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The importance of getting help at events

Michael Hillman

I consider myself extremely lucky in that my eventing "hobby" has been overseen by some of the finest riders this country has produced, from Michael Page to Mary Ann Touskey, from Bruce Davidson to Julie Gomena. Each one, while different in their styles and techniques, has shared one key underlying principle: no one can do it alone. It's simply a fact that everyone needs help (including Olympic riders), especially at events.

When I was first exposed to the event world back in 1983, eventers could be classified in two primary categories: professionals and school age children. At the time I was one of an extremely small group of adult amateur riders; we were few and far between. And so it seemed destined to remain until recently - when eventing began to experience rapid growth in popularity among middle aged "real world professional" adults.

For what ever reasons many of us who have succeeded in our professional careers seem to be failing when it comes to getting proper coaching. I cannot begin to count the number of times a fellow adult rider has confided in me after a disastrous cross country ride that he or she had not walked the course with anyone; and, what's perhaps worse, they had no real coach to turn to in resolving what usually amounts to a long standing problem.

Dream as we might, we amateur adults will never make an Olympic team; and if we ever cross the finish line at an Intermediate horse trial Champaign bottles will be popping no matter how many penalty points we've received on course. I myself never thought I'd do a Preliminary event let alone a three-day; I never would have had I not recognized that having a good coach is not only a mandatory prerequisite to doing well but also a prerequisite to surviving.

Now there are a lot of individuals out there who claim to be coaches and they may be fine at the beginner level, but if your intentions are to compete at the training level or above it is best to skip the semi-professionals and go straight to an instructor who is actually riding at an upper level. While instructors of this quality can be hard to find in some areas of the country and may be more expensive, they will approach the training of you and your horse in a markedly different manner. First and foremost they've "been there and done that," which gives them some unique perspectives on how to get you as far as safely possible and with a maximum of fun. If you make it quite clear from the beginning that you are in it for fun, you will quickly find that these individuals will assume the role of guardian for both you and your horse and will shepherd you through the trials and tribulation of learning to event.

One of the unwritten rules of eventing is that competitors help each other out at events. A subset of this rule is that quite often professional riders, out of a sense of professional courtesy, will look out for students of other professionals. This arrangement has paid frequent dividends for me. While my coach tries to attend most of my events she can't attend them all; when she is unable to be on the grounds, I am always directed before hand to a particular rider to whom I can turn for the help I need.

Once my stand in coach has been identified and their services procured (usually with a well respected brand of vodka or gin), I proceed to brief them on my horse, his performance in recent events and the focus of our recent lessons. With just this little bit of history, your stand in coach will be able to help you analyze and ride each phase of the competition. In most cases it will be you who does the actual analysis. I have found that most of my stand in coaches tend to start with, "OK, how do you think Julie would have you jump it?"

Whether you do the thinking or your stand in coach does it for you is immaterial. The point is that you will have someone who is concerned about and focused on ensuring that you and your horse have an enjoyable and successful weekend of riding. Like it or not, having someone in the warm up ring looking out for you can mean the difference between finishing at the bottom of the pack or finishing with a ribbon, maybe even a blue one!

If you currently don't have a coach and thus can't take advantage of their professional courtesy rule, these same individuals are still readily available in exchange for legal tender. Don't be intimidated; all you have to do is walk up and ask; professional riders are a great bunch of people and most will be glad to help you. While getting help from different riders at events is good, it doesn't replace having a full time coach. It is however a great way to sample the styles and techniques of our best riders at a third to a quarter of the cost of what you would pay for a clinic. Once you find someone you really like, make them your full time coach and sample the rest of the professionals at events for the cost of a bottle of spirits.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman