Each year the David Foster Injured Riders Fund holds a sell-out ball and awards ceremony that has become an institution in the Irish equestrian world, providing a time to honor David’s memory as a much-loved Irish event rider and support riders facing serious injuries.
There was much to celebrate at this year’s ball, with the Irish senior eventing team qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and both the Irish Junior and Young Rider teams winning team gold medals at the European Championships at Bishop Burton and Vale Sabroso.
The final award presented during the ceremony is always the Lifetime Achievement Award. No one knows ahead of time who will receive the award, and, as he sat with his family, William Micklem watched in shocked silence as his name appeared on the screen as this year’s recipient.
Irish Olympian Sam Watson then ticked off William’s accomplishments in the horse world: Almost 40 years in Ireland have produced a rich harvest of achievements as a coach, writer, speaker, inventor and breeder.
His innovative training ideas for children and young riders have challenged traditional methods, and he champions a kinder approach to horse training, with his groundbreaking and more humane Micklem bridle now found in numerous tack rooms around the world.
Praise from his peers
While presenting the award, Sam read out a long list of praise from William’s peers, including Denny Emerson: “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.”
Sam also read compliments from past students, including Karen O’Connor, who wrote that “William’s teaching philosophies were ahead of their time. He has studied horse and human behavior 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 program. William shaped my life through his teaching, mentorship and choosing amazing horses for me and through what he did for David’s career. We all would have been very different without William in our lives.”
Capt. Mark Phillips also sent a special message to be read: “William’s Lifetime Achievement Award is richly deserved. He is the consummate horseman with a legendary eye for a horse. He has helped me win numerous Olympic and World gold, silver and bronze medals through horses he found for my daughter, Zara, as well as David and Karen O’Connor.”
William said he is incredibly honored to receive such an award: “As someone who likes to do things better the second time around, the thought that is uppermost in my mind is ‘I’m in trouble now! It’s too early in my life for this award, I have too many projects on and too many lovely young horses to produce,'” he quipped. “However, I am obviously delighted.”
“Two years ago I received a lifetime achievement award for my breeding success, but this meant more because as much as anything I felt the award was recognition for my work as a coach, and coaches generally don’t get enough recognition.
“My brother, John, the first man to spot Biko as a 3-year-old, is also a coach, and his daughter, Jen, was part of the gold medal winning Young Rider squad. Not only has he coached Jen but he bought her horse, Early Spring, as a 4-year-old. For them to also produce him to international level was both a huge achievement and a wonderful life-enhancing journey for Jen.
“It’s all about the journey for these young riders, and it’s all about accumulated knowledge through the generations. The good use of accumulated knowledge is a powerful recipe for success and something that should always be fostered.”
An Irish heart
To be honored for his achievements within Ireland on a night that is so important in the country was also hugely meaningful, William said, as he who spent his youth in Cornwall, England, with his brothers and father, Dick Micklem, doing everything from Pony Club to racing.
“Even as a child in Cornwall, my equestrian heart was Irish. I was brought up watching so many great traditional Irish show jumping horses. Tommy Wade’s little Dundrum, Seamus Hayes’ Goodbye and Marion Coakes’ wonder pony Stroller were my heroes. I actually saw Stoller in the flesh jumping as a pony before he went on to win the individual silver medal at the Mexico Olympics behind Bill Steinkraus on Snowbound,” William said.
“Later on in the U.S., I saw the legendary Irish event horses Kilkenny and Carawich with Jimmy Wofford, Eagle Lion with Bruce Davidson and Castlewellan with Karen O’Connor. Of course, being able to find the Irish horses Biko, Custom Made and Giltedge for Karen and David O’Connor was especially satisfying.”
As we extensively chronicled in a recent interview series on EN, William has made vast contributions to the eventing world through his successful breeding program.
“When I first came to Ireland, those show jumping greats John Leddinham’s Kilbaha and Nelson Pessoa’s Vivaldi captured my heart, with their wonderful paces and athleticism and exceptional courage and durability. They both won the Hickstead and Hamburg Derby multiple times. I still remember clearly my brother John on top of Vivaldi, when he was a very wild and difficult 4-year-old, galloping up Borris Main Street in Co. Carlow, both with very tense faces!” William said.
“When I bought a wonderfully bred mare, High Dolly, for my wife to compete that was exceptional, and the sire Master Imp was only just down the road with fantastic paces and the right genes, the idea of eventually bringing the two together was a no brainer.
“I ended up breeding horses closely related to Kilbaha and Vivaldi, including Zaras Phillips’ High Kingdom and his brother, our stallion Jackaroo. I have a 4-year-old mare by Jackaroo and another 4-year-old mare out of his full sister that are both as good as High Kingdom, so I haven’t finished yet!”
Looking to the future
While William’s breeding program continues to hold a large part of his focus, he has other exciting projects in the works to offer even more contributions to the horse world. “The huge success of The Complete Horse Riding Manual — sales are now over 250,000 in 11 languages — and the Micklem bridle have created a busy future for me,” he said.
“I am in the process of writing a book for coaches and with Horseware Ireland, who manufacture and sell my bridle. We plan a range of new Micklem products that fit in with my philosophy of letting a good idea give way to a better idea if it makes a horse’s life easier. In addition, my structure for young performers, The GO! Rules, is just taking off in a major way. A book is in the pipeline!”
Indeed, William has a lifetime of achievements to look back on, but what memories stand out the most to him when he looks back? “One of the best days of my life was watching one of my students, Sonya Duke, gallop round the Badminton cross country with immense class and ease on her 15.3-hand horse Carbrooke Charles,” he said.
“He was 18, and she was 19! It was a supreme example of mutual trust and partnership. I love little horses. The greatest racing sire of all, Northern Dancer, was only 15.2 hands, and Hyperion was only 15.1 hands when he won the Epsom Derby.
“The list of small champions is long. Mark Todd’s double gold medallist Charisma was only 15.3 hands, as was the petite mare Touch of Class, who won a gold show jumping medal in Los Angeles for Joe Fargis. In more recent times we have had the little dynamos Itot Du Chateau, just 15.2 hands, ridden by Edwina Alexander, and Laura Kraut’s 15.1 hands Cedric, both being No. 1 in the world for show jumping.
“While at 16 hands, there was both Eric Lamaze’s brilliant Hickstead and the multi-gold medalist dressage star Rembrandt ridden by Nicol Uphoff. I often think we breed horses that are too big, and pound for pound it is difficult to find a horse to equal a top pony. My foundation mare, High Dolly, was just 16 hands and yet still carried 175 pounds when easily winning four point-to-point races.”
A helping hand
William was also honored for his charity work with Festina Lente, a non-profit organization in Co. Wicklow, Ireland that helps countless young people who face major physical and mental challenges. Festina Lente’s riding school teaches these children about horses in a safe, nurturing environment.
“I have been very lucky to have been involved with horses and horse people. Our sport is wonderful, life-enhancing and life-enriching. Yes, there are sometimes terrible accidents, but it gives back more than it takes, particularly for those facing some very difficult life challenges,” he said.
“It’s a combination of new legs for old and a non-judgmental friend to bring some peace and possibly inspiration. These young people make huge progress because of their contact with horses, and I believe the same happens to us all to a greater or lesser degree. Horses are good for us and will be good for us.”