My horse gets a sore back. What do you recommend?
I’m always trying to streamline my operation and get my horses going and feeling better. Obviously, the training and the work is the biggest part of this equation but as the years go by, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of the equipment we use as well. I have a number of horses in work and one of my duties is to make sure the horses feel as well as they can. Over the past 20 years, I believe a number of my horses were dealing with a lot of back pain — in my early days in Australia, I thought they just needed to toughen up and build up some muscle; then I came to America and got into the culture of injections and treating a horse’s back with medication, laser therapy and acupuncture.
It’s not been until the last couple of years that I realized all of this was a reaction to the trauma I was causing. It sounds simple but a lightbulb went on when I changed over to Stuebben saddles; in a couple of weeks, I felt my horses operating at a different level, in much more comfort. I was impressed with the technology Stuebben used to fit saddles to each horse’s back. Obviously, with so many horses, it’s impossible to custom fit a saddle to every horse, but they came up with four or five tree sizes in the exact same model. The saddle fitter then came out and looked at every horse’s back and told me which tree width fits each horse. All of this is documented and for any horses with unusually shaped backs, we can make an additional adjustment using the SmartPak and Ecogold half pads.
This may seem like a cheesy statement to impress my sponsors, but I can tell you the proof is in the pudding; I’ve no longer needed to use the laser machine, I haven’t injected a horse’s back in the last three years and my results have been getting better and better for a number of reasons, but I do feel the horses are feeling better and are able to operate at a higher frequency. The lesson here is always look at your management. Just because you’re using a system you’ve been using for a few years doesn’t mean you can’t refine and improve things. Take your ego out of it and see what you can do better. It’s the small details that make a huge difference at the end of the day.
What’s it like working with a team coach?
As one of the upper-level riders in the U.S.A., I’ve been influenced by many coaches and chef d’equipes. My first interaction with an American coach was Captain Mark Phillips in 2010 and the biggest impact he had on me was my cross-country riding. I’ll never forget my first couple of cross-country lessons with Mark in Aiken, South Carolina, when he really broke down the tiny details. He was quite blunt and honest, which was a bit of a shakeup for me, as I prided myself on being a pretty snazzy cross-country rider! But he taught me lessons I still think about today.
The next coach was David O’Connor. To me, David is a brilliant master in the dressage; he took my dressage riding to another level and really gave me a number of exercises and techniques that have stayed with me long after he retired as the U.S. coach.
In 2018, Erik Duvander came along and he has had a massive impact on my riding as well as on the management of my business. Erik is more than just a riding coach: He came on board and took a good, hard look at my entire program. To start with, I thought he was a bit of a weirdo, hanging around my farm all the time, just watching the horses getting turned out and checking out the feeding program, and then I realized he was really studying how we do things. He noticed how we do our fitness, the blacksmith and vets, and every aspect of our training program and business.
Erik’s guidance has been a game changer for me. I thought I was doing things pretty well but he brought to my attention many flaws in my system. On top of that, he has gently helped me improve, bit by bit, each weakness in my program: the number of staff I had, the surfaces I was galloping on and the techniques with which I was training the horses. I don’t believe I’m quite where I need to be but I also understand this is a long process of improvement and it can’t be done overnight. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of all these small details being corrected over the next year or two.
What are your thoughts on making this year’s High Performance training list?
This year the new USEF High Performance list came out in December and I was lucky enough to be named on Long Island T. To start with, it’s a great privilege and honor to be chosen with a horse the selectors consider “listable” but I’ve learned over the years not to get too emotional about being on or off these lists. At the end of the day, it’s all about having a horse in phenomenal form and raring to go in the lead-up to a championship. Unfortunately, these lists can upset and offend some riders who are on the fence, and there’s always a large debate about who should and shouldn’t be on the lists. In my opinion, the lists are mainly important due to the fact there is a financial benefit to your training and if you miss out, you don’t get that advantage.
This year’s list was an interesting one. It was a much smaller group of horses and riders with a number of notable top riders and horses left off. In my opinion, the selectors are taking a hard stance on current form; this year we saw Tsetserleg, Vermiculus and Tight Lines left off the A and B lists — they didn’t even make the C list. All three horses had a disappointing result at the WEG and the selectors decided to boot them off the list until they’re in better form. Part of me thinks this was a little harsh, but for me, this is a huge motivation to get Thomas (Tsetserleg) back in action and humming along again to impress the selectors!
At the end of the day, we must all remember that everyone wants the best for the U.S. Eventing Team; the coaches and riders, owners and selectors all want to see the U.S. riders standing on the podium. We all must remember not to take this too personally and get caught up worrying about who did or did not make the lists. We all want the best for the team, and we’ve just to get out and get the job done and perform well at the big shows.