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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 modafinil online 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 viagra online of classical principles of horsemanship. Anything William says is worth hearing." Jimmy Wofford USA double Olympian, leading Coach and Author "I first met William when I was thirteen years old. It was exciting for me to learn classical dressage from someone whose passion was eventing, and it was apparent, even then, that William's teaching philosophies were ahead of their time. William has studied horse and human behaviour all his life and has mastered the relationship between the two. His teachings became the foundation for my riding and his horsemanship continues to be the flagship of our training programme." Karen O'Connor Five time Olympian and nine time USA Female rider of the year. From her introduction to William's book, The Complete Horse Riding Manual.

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William Micklem: Carl Hester Training With the USA Cavalry

Carl Hester and Nip Tuck. Photo courtesy of FEI / Jon Stroud.

Equestrian coaches and horses round the world have much for which to thank Carl Hester. All coaches need verification of their methods to sell their training ideas, and what easier sell is there than to say ‘this is how the gold medalists do it.’ Charlotte Dujardin with Valegro have been the leading combination in the dressage world for two Olympic cycles, and without doubt it is the brilliance of Carl Hester’s training leadership that took the British team to a gold medal in London and silver medal in Rio, and has broken new ground by turning a British rider into the highest scoring rider of all time.

But there’s more: His more horse friendly, more humane, more natural, more classical approach to dressage makes dressage more appealing to tens of thousands of potential new participants and supporters, and over the coming years tens of thousands of horses will be happier as a result.

Later this year Carl and Charlotte will be presented with the Médaille de l’École d’Èquitation Espagnole de Vienne, an honour awarded for riding according to the principles of classical horsemanship. Carl and Charlotte will receive the award during the Fete Imperiale, the summer ball of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Top 10 Training Secrets of Carl Hester

So how does he do it? Here are the 10 key points he uses to explain his approach. It is important that you read through all 10 points and the all-important final conclusion to fully understand his strategy and magical effect.

1. Be systematic. Before beginning work, fix in the mind a definite program of exercises for the day. Be sure that the exercises for the day are in proper relations to the work of previous days.

2. Be patient. Do not destroy the tranquility of horses by demanding a performance that is too difficult, or by demanding it too early in training.

3. Be tactful and resourceful. Take advantage of the most favorable conditions for teaching a horse a new lesson. Never try to train a fresh horse. Undertake nothing new when the horse is excited or frightened. Do not try train the horse when his attention is distracted. Do not give a new lesson to a resisting horse. Do not send the horse to the stable in the midst of resistances or with a lesson incomplete. Finish the lesson first and then send the horse away calm and tractable.

4. Be moderate. Begin with the simplest movements and exercises. These understood, proceed to the next, less simple. In the early training introduce nothing complex or difficult. Use continuously the same means to bring about the same results, thus aiding the horse’s memory. Ask little but ask it it often; it is by repetition that a horse progresses. Nevertheless, do not let a horse continuously execute a movement incorrectly or in a dull, lifeless manner. Demand attention, correctness and a carriage and action gradually increasing in style and manner, then allow a few moments of complete relaxation. Never strain the attention or tax the strength of the horse. Require no position, attitude or movement which in itself causes the horse apprehension, discomfort or pain.

5. Be observant. Do not attribute every resistance of failure of the horse to inattention or stubbornness. These are often due to ill fitting bits or saddlery, to a poor rider, to lack of condition or approaching unsoundness, to noises, unaccustomed surroundings, or even to the weather.

6. Be exacting. Do not be content with the simple tracing of the riding-hall exercises and figures. Every such exercise or riding-hall figure has for its object to teach the horse the aids and to know how to handle himself in doing so. Accordingly, before taking the first step of a movement, the horse should be placed in a position which favors the simple and natural execution of the movement. The movement will then be executed more easily and correctly.

7. Be logical. Do not confuse the means by which an end is obtained with the end itself. Practically all of the exercises and riding-hall figures are the means for which the horse is rendered easy to manage during ordinary riding. Accordingly do not use riding-hall exercises as a proof of training or routine drill movements as a means of training. The first are the means by which the horse is trained. The second constitute the test and the proof of training.

8. Be liberal. Permit the riders to ride the greater part of the time at will, or, if on the track, without regard to the distances. They then have a greater opportunity to really control and to correct the attitudes, positions and movements of their horses. It also permits the horses to assume their individual natural gaits and avoids irritation by forcing them too soon to take regulation gaits.

9. Be tenacious. Never provoke a struggle which can properly be avoided.

10. Summation. In the horses’ training, great attention should be paid, first, to their conditioning; second, to their tranquility; third, to their training, properly speaking. ANY SYSTEM OF TRAINING THAT NEGLECTS THE CONDITIONING OR WHICH DESTROYS THE TRANQUILITY OF HORSES, IS DEFECTIVE.

Final conclusion – the truth

Those of you who read my last article may well be smelling a rat at this stage. I lied to you! These 10 points come not from Carl Hester in 2017 but from the U.S. Cavalry Manual of Horsemanship in 1936! They come from the beginning of Part II, Education of the Horse … and bear in mind the manual is not talking about training dressage horses but training remounts to serve in the USA cavalry.

So who was fooled? Some of you I would guess. So why have I done this? It is not just because I admire both the work of Carl Hester and General Chamberlin, who largely wrote the Cavalry Manual. My point is that so much in the Cavalry Manual is forgotten or lost, and so much from other wise coaches is also lost, therefore coaches who study their subject have much to gain and then much to contribute to the training world…. and then we can avoid the need to keep totally reinventing the training bicycle. Improving definitely, and always simplifying, but not reinventing. Yes there are some things I don’t agree with in the Cavalry Manual but there is much that is both good and mentally stimulating.

Of course we are lucky to be blessed with a huge amount of film of Carl and Charlotte, so there is a better record than with many master trainers from the past. Therefore there is every chance that Carl’s work and words will not be forgotten, but instead remembered and used to show the way to the next generation of riders who want to ride dressage in a kinder, better way….. a way that is undoubtedly safer for event riders who need a horse to have good instincts across country.

William Micklem: Coaches Must Open Their Story Books

Following his acclaimed seven-part series on fitness, William Micklem returns with his latest column on coaching. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns for EN. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading.

Source: Creative Commons.

Chris Bartle said this recently about training: “We all know there are three ways to train. One is to tell and they do, like you teach kids. Then you have the show and copy system, you show them how to do it or they watch someone else do it and they try to copy. Then the other important way of learning is experimenting — you’ve got to let rider experiment and try and not be afraid of making a mistake.”

In my coaching book I would actually suggest that all three ways are required, even for children and novice students. It fits in 100% with that very old and well- tested coaching acronym for coaching all new skills, IDEA — I for introduction, D for demonstration, E for explanation, and A for action, when experimentation and learning from mistakes should be encouraged from the beginning.

Another powerful coaching tool

However there is another important way to learn, which is by being told stories. All students need to remember things and nothing makes things more memorable than stories. Even those who specialize in memory feats use stories to make this possible.

It strikes me that probably the most powerful and influential coaches in the world are those that can tell stories. Stories that bring the great riders and great competitions to life, stories that link the masters of the past with modern masters, and stories that link the great competitors of different generations. Unfortunately for these storytellers a little age is a prerequisite for this role! But age by itself is not enough to join this club. They must also have studied their subject so they can understand the context and nuances of what they have seen. I am aware of three outstanding current members of this select club in the USA: Jimmy Wofford, George Morris and Denny Emerson.

They can bring the experience of multiple Olympic Games and Championships to the table, combined with hundreds of hours of watching leading riders in training. They have ‘touched’ the world of Chamberlin, Littauer, De Nemethy and Le Goff, they have studied great coaches from other sports, and they know all about the genius of trainers who most others have forgotten, like the West Coast’s Jimmy Williams. This gives their stories special value, and behind every story is a lesson. Lessons that are integral to them being world class exceptional coaches … exceptional coaches that should be treasured and remembered in the stories of the next generation of top coaches.

It is a continuum, but a continuum that is in danger of breaking down in this electronic world of written googled information and bullet points, that are all filed away and forgotten about in the absence of stories on which to hang the lessons. Yet these stories are vital because the coach’s task is to make the theoretical real, and that comes from sharing personal experience.

