The Debrief: The Art of Single-Tasking with Sam Watson

Welcome to The Debrief, where we’ll recap the experience of a rider following a big result or otherwise memorable competition.

In this instalment of  The Debrief, we spoke to Irish Team stalwart, Sam Watson — a seasoned 5* competitor who is also one half of the brains behind EquiRatings – about his return to Burghley last autumn, after a twelve-year hiatus. Sam also gave us an insight into how he juggles family life with riding and statistical wizardry – turns out that team work really does make the dream work!

Who was your ride at Burghley last year? How long have you had him, and what was he like as a young horse?

SAP Talisman (Puissance x Ali Row, by Ali-Royal), or Podge as we call him at home. My wife, Sparks, and I own him – I bought him as a four year old off the breeder, Rosemary Ponsonby. I had had a lot of Puissance horses, so I was interested in him from that point of view.

I hardly rode him when I went to see him, because he was an early four year old – he was just broken in the January of that year — so he was basically three turning four.  He was a bit wild, even then, so I just saw someone else riding him, and thought, ‘he’ll do!’

I bought him home and on the first day, we let him loose in the school to see what he’d be like, and he just ran and ran and ran around the school… and then he ran clean into the mirror which no horse has ever done before or since, and we were like ‘Oh my god, what have we bought?! Some kind of lunatic!’ So we kind of knew he was a bit of a lunatic from day one, but we’ve progressed from there! He was fine, though the mirror was not ok.

GIF via Burghley TV.

Once he calmed down enough for you to ride him, how was he – did he take a while to mature and progress, or was it immediately obvious how talented he was?

He’s a real athlete. It’s like in humans: he’s a responder to training, physically, and he’s quite strong in his body, so you can work him a lot, because again, he’s an athlete. But having said that, he’s much closer to a racehorse than he is a sports horse. He jumps a bit quick and a bit flat, and with his movement, we needed to spend a bit more time on that, and he needs to be a bit more supple — he’s probably more strong than supple – so no, he’s taken a lot of training.

He’s trainable at home, and actually, because of his personality, in both his jumping and in his dressage, he does produce really good work at home. But then you’ve just got to try and do it in public where he definitely feels the atmosphere.

For the cross country though, from day one, that was always a pleasure. It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this horse has this.’ I always said from day one that he’d go to Burghley and actually, what sums him up quite well was that I told Laura Collett – he’d be a good friend of mine – right from day one, ‘this little horse is a Burghley horse.’ She looked at him jumping and was like, ‘really?!’ because, obviously there’s two aspects to Burghley. There’s the stamina test and then there’s the very large fences. From the very large fences point of view, he doesn’t scream big, scopey jumper. But I always felt the power that he had in him, and with power comes a bit of scope, as well. So then Laura texts me after Burghley, and she was like, ‘I didn’t instantly believe you when you said this was a Burghley horse, but I definitely believe you now!’ So he felt like a Burghley horse a long time before he looked like a Burghley horse.

So is that why you chose Burghley – one of, if not the toughest track – as his first 5*?

It was the challenge of it.  Every horse has to come off the bridle at Burghley, or every horse gets tired at Burghley. That would have been my experience of it. I had Bushman, and he did two World Championships, three European Championships, four Badmintons, so he was a real out and out 5* horse – he did muddy ones and stuff like that. But the one place that he got tired was Burghley. I took him to Burghley once, and we had 20 penalties very late on, just because he was empty. Three fences from home, in the main arena, we ended up having 20 penalties, because of that. Hs fuel gauge had never really emptied in his career – except at Burghley.

But from day one with Podge, I said to Sparks, “this horse has just never been tired” — and actually, in fairness, he never got tired at Burghley, and he didn’t come off the bridle. He’s just exceptional from that point of view. He is an exception. I have other horses coming through who I think will go Burghley, but I don’t think that they will find it as easy as he does. He’s just mentally, as well as physically, relentless.

 Can we do it again? We will see.

You said earlier that he is closer to a racehorse than a sport horse. Do you think that helped him to tackle the challenge of Burghley so effortlessly?

