As a BHSI (Level 5 Performance Coach) and promising young eventer, Hugh offers freelance coaching which looks at horse and rider as a whole, ensuring his clients succeed in their goals.
Whether you’re just beginning in the horse world or are already an established competitor, Hugh has the knowledge and skills to guide you
Based in London, and mainly operating in the Surrey area, Hugh also travels around the UK as an equine coach to teach private clients and clinics when needed.
To contact Hugh regarding eventing training and equine coaching, please use the email address below.
Watching Badminton is always inspirational isn’t it? You see horses and riders operating at the top of their game, performing the most amazing feats of athleticism. I think what’s also refreshing is the fact that even at 5* level it’s very rarely perfect. You still see horses going in a little deep or jumping on a flyer when ridden by the best the world has to offer. These moments of imperfection show us that these people aren’t gods; they’ve just worked unbelievably hard to be the best that they can be, which is something we’re all capable of.
One of my favourite Cross-Country rounds on Saturday was from Kai Ruedar and his horse Colani Sunrise. Colani Sunrise is a big boy. A 17.1hh Oldenburg with a huge stride who just eats up the ground. This means that left to his own devices he would be in danger of covering too much ground through distances and ending up too deep or too far off the fence. However, throughout the round Kai did a fantastic job of setting him up. Whether through adjusting the canter or adjusting the line, he consistently found the space for Colani Sunrise to process the questions being asked of him and to jump. It was clear that Kai had to work hard physically to achieve this, but despite this the round never looked strained. Colani Sunrise was never in discomfort because he trusted Kai to have ownership of the canter and lines and to place him. Whereas, Kai trusted Colani Sunrise to listen and to jump when asked.
Just to be clear this isn’t to say that Kai completely dominated Colani Sunrise. Colani Sunrise had enough freedom to use his body to get out of trouble when necessary. Thus, they had a fully trusting partnership, built on mutual respect.
I think that a lack of ownership over the horse’s way of going is one of the biggest obstacles for a lot of amateur riders, especially in the jumping phases. I think one of the major contributory factors for this is an idea that I see perpetuated at all levels in the sport: that horses without riders are perfect jumpers who never see a wrong stride coming into a fence.
Now I don’t know about any of you, but if you were to ask me to jump a course of differently shaped and sized obstacles at a full sprint, then I would get it wrong at some point. I would end up burying myself into bottom of a few, taking a couple of flyers, refusing a couple and almost certainly falling flat on my face. And I believe the same is true for horses. If, however, I had somebody calmly telling me what was coming next and what I needed to do to set myself up correctly then I’d have a much greater chance of success.
There is danger in putting your horse on too high a pedestal and insisting they’re always right. If your horse is always right, then what right do you have as a rider to try help and influence your horse? It’s important to remember that jumping is a test of skill rather than just a test of your faith in your horse’s ability.
Losing sight of this results in riders who end up perched on the back of their horses trying to just keep out of the way. This will work for a while if the horse is naturally talented. However, as the fences get larger and more technical then eventually the horse will need a bit of direction and support from you or you’ll risk damaging their confidence as they run themselves into trouble.
So how can we have greater ownership without becoming overly dominant and restrictive? I believe that the use of high-quality transition work is part of the answer. This work is fundamental for strengthening and improving the suppleness of your horse. Direct transitions (i.e. walk to trot/trot to canter etc.) should form the basis of your work and you should be doing as many as possible throughout training sessions.
However, when you’re coming into a fence you’re usually established within the canter, so once you’re confident riding direct transitions then it’s important to start riding transitions within the pace (i.e. working canter to medium/collected canter) to further develop your horse’s rideability. Remember, the more gears you have in the canter the more options you’ll have available to you while jumping.
A simple introduction to transitions within the pace:
I used to be a very late person. And by that I don’t mean I was fashionably late to things. I was quite capable of turning up hours late to events that I had organised myself.
Being perpetually late wasn’t so much of an issue when my life didn’t revolve around horses. In my experience, unless the stakes are massively high – i.e. being late to your own wedding or something – then humans are relatively forgiving and understanding about being late. Even if this is a pattern of behaviour that goes on for years people might become exasperated, but rarely will it cause significant fallout.
But horses, they love punctuality. Predictability and routine contribute massively to their mental and physical wellbeing. And moreover, they end up bearing the brunt of the negative consequences of our lateness in our interactions with them.
I was at a dressage competition a few years ago when I experienced my own high water mark for lateness. I was riding my (now retired) dressage horse Murphy. I’d worked hard over the previous few weeks on my test and felt in a good place to come out and obtain a result. I went to bed the night before with a plan that would allow me about forty-five minutes to warm-up and get in the zone before my test.