I am now going to make one of those jumps in logic and suggest that the power of storytelling is just as important for all coaches at all other levels, no matter the level of the student. If we all gather our own book of stories we can all substantially increase the effectiveness of our coaching.

Water skiing in Cornwall

Let me tell you a story: It is about the day Christine Manhire went water skiing. Christine was a Cornish equestrian gem. A dedicated ‘work with horses because I love them’ lady. At the stage of her life in this story she was also of fairly solid stature, largely due to the production of a large family. But she was a vital stable management cog in my Father’s small yard in Cornwall, the bottom corner of England. As we had no indoor or outdoor arena the winter weather sometimes made our small fields too muddy for lungeing, so he would head to a local flat beach on the north coast with a load of horses and ponies in his rattling cattle truck.

One such day Christine was tasked with lungeing my spirited pony mare, Charlie’s Aunt. Some might say that lungeing on a windy day on a fairly wide expanse of beach, even though the tide was in, was asking for trouble, but we’ll let that thought go for the moment. Of course the inevitable happened and Charlie’s Aunt gave a buck and a pull and galloped off towards the sea. Unfortunately Christine got tangled in the rope, fairly soon lost her balance and proceeded to follow the mare into the sea. On the way home she contended that she was just determined not to let go of Charlie’s Aunt, but whatever the reason she rose to the surface and became an early exponent of horse skiing, albeit lying flat on her tummy!

Caption: How ditches should be jumped! Riding my favourite pony Charlie’s Aunt at the Pony Club Championships in 1967 on Cheltenham racecourse. Best boy that year was Richard Walker on Plucky Pasha, who won Badminton two years later. My brother Charlie was second and I was third. Photo courtesy of William

Christine survived and continued working for my father, possibly proving an excessive love of horses, while my father often repeated this cautionary story, complete with great chuckles, as he warned us about the dangers of not organizing the lunge rope in a safe manner. It is a story I never forget as each time I carefully wind my lunge rope for use, and it is a story I now in turn relate to my students.

An unexpected partner

I would also tell my student coaches that great stories and lessons can come from the most unexpected situations and contacts. As an example about four years ago my interest in Thoroughbred breeding opened up a communication with ‘Vineyridge’, a regular and perceptive contributor to the COTH forums.

As a result I was subsequently introduced by Vineyridge to the US Cavalry Training Manual, which was written in 1935, and in particular to one hugely important quotation from this manual: “In the training of remounts, great attention should be paid, first, to their conditioning; and second to their tranquility; third to their training, properly speaking. Any system of training that neglects the conditioning or which destroys the tranquility of horses, is defective.” (The emphasis on the final sentence is included in the Manual.)

Apart from the reminder that tranquility is a wonderful word we should use more often, there are two key lessons here: Firstly the confirmation of the absolutely fundamental need to ensure the ongoing tranquility of horses as a training priority; and secondly, and probably the most important, the need for coaches to respect others and to listen to their stories. Then we give ourselves the chance of standing on the shoulders of giants, and there will be less need to keep re-inventing the training wheel … and our great stories will live on.


The US Cavalry Training Manual was largely written by Brigadier General Harry Dwight Chamberlin, who represented the USA in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 in both Eventing and Show Jumping, winning Gold and Silver medals. Also on that show jumping team was Col. John W Wofford who was taught by Chamberlin and went on to coach both eventers and show jumpers at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helksinki. Col Wofford’s youngest son and arguably his best student is none other than the extraordinary Jimmy Wofford! We should listen more closely to his stories.

On the gold medal winning British show jumping team in 1952 was Harry Llewellyn, riding the legendary 3/4 TB foxhunter, who my father sold on from his yard in Buckinghamshire just after the second world war before he moved to Cornwall! My exposure to such stories as a child sparked my interest in high-level competition work and how their success was achieved. And without doubt all young competition riders today should be exposed to greatness as soon as possible.

Two other points of interest about the Helsinki Games: It was actually the first time women were allowed to compete in equestrian events, although only in dressage, as show jumping and eventing were considered too dangerous for women! However to test the stamina of riders and horses the dressage test was 15 minutes long! Meanwhile the eventing individual gold medal was won by Sweden’s Hans von Blixen-Finecke, who was Chris Bartle’s main coach for many years. When Hans retired he went to live in Cornwall, near the very beach where Christine Manhire went water skiing!

Han’s own father won an individual bronze medal in 1912 in dressage. Although the dressage test differed from the current format in that it did not include movements such as piaffe and passage, but required five jumps up to 1.10 meters in height and a final mandatory obstacle, a barrel that had to be jumped while it was rolled towards the horse! Riders could also garner bonus points for riding with one hand. To further extend the story Han’s aunt was Karen von Blixen-Finecke, better known by her nom de plume of Isak Dinesen, under which she was a well-known author, especially for her work, Out of Africa, which became a popular movie in 1985.

Seventh in the eventing in Helsinki in 1952 was the youngest member of the British Team, 25-year-old Bertie Hill from Devon, who rode his first winner in a point-to-point for my father who used to do the race commentaries! In 1956 at the Stockholm Olympics Bertie Hill rode the Queen’s horse Countryman on the gold medal winning team. Countryman fell across the 22nd fence, but Bertie, saving the British team, grabbed the horse’s forelegs and shoved him over backward so that he fell into a ditch! He was then able to scramble out and resume the course. Princess Anne was just six at this time, but was probably inspired by their success to follow her own dream to ride at the highest level, and in turn inspired her own daughter Zara Tindall.

Exposure to greatness again … and exposure to great stories … a hugely valuable coaching tool.


William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 7: Feeding for Fitness

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse SafePart 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to CompetePart 5 — Warm Up and Warm Down and Part 6 – Limits of Fitness. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“We should bear in mind that colic kills more horses than falls at cross country fences ever will.”

Our equine competition partners need fuel, therefore good feeding and nutrition must obviously go hand in hand with fitness training. Whenever possible use grass, as it is the ideal safe fuel for horses, but that is not always possible and not always enough for the competition horse, so we have to use other forage.

Of course all forage needs to be of good quality, dust free and palatable, but there is now a vastly increased range of horse feed and additives to consider and confuse. But we can be guided by the key ‘rules of feeding’ that have been known for thousands of years. They still hold good and they are still vital, however many break these rules to the detriment of the horse’s performance.

Horses must eat little and often

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a horse’s stomach produces acid, even when not eating. With a natural, high roughage diet, with a horse trickle feeding for 18 hours a day, this works wonderfully well. But what do we do instead? We feed large quantities of high food value nutrition in short time periods, leaving the horse for prolonged periods without food and with little for the stomach acid to do, and little to do apart from staring at the walls and going stir crazy. This is not only a recipe for boredom and mental problems, but also a recipe for wasting money, a way to ensure stomach ulcers, and a way to stop a horse performing at their best!

The horse is designed to graze, eating a little and wandering a little for most of the day. Their stomach is designed to suit this lifestyle. What it does not suit is a small number of large concentrate (grain) meals and a small amount of high food value haylage or alfalfa. Horses have a small stomach for their size, which limits the amount of feed that can be taken in at one time, and it begins to empty when it is two-thirds full, whether the food in the stomach is processed or not. As a result both wasting nutrients and money and making colics more likely.

Therefore a maximum of 1 pound concentrates per 250 pounds bodyweight should not be exceeded per meal. This means that with an average event horse we should never give a dry concentrate feed that is greater than 4 pounds and we should ensure they can nibble away ad lib on roughage. However even at Rolex this year I saw feeds being given that were obviously well over this 4 pounds rule of thumb. 

Horses must drink often

To digest 4 pounds of concentrates the horse should produce between 4 to 8 pounds of saliva, but if they have been left without food for some time they will tend to hoover down their food too quickly for normal saliva production leading to possible digestion difficulties and even colic. We should bear in mind that colic kills more horses than falls at cross country fences ever will. It is the biggest cause of fatalities in horses after death from old age. The difference being that the former is largely inevitable and the latter largely preventable. One has to wonder why there can be an outcry about a fatal fall but little is said about poor feeding practices?

