Work-life balance with horses: how professional riders achieve it *H&H Plus*

  • With horses taking priority, time off is often seen as a luxury, not a necessity, for most professional riders. Ellie Hughes chats to those who do make time for themselves and their family, and finds out how they do it...

    IF there is one thing Jonelle Price savours as much as whizzing round a five-star, it is rustling up a Sunday roast. A sit-down lunch with husband Tim and their young children Otis and Abel is a weekend ritual the 2018 Badminton champion particularly looks forward to – especially during the off-season – having spent most of the year living out of a horsebox.

    “We would normally go to New Zealand in the winter to catch up with family, but with the pandemic that wasn’t possible,” she says. “But we are still very strict about having family time. We only ride Monday to Friday and spend the weekends doing things together with the children.”

    Work-life balance is a subject to which Jonelle has given much consideration.

    “I like to think we have got it about right,” she says. “It’s something that has always been important to Tim and me, but now that we have two young children we’re adamant about it.”

    In some ways the Prices are in the minority, though. Performance psychologist Charlie Unwin, who provides mental coaching for riders through his programme Centre 10, says riders are notoriously bad at taking time off.

    “Riders are very good at coming up with excuses,” he says. “Too many horses to ride, too much admin to catch up on… And there is this outdated, bullish notion that the more hours you spend in the saddle the more likely you are to succeed.

    “Swimming was in a very bad place for the same reason about 10 years ago when the emphasis was on train, train, train, and there was a lot of burnout. We [psychologists] are spending more and more time helping athletes find a balance that enables them to perform at their best while living their lives.”

    It is easy to sit back and talk about the importance of downtime, but when there is another (equine) athlete in the equation, whose needs have to come first, the reality is that a day off is often low down on riders’ lists.

    Put short breaks in your diary

    THE past 12 months have forced us all to attend fewer competitions and training events due to the pandemic. But as shows start to open up again, the calendar is relentless and might be even more so as riders try to play catch-up. With so many opportunities to compete year round, riders need to make a deliberate decision to take time off. The pandemic grounding us was an enforced break and therefore “doesn’t count”.

    “You are on this conveyor belt of shows with no obvious end point,” says William Whitaker, who can spend weeks on the road at a time and relies on FaceTime to catch up with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children. “When you do get a quiet week at home with no competitions but 20 horses in the stables, you really want to crack on with them because before you know it you’re off again.”

    William has learned to diarise short breaks.

    “If it’s not in the diary then it won’t happen,” he says. “I find just being at home and spending quality time with the kids is enough to recharge my batteries. I go back to work all the better for it – mentally I’m sharper and that’s really important in our game.”

    William Whitaker walking the course at Hickstead with Oliver and Isabella.

    William Whitaker walking the course at Hickstead with Oliver and Isabella. Credit: Peter Nixon

    Belgian international showjumper Olivier Philippaerts agrees.

    He says: “If you have a little break in between shows you can recharge yourself mentally and physically for the next competition, but sometimes competitions follow each other so quickly you do not really get a chance for this.”

    Dressage is similarly an all-year-round discipline, although dressage riders usually spend more time training at home and have fewer long-distance trips to factor in – but this does not necessarily translate to a quieter life, as Alice Oppenheimer attests to.

    “I am very lucky to have my own family-owned yard and lovely home-bred horses to ride, but this does bring with it a certain amount of pressure to keep everything going all the time,” she says. “I can’t suddenly decide I want to swan off for the day as that wouldn’t be fair.”

    Alice does try to take one day off a week.

    “It’s not always possible, though, when you’ve been away at a show for a few days as the next lot of horses are waiting at home to be worked,” she says. “If I do have a day off I usually spend it asleep on the sofa or binge-watching a series on Netflix.”

    Recharging your batteries

    EVENTING is the only discipline to have an obvious off-season, yet the practice of turning horses away for a few months in October is now the exception rather than the norm.

    Mary King still keeps to the same routine that has served her well throughout her career, and gives her horses a complete break in the field until Christmas.

    “I appreciate that not everyone can do it, but I find that when I bring the horses back into work again I feel refreshed, excited and ready for the season,” she says.

    Recharging the batteries need not necessarily be about taking an extended holiday, as Charlie points out.

    “Factoring in quiet days and breaks during the day are equally important,” he says. “Taking a few minutes between each horse to regroup and reset before moving on to the next will improve focus and performance.”

    Different riders will find rest and relaxation in different activities.

    “Travelling to a show might be an ideal rest opportunity for one person, but for the next it can be mentally tiring as they will spend the whole journey worrying about the last competition and stressing about what is ahead,” Charlie adds.

    Modern sport also brings modern pressures, and the non-riding side of running a business is draining both on time and energy.

    “Managing social media, for example, has become a really big part of the sport,” Mary notes. “I look after mine myself, but I don’t do a lot compared to the younger generation. My daughter Emily has somebody who manages that side of things for her, which I know is a big help as it can be all-consuming.”

    Alice agrees: “Gone are the days when sponsors will pick a rider solely on results. Now you have to be as hot on social media as you are in the saddle – and that is all extra workload.”

    The importance of rest and sleep

    IN elite sport, being tired can be more than merely an inconvenience.

    “Rest and sleep are really important parts of an athlete’s life and research shows that a lack of either can have a big impact on mental focus and reaction time,” says Charlie. “Statistically, you are more likely to have a road accident when you’re tired, so there are safety considerations to think about.”

    Former British dressage national champion Lara Butler, who has a one-year-old son, Jack, says she noticed how a lack of sleep, especially in the early days, affected her concentration.

    “I definitely felt the difference,” she says. “It’s hard when you’ve had a bad night and still need to come out the next day and ride with 100% concentration.”

    Being habitually tired is something new mothers and riders have in common. When the two busy roles collide it makes being able to perform at your best doubly tough.

    Most women athletes agree that there is never an ideal time to press pause for a baby break, but a lot of riders have found the positives can outweigh the negatives.

    Two years ago, New Zealand eventer Lucy Jackson made the difficult decision to sell one of the most talented horses she had ever had in her yard, Superstition. Her decision was partly influenced by having a young daughter, Evie, to consider, although she also admitted that becoming a mother changed her work-life balance for the better.

    “I used to base my self-worth on a ribbon, which is quite tenuous; I feel now that there’s better balance,” she said at the time. “After a moderate day at a show, you go home and do something good as a mummy… I cope better because there are other things I can do well.”

    Lara adds: “Being a rider and a mother is tough physically and mentally. Young children don’t like it when you only have half your mind on the job, but being able to switch your focus and priorities depending on the situation is a really good skill to learn.”

    For riders who spend weeks and months on the road, being apart from the family for long periods is one of the hardest parts of the job.

    “When you’re not home for weeks at a time you can miss key moments in your children’s lives without realising,” says William Whitaker.

    Jonelle acknowledges that sharing a lifestyle with Tim is a huge bonus when it comes to balancing work and home.

    “It’s easier when you’re both doing the same thing as you travel around together – it’s not like I’m leaving a husband at home for weeks on end,” she says.

    “At the end of last season we were away in France for Le Lion and Pau. We took the whole family plus the nanny and basically moved out there. I realise it won’t be as easy when the kids are school age, but for now it’s an exciting thing to do. We are very lucky to lead the life we do – and we need to remember that.”


    This exclusive feature is also available to read in H&H magazine, Thursday 18 March 2021 issue

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