William Micklem: The Mental Attitude Empowering Riders and Coaches

EN is excited to bring you a new series from William Micklem: Breadth As Well As Depth. The series addresses the need for breadth in eventing education and also includes his thoughts on event horse breeding, plus gives added value from the inimitable Harry Potter. Today we bring you Part 9: The Mental Attitude Empowering Riders and Coaches. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8.  

Bernie Traurig – A unique record representing the USET at home and abroad,
reaching the top level in all three of the FEI Olympic disciplines: eventing, show jumping and dressage. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig.

There is a key sentence from Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Undoubtedly we all have dark times, but rather than denying this, or giving in to self-pity, or giving up the struggle, we need to learn how to turn on the light.

This is particularly true for event riders, as eventing is not an easy road to follow with the many skills it requires. It is especially not an easy road if you want to do it with quality, without force, without short cuts, and without treating your horse as a machine. It takes time and discipline, attention to detail and a progressive and complementary system of training for the three disciplines, and there will be dark days when you wonder where you took the wrong turn and whether you can finish the course.

Most agree that the fundamental strategy for turning on the light is to be positive and keep moving forwards with bite size steps. As Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The engine for taking these steps comes from the quality that most of us look for in a horse, a big heart, what might also be called grit or nerve. In the dictionary grit is defined as ‘keeping one’s resolve when faced with an unpleasant or painful duty’, and nerve as ‘steadiness, courage, and sense of purpose when facing a demanding situation’. So once again we are back to the thought that if potential is to be fulfilled, with people or horses, it is the size of the heart that makes the difference.

All the special people and horses I have mentioned in this series have had big hearts and the grit and nerve to keep going; and there is considerable research to show that this is the key distinguishing component between successful performers and those that
end up saying ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda … didn’t’.

The tramp’s heartbreak

They say a tramp’s heartbreak is a long straight road that just looks endless, with a horizon that never seems to be getting closer. But if that road can be broken up into easy sections, each with a wall to rest on when finished, and possibly a stream to drink from and a few friendly people, then life becomes good for the tramp. The same strategy can make life easier for riders and horses. The secret is to use short-term goals and those bite size steps to get there, and to reward often!

The main thing that holds people back from taking these forward steps is fear. Fear of failure, fear of change and often fear of the unknown. But as the actress Helen Mirren said to a group of graduating students this spring, “don’t be afraid of fear, don’t let fear rule you … throw caution to the winds, look fear in it’s ugly face and barge forward, and when you get past it, turn around and give it a good kick in the ass!”

“Simplicity is the hallmark of genius.” Einstein

Alongside positivity and grit, I would place the one word that has more power in training and coaching than any other, and in a sport that involves horses, who don’t read books, it has added importance. It is the seed from which everything else grows, it is simplicity. A quest for simplicity will lead to both finding true priorities and to efficiency in training, and therefore fewer diversions and less wasted time. As a result this will almost inevitably bring accelerated progress and greater achievements. In eventing, with the daily potential for complexity, simplicity has special value.

In addition coaches and trainers who have found a simplified approach, that works for the three disciplines, will also have a method and progression that gives a better basis for each individual discipline. Better because it is both more simple and more flexible.

Simplicity and doing less obviously has huge advantages for every level of riding, while flexibility is something that offers the possibility of more varied roads and homes for each horse and more options for riders. For children and novice riders flexible basics are essential so that they can easily progress to the equine activity that interests them, while even an elite rider may decide they need new challenges in their equestrian life and will benefit from a system and skills that allows a change of discipline.

There is a truly exceptional USA competitor and coach who believes in the simplified approach so much that simplicity is probably his favourite word! He explains his simplified training system in Fundamentals Of Flatwork on his website www.equestriancoach.com.  This coach is also another name to add to any list of elite multi-discipline riders, as he has a unique and distinguished record representing the USET at home and abroad, reaching the top level in all three of the FEI Olympic disciplines: eventing, show jumping and dressage. It is of course the groundbreaking horseman Bernie Traurig.

Bernie is in no doubt about the value of both simplicity and a broad education for riders and coaches. “I would encourage any rider with high goals to experiment with many disciplines to become a well rounded horseman. I really feel my experiences with all the disciplines has helped me enormously to develop a style of coaching that is simple and clear, as well as solidifying a training system for hunters and jumpers that I call ‘Riding Simplified.'”

Elite in all disciplines

Bernie Traurig is a wonderful example of good basics allowing a huge flexibility of activities. When he was sixteen he won the hugely prestigious and competitive AHSA Medal Finals and the ASPCA Maclay Medal Finals, judged on rider ability to a very precise and exacting standard. As a contrast he then spent a year riding steeplechase horses under the master horseman Mike Smithwick, “learning to jump fences at speed.”