The key elements of avoiding colics and constipation are to ensure almost constant availability of roughage (digestible fibre) and water and avoid excessive feeding of concentrates. Even with those horses or ponies that tend to being overweight it is possible to increase the availability of low feed value roughage by giving them clean oat or barley straw to nibble. When eating hay about two to three times as much saliva is produce compared with eating concentrates. This means the more the horse chews, the more saliva is produced and the saliva is vital for good digestion including neutralizing stomach acid.

This requires a well hydrated horse. Water should be constantly available as it is the most essential ingredient of all. However try different water temperatures and see which your horse likes. There is no doubt that in extreme cold that horses rend to reduce their water intake and it soon shows in their droppings which become hard and their coats which become dry. Being constantly aware of changes in their droppings and coats is a way to stay ahead of potential problems. Droppings should break on landing and it is better for them to be a little soft rather than a little hard.

Water warmed by the sun is often more appealing than cold water from underground and despite what one is told many horses prefer it with a little flavouring of hay of feed. It is a very individual and you have to find out what each horse likes. Certainly if you are going to add electrolytes or anything to the water it is important that you gradually train a horse to like it, rather than discourage water intake at the competition. 

Horses need to balance fuel intake with work done

So how much food does your horse need? As with humans it can vary enormously but undoubtedly the tendency is to over feed concentrates high in starch, and fail to understand that different foodstuffs have different levels of digestibility for a horse, no matter what the theoretical analysis says. For example on paper two grain samples such as barley and oats may have similar constituents, apart from a little less fibre in the barley, but we know that in terms of digestibility and utilising nutrients that oats are the best grain for horses. Just add a little salt and possibly soaked sugar beet or molasses and you have probably the most cost effective and palatable hard feed you can find.

There are numerous high quality pre-mixed pellets available that can provide exactly what is needed but beware being led astray by thinking that the higher he level of protein the better it is. Brood mares may need 14% protein, but few competition horses need more than 10% protein and what is more important is the starch and carbohydrate content.

Many people gets confused about protein and carbohydrate, thinking in terms of percentages rather than actual amount, and forgetting about calories. Even an average quality hay will typically have at least 7% protein. Feeding a 12% protein feed might sound like a good way to boost protein, but-pound for pound-that grain may have about three times more calories than a pound of hay. So if you want to avoid a horse getting overweight it might be better to feed good quality hay rather than increase the weight of concentrate. But get the hay or haylage analyzed as different types can have hugely different food values.

Molly Brant (see start of my previous article) had 10 pounds of oats a day, with all the hay she wanted, and some horses may get most of their carbohydrate needs from hay. Be Fair went to Badminton with Lucinda Green on 6 pounds of hard feed per day plus about 10 pounds of hay. Whereas some very hardworking hunters in Leicestershire, the best hunting country in the UK, will be getting through at least 15 pounds of hard food and 30 pounds of hay.

But so much depends on the food value of the particular feedstuffs being used and the individual needs of each horse. As a rule of thumb horses will consume 1.5-2.5% of their body weight daily in forage, with ‘easy keepers’ on the lower end of that range and ‘hard keepers’ on the higher end.

Additives & supplements

There is a golden rule for additives and supplements, ‘only add if there is a reason’. Often there is a reason because of specific functional problems or nutritional weaknesses, but do not be tempted to use additives continuously like an insurance policy. The digestive system doesn’t work like that and anything unneeded will either be flushed out, or at worst create an imbalance. It will also waste money and possibly even put a horse off their feed.

Typically horses that have copper or iron deficiencies can be helped, as can those with poor foot growth or joint problems, and especially in hot weather, when horses sweat profusely, electrolytes are important. They help preserve the correct balance of fluids in the body’s cells and are involved in muscle function and the processing of wastes. Deficiencies cause dehydration, impaired performance and may exacerbate clinical problems such as azoturia, or tying up. So work with your veterinary surgeon to provide targeted treatment for specific needs.

So this completes my series FIT TO DO THE JOB. I am aware that this subject is not as much fun as riding articles, but if you are serious about competition riding and making the most of your opportunities, and particularly if you are serious about safety and accident prevention, then this subject is just as important as any other. Happy days and happy competitions on well conditioned horses.

© William Micklem

William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 6 – Limits of Fitness

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse SafePart 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to Compete and Part 5 — Warm Up and Warm Down. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

Denny Emerson and Epic Win tackle steeplechase at Bromont, via Denny’s Facebook.

“This inane talk about how wonderful it is to ride and compete after the age of 40. Are you nuts? Get a grip. 40-50-60, what is the big damn deal? You think 55-65 is over the hill in a riding sport? What rock do you live under?? Try 70 or 75.

“Stay fit, have some drive, screw what people say you shouldn’t do, and go do whatever you want. Fear rubs off on you if you let it. If you are surrounded by fearful, careful, ‘sensible’ people, you have to be damned vigilant they don’t turn you into someone who is careful and sensible, and cautious and in control, and all those other dream snuffing qualities of rational, normal folk. When they say, ‘You can’t—-‘ Or ‘You shouldn’t—‘ what they are so often actually saying is ‘I can’t’ and ‘I shouldn’t.'” 

— Denny Emerson

It was 1954 in Ireland. The 15.2 Thoroughbred mare Molly Brant, named after a Mowhawk Indian, was ridden the eight miles to Fairyhouse racecourse, that today sits opposite the site of Tattersalls International Horse Trials. She then raced in a three-mile steeplechase and was beaten by a head carrying 158 lbs, before being ridden back the eight miles to her stable. The following day she made the same journey back to Leopardstown and was beaten by a length in another three mile chase … before riding home again!

Expectations and Possibilities

In our modern world this appears almost cruel, but this type of activity was not unusual in these post war times. Molly Brant was had been well hunted for two years before these exploits and was like a human prepared for a triathlon challenge today. And consider this: In 1823, in Jamaica, New Jersey, 60,000 watched The Great Match Race, between American Eclipse representing the North and Sir Henry representing the south. In three heats on the same day they ran the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbies with American Eclipse prevailing to win the $40,000 purse! (Close to $1 million today.)

What is certain is that in the 21st century our expectations of what is possible in terms of fitness have been greatly reduced, to the detriment of the horses who are not made sufficiently fit to do the relatively modest challenge of a modern competition cross country.

The same can be said about our expectations and possibilities of ourselves as riders, as so passionately expressed by Denny Emerson above. It is a message echoed by the Irish equestrian legend Hugh Leonard, who was the rider of Molly Brant in 1954. He has always hunted hard, has played high goal polo and loved every minute with his horses. Now 83, yet chairman of the Traditional Irish Horse Association, a judge and breeder and senior steward at the Royal Dublin Society, and still rides young horses every day, and competes in team chases, where teams of four race against each other over fences in a relay!

Irish equestrian legend Hugh Leonard. Photo courtesy of Susan Finnerty.

As a lifelong follower of the Ward Union and Meath hunts, Hugh has enjoyed some memorable days hunting with both packs. He describes his two favourite days hunting: The first was with the Meath Foxhounds “55 minutes as fast was we could do and we must have jumped over 100 fences,” and secondly on a private hunt around Beauparc and the Hill of Skyrne, “It was three hours without a check for 23 miles and only three horses finished. I was on a small thoroughbred mare, just 15.1. She was some mare, she trotted back to Drumree as fresh as she’d started.”

Hugh comes from ‘good stock’ as they say, as all his extended family are also exceptional. Longevity and a spirited approach to life runs in the genes.

Traditional Irish Horses

Longevity, soundness and spirit are also hugely important in horses, but I worry that we now breed from too many horses that have not proved their soundness with sufficient work. The extraordinary success of traditional Irish horses is in great part due to the fact that their ancestors were proven to be tough and sound doing huge physical challenges. The success of Irish international record breakers from Grasshopper (Michael Page) and Kilkenny (Jimmy Wofford), to Custom Made (David O’Connor) and Biko (Karen O’Connor), and in more recent times from Lenamore (Caroline Powell) to Avebury (Andrew Nicholson) has made Ireland synonymous with sound horses.

Even this year at Rolex there were two traditional Irish horses in the top prizes who have out performed the vast majority of other top horses in terms of longevity and work done. In third place was my own homebred, the 16-year-old High Kingdom, who has completed 25 international events at 3*/4* level; while in 4th was the 18-year-old Mr Medicott who has completed 30 at this level. As a comparison Lenamore did 31 at 3*/4* level and Avebury 26. This is twice the number of high level events completed by the record holders in long format days. 

