The former European champion reflects on seeking improvement rather than perfection, being hungry for knowledge and letting horses be horses
I’m lucky both my parents were highly successful in the equestrian world — my late father Josh Gifford was champion jump jockey four times and a Grand National-winning trainer, and my mother Althea was on victorious showjumping Nations Cup teams.
Dad always said never to stop learning, and I find it fascinating talking to other riders and those who are successful in other areas of life. I’m hungry to learn. Dad also said to be patient, a quality many people lack. You need to learn when a horse is trying for you and that success isn’t instant.
When you’re 16, being 50 sounds completely over the hill to be doing this sport. I wish I’d known then that there is no such thing as the perfect horse. At 16, you expect every training session to be perfect and you can put too much pressure on your horse. You have to learn to accept improvement to create harmony.
I’ve learnt that just because an approach works for one horse, it might not work for another. You can set up a grid and one horse can do it easily and another will struggle, but both might be top class. I hate giving up on a horse and relish the challenge of getting the best out of them.
I was brought up riding thoroughbreds, and this made me obsessed with getting horses to use their backs; it makes so much difference in their performance. I like to spend time improving suppleness in a horse’s flatwork before seeing if he can jump, as all too often the jump is disappointing and there is temptation to give up with it.
I enjoyed sport at school, but if I pushed my body I suffered stiffness. So I learnt if you work a horse hard one day, it’s beneficial to give his body and brain time to absorb that work. Vary horses’ work so they enjoy their job.
I like to put horses in the field as much as possible and let them be horses. Even if it’s wet and muddy, they can be wrapped up warm, but I believe letting them move around contributes to my horses’ good soundness record.
Show day routines
Whatever time I leave for a competition, I always make myself have a bowl of cereal. I am the only driver of my lorry and I don’t like eating when I’m competing, so I might not eat again all day.
Sometimes I visualise my dressage test during the final countdown warming up — nerves can make you have a sudden panic about where to go. Knowing the test leads to riding positively.
I didn’t have to search outside my family for a riding icon, but I looked up to Lucinda Green, because of her ability to ride so many different types of horses.
If I could have one horse over again, it would be General Jock. We bought him as a four-year-old from Doncaster Sales and he went to the 1994 World Equestrian Games when he was nine and I was 24.
He led overnight at Burghley once; he was a fantastic cross-country horse but could have rails down showjumping. Who knows if that would be different now that I have more experience?
Ref Horse & Hound; 13 February 2020