Not everyone makes the jump from young riders to elite level. Eleanor Jones finds out just what it takes to step up to the highest echelons of the sport
What does it take to reach the top? A good rider and good horses, of course. But what else does a young rider need to become one of those at the elite levels of our sport?
“There’s so much more to the job than just being a good rider,” says Pippa Funnell. “You could go and get the best trainer in the world and spend a fortune on lessons, but it’s not just about being in the saddle; it’s about all-round horsemanship and learning how to climb into a horse’s mind to work out how the individual ticks. Horses are not tools for a trade, they need to be your best buddy so that the partnership is absolutely harmonious.”
This is what Pippa is working hard towards with the Windrush Equestrian Foundation (pictured below), which supports young event riders. It aims to help provide the best possible all-round grounding, taking in management, working with owners, equine soundness, feeding – “living and breathing” the job, Pippa says.
They also have sessions with the likes of course-designer Eric Winter and sports psychologist Poppy Blandford, business advice from Sarah Armstrong, media training with Alice Plunkett and a talk from champion jockey AP McCoy, who is inspirational on the value of hard graft and staying humble.
“For sure, it helps if you are a young rider who comes from a knowledgeable, experienced horsey background,” says Pippa. “For those who don’t, it is imperative to seek advice or spend time in a top yard. How else do you learn things such as checking horses’ teeth or whether that leg is a tendon injury or a little skin infection?
“There are many youngsters now in all sports, not just eventing, who are lucky because they come from a more privileged situation. The finances are there to set themselves up in a yard with some nice horses, dreaming of reaching the top, but it’s a lot harder for them to get that all-round knowledge and experience, because it’s not as simple as just being well taught.
“That should be an encouragement for people who don’t have the initial backing because often the riders who really succeed are those that have the mentality and dedication to fight for it.”
Pippa believes in young riders spending time in top riders’ yards to immerse themselves in all aspects of running a successful competition yard, from stable management, feeding, backing and starting youngsters.
She herself spent eight years with top trainer Ruth McMullen, gaining experience of riding all sorts of shapes and sizes, from show ponies to racehorses to hunters and event horses.
“The one thing that Ruth always taught is that 95% of the horse’s problem is the rider on top,” says Pippa. “The training and work was always on improving the rider.”
Likewise, William Funnell worked for the Light family at Brendon Stud, riding hundreds of different horses. The couple have also taken in keen young riders to serve their own “apprenticeships”. One of these is Tom McEwen, who spent a couple of months with the Funnells – he went on to win team gold at the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
“I could tell straight away Tom was going to go a long way,” says Pippa. “He had such empathy with the horses; William and I could tell the horses liked him, and he was absolutely a worker. We’ve had many people here but he was one who stood out.”
Tom agrees that the experience of other yards is invaluable, saying he does not think he would be where he is without his time at Rodney Powell and Alex Franklin’s, then the Funnells’, and elsewhere.
“I took so much from it,” he says. “Different businesses and ways of working, so much to do with horse care and management, which is the most important thing. I started on Pippa’s yard – and she doesn’t remember but I got told off so many times because I was terrible at tack cleaning – then moved to their other yard and started working with the young horses.”
Tom had had next to no experience in riding recently backed horses, and says this hugely improved his own riding. He also spent time at Carl Hester’s and Marcus Ehning’s yards, to learn as much as he could in all disciplines.
“You get so much from doing that, from learning someone’s craft,” he says.
Tom now has other riders basing themselves with him, and can assess which are most likely to succeed.
“You’d think it’s riding ability but it’s the bits you might not realise; the enthusiasm, the wanting to learn, someone for whom the horses come first,” he says.
Pippa remembers being impressed by Scott Brash, who also rode for the Lights as a young rider, quizzing her, wanting to improve both the horse he was asking about and himself as a rider. Pippa believes this curiosity is key to reaching the top.
Scott agrees that as well as immense dedication, to reach the top a rider must “always want to improve yourself ”.
“You can learn from everyone, and you never stop learning,” Scott says. “I used to learn a lot from just watching the collecting ring. Everyone had a different style or way of doing something, but they were all effective, and you can take good points from everyone.”
Scott agrees that all-round horsemanship and care is key, “as you’re only sitting on them an hour a day; there are 23 more”.
“It’s not just being a good rider, there are so many aspects of good management, picking the right shows, not over-jumping but jumping enough. It’s a balance, and every horse is different,” he says.
“And you have to have that connection with your horse; you have to love your horse, work with him and understand him to get the best results.”
Scott says it is vital young riders hoping to reach the top keep an open mind to learning and work hard.
“But the key to being successful is to have that partnership with your horse,” he says. “That’s probably the best advice I could give.”
Coach Corinne Bracken saw countless young riders in her years of coaching and as chef d’equipe of junior teams, and she knows what riders need to go on to the top.
“It doesn’t matter how talented they are,” she says. “They have to be mentally as strong as an ox. I can look back at them; the ones where a good round was fantastic but when they rode a bad round, they didn’t let it affect them for the next time.
“No dramas, no throwing toys out of the pram, never blaming anyone else; they just come out, get on with it and do it better the next time. They make sure they sort the problem out, but they don’t let it mentally a ect the next round they jump.”
Corinne agrees that spending apprenticeship time with top riders is an amazing opportunity for those hoping to emulate them, adding: “But never forget that at some point, you’ll have to go out and do it by yourself.”
She also agrees in the importance of an all-round equestrian education.
“The other thing I’ve noticed is there’s an air of humbleness,” she says of those who have gone on to the elite level. “They’re quite driven but also so polite and respectful of everyone around them, and I think that makes people want to help them more.
“I remember William Whitaker on a team with me, and he spent about an hour and a half sitting on a bale of straw with the team vet, wanting to know everything.
“That’s what makes these riders all-round educated athletes; just being able to ride the horse isn’t enough in the modern sport.”
William Whitaker agrees that learning, and wanting to learn, is vital.
“The horse is an amazing thing, isn’t it?” he says. “It sounds a bit clichéd but I’m 31 now and have been competing since I was nine – never done anything else – but still, every day I spend with these horses I learn something new. I’m sure if you asked John and Michael [Whitaker], they’d say the same. And I think that’s amazing.”
William agrees with Scott on the benefits of watching every rider on every horse do something slightly di erent to achieve the same goal, and what can be learned from watching and asking questions. Mental toughness, too, is key.
“I remember William Funnell at the 2013 Europeans on Billy Congo, and it didn’t quite go to plan in the first round of the Nations Cup,” he says. “Luckily, the other lads jumped clear, but then he came back in the second round and jumped clear, which took the pressure off. It takes mental strength to do that, especially at that level.”
Ruth McMullen, who saw many riders through her door besides Pippa, believes the riders who are most likely to do well have come up through the ranks riding a variety of horses, and agrees that a good partnership is key. Ruth was a top showing rider herself, and coached riders to top level in all disciplines.
“A lot of young riders do well but find it hard to get up to the very top,” she says. “It takes dedication, hard work and the right attitude. They have to want to learn and go out of their way to learn from the right people, and not think that because they’ve done well as a young rider that they know it all; it can be quite a shock sometimes when they go to a bigger yard.”
Horsemanship, attention to detail and patience are also key, Ruth believes, as well as hard work, a refusal to accept imperfection, and learning from the horses themselves.
“I thought Pippa would go all the way,” she adds. “Talent isn’t enough on its own, but besides being a huge talent, she had wonderful empathy for her horses. Piggy March is the same – they love their horses and it’s a partnership.”
Ref: 11 February 2021
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