It’s always great to have an open mind, and during a fantastic tour of English and German stables last month, there was obviously plenty to learn. So in this article I’m going to share some inspiration, as well as touching on a couple of basic training techniques along the way.
There are some great riders and incredible trainers in Europe and the UK, plus a huge surplus of horses with which to train. You really get to see everything, from the top to the bottom of equestrian experiences
Facilities are…well…WOW! : The grass is certainly greener on the other side of the globe. Not just because Australia is in drought and the European fields are amazing.
The top eventing, dressage and jumping stables really do have incredible facilities. Some have three indoor arenas and yet more outdoor arenas. Then there are the hacking trails, walking machines and huge stable complexes with horse solariums.
The horses are absolutely superb: The top horses are amazing. They are uphill, athletic and have a canter to die for. The number of horses bred and the attention to genetics certainly shows when you look around. But hey, a lot of horses are just standing in the paddock looking like Aussie hacks too.
The mid-level horses in Europe are still pretty darn good, BUT just because a horse is bred in Germany doesn’t make it a superstar. There are plenty of ‘average’ horses in the back paddocks waiting for some unsuspecting tourist to part with a lot of dollars for a German name.
The riders are plentiful in every direction: There were lots of quality riders to go with the quality horses! One thing that really stuck out was that their balance and seat was so in sync with the horse’s movement. Regardless of your discipline having a balanced and independent seat is one of the most beneficial attributes for both you and your horse.
There were also some average riders and trainers. The fact that they were European (and I’m including the UK in that for at least this week!) doesn’t make them ‘the best’. Although I am practicing my German accent so I can increase my fees!
Drawing to a poor conclusion: One thing I didn’t like seeing in Europe was the heavy use of draw and side reins. While there is a place for these in the right hands, I saw them being used for the wrong reasons. Far too often I saw horses with their heads jammed into their chest, being tightly held in a hopeless effort to get the horse ‘on the bit’, but achieving little more than a head behind the vertical.
These horses were ‘breaking’ at the fourth vertebrae and shortening the neck. This means the back legs weren’t able to come under properly and horses became confused, diminishing the stop response from the bit. There appeared to be a lot of tongue and contact issues which I felt related directly to some of these methods. Sadly, this results in some amazing horses not reaching their full potential.
If people were a little more educated and patient there would be happier horses, which in turn would lead to better competitive results.
The clash: Another area of concern was the persistent clashing of the aids in some stables. What this means is confusing the horse with two different simultaneous messages: for example, trying to perform an upward transition with excessive rein contact. An analogy would be trying to drive a car forward while pulling on the hand brake. I didn’t see this in every stable or at every competition, but it was a problem that appeared far too often to be just a coincidence.
Maybe some of these modern riders need to go back to the old masters of our sport, such as the Frenchman François Baucher who said: “Reins without legs, legs without reins.”
Burghley Horse Trials: I was lucky enough to attend the Burghley Horse Trials – along with 150,000 other people. It was a great experience and you can only imagine what it would be like if we could have these kinds of crowd numbers at an Australian event. Of course, we would need a lot a rain to soften up the track and we would need to import at least another fifty 5* horses!
It was an amazing event with everything available, including multiple high class ‘gin barns’ and shopping for everything from a bling saddle cloth to a luxury horse truck. Credit card danger zone!
Designed by Captain Mark Phillips, the Burghley course was brilliantly presented but tough, which challenged both riders and horses. There certainly wasn’t any leeway for a number of less experienced riders who got into trouble on the big course.
There seemed to be a lot of faults at jumps with frangible pins, which made me wonder whether because we have this fabulous technology, jumps are being constructed higher and tougher than they might otherwise be.
And congratulations are definitely due to Pippa Funnell, who 16 years after her first Burghley win, led from start to finish across the full four days on her 11-year-old gelding and Burghley debutant MGH Grafton Street.
Burghley should be a ‘must visit’ on any event rider’s bucket list. It’s very hard for me to put into words how it feels walking around the course. Next stop Badminton?
Wedding bells: Following Burghley, good friends of mine were getting married on the border of England and Wales. This was a fabulous weekend of celebration with like-minded horse people. Originally it was a tough decision to go to the wedding over competing at Willinga Park, but in hindsight it was absolutely the right call. Don’t feel like you’re being a slack rider if you decide to opt-out of a competition so that you can attend a special event – in the long run these wonderful occasions shouldn’t be missed!
And more on the bucket list: If you’re lucky enough to get to Burghley, or any other top-level European competition, you will be itching to get home and ride your own horse. Europe does jam a universe of marvels into every corner but it’s hard to find Vegemite in the shops. It’s great to ride in Australia, but I’ll definitely be heading back to Europe for more training ideas and to fill my ever-open mind.
Charlie Brister of Brister Equestrian is an all-round horseman based in western Sydney. His expertise is in re-training problem horses, as well as coaching riders in the art of cross-country, show jumping and dressage.