What’s interesting is – and this is more macro than just the horse – but the event horse isn’t meant to come off the bridle cross country. There are two things to cross country; you’ve got to jump the fences, and then obviously you have got to make the time, but if you fall over the finish line bang on the optimum time and all out of energy, like, ‘that’s it, we survived it’ – that was never the vision for the event horse, or for cross country. It might be for racing, when there’s nothing but the finish line in a race, but in eventing, we have the trot up the next day and we have show jumping the next day, too. That’s why we have technical, skilful cross-country fences as well. I love to see designers asking questions later on in the course, because the horses shouldn’t be tired, they shouldn’t be all out. They should be on the bridle the whole way; we’re meant to go around the cross country course making it look relatively easy. So it was kind of nice to do that around Burghley, because that is my philosophy, and then to have a horse who went around it, and was clearly enjoying it, and was clearly able to stay going at that pace and not get tired, and stay alert – that was good fun, and that is what it is all about.

Sam Watson and SAP Talisman, Burghley 2023. Photo by Tilly Berendt

It’s a while since you were last at Burghley – it was 2012 that you were last there. How did it feel to be back on that hallowed turf?

I walked the course on the Wednesday, and I came back in like a little schoolboy who had been to the sweet shop for the first time in a long time. I was delighted when I walked it, because it was just relentless. Even the last couple of 5*’s that I did, like Badminton, were fine – they are 5* so they’re big, of course. Some of the Championships that I have done recently, too – and I’ve done eleven so I’ve done plenty, and they’re not easy. they’re championships after all, but they weren’t as testing as this.

A lot of the major things that I’ve done recently, like Pratoni and Tokyo, Luhmühlen — the Europeans and the 5* — I walk them, and I know there’s questions out there, but you just walk it and you go, ‘Ok, that’s what I’ve got to do.’ I walked Burghley and there were things like the double of skinnies before the Trout Hatchery, and I was looking at them thinking, ‘I didn’t know you could build them that big and that long.’ These are fences I would never jump at home, that’s the thing. Whereas with most Championship courses you go to you’re like, ‘well, I’ve built exercises like that in the arena, or in the field at home,’ but I think you go to Burghley and you’re basically saying, ‘I should be prepared for this, given the preparation I’ve done, but I haven’t jumped it’ – I don’t jump things like this at home, and certainly don’t do it consecutively over 11 minutes over this type of terrain. That’s exciting because you’re trusting your preparation that you and your horse are ready for it, but you would never practice that at home.

That’s what the excitement is; I get to go out there on Saturday and do something. It’s like going on a fairground ride that you just don’t ever get the opportunity to go on and you know those opportunities to go on that ride just only come round – well for me, once every 10 years! So I was like a little kid, I just couldn’t wait.

I thought it was a brilliantly designed course. The ground is so well prepared, and I had a horse who I knew wouldn’t get tired. So I was like, ‘I can’t wait to give this a go and test myself.’ As an athlete you want to be tested; you want to show your skills. The only slight concern that gets you thinking with Talisman is that he’s very small; he’s only 16 hands, and he’s hardly that, so he’s quite short-striding. There’s been quite a few times, like in the Europeans and the World Championships, where, in a lot of places, he would do an extra stride compared to other horses, particularly on bending lines. But I know that, so I would maybe ride a little bit of a wider line [in those instances]. There were a few places at Burghley where I thought ‘Ok, he could struggle with that distance there, or I might have to go a little wider there and put in an extra stride, because he’ll struggle to get there on the first distance,’ but he’s so clever that you trust him to have the footwork right.

But what was so great about the actual performance itself was he took all the first distances – he didn’t add a stride anywhere, not across the whole course. He was just so on it, and we were in a good flow – all the straight routes, on all the first distances, and it was spot on, really good fun.

What were your specific aims for Burghley?

Well, I mean, with the way that the sport has gone, I thought if he performed how I thought he could perform, he would be in the top 10 – that was the area I thought he could get to.

That was going to comprise of a mid-30’s test – that’s good for him – and getting under that time. That’s going to be his strength — getting on, or very close to that optimum time. Then the show jumping has been a struggle with him in the past, but he’s jumped a couple of double clear rounds at 4*-S, which is always easier. He had two down in Saumur and so, being realistic, I knew we could have two down, but that’s a sub-45 finishing score, and if you can get your finishing score below 45 and as close to 40, if not dipping under 40, that’s going to get you in the top 10 at Burghley these days. It’s probably still going to get you in the top 10 at Badminton as well.