Now, if memory serves, on the day of the competition I managed to: oversleep, forget my chaps, get caught in traffic on the way to the yard, get caught in traffic on the way to the competition and forget my stirrups (which meant I had to go around begging for a pair). The result of this was that I was left with about three minutes and twenty-six seconds to get on and warm up for my test. I had reached a hitherto unknown state that I have now branded ‘peak lateness.’
Now being late is bad, it makes you a bit tense, a bit terse, a little hurried; but you’re still ostensibly in control.
Peak lateness is another beast altogether. You’re rushing at 100mph, but moving through treacle; gasping, but still breathless; mind whirring, but not present or engaged; unsure of whether you want to scream, laugh, cry or some awful combination of the three. And your horse – quite understandably – hates you for it.
But despite being destined to fail I cracked on anyway. With three minutes to go I was wondering why Murphy was not coming soft. With 2 minutes to go he was tense and rushing. With one minute to go he stopped accepting my aids. And then as my name was called I announced that I hated dressage anyway and that Murphy was having a bad day.
This is the main problem with being late. It is a selfish act. No matter how you justify it to yourself, the blame ultimately lies with you. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow. One of the main reactions to it is to deflect the blame outwards: to your horse, the traffic, your alarm clock, your mum, whatever. All to avoid accepting the fact that ultimately it is you that has let you down.
Nowadays, after some soul-searching and hard work, I class myself as a predominantly ‘on-time’ person. And I’m doing my level best to turn myself into one of those mystical people who is early for everything.
How to become more on time:
1) Admit that you might have a problem – I was so far down the rabbit hole of being late that I was unable to accept that I had an issue. Cutting it fine was an essential part of my being. And I imagined that everybody operated at this breakneck pace, rushing between things but never really on time. Furthermore, there was always a perfectly rational explanation as to why I was so late, so it was never really my fault. It took me several negative experiences and a stern talking to from one of my coaches for me to finally accept that my lateness was my own fault, rather than the universe conspiring against me.
2) Double the time you think you’ll need – Whatever I was doing I used to leave myself the bare minimum of necessary time. This worked brilliantly when my day went smoothly, however, that was only once in a blue moon. Invariably something would go wrong at some point, which would throw my whole day and all my timings out of kilter. At competitions now, I find myself with the luxury of spare time, this has drastically improved my performance as I have time to relax, focus and prepare. There will always be things that go wrong, but having enough time to deal with those things is crucial. Because if time itself becomes an additional factor then it can be the killer blow within a high-pressure competition environment.
3) Do less, but do it better – The horse world is a highly pressurised environment. Whether you’re an amateur rider trying to find time to ride around your day job; or a professional rider trying to cram as much work around your own horses as you can. Whatever the case, we often find ourselves trying to fit in far too much in far too short a timespan. And the result of this is that we – whether intentionally or not – do too much, but not at full effectiveness. Not only is this an ineffective way of developing your skills, it is also dangerous in a risk sport like riding. You can’t be fully present within a task if you’re worried about time pressures and it’s unfair to expect your horse or athletes to be present if you aren’t either. If it seems like it’s going to be a bit of stretch, then it almost certainly will be. So take the plunge and set yourself realistic aims for the day/week rather than always straining for that bit extra, because that path ultimately leads to burnout for you and your horse.
I find showjumping incredibly difficult. Up until fairly recently I would joke with my mum at events about how badly the showjumping was going to go that day. I used to head over to the showjumping arena telling myself that I was awful at it. I would warm up telling myself I was awful at it. I would ride around telling myself I was awful at it. And I would head back to the lorry telling myself that – even though I was awful at it – at least it was over for another week.
To nobody’s surprise – except possibly my own – this narrative had rather a negative impact on my ability to showjump.
This narrative that I’d created about myself wasn’t without logic. You could trace it through my whole riding career. It started with a bad fall I’d had jumping when I was eleven. I didn’t successfully come to terms with how much it had knocked me mentally at the time and so the narrative that I was scared of jumping and awful at it took hold of me. I tried throughout my early teens to force myself to enjoy my jumping, but aged sixteen I concluded that I loathed it and never really wanted to leave the floor again. Thus, I ended up getting an older horse on loan, who couldn’t really leave the floor without coming up lame, which was perfect for me.
I scarcely left the ground for the next four or five years, other than to train for and get through my BHS assessments. And despite my success in those exams, my mentality was ‘I am awful at this, scared of it and I was lucky to pass.’ However, whilst training for my Stage Four, I had the strange experience (for me) of starting to enjoy my jumping. Now this isn’t to say that I didn’t think I was awful at it. But at least I was starting to like it a little, which negated a bit of the fear.