Nereo and Sam

One fact that has been missed in the fairy tale Badminton win of Andrew Nicholson and the 17-year-old Nereo was that this was Nereo’s 100th competition at all levels. It was his 33rd at the 3*/4* level, a truly amazing total, but the 17-year-old La Biosthetique Sam beats him with 34 completions. In addition Sam has a competition record that is unlikely to be beaten, having never been out of the top six and only six times out of the top three in all his 57 internationals from 1* to 4*. Not bad for a horse that was originally rejected by the German licensing commission as being “mediocre with a big head”!

Nereo is by the Thoroughbred Fines, who was both a good racehorse and has the type of back pedigree that is ideal for producing event horses. But Nereo is also the exception because Andrew openly admits that he has to “dig deep” to make the time. Sam is ¾ Thoroughbred, by Stan The Man, also sire of Leslie Law’s great grey medallists Shear H2O and Shear L’Eau, and out of a mare by the TB Heraldik.

Chris Bartle has recently pointed out that Michael Jung only became a winning machine when he started riding horses that were ¾ Thoroughbred with enough gallop. Of course it is not just a matter of having enough gallop to make the time but to do it going within their maximum gallop that helps enormously with staying injury free over many years. Interestingly the galloping machine Lenamore was by the Irish Draught Sea Crest, and Grasshopper, who was invariably fastest across country in long format days, was by a Thoroughbred horse but out of a Connemara mare!

Get the Right Horses Fit

So gallop and endurance can also be found in these native Irish breeds, and of course in a number of other individuals, but it is definitely missing in some horses. Even if their dressage and basic jump is exceptional it is important to recognize that some horses are just not equipped physically, or often mentally, for cross country.

Andrew Nicholson says that if a horse is short of blood that “you’ve got to gallop them a lot more, you’ve got to gallop them a lot harder than a Thoroughbred. I think that’s where a lot of riders get a little disheartened, they try to do the same preparation that you would with a Thoroughbred and they haven’t got the engine for that. That’s why I like to buy them when they are young, so I can start galloping them when they are relatively young, stretching their lungs, getting them hard.”

However this is not something that many like to do. Chris Bartle simply emphasises that you need to start off with a horse for three phases and that includes not only plenty of gallop but also the right type of jump. “A horse that has a big showy jump is often not suited to cross country.”

Chris also agrees with me that the training for the dressage and show jumping must be complementary to the cross country training: “There have been trainers in the dressage world, and this takes us back to the whole discussion of rolkur, where you are taking away from the horses, their spirit, their ability to look after themselves, you are internalizing them too much. That type of dressage training is contradictory to eventing.”

So as ever good training is vital and good training will not only bring more success but more success over a longer period of time. You will not find badly trained horses rivaling the longevity records of Kilkenny, Mr Medicott, High Kingdom, Nereo, La Biosthetique Sam … and my favourite the 15.3 Lenamore, who completed 24 four stars with Caroline Powell, was seven times placed at Badminton and won Burghley at the age of 17.

NEXT TIME: The concluding article in William’s “Fit to Do the Job” series, “Feeding for Fitness”





William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 5 – Warm Up and Warm Down

If you haven’t been reading William Micklem’s series on fitness, you are seriously missing out! In case you missed it: Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse Safe and Part 3 – It’s All About Balance, Part 4 – Fit to Train and Fit to Compete. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“I do not think there are any shortcuts to fitness. Physical fitness takes a long time to develop, and it involves a great deal of effort. At the same time, if you make the effort, I promise you will never feel such a sense of pride and satisfaction as when your horse completes the cross country at your destination and pulls up obviously thinking, is that all you got?” – Jimmy Wofford | Photo by Samantha Clark

I have a specific performance philosophy that travels with me in my life. This philosophy is ‘under promise and over deliver’…in other words always give added value. So this article is the added value to my ten key points from the earlier articles, and in the sense of paying it forward it is my gift to you.

Are you serious?

In return the big question I have to ask all event riders, trainers and coaches is ‘are you serious about fitness?’ As well as fatigue killing a willing attitude it can also kill horses and riders. As JP King, one of our outstanding Irish Team vets says, “Fatigue in the galloping animal is a major risk factor for musculoskeletal injury to the horse and more pertinently, falling. The risk imposed to rider safety by a sub-optimally fit horse running cross-country should never be underestimated.” And as I said at the start of this series fitness is so much more than just about canter sets.

Even following Michael Jung’s or Philip Dutton’s canter programme exactly will not necessarily produce the right result, as the fitness recipe for each horse will be different, sometimes to a small degree and sometimes hugely.

This is because we have to take in to account so many variable factors, including the horse’s age, type and personality, their fitness history and their way of going. Not forgetting their aches and pains and past injuries, the facilities you can use and the ground conditions, and of course your competition program and your riding weight! Then having done all this and got a horse fit for a competition we need to know how to warm up in order to make best use of this fitness.

Warm Up

When at Galway Downs CCI in 2015 I was so impressed. Superb organisation, wonderful courses and good riding…but the one thing that did not impress was the cross-country warm up. I sat on the bank and watched most of the 1* and 2* competitors and I was surprised by what I saw, although obviously there were exceptions. In general horses were neither warmed up for long enough nor given the right type of work to make full use of their aerobic capacity on the track, and the jumping was often more like preparing for show jumping rather than cross country.

What we have to recognise is that the change from long format events to short format events has put so much more emphasis on the warm up for the cross country and it’s important to do it well, as an effective warm up has the dual benefits of enhancing performance and reducing the risk of injury.

The biggest weakness at Galway Downs was competitors not doing enough work to get the aerobic (with oxygen) system fully up and running before bounding out on the cross country at ¾ speed. As a result these horses must have been in a state of oxygen debt to some degree for approximately the first two minutes of the track.

Therefore the anaerobic system would have had to play a part in providing the energy requirement, and as a result the muscle clogging lactic acid produced would have hindered their performance to some extent over the rest of the track. This simply shouldn’t happen. So a better warm up programme is needed.

If you are going across country late in the day in a three-day-event, it is useful to take them out for a 30 to 45 minute ridden leg stretch in the morning. This works particularly well if you have an older horse that may be a little stiff, and all horses probably benefit mentally. Include 10 to 15 minutes of easy trotting and cantering with the aim of just loosening and suppling.

But whether or not you do this, as a rule of thumb you will still need to get up on your horse between 40 to 50 minutes before the cross country. (At a one day event I would reduce this by half to 20 to 25 minutes, because you will have usually done your dressage and show jumping shortly before the cross country.) In very cold weather you will need a few more minutes and in hot weather a few minutes less.

I divide the warm up into three periods: The first 15 to 20 minutes is just walk. Then the second 15 to 20 minutes is when you do individually tailored active flat and jumping work to prepare each horse for the track ahead. For example older horses may need very little jumping, while novice ones often need both a little more time and jumping. Excitable horses may also need more time but less jumping, and tense riders may need extra jumping to get their flow and calm focus going.

Good active flat work is required, with an emphasis on collecting and extending the canter, and then confidence building jumping to suit individual needs. The aim is to be ‘in gear’ jumping solid cross-country fences rather than show jumps. Get added value by jumping diagonally across fences, and at the sides of fences rather than the middle, and jump fences at different speeds, say 350m/m and 450m/m.

But the key requirement is to ensure the aerobic system is fully up and running at the end of this period. If your horse is laid back it is not sufficient to just slow canter to achieve this, instead the horse will need to work hard enough in order to take the heart rate up high enough to cause the spleen to contract and put an increased amount of red blood cells into the circulation. This increases the horse’s ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. However if the horse is excited this will happen automatically and the work done can be easier.

As JP King says, “The main purpose of both the pre-competition fitness work and the cross-country warm up should be more than just an exercise in getting the animal from the start box to the finish in the time allowed. Rather we should be capitalising on the enormous aerobic capability of the horse to ensure they are sufficiently fit to prolong the onset of fatique to complete the cross country safely.”