So it was disappointing to have more than two down in the show jumping, and to slip out of the top 10 [Sam finished up in 13th place] – even if he had had one less show jump down, he’d probably have been pretty close to that top 10. But we’re working on that; we’ve been show jumping a lot in the autumn. With him, it’s tension. He just has so much energy, and he was still so tense when he went into that arena. You’d expect a lot of horses to relax a fair bit. But I think with a bit more preparation and a few more outings before Badminton, we will be going [to Badminton] with similar plans, probably even a slightly lower dressage – I think he can go a bit more towards 33 in the first phase. And again, hopefully not too many time penalties. I think ideally, to get under that 40 barrier at a 5* we probably hit a 32 dressage and then – if it goes well – you might only have one fence down, who knows?! That’s the thing about the show jumping – as much as a few show jumps can fall, you can get the odd clear round, too. So you’ve got to put yourself into the right position going into that final phase, and then, who knows?

As one half of EquiRatings, it goes without saying that you have a very analytical brain, and you are constantly analysing your performance. Did you wait until after the weekend to start and dissect your performance, or did that start straight after each phase?

You’re never going to have the feedback as good as when you’re right there in the moment. So for example, I know I have a lot of work to do in the cross country phase, which not everyone is able to see. But I need to have him a little bit more responsive – I wasted a little bit of time having to just keep the handbrake on a little bit of the time – and how he turns right and left, things like that. So I write it down, a lot of the time, because otherwise you can lose it, especially when cameras are there and people want to talk to you. They want to hear you praise the horse, because the horse enjoys it; that’s what the public want to hear, they don’t want to hear the technical analysis of what you feel you could do better, but that’s immediately where my brain goes. So even in the good phases, I’m analysing it.

To be honest, there’s still plenty of things to do, but a lot went to plan in the dressage. He’s not easy in that phase, and it’s about doing the best with what you’ve got. So I wouldn’t be changing loads there – with that experience, and another six months of training under his belt, that should all improve.

While some people might go and look at the performance on paper and say that ‘you’ve got work to do in the dressage because he only did a mid-30s test, but you’re brilliant across country’, that’s not how I would think – I know I have lots of work to do in the cross country between now and Badminton.

So yes, I would be self-critical, and I’d be doing it phase by phase. Quite soon after each phase, I go and sit in the lorry, and before I even get changed, I’m writing it down.

Businessman, Family man, Irish Team Stalwart, Sam Watson. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Do you continue to look back and analyse your performance in the weeks after the event, too, or do you just take what you have learned from that moment?

I should watch more videos. But I think it’s more outcomes versus process. You’re not as in control of the outcomes as you might think. So it’s not that he had four fences down in the show jumping because you’re doing certain things [in training], it’s how he went into the show jumping that needs to improve. Same with the cross country – how he went  in the cross country needs to improve, even though the score sheet was pretty good. There’s things to improve in both phases, because of underlying things. So I am trying to pre-empt stuff, and a lot of that is field based, but you can learn a lot from the video as well. But at the same time, you’ve got to move on from that. Take the show jumping at Burghley for example – that was sore, to drop down the leaderboard like that on the last day. That’s not enjoyable, so you’ve got to analyse it, accept it, understand it, make a plan to learn from it and then move on.

Don’t let it take away from the rest of the stuff as well. Do it, park it, but then go and be happy – go to supper with your wife and kids and your mum (who owns the horse as well), and celebrate what a great little horse you have for what he did. You have still got to enjoy the fact that you actually just completed Burghley. Everyone wants to win Burghley, but you’ve still got to look for the wins as well, and enjoy them, too, not always be over-analysing things, too much.

What was your overall feeling coming out of that weekend?

The honest feeling, driving out, because it didn’t finish on as good a note, was disappointment, and the frustration is there, because that’s the last thing that has happened. But I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that that was a temporary feeling. I could still see the achievement of it as well, I just couldn’t feel it yet. It takes a few days to feel satisfied with the week, and pleased with what went well.

 That’s the honest answer: I knew there were a lot of positives to take from it, it just takes a little bit of time to allow yourself to feel that. That’s being realistic as well – I’m not one to pretend to be happy, when I’m not feeling it. But then I’m quite level with my emotions: I try not to be too hard on myself, but I also try not to let myself get too carried away, either, even when I am driving out on the back of a big win. I don’t have to work at that – it’s just how I am quite naturally.

You’re not just a 5* rider, you head up the ever-expanding EquiRatings team too, along with your business partner Diarm Byrne, and you and your wife also have two young sons. How do you combine all of that?

