and truly opened.

So the question is: Does this approach work with adults as well? And, let’s add another question: Does it work with elite performers and does it work with elite teams? Does it even work with certain hot-headed, difficult, elite performers? All the research says, “YES!”

Last weekend, Christiano Ronaldo was acknowledged as the best footballer in the world for the third time with the presentation of the Ballon d’OR. Ronaldo, like Andrew Nicholson, to all intents and purposes “lost” his father at an early stage and, like Andrew, has been described as stubborn and difficult.

Both are also seen as consummate professionals, rarely seen out late, always punctual, always training harder than those around them. Ronaldo is also known as a prima donna who is rude to staff and teammates when competition passions are high. One issue of the Manchester United fan magazine even described him as “a conniving little shit!

Therefore, what is interesting is how the legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson handled Ronaldo to get the best out of him. Ferguson has the reputation of being a hard man who few dared cross.

However, Ronaldo explained last week that he remembers a different man who was “fantastic. He told me to keep improving all the time. He said, ‘Christiano, you’re the best. Don’t worry about the rest.’ He still rings me regularly to remind me that I’m the best. He would finish most of his team talks with: ‘Now go out and enjoy yourself.’ It was never, ‘Do this, do that,’ because that can take away a player’s flair. I miss him.” 

In the USA last year, Alex Ferguson spoke to leading business figures and explained that the two most powerful words he could use as a coach were “well done.” He also emphasized that the timing of compliments was everything, and that it was important to “get in early with the positive and use the positive to melt away the negative and potential conflict.” One wonders how quickly ESNZ have praised and encouraged Andrew in the past?

People may have different views regarding the recent ESNZ actions, but the vast majority agree that that the timing used by them  shows incompetence. Why did they not instantly and positively welcome the first sign of Andrew being consilatory at the beginning of December? Or at the very least, they could have delayed announcement of the new High Performance squad a few days while the Andrew Nicholson situation was sorted out.

Instead, a full six weeks after Andrew withdrew from the squad, the ESNZ chairman Chris Hodson announced: “What we’re doing at this moment, and we should have it finalized next week, is working to figure out what steps would be necessary in order to Andrew to reclaim his spot with the High Performance squad.”

That should have taken two days and the whole matter settled before the latest High Performance list. That would have shown ESNZ in a positive and proactive light and confirmed their belief in their core goal stated so clearly on their website: to “support High Performance riders with the ability to achieve our vision.”

That action would have shown real leadership skills and an understanding that a win-win situation requires a positive approach. Instead, they effectively punish Andrew with a fine of NZ $50,000, which would have been his grant from ESNZ for 2015. And bear in mind that whereas Christiano Ronaldo is worth approximately $245 million, Andrew still has to sell horses to survive despite his huge success over a long, long career winning medals for New Zealand.

So ESNZ have scored an own goal and need to listen to Alex Ferguson, who says the second most important quality of leadership “is having the balls to admit you were wrong.”

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

We’re delighted to welcome William Micklem as EN’s newest guest blogger. He hardly needs an introduction, having sourced Biko, Custom Made and Giltedge for Karen and David O’Connor; bred High Kingdom and Mandiba; and invented the Micklem bridle — just to name a few. Visit his website here for much more.

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry,

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry,

So here’s a question for all eventing team selectors and high performance leaders. You have the current world’s No. 1 rated international rider with one of the best strings of four-star horses in the world, a rider who was fourth individually in the last Olympics and finished off the season in 2014 winning Burghley CCI4* for the fifth time. Would you want him on your current high performance squad, or would you exclude him over a few “hot” words following the World Equestrian Games last year?

In a staggering case of cutting off your nose to spite your face, Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) have excluded Andrew Nicholson from the new high performance squad and the training, support and funding provided to these riders. Near Queenstown in New Zealand is the highest bungee jump in the world. It gives a free fall of 8.5 seconds, and that would be all the time most of us would need to decide that Andrew should be on the New Zealand high performance squad for 2015.

We all know New Zealand and New Zealanders to be down to earth, sensible, practical and laid back individuals, but it seems that his exclusion by those in ESNZ would suggest that some have gone through a transformation that leaves us all the poorer and shows New Zealand equestrianism in a bad light on the world stage — petty, short sighted and mean spirited.

We are all poorer because eventing is a small sport on the world stage, and we need our few “stars,” from all countries in the world, to shine and succeed and bring our sport to the attention of a wider audience. Yes, this is not a life and death matter, but nothing about this situation is going to help Andrew perform better or the team be more successful. It’s about core values. The very existence of ESNZ is to help make the team successful, but their actions here do little to show that they have remembered this.

I have not spoken to Andrew about this situation, but it is clear that he was keen to move on and rejoin the squad after his previous withdrawal in October following the problems at WEG. “If I don’t put myself forward it’s sort of a dead end, isn’t it? I feel like it’s only right that I take that positive attitude because they have been happy to listen to me.” ESNZ interim chief executive Vicki Glynn has denied he was being punished in some way for his criticism but what other explanation can there be?

It is worth looking at his criticism and crime. Was he guilty of horse cruelty? Violent behaviour? Actions likely to damage the sport of eventing? NO! He was simply guilty of caring about his horse and wanting it to have the best possible care. Yes, in the process, he probably sounded off to a New Zealand official or two and was less than polite … Well, has anyone listened to our representatives and politicians in almost any country in the world?!

Robust communication is understandable when people care deeply about something, and is it not commendable to care deeply about a horse that has done 11 four-stars, was the world’s best event horse in 2013, and has taken Andrew to two World Championships and an Olympic Games, including being third individually at WEG in 2010, first at Pau, twice second at Burghley and third at Rolex? Who would not expect nothing but the best for such a horse?  Who else would not get emotional, particularly after the mud and sludge of WEG?

Andrew is also a six-time Olympian, a quite extraordinary achievement. Without doubt, both Nereo and Andrew have earned the right to be treated as equestrian heroes, and not just in New Zealand but in the whole equestrian world. This is why the actions of ESNZ leave them looking like the villain of the piece.  This is why most in the sport feel that at the very least he deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt.

It is also worth looking at Andrew’s life as an eventer. What did he do on New Year’s Day? Take a day off? No, he rode horses throughout the day. Usually 10 horses! Just as he does most days, despite being 53, and has done for the last 30 years. I don’t know Vicki Glynn, but I doubt that she or few others can match Andrew’s commitment to the cause of eventing.

Last year, he rode a string of 19 horses in over 150 competitions, and he does this, just like William Fox-Pitt, because he wants to be the best. Not because he wants to be a millionaire or famous, but because he wants to be the best in his sport — a great sport that needs heroes and needs its heroes to be treated with the greatest respect.

In 1991 in Luhmühlen, a first time three-star rider, Sarah Slazenger, was struggling to cope with saddling her mare for cross country with over two stone of lead (the days of 11 stone, 11 pounds minimum weight), having weighed in and been temporarily deserted by her coach and future husband William Micklem!

She had never spoken to Andrew before and didn’t seek his help, but he saw her dilemma and came to her aid, even giving her a leg up in the process. I would suggest that ESNZ now need to give Andrew a leg up back on to the team and show the leadership and common sense that they probably write about so glowingly on their CVs.