The third and final period is the 5 to 10 minutes before starting, when grease may be put on the front of the legs. This will leave 4 to 9 minutes of peace to walk around and focus on the course ahead, with less time for the laid back horse and more time for the excitable horse, before entering the start box confident that your horse has been well warmed up and is ready for the challenge.

Warm Down

After the cross country you should pull up slowly and ideally spend 5 minutes in trot, like a racehorse coming back to the paddock. Few do this but the research shows that active cooling is more beneficial than just standing still or walking because it allows a more gradual redistribution of blood flow. Suddenly stopping movement with a rapid decrease in heart rate may make your horse feel dizzy. In hot weather rapid applications and removals of cold water will be the most effective way of lowering temperature, followed by 15 minutes of walk.

During the first hour after cross country the legs can be iced in the traditional way for 15 to 20 minutes but after this is when the wonderful invention the Horseware Ice-Vibe Boots come into their own. At this time it is vital to maintain blood flow to the tendons.

As Ice-Vibe inventor Louisa Williams explains, At this time we need to shift our primary focus away from reducing inflammation and focus on healing and blood supply of our horse’s legs. We need to remember the fundamentals of recovery and that is allowing a good supply of blood flow and oxygen to assist recovery and repair of tendons. We need to understand that standing horses in ice for long periods at this stage can actually compromise healing and cause further damage.

“Although inflammation is problematic if it gets out of control it is an essential part of the healing process and a marker for the body to flag a problem. Therefore we need to keep in mind that whatever way we choose to look after our horse’s legs we must not inhibit blood flow and therefore compromise the body’s own ability to heal.

“When using the Ice-Vibe boots for recovery we recommend waiting until the horse is cooled off and then using the boots with cold packs with the vibration on setting two. This can then be repeated another two or three times with an hour’s gap in between each use. Combining cold and massage prevents making the legs too cold and causing further damage, whilst also allowing blood flow to help tired tendons recover, and prevent congestion and puffiness in the legs by stimulating the lymph system via massage.”

The final stage of leg care is then compression using bandages and leg wraps but being very careful that there are no uneven areas to cause pressure points and no risk of slipping and tightening.

Are we serious about fitness?

As children in Cornwall, in the West of England, it was not unusual when going hunting for us to hack an hour or two to the meet at 11am, then hunt all day and hack home arriving at approximately 6pm. I now marvel at how fit our ponies were and how much work they were capable of. But if we are going to be serious about fitness we should change our perceptions about what is possible and give a higher priority to fitness.

NEXT TIME – Part 6 – Feeding for fitness

William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 4 – Fit to Train & Fit to Compete

We are pleased to spotlight a new series on the subject of fitness from guest columnist William Micklem. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN.

In case you missed them: Fit to Do the Job, Part 1 – So Much More Than Canter SetsPart 2 — Keeping You and Your Horse Safe and Part 3 — Fit to Do the Job. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“A happy cooperation should exist between rider and horse, without the horse having to sacrifice its alertness, personality or interest.” — Bert de Néméthy, pictured here with William Steinkraus.

9. Fit to do the canter training

… do you have the CONSTANTS* in place for a good quality canter/gallop?

Putting your horse ‘In Gear’ = Controlled Impulsion

As ever Bert de Nemethy says it better than anyone. It is no wonder that those such as George Morris and Frank Chapot credit him with having the greatest influence on their careers. But what has this got to do with getting your horse fit?

The answer to this question is that there will be a considerable benefit to fitness achieved by a horse that is going well and well ridden. “A happy cooperation” is very much part of going well and ideally should be present constantly. It is an integral part of what I call The Constants, because they are constantly required in all activities. Check out my EN article on The Constants here.

In other words fitness is not just about energy metabolism and use of the heart and lungs but also about the way of going and happy cooperation. If a horse works truly as one connected unit and comes through in the back they will not only function more efficiently but also be happier because they are more comfortable. In turn they will almost certainly offer more and perform with better impulsion.

Increasingly the racehorse trainers are also beginning to pick up on this. That winning edge may well come from a better way of going, so increasingly better riders are being hired and more attention paid to how the horses are using themselves. So for event horses it is important to achieve all the dressage basics to a satisfactory level before commencing your canter programme.

Acceptance has to be quietly established, plus Calmness, Forwardness and Straightness, and of course there should be a natural outline and way of going. If any of these are missing athletic potential will be lost, but if they are in place then your horse will be ‘in gear’ and there will be controlled impulsion. Now the cantering can begin.


RULE OF THUMB using flat ground

Two/three weeks before One Day Event

Be able to canter three times the length of the cross country at ½ speed, in 3 sets of canter with a 1 min break between each, and recover totally within 5 min.

Two/three weeks before Three Day Event

Be able to canter twice the length of the cross country at ½ speed, in two sets of canter with a 1 min break between each, and recover totally within 5 min.

a) Using hills you can reduce these distances by up to a 1/3

b) A one day event, with all three sections on the same day, has an extra physical demand in comparison with a three day event over three or four days. This is why the rule of thumb is three times the length of the cross, rather than twice as with a three day event.

10) Fit to compete = at ease = prepared

… can you produce and control the VARIABLES*?

Start and finish with the right direction and the right speed

When I was in the USA in the 1970s I struck gold as a coach as it was the great days of Jack le Goff and Bert de Nemethy. Not only did they produce world class teams in eventing and show jumping but they also consistently spread their messages to a wider audience. They were two very generous men. Through demonstrations and lectures and question and answer sessions they influenced a generation of coaches and I was one of those keen and very lucky occasional students.

What also became apparent to me very quickly was that they worked together and discussed training to a far greater degree than would be expected. For example I remember asking Jack le Goff one day at a seminar in Groton, Massachusetts, about seeing a stride across country. As ever he had thought about everything in great detail and had a precise answer ready for me. “If you have the right direction, speed, impulsion, and balance, then timing, or seeing a stride is much less important.” I had recorded his answers and transcribed them later so I know this is exactly what he said.

Then later that year I went to Gladstone to watch de Nemethy work and asked him the same question about seeing strides, but this time in relation to show jumping. He replied “If you have the right direction, speed, impulsion, and balance, then timing, or seeing a stride is much less important.” I could only smile!

Over a period of years this team of five components became what I call The Variables and wrote about on EN last year — see here. The first two variables are direction and speed.

Whether it is dressage, show jumping or cross country competition it is true to say that if your horse is already ‘in gear’ and you have the right direction and speed then you are most of the way there to a good result, particularly in a pressure situation. I was delighted to read recent quotes from two of the British Olympic dressage team, Spencer Wilton and Charlotte Dujardin, confirming this, and in show jumping against the clock it is certainly true. All the preparation work has been done and the rider chooses the right direction and speed and then leaves it up to the horse to do the job.

It must be possible to control the direction and speed without a struggle otherwise it is not safe to do go cross country, and even then a novice horse may have to be ridden fairly slowly as they learn the job. As William Fox-Pitt says, “The longer a horse spends in novice the better, and they learn going slowly … take the adrenalin out of the cross … a horse you are training to be careful needs to be able to go slowly to big ditches etc …that really safe ’in tune’ horse takes 3/4 years to produce and going slowly cross country.”

So years of preparation and progress until both horse and rider are at ease and the challenge of the cross country, which was once a big dream, becomes simply a readily achievable action step.

The choice of speed and the changes of speed also has a significant relationship with the energy required. A smooth, fluent round is energy efficient. A good cross country rider avoids rapid changes in speed and hooking and pulling because it wastes energy. In particular they avoid rapid acceleration, as this is likely to put a horse into oxygen debt, requiring anaerobic work that produces most lactic acid and may well cause a horse to stiffen or tie up.

William Fox-Pitt says that modern riders don’t learn these things because few have ever hunted or done long format eventing. “They use the gears too early without learning how to stay at 500m/m or 600m/m and jump out of a really good rhythm in a consistent balance which is better, more efficient and SAFER … therefore education is even more important now.”

The pulled in, tight rein, restricted way of going, with many changes of speed is both inefficient and unsafe. So a fluent round will require not slowing down excessively in front of fences. It will also require Bert de Nemethy’s “happy cooperation,” so that the rider’s signals to the horse are small yet effective and the horse can go in a natural outline, being allowed to see and assess the fences easily and use their natural balancing mechanisms.


