Playing sport has been a big part of my life, particularly polocrosse, which I learnt growing up in Australia, and has enabled me to travel the world and represent the UK in international competition. Last weekend, the UK team paid a flying two-day visit to Zambia, to play the No.2 world-ranked team, as part of a warm up to the Adina Polocrosse World Cup in Australia at Easter. Getting off the plane and straight onto an unknown horse, having not played a chukka on grass since last September, was a bit of a shock to the system! I usually play in the defensive No.3 position, but in these matches I was “up front”, as the goal scoring No.1. At this level, the game is won and lost in the “line outs”, where the umpire throws the ball in between the two lines of teams. My opponent at the font of the lineout was Mikey Kraynaw, an exceptional player with very long arms (!) and lightning reactions, and he definitely got the better of me.
After the first game, I sat down and reflected on what happened. How was Mikey setting his horse up? Was he coming into the lineup before or after me? Where was he catching the ball? What cues did he give that I could pick up on? Could I use my horse’s strengths to better effect? I made my own personal plans of action, and as a team we sat down and went through lessons learnt and how we were going to approach the next game. I would love to say that we went back out and scored a decisive victory (we didn’t! Although the girls were level in their chukkas, us boys needed to score a few more goals), but I did feel much sharper, got more ball and was able to disrupt their line out tactics.
So what has this got to do with my day job? On the polocrosse field, I don’t have the best racquet skills, I’m not the strongest guy on the pitch, and I don’t have the quickest reactions (particularly in my advancing years!), but I would say my greatest asset, and the reason I have had success at this level, is that I have learnt to accurately and quickly assess the opposition, be flexible in my own game, and communicate a plan of action to my teammates in the heat of the moment.
Here’s how my sporting lessons translate into horse training;
1. ASSESS YOUR OPPONENT! I talk to those who have played them and watch videos to get a feel of their tactics. I’m not suggesting for one moment that any horse that gets sent to me for training is my “opponent”, but I do my homework with each horse that comes to me for training. I talk to the owners and I start putting pieces of the puzzle together. I always start with groundwork before giving them a ride. I have to make very quick assessments in order to keep myself, and the horse, safe, particularly when they have severe behavioural problems. These initial interactions form the basis of the horse’s training plan.
2. BE FLEXIBLE IN YOUR GAME PLAN! When your opponent is getting the better of you, you have to change what you are doing. Likewise, horses are individuals, and have to be treated as such. I have developed techniques and a system of training for starting young horses, and working with those needing re-education, but there has to be flexibility within this system. I will take out, add, or repeat various lessons (which can be accessed via www.yourhorsemanship.com/online) according to the needs of each horse and owner.
3. HAVE A BIG BOX OF TRICKS UP YOUR SLEEVE! Now, I’m not talking about cheating, but in sport, you have to adapt to the environment and your opponent, and the more techniques and ideas you have, the more likely you are going to be successful. I like to think that I have accumulated a bit of a treasure chest of horse training ideas and techniques that I can dip into, whatever the situation!
4. LEARN FROM EVERY OPPONENT YOU PLAY AGAINST! I would have been upset with myself if I hadn’t learnt from that first game in Zambia, just like it