Well really, it’s because I have great people around me. Sparks is incredible with the work she puts in – she’s just phenomenal. Her solution when we had kids was that she would get up earlier, and she’s never stopped since. She has two hours of work done before any male member of the Watson household wakes up. It’s incredible. So for me, mentally, I don’t need to worry that I need to go out and feel all of the horses’ legs, and things like that. Things that you would normally manage as the person with principal responsibility in the yard, but I have to delegate, because I can’t do everything.

It’s the same with EquiRatings; Diarm, from a management point of view, but everyone within the team as well, is great. It takes a while to delegate, too – it’s not just as easy as asking people to do stuff! You have to trust people; it takes good people to have the confidence to delegate things as well.

But then, even with the boys it’s about quality, and actually single-tasking. Even though I’m running a business, trying to be an international rider, and trying to look after a family as well, there is multitasking going on, but I’m not multitasking all of the time. Time with the kids is not time looking at your phone doing emails.

I can’t be too hard on myself, as a rider. My goals have to be to be the best that I can be with the horsepower that I have, and the time I have to put into it as well. I can’t be looking at Tim Price, or Tom McEwen and people like that, and beating myself up if I’m not riding as many horses as them, or being able to do things like go to as many shows as them because I’m running a business as well.  I’m not judging myself on how I compete compared to other people. I’m just constantly trying to improve what I do and enjoy it. I mean, someone asked me if I went on holiday last year, and my first response was ‘yeah, I went to Burghley!’ But we  did actually go to Spain with the kids for a week as well.

 They – EquiRatings and the horses – complement each other well. But I guess the most important thing is to have a good team around you, and the other thing is to single task. Whichever job I am doing, or whatever task I am doing, I just have to focus on that and be committed to it.

EquiRatings founders Diarm Byrne and Sam Watson. Photo courtesy of EquiRatings/IBYE.

Do you ever manage to just switch off and have ‘downtime?’

My brain is constantly going. I don’t really stop in the conventional sense.  So when I’m on holiday with the kids, there’s probably still four hours in the day when I’ll work with the laptop, but then it’s not while I’m meant to be building sandcastles; it’s when the kids are having a break or a nap.

Often I don’t have a break, but I will have a change in routine. There was a phase in December when I wasn’t riding as many horses, but the horses I was riding were racehorses, not event horses, and that’s different for me. It’s not in the dressage saddle , it’s not canter poles and stuff like that. But again, I enjoy that, so I wouldn’t want to not do it, and stop and stand still. I always like to be doing something I enjoy, like my running and stuff like that.  If I’m having a break from eventing, it’s because the event horses are having a break, but I still want to be in the saddle doing something.

I have got better though – when I go to Burghley or a championship, I kind of shut down from EquiRatings. I check in and chat with the team but I’m not working per se – I don’t really have tasks to be doing, like a report on the Friday afternoon or things like that. So, I guess I do get little breaks from it all at various times, although I don’t really ever switch everything off for a week. Maybe I should; maybe one day I will, but at the moment I don’t really feel the need for that.

There are some horses like that as well – you give them a break, and they don’t actually switch off, and then when you do bring them back in, they’re a bit disgruntled. They’re better just gently ticking over – that’s maybe the best phrase for it!

Finally….what’s next, for both EquiRatings and Podge?

He’ll go to Badminton. Then we will see thereafter – the obvious one for him is Burghley, but you never know, if you put in a very good performance, you never know… we’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed.

As for EquiRatings, we’re chipping away. We’ve started doing a lot more with the horse sales side of it. In the run up to Paris we’ve been approached by people to buy horses, and then word got out gradually that that’s what we were doing, so we’re doing more and more of that. Obviously, we have a pretty extensive view of all the horses in the sport, and now we have a full time person ringing riders and owners and enquiring about prices, so then you’re able just to make an informed decision. Otherwise, it’s very hard – I think people find it difficult to value a horse, and so that’s something that we can do, because we can evaluate a horse based on their level of performance, and then we’re able to start putting prices against all that. Then you [the buyer] can decide if that horse is for you, and is it a good fit, and things like that.

A lot of professional riders take the view that if the horse can perform well in the sport, then as a rider I should be able to adapt, and figure out how to ride the horse, rather than trying to find the horse that fits the rider. But not everyone thinks that way.

Other than that, we’re doing a lot in the US as well: we do a lot of work with the USEF, so we’ll be covering more events, more shows, more content. We’re getting more content out all the time. It’s an exciting time!

P.S If you like the sound of EquiRatings, they’re hiring! Check out the job description, and the link to the application here: Good Luck!

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