RECOVERY after cross-country

5m – substantially recovered,

10m – fully recovered

15m – if not totally recovered…get vet

American football coach Vince Lombardi said about football players that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” It is certainly also true of horses and riders. In eventing it has even more serious consequences because tiredness increases risk of injuries and accidents to horse and rider. So the bottom line is this: Listen to your horse and in both training and competition always finish with your horse willing and able to do a little more.” Then they will be fit to do the job.

NEXT TIME – The concluding part to this series: Added Value – Warm Up/Cool Down & Feeding for Fitness

William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 3 – It’s All About Balance

We are pleased to spotlight a new series on the subject of fitness from guest columnist William Micklem. Click here to read all of William’s guest columns on EN.

In case you missed them: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets and Part II — Keeping You and Your Horse Safe. Many thanks to William for writing, and thanks for reading. Go Eventing.

“My mother used to tie a metal curry comb onto the seat of my saddle
so that I would learn to stay balanced with the seat out of the saddle.” William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning. Photo by Jenni Autry.

The vital importance of getting your horse sufficiently fit was highlighted at Rolex last Saturday. It was hot and humid, so there was an increased demand on fitness, but too many horses ran out of petrol early on.

Some will say that it was willingness they ran out of rather than fitness, and this was probably true of some horses, but fitness and willingness have a connection as a tired horse may quickly decide it is all too much. Even if they are mentally struggling a little they are more likely to respond to a rider’s urgings if they are fit enough. This was probably the situation with Michael Jung and fischerRocana FST who did not have the easiest of rounds.

The other side of this coin is we don’t want to wear our horses out with unnecessary cantering, or leave our competition on the gallops because we do too much work. That is why a precise programme is required. A programme that balances the individual needs of each horse and rider with the demands of the competition.

7. Good rider balance and fitness makes it easier for your horse

The 3 S’s … do you stay Still and Soft? (+ Slow = Fifth Leg Training)

A still load is a light load (learn from the jockeys)

“A still load is a light load.” It is pure physics and is a vital part of reducing the energy requirement of each horse to a minimum. An event rider has to learn to ride with their seat out of the saddle and stay softly in harmony with the movement of their horse — then they will be a light load. Over the duration of a cross country this can make a significant difference.

The same applies to racing where the top jockeys have no unnecessary movement and blend with their horses, and in eventing there are many examples of good balance across country. Zara Phillips, Andrew Nicholson, Hannah Sue Burnett, Lauren Kieffer, Caroline Powell, William Fox-Pitt, Tim Price, Phillip Dutton and Michael Jung are all great role models but there are many other riders from all levels who have room for improvement.

So riders must spend time in training keeping their seats out of the saddle until it becomes easy and there is muscle memory. William Fox-Pitt learnt about this at an early stage from his mother: “My mother used to tie a metal curry comb onto the seat of my saddle so that I would learn to stay balanced with the seat out of the saddle.” But William found a useful aid to help him balance — a neck strap. “If I got left behind over a fence and pulled on the mouth I had to get off my pony and the lesson finished. I soon learnt to use my neck strap and I continue to do this to this day.”

He points out that this also has one additional major benefit. “I always ride with neck strap … ridiculed but part of my riding … I put a finger in when jumping or when one bucks … it also keeps me from interfering with the rein … a rider interfering with rein on the way down to a fence is fundamentally dangerous.”

A balanced rising trot, with the weight through the leg staying the same during both the rise and lower, is a great way to begin making the balance with the seat out of the saddle second nature — and it’s very good for the horses. In his recent master classes in the USA Carl Hester emphasised that he mostly uses rising trot with his young horses as too much sitting trot too early tends to make them hold the back.

Out of balance riders and sitting trot has a great deal to answer for restricting the use of the back and the overall athletic performance of the horse and it applies to high level show jumping as well. As George Morris says, “What I am teaching is the light school of riding, the school exemplified by Bill Steinkraus. If you look at the jump off in Rio, then five of the six riders in the jump off — Peder Fredricson, Nick Skelton, Steve Guerdat, Kent Farrington, and the most forward of them all, Eric Lamaze – are from that same light school.”

Once an easy light seat balance is established then riders can begin learning the variations, the most important of which are for drop fences and how to deliberately have a more defensive position. In addition riders need to ride enough or go to the gym to get fit enough so that there is no tiredness or strain in a competition. The most efficient way to do this is to regularly spend periods of the dressage and show jumping training with the seat out of the saddle. It will also benefit both the dressage and jumping training.

8. The dressage/show jumping is an integral part of your fitness programme

… do you work both aerobically and anaerobically?

Madness not to have an integrated program

There is a need to work an event horse both aerobically and anaerobically (see below) and get the balance right between the two. Ironically, bearing in mind the sport’s military origins, many riders today seem to forget the aerobic and endurance work, which should be a major part of the fitness program. Instead they work their horses more like a showjumper where there is more emphasis on working anaerobically with short periods of intensive exercise.

This cantering programme is an example of a canter programme, using intervals of work and rest, taken from my book, The Complete Horse Training Manual. It gets the balance right as long as the dressage and jumping training is done as well. But it is only an example that must be tailored to your needs, and with regard to all the seven points mentioned already in this series, and with regard to the riding and cantering facilities you have available.

The majority of riders would be safer and more efficient if they and their coaches worked within one overall compatible, integrated structure, both for the fitness and for the technical work. It is a no brainer. As William Fox-Pitt says, “I like to canter my horses myself, because the way they canter and gallop has a direct connection with the show jumping and dressage.”

The truly great event riders and coaches have a high-level understanding an ability in both dressage and jumping and train one discipline with the other two in mind. This also helps to keep things simple and practical. 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.



An event horse works approx 75% aerobically and 25% anaerobically, whereas a dressage horse is the reverse, approx 25% aerobically and 75% anaerobically and a show jumper approx 50%/50%

Aerobic exercise – aerobic means ‘with oxygen’ and powering the ‘slow twitch’ muscles. It is exercise of low to medium intensity that develops both the heart and lungs using primarily the ‘with oxygen’ energy-generating process. For example when you are hacking and slow cantering.

Anaerobic exercise — anaerobic means ‘without oxygen’ and powering the ‘fast twitch’ muscles ––but produces high lactic acid that is the primary cause of tying up! It is exercise of medium to high intensity of the type where your horse gets out of breath in just a few moments – in oxygen debt. For example when your horse does jumping grids and high intensity dressage exercises.

NEXT WEEK: Fit To Do the Job, Part 4 – ‘Fit to Train’ and ‘Fit to Compete’

William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part 2 – Keeping You and Your Horse Safe

We are pleased to introduce a new series on the subject of fitness 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.

“The horse’s intuition is being trained out of them and they are waiting for instructions from the athlete without thinking for themselves.” — Mike Etherington-Smith & Capt. Mark Phillips, Safety Conference Tattersalls 2017. Photo by Shems Hamilton.

The first three keys to producing a fit horse are covered in the first part of this series. Click here to read William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets.

4. Hills and varied terrain are golden

… do you use hills? Use them and you can reduce both speed and distance by up to 33%

‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is not just a song title, it is the key requirement

It needs to start early but slowly, especially for event horses. Up and down hills, over banks and through water, slow hacking and gradual exposure to their working lives. Not forgetting plenty of time … plenty of time to develop both physically and mentally.

The phenomenal success of the Irish event horses, and even their soundness and longevity, undoubtedly has both nature and nurture components, and the nurturing component is done well in Ireland. We have space and relatively little flat land, and hundreds of small breeders with just one or two mares who largely avoid the hurry and worst excesses of equine factory farming, with too many horses in small paddocks and small arenas being fast tracked to sales. But the right nurturing needs to start early when horses are in the equivalent of their child and teenage years, otherwise the chance is missed.

The New Zealand young horses also have an upbringing that is similar to those in Ireland and their hills and space are good for their riders as well. Andrew Nicholson and the majority of the New Zealand international riders started their riding over varied terrains and all these riders believe this has been a significant factor in the eventing success of a country with very few event riders. As an interesting comparison there are currently over four and a half times as many registered international riders in the USA as there are in New Zealand, so the New Zealand riders punch well above their weight.

