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.
At a jumping clinic the last bit of advice that Captain Mark Phillips gave me was to ‘never trust the bastards.’ I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Horses are wild and fickle creatures and often they remind us of that at the worst possible times. However, I feel that it is perhaps a little damning, as a level of trust between horse and rider is crucial. But that trust has to be reciprocal and measured, not spilling over into blind faith.
So I’ve developed my own little interpretation of Mark’s advice, which is to ‘trust that your horse can do it, not that they will.’
I’m going to delve back into another eventing mishap to demonstrate this point. I was competing at Firle in 2016, I’d done a good dressage and gone clear showjumping. This was enough to see me lying in third place. All I had to do was ride a clear round cross-country inside the time on my horse Iris II (Nellie). I had no qualms about this, we’d never had a refusal cross-country and the course seemed inviting and within my ability.
We set off in style, sailing through the first three-quarters of the course without incident. We were flying; nothing was going to stand between my third place rosette and me. My mind was drifting between thoughts of bragging rights and prizes in kind as we came to the one of the last combinations of the course – a fairly straightforward boat placed a couple of strides before a splash though some water. No problem.
But at about five strides out I began to feel Nellie slowing underneath me. Was I concerned? Of course not. I thought: ‘she’s probably just collecting herself a little to give herself time to process the question.’ I allowed my mind to drift back to sparkly grooming kits and ill-fitting exercise sheets.
Three strides out and she was really starting to back off, but I thought ‘she’s never had a stop with me cross county, why would she stop now?’ and I slipped back into my reveries.
But then we were there, in front of the fence and – to my genuine surprise – not leaving the floor. My heart sank. I shouted Nellie’s name in anguish and despair. There would be no wild celebrations for me. No polite applause as I collected my rosette. No pink hoofpick to treasure forever…
Now we can all quite clearly see that this was my fault, but at the time I couldn’t. At the time all I saw was that my perfect Nellie, who I trusted implicitly, had let me down. She’d stopped for no good reason and taken my placing away from me. So I did what any mortified eventer does: gave her a tap with my stick, got her back in front of my leg, wheeled her around and cleared the fence without any trouble. There were about five fences left and I jumped them perfectly. To this day I think those are five of the clearest jumps I can remember. My embarrassment had dragged me back to the task at hand and I was completely mentally and physically present for every one of those jumps.
On reflection the warning signs had been there. Nellie had slowed down and backed off and yet I failed to react. I simply trusted that she would jump the fence because that’s what she’d always done. However, in that moment she wanted reassurance and guidance from me, but my overabundance of trust had allowed my mind to wander and made me incapable of providing it for her.
Being consistently present whilst performing any task is exceptionally difficult. As human beings we are always liable to having our focus slip. In sport the ability to achieve a level of focus where your mind no longer strays to the future or past and you are simply present within your body at the moment is one of the signs of mastery. My results driven fantasies that day had made being present impossible for me. I was no longer riding in the moment and so couldn’t see or feel the multitude of warning signs for what was about to unfold. And I believe that these lapses are what cause a lot of the problems in competition and schooling for riders.
So what can we do to help ourselves become more present?
I’ve heard various coaches use words to this effect, but I think it was one of my dressage trainers Eileen O’Connor who distilled it into the above mantra.
The clearest personal example I have of not abiding by it was eventing at West Wilts in 2017. I was coming off the back of a fall earlier in the season that had – whether I admitted it to myself or not – seriously negatively impacted my confidence. I’d been riding poorly for a while, but kept competing in the hope that I could ride my way back into some form.
Needless to say my plan wasn’t massively successful.
I found myself warming up for the cross-country phase at West Wilts overly adrenalized to the point of nausea. Worried at the prospect of falling off or making a mistake. I had no plan beyond ‘go clear’ – which is a pretty dismal plan by anybody’s standards.
This meant I started the round riding by the seat of my pants; tight down my leg, tight down the rein, but loose in my brain. Random thoughts and bits of coaching were flying through my head at a million miles an hour, distracting me from the task at hand. This state was just about sustainable for the first thirty seconds of my round. However, five fences in we came to our first combination: a fairly straightforward double of skinnies. I didn’t balance or present Nellie correctly and she (very understandably) ducked out the side door. There was an opportunity here for me to pause and compose myself. Instead, I wheeled her round, failed to present her properly again and had a second refusal.