When just twenty-one he was qualified for the Eventing Team at the Tokyo Olympics (riding alongside Bold Minstrel then ridden by his owner Bill Haggard) before he changed to show jumping when his event horse, Envoy, broke down. He won over sixty Grand Prix and represented the United States Show Jumping Team several times including the 1982 World Championships in Ireland. Bernie also competed in eight World Cup Finals and was the winner of the United States World Cup League four times.

When Bernie took up dressage his progress was beyond exceptional, winning his first Grand Prix in the same year, and going on to win 15 Grand Prix and Grand Prix speciale classes. “Perhaps my most influential training opportunity came in the ’80s when I was introduced to Johan Hinneman, Olympic coach and dressage rider. Jo put me on his best Grand Prix dressage horse and 30 min later I was hooked!” Bernie was also short listed for both the 1986 World Championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games on the US Dressage team.

On top of all this Bernie rode many National Working Hunter Champions and was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. He has had a long professional career, riding and training some of the finest Hunters and Jumpers including Gozzi, Sloopy, Royal Blue, The Cardinal, Jet Run and Idle Dice. “It gave me,” Bernie says, “real insight into what superior equine athletes were capable of and how they think.”

Four unbeatable Grand Prix TB Jumpers

This is no idle boast as riding Jet Run and Idle Dice means Bernie rode two of the four truly outstanding full TB USA jumpers that ruled the roost in show jumping in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s. The third being the barely 16 hands mare Touch of Class … yet another pocket rocket! While the fourth was Gem Twist, Frank Chapot’s sublime grey ridden by Greg Best.

Jet Run was reputed to be the world’s most valuable jumper at the time and was ridden by Bernie to win several major classes when a 6 year old. He went on to win two Pan Am individual Golds and then the World Cup with Michael Matz. Idle Dice, who Bernie discovered, trained and showed and later sold to Rodney Jenkins, were winners of a World record 31 Grand prix, the last when he was 21, while Touch of Class won the
Individual Gold at the ’84 Los Angeles Olympics with Joe Fargis. “She has a lot of heart,” said Fargis at the time. It was needed as this was all at a time when the tracks were actually more difficult in some ways than today’s courses, with bigger fences, wider oxers and often longer distances. “It was not unusual,” says Bernie “to have two maximum width oxers on a 27ft distance in one stride doubles and combinations.”

Gem Twist won the individual Silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was named “Best Horse” at the World Championships in Stockholm in 1990. He was a son of Good Twist, one of Frank Chapot’s former mounts. Gem Twist is the only horse to win the American Grandprix Association Horse of the Year title four times (with three different riders) and is considered to be one of the very best show jumpers of all time.

A man who was an exceptional student

But it wasn’t just Bernie’s physical talents that were exceptional. Mentally he had the positivity, grit and uncomplicated approach to his riding that made him both a superb student and competitor. His education started in the Pony Club and then he had the good fortune to be coached as a Junior by the legendary Captain Vladimir S. Littauer and progressed to equitation, hunters, and jumpers.

This led to world class training possibilities that Bernie grasped with both hands. As he says, “I have had many fortunate opportunities in my equestrian career and blessed with coaching and associations with some of the finest masters and horsemen of the sport, including Bertalan DeNemethy, Rodney Jenkins, Mike Smithwick, Richard Watjen, Christalot Boylen, Johan Hinneman, Bill Steinkraus and George Morris.”

But to make full use of these world class trainers Bernie had to be open minded and therefore humble, the fourth of my key mental attributes. It a word that is not in the vocabulary of some very successful competitive young riders, who as a result will inevitably fail to fulfill their potential. As Dumbledore suggests, “The best of us sometimes eat our words.” When he was a student Bernie would also have recognized the wisdom in the words of American writer David Foster Wallace, “good education teaches us to be a little less arrogant … to realize that much of what we think as certain is in fact wrong and deluded, to critique ourselves and not just the world around us.”

Bernie Traurig is now 72 but still shares his knowledge on a daily basis during his worldwide clinics. He has also built up a fantastic library of training films and information as an invaluable resource for other coaches – www.equestriancoach.com. He remains passionate about both good coaching and good attitude. No lesson would be complete without some reference to the fact that mental strength is vital for a rider. As he says “talent by itself is not enough for success in riding or coaching.”

Next time: BREADTH AS WELL AS DEPTH + Lessons from Harry Potter

The conclusion of this series:
Part 10 – An unheralded USA Superhero