The research also shows clearly that using hills for canter work can reduce both the speed required and distance covered by up to 33% to get the same effect as by using flat areas. The obvious huge advantage this brings is the reduction in risk for tendon and ligament damage, and generally less wear and tear. In a sport in which long term soundness is vital using hills is therefore a no brainer,

So the bottom line for both physical and mental fitness is that ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ is much more than a Bing Crosby song title, it is a key requirement for success. 

5. Fifth leg training

… is essential for mental fitness for cross country

… do you teach your horse to stand on his own four/five feet?

It’s all about how much your horse can do for you

Andrew Nicholson is rightly critical of modern training that doesn’t prepare a horse for the inevitable surprises across country and the inevitable times a rider will make a mistake. He wants a horse to use their intuition, to look after a rider and respond in times of need, and to find what I call the fifth leg to get them out of trouble. I describe some of his schooling exercises to achieve this in my report of his presentation at the International Eventing Forum in 2016.

I often say that the sign of a good coach is not how much they have to do for their student but how much they can do by themselves, and the same applies to good horse training. So in everything you do there should be an effort to avoid over riding and avoid over organising. It is often hard to do, particularly if you find seeing strides easy. But it is vital.

Allowing a horse to go in a natural outline with a natural head and neck position, making sure the rein contact is a communication point rather than a support point is the foundation of fifth leg training. This should happen in all activities including both the dressage and show jumping, and it can be very helpful to jump grids with no rein contact.

They can also be jumped without a rider, just as they do with National Hunt racehorses. National Hunt steeplechasing in the UK and Ireland is not for the faint hearted. Horses gallop flat out over a standard 1.40m fence and also do this at the end of a race when tired. So there is a big emphasis on good jumping and all the leading trainers regularly jump their horses loose. So I often suggest to a group of riders that they get together and hire a suitable facility and coach to loose jump their horses.

It is also possible and helpful to put sleepers or small solid fences between fields and in other places where the horse has to go slowly on a daily basis. Banks can also be built near stabling and along the side of access roads so that your horse has to regularly look carefully and develop care and dexterity when you ride them out. This should be done slowly, with the horse in walk or slow trot. It can form part of an overall fifth-leg programme combined with riding out over varied terrain and progressive exercises in the school as described by Andrew Nicholson and shown by Michael Jung as he jumps schooling cross country fences on the lightest of rein contact.

You can read more about fifth leg training in my article entitled Safety and Responsibility. 

6. Strength and suppleness comes before speed

… is all your horse fit to go faster?

Can they easily do a 2 hour hack including 20 min trotting up hills?

Slow canter is very safe, gallop is high risk

Strength, suppleness and and a good basic fitness should be developed before doing any faster galloping work. It is an obvious necessity but as ever so many are tempted to cut corners, especially with talented horses and riders who are tempted with big prizes in the short term. This will inevitably lead to injuries and long term delayed and restricted progress.

On average most horses will take about 2 months to get to this stage but it depends on each horse: 1) whether they have ever been fit before 2) how much weight they are carrying 3) how long a holiday they have had 4) what type of horse they are, and 5) what exercise they have been taking when turned out. Therefore some will take three months to get to this stage and others just one month.

Many trainers just walk their horses for the first three or four weeks but I prefer the method that Jack Le Goff often recommended, of alternating the walking with short periods of lungeing. The problem with long periods of walk is that there is no variation of muscle group use and the riders weight stays exactly the same for long periods. So it can be tough on the horse’s back. When trotting and cantering is introduced this is not a problem but until then quality lungeing sessions will do what is required and can help the way of going enormously.

Good lungeing can put the horse ‘in gear’, thinking forwards with contro;;ed impulsion. Being ‘in gear’ does not mean going fast but going fast requires being ‘in gear’. So the sooner this is established the better for your cantering and galloping programme. It is also obviously detrimental to every aspect of your training program if your horse gallops with a stiff or inverted back or in a manner that is out of control.

You rarely get into trouble with slow cantering but going faster, and in particular going close to a horse’s maximum speed, increases the risk of injury exponentially. This is why it is so important for event horses to have plenty of gallop so they can go well within their maximum speed. It is no coincidence that the majority of long lasting upper level event horses in the USA are TB or have at least 75% TB and we should not be led astray to using horses that are impressive in the dressage and show jumping but short of gallop and endurance.

As a rule of thumb a higher-level horse needs to be able to go at approximately 800m/m at maximum and the majority of the basic cantering is done at half speed = 400m/m. NB: A racehorse may have a maximum between 1,000 and 1,200m/m, so you can see why our eventing half speed is much slower than a racehorse half speed.

It is important to be precise and learn how to judge speed precisely. So do you know what speed you are going and what speed is required? It is easy to measure a distance and put markers at 100m intervals and start this process even when slow cantering. For example rider needs to regularly practise going at 300m/m, 350m/m, 400m/m and eventually 500m/m and faster and know they can easily judge and control the speed. After the right direction it is the next most important component in a performance.

NB Alternative training aids for fitness: There are now many more opportunities to use training aids for fitness such as walkers, treadmills, aqua treadmills and swimming. What is important is to recognise that they all have obvious advantages and disadvantages. The major disadvantage of all these aids is the very real possibility of depressing your horse. It is impossible for a horse to understand why these aids are being used, so they should be used carefully and should be a comfortable experience for them.

I hate horse walkers that are fully enclosed and become like a never ending tunnel but more open ones are good. All round walkers also have the huge advantage of helping to put the horse in shoulder in position as they walk because they cling to the inside of the walker not the outside rail as in a dressage arena. This is a significant advantage with developing straightness.

It is also a significant disadvantage with all types of treadmills. Particularly as the come under physical pressure they become crooked as they rely more on their stronger hind leg and side. This is obviously unhelpful for the even development of a horse. While swimming is a lifeline for horses with old injuries the same crookedness can appear.


 Length of time before a horse is ready to start a proper cantering program

When you can do a 2 hour hack easily, including approximately 20 minutes trotting up hills, or approximately 30 minutes on the flat, you are ready for cantering.


Slow Canter = 300 m/m

Novice Show Jumping = 350 m/m

1/2 Speed = 400 m/m

Basic Gallop = 500 m/m

3/4 Speed = 600 m/m

Max Speed = 800 m/m

NEXT TIME: Fit To Do The Job, Part 3 – It’s All About Balance

Rider balance and fitness, an integrated training programme, and an example of a competition cantering programme.

William Micklem: Fit to Do the Job, Part I – So Much More Than Canter Sets

We are pleased to introduce a new series on the subject of fitness 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.

“It’s not about the winning; that comes easy. No, that comes easy. It’s about the horse: how to care for the horse, how to ride the horse, and how to look after this great animal — the horse.” –George Morris. Photo by Jenni Autry.

We live in a horse world increasingly dominated by small arenas. Riding out, hacking out, and long rides through the countryside are increasingly threatened by urbanisation and by a training culture that puts so much emphasis on treating a horse like a human in a gym. As a result the fitness programmes for event horses are often missing some vital elements.

So I have 10 key points to help my students produce a fit horse … fit to do the job of going cross-country.

1. Do more than enough

… does your plan go far enough? 

Going that extra mile with your horse.

I said in my safety series that that cross country riding is very different from racing, because in general no event horse has to be worked maximally.

This means three things: They should have enough gallop so that they should stay well within their maximum speed, enough scope so that the fences are well within their ability level, and unlike a racehorse they should not finish tired.

So let’s prevent our horses becoming tired and get them fit to do the job …. plus a little more. However, when getting a horse fit there is a natural human tendency to do ‘just enough.’ To do just enough so that they are fit to do the cross country but no more.

Unfortunately this strategy increases the risk of an injury to your horse, requires a longer recovery period, and worst of all increases the risk of a fall if you slightly misjudge things or the conditions change and your horse runs out of petrol before the finish. So the aim should be to train so that your horse is fit enough to do a cross-country at least 20% longer than required in the competition.

You can of course go more slowly if your horse is not fit enough, or you may wish to go slowly because you or your horse are not ready to go faster, but the general rule still holds good … your horse should not get tired and they should be able to do more than required in the competition and easily go that extra mile.

2. Mental fitness goes hand in hand with physical fitness

… is your horse content and willing? 

