William Micklem: Safety and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Reduce the Risk of an Accident

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

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

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

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

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

Specialists for Eventing

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

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

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

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

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

Prioritising for Safety

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

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

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

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

HORSE:

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

RIDER:

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

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

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

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