I’d managed to accrue sixty penalties by the fifth fence and if I didn’t do something I was about to be eliminated. So I halted and took a few deep breaths. The act of stopping was enough. I was able to collect my thoughts enough to see that I was no longer capable of being competitive that day. I was only there to help rebuild the rapport between my horse and me. Once those two thoughts had landed, I grew much calmer. I softened mentally and physically, picked Nellie up again, took a longer approach, popped through the combination – and the rest of the course – perfectly.
We all have moments like this in our day-to-day riding and competing. Moments where our mental state gets the better of us and we act irrationally. We take frustration out on our horses, we grow tense, our vision clouds and our judgment becomes impaired. It’s impossible to ride well in this state; your horse only feels your tension and frustration. You are no longer in synch because you’re wrapped up in your own ego, you’ve become an alien to your most important partner at that moment.
Although I managed to claw a positive experience out of West Wilts, that was more by accident than design. In reality I shouldn’t have been competing that day. My confidence had been knocked and I hadn’t addressed it. This meant my mental state was compromised. Despite being physically ready to go you can’t compete successfully if your mental state isn’t. If you feel stressed, depressed, unduly anxious or just pissed off then there is always another day.
I think this is especially true in competition where you also have to contend with the addition of pressure. When you’re feeling mentally well, pressure can act as a tool to give your mind a laser-like focus. But in situations where your head isn’t in it, it can be the factor that pushes you over the edge.
2. Try to set goals that you can control:
My goal that day was to ‘go clear,’ which isn’t something you can have complete control over. ‘Going clear’ is an outcome that is achieved via a huge number of elements working together to achieve a result. The lack of clarity surrounding what I wanted to achieve that day almost certainly contributed to my muddled mental state. In our riding and competing we should aim to set ourselves goals that we have control over and can fulfil regardless of the result.
For example, two sensible and achievable goals for that day would have been:
The fulfilment of those two goals would have given me a much greater chance of ‘going clear.’ They also provide a clarity and structure to what you want to achieve on that competition day. Even if I had still had the sixty penalties, so long as I had managed to fulfil those two goals then you can chalk that up as a successful day. Whereas, if your aim had simply been to ‘go clear’ it would be impossible to view a day like that in a positive light.
From April 2019 Hugh will have added another string to his bow – he’ll be an APEC Centre 10 accredited coach with enhanced insight into sports psychology, enabling him to support horse and rider as a complete package.
Here’s an update from Hugh on how his studies are going:
“I get a weekly online Sports Psychology session to complete. The focus in December was predominantly on goal setting and self-reflection and how it can be effectively incorporated into my riding and coaching.
I’m finding the sessions very useful so far. I’m starting to try to have more meaningful planning sessions with clients out of the saddle, rather than trying to get it all done when they’re on board!
I’ve started keeping a written log of all my competitions and lessons, which has forced me to systematically analyse what happened and what I’ve learnt.
It also gives you a written record so that you can’t twist your memories of sessions or events, either positively or negatively.”
2018 wasn’t the easiest year for Hugh and his string of horses, but he’s pleased to report that it’s all systems go for the 2019 eventing season. Here’s the low down from Hugh on how their training is shaping up:
“Nellie (Iris II) is coming back into work after an injury picked up at the end of the 2018 season. She’s been gradually increasing the amount of walk work she’d been doing and has started water tread-milling in the last couple of weeks, building up her fitness before a return to full work in January.
Boo (Jesmond Shakala) is also coming back into work after a bit of a holiday, which she’s had as she’s still growing into her frame and is, therefore, a bit wobbly. We’ll be working on improving her straightness via strengthening exercises through lots of transition work.
We’ll start jumping her again soon and aim to take her out to some unaffiliated competitions in February.
Jazzy (Jesmond Jasmine) is the only one of my horses in full work at the moment – we’ve not had the best year in terms of injuries!
She has also had a fair bit of time off this year so has been kept in work over the winter to keep building up muscle behind and over her top-line in order to be able to work in the more uphill frame required for higher level dressage.
She’s recently done two 69.5% Prelim tests at Parwood and has qualified for the 2019 Area Festivals. The plan for her flatwork is to get her consistently scoring 70% at Prelim before moving her up to Novice.
She jumped two double clears in the 85cm and 90cm at Merrist Wood in November 2018 and jumped another double clear at BS Novice in December, finishing 6th in her class.
Also at Merrist Wood, she had a couple of poles down in the 95cm Blue Chip qualifier. However, the course was a fair ask for her and as her canter balance improves and she becomes stronger over the winter those will be easily rectified.
The plan for her jumping is to be jumping double clears at Discovery before the start of the eventing season in March.”