Your horse doesn’t have an Olympic dream.

Your horse is not a machine so mental fitness has to go hand in hand with physical fitness. If your horse is not responding well to the work, possibly getting either lethargic or buzzy, or possibly going off their food and generally showing the signs of being depressed, then you have to make changes to your programme, even if this means having to change your provisional competition programme as well.

What all riders must understand is that our horse doesn’t have an Olympic dream! As riders we may be inspired by possibilities and be excited by our smart goals and action steps and colour coded timetables but to a horse these things are meaningless!

So much of what we do can appear pointless to a horse, unless they do it because they both enjoy the work and enjoy the relationship and communication they have with their rider. Unfortunately this is sometimes forgotten, particularly by the riders who are very disciplined and hardworking and always stick to their training programmes as a matter of pride.

Horses are generally speaking hugely generous team players that will learn to like most of the activities riders like to do, and they will be stoic and long suffering if a rider has built up sufficient brownie points and trust. However, they can also switch off and lose all spark and spirit if they are bullied into doing things in a mechanical way or asked to do the impossible. And once a horse becomes switched off it is a difficult and long-term process to rekindle their love of life and working with humans.

So we must train humanely and progressively, using a wide variety of varied work and experiences, and be prepared to change both the type of work and workload if your horse is not happy. Ironically the equine activity that is criticized the most, hunting, is usually the activity that a horse enjoys the most. This is not surprising when one remembers that that a horse’s natural lifestyle is moving about as part of a herd of horses, and there is a key lesson here.

Treating a horse more naturally is often the road to improved mental health. This will probably mean more contact with other horses, more low calorific roughage, more riding out and about, and more turn out in the company of other horses … and when riding more attention to a natural outline and way of going instead of tying them up in gadgets!

3. Every horse is different, every horse is an individual

Do you put each horse on your programme or their programme?

Small changes in stable management, feeding, tack, variety of exercise, way of riding, etc. make big differences.

This point is obviously strongly connected with the point outlined above about mental health and not treating your horses mechanically. In fact all these 15 points are connected because the only way we can make the best of our training is to have an integrated holistic programme involving all aspects of stable management and riding.

However, the tough challenge we face, in all activities of the modern equine world, is to maintain and develop stable management skills. These skills use to be a normal part of the lives of most riders but now they are often either delegated to others or done on a minimal basis. Undoubtedly this is to the detriment of riding and training success.

Trainers often tell me that a new horse has arrived and “has been put on our programme.” But this suggests every horse is treated the same and put on an identical programme. On the contrary each horse should have ‘their own individual programme,’ and all aspects of their individual needs should be considered when making up the programme. In particular some horses get fit very easily and need little cantering whereas others may take two or three times longer to get fit for a competition.

Horses are more like children than adults and each will have their own likes and dislikes. For example small changes to stabling arrangements, feeding regime, turnout companions, tack, and way of riding can make big differences. We need to be very observant and discover more about their individual personalities and needs. We also need to see how a horse responds to changes over a period of time … a period of time that is much longer than just riding them in an arena for an hour a day.


Bits, bridles and saddles that comfortably fit each individual horse are obviously essential, but the success of the Micklem bridle suggests that in the past there were thousands of horses not happy with their bridles and nosebands, which may well have been the cause of unwillingness or poor performance. This is also certainly true of saddles that are too low on the withers or pinch the withers.

In addition the current fashion for getting saddles to be fitted further back is causing discomfort. Veterinarian and trainer Dr Gerd Heuschmann said earlier this year:

“… I want to stress, is how small the place is where we put the saddle on. Normally we sit on the long back muscle line on the ribs. The ribs join to the spine, so they move, they are flexible. But if you put the saddle too far back, then it is sitting on these transverse spines.

“Some dressage stables do this, using a fore-girth, and push backwards the saddle, they press on the long back muscle between the saddle and these transverse spines, they ‘fix’ the back muscle, and the horse drops down away from the pressure, and you get this wrong movement.

“If you want to have a loose back, you want to have a supple horse, then you have to be sure that you are not sitting on the first transverse spine. Feel it. Feel the last rib, and that is the last point where the saddle is allowed to be.”


Temperature – at rest 38C (100.5F)

At exercise max 40C (104F)

Pulse – at rest 36-40

To have training effect 60 -120

Respiration – at rest 8 – 16

At exercise keep under 100

NEXT TIME – Part 2 of “Fit to Do the Job”

Keeping you and your horse safe: An integrated training programme, the relationship between strength, suppleness and speed, and fifth leg training

William Micklem: Safety and Us

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

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

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

How does the world tell the difference

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

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

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

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

We can prevent rotational falls

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

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

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

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

The advantages outweigh the disadvantages

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

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

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

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

All for one, one for all

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

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

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

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

Good for the rider …

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

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

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

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

As Bing Crosby sang:

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

Don’t fence me in.

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

Don’t fence me in.

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

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle

Don’t fence me in.

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

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

… and good for the horse

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

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

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

Safety and us

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

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

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

William Micklem: Safety and Reality

William Micklem: Safety and Trust

William Micklem: Safety and Responsibility

William Micklem: Safety and Blindness

William Micklem: Safety and Forwards

William Micklem: Safety and Forwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood, guts and thunder

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

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

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

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

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

Adrenalin is not the answer

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

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

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

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

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

Coolness under fire

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

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

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

More than just a massive fence

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green

Photo courtesy of Lucinda Green.

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

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

Seeking mastery

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

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

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

Relative danger of different activities

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

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

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

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

Sport not war

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

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

William Micklem: Safety and Blindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind to logic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind to dressage coefficient dangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping riders see the light

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

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

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

Blind to the need for change

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

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

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

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

William Micklem: Safety and Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

A contract between rider and horse

So was anyone or anything responsible for his fall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth leg training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opposite of fifth leg training

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

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

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

The technical delegate and ground jury

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

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

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

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

A joint responsibility

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

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

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

William Micklem: Safety and Trust

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

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

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

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

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

The FEI and safety 

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

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

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

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

An alternative to frangible pins

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

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

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

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

The way forward

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

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

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

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

The same for show jumping and eventing 

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

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

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

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

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

William Micklem: Safety and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Reduce the Risk of an Accident

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

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

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

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

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

Specialists for Eventing

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

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

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

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

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

Prioritising for Safety

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

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

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

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


  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?


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

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

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

William Micklem: The ‘Straight in the Eye’ Test

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I to be happy?

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

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

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

Yin and Yang no. 3

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

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

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

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

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

It’s worthwhile

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

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

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

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

Happiness equals success, not success equals happiness

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

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

Camus and sport

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

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

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

Happy Christmas to you all.

William Micklem: Happiness Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

Look for acceptance instead of submission

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

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

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

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

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

The meaning of losgelassenheit

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

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

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

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

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

A powerful tale of three horses

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

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

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

Duchess of Argyll

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Third time lucky

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

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

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

The Last Word

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

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

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

William Micklem: Happy Horses, Happy Ponies

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Ponies

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Intelligence?

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

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

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

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

Isolation and Inactivity

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

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

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

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

Injury and Insanity

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

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

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

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

Physical Is Mental

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

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

The Last Word from Buie

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

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

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

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

William Micklem: More Thoughts on the Subject of Happiness

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

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

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

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

Training for Life

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

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

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

Mental Health and Sport

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

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

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

Pull Like a Dog

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

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

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

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

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

Committed to Praise and Training 

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

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

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

Realities and Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

John Lennon 

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

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

William Micklem On the Subject of Happiness

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

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

 Brain Freeze

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

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

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

Happy Athletes

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

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

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

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

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

The Yin and Yang of Happiness

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

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

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

Enjoying the Journey 

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

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

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

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

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

The Happiness Road

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

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

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

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

Individual Happiness

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah Happiness

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

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

William Micklem: Release Yourself from the Training Straitjacket


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

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

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

 The Most Successful Riders in the World

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

University Education

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

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

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

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

The Main Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have Another GO! Coaching Gold from the Olympics

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

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

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

The Sophie Hitchon Story

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

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

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

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

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

The Al Oerter Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

The Rio USA Eventing Team Story

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

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

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

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

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

William Micklem: Sunny Side Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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