This newfound enjoyment changed something within me, it made me think that this was something I wanted to do more of. And so, I ended up going out and looking for a horse that could facilitate it and ended up purchasing Iris II (Nellie).
Nellie didn’t really care about my narrative; she just took me by the hand and jumped whatever I pointed her at. And this was working fine until I wanted her to make the jump up from novice to intermediate. That extra 10cm was pushing her to the upper limit of her scope and suddenly she needed support from me. However, how could I – somebody who is awful at showjumping – help her to get over these fences? The problem at this point wasn’t physical; I had the technical knowledge and ability, but I’d reached the end of the line for my mindset.
Our lives are defined by the narratives that we tell about ourselves, whether they are overarching narratives that shape our whole existence i.e. ‘I’m just a really positive person.’ Or more specific narratives that inform a small part of our lives i.e. ‘I’m really bad at showjumping.’ The important thing to note is that these narratives don’t have to remain fixed, you can change your narratives and come up with better ones.
How to start to change a narrative
We’ve all done it. Gotten half way through a dressage test, showjumping or cross-country round and thought: ‘have I actually taken a single breath in the time that I’ve been riding?’ The answer will invariably be yes, however, the more prescient question would be ‘have a taken a single good quality breath in the time that I’ve been riding?’ For many of us the answer is a resounding no. We’ve probably just about managed to keep enough oxygen in our systems via a series of huffs, puffs, gasps and wheezes to stop us from passing out. But, the consequence of this is that we grow light-headed, tense and our concentration becomes hampered because the body is crying out for air.
In my previous blog I spoke about reconnecting with the breath as a means of becoming more present – whether in your day to day life or your riding. Breathing well is really difficult. For the most part our breathing is irregular. It ebbs and flows depending on what we’re doing and what kind of mood we’re in. Thus, breathing effectively in competition is really really difficult. As the pressure and necessary extra concentration required in competition diverts your attention even further away from the breath. This usually means our breathing is one of the first things that becomes affected. However, if you manage to (to any degree!) regulate and keep a sense of rhythm to your breathing then there are tangible benefits to be gained.
In yoga the practice of controlling the breath is called ‘Pranayama.’ The first part of the word prana means ‘breath’ or ‘life force’ and the second part ayana means ‘to control.’ In yoga breath control is used to help:
1. Connect the body to the mind.
2. Direct energy around the body.
3. Connect you to the universal spirit.
Before I go completely off the deep end, let me bring this back to riding. Taking those three points and slightly modifying them, I would say that practicing breath control in and around your riding can help:
1. Connect the body to the mind (help you to become present).
2. Enable you to relax parts of your body whilst riding (notice the difference in trying to relax a part of your body whilst holding your breath in comparison to whilst you’re exhaling).
3. Connect you better to your horse (in Latin the word animus could be translated as breath. Thus, when you stop breathing you could be said to be ‘inanimate.’ I don’t think you can expect your horse to be capable of maintaining a profound connection with an inanimate object).
Sounds good right? However, the management of the breath has to be something that is practiced and honed if you want it to be part of your toolbox in the heat of competition.
Before I provide you with a simple breathing exercise that will act as an introduction to breath control; I just want to clarify what a good quality breath is. Signs of a good quality breaths are that they are diaphragm led (i.e. your stomach moves more than your chest does), deep, smooth, energising, and consistent. Once you feel capable of stringing a few of these breaths together then move onto the simple exercise detailed below.
How to practice at home:
1. Sit on a chair with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor and place your hands on your lower abdomen.
2. Relax your head and allow your chin to drop towards chest, whilst keeping the throat open and avoiding straining the neck.
3. Bring your attention to your breath and allow yourself to breath normally for about a minute.
4. Then begin to regulate your breath, breathing in for 3-5 seconds and exhaling for the same amount of time. Maintain this for a couple of minutes (stop if you start to feel lightheaded or dizzy).
5. Allow your breathing to return to normal and breath this way for about a minute before getting up and carrying on with any activity.
You should come out of that feeling calm, relaxed with a regular heart-rate and with a sense of focus. Obviously, this exercise is difficult to do in its totality whilst riding. However, try to sprinkle in some deeper, more managed breathing whenever possible and make a mental note of the effect that it has on you and your horse. Good moments to try would be before you ride, as you’re walking to loosen your horse up, in breaks between work and after you’ve finished riding. The more you practice the full exercise at home the easier it should become to switch into more controlled breathing whilst on the horse.
I realise that practicing one’s breathing can seem dull and sits very low down on one’s list of priorities. But If you treat your breath like a muscle that needs to be worked. Then you have a better chance of accessing the benefits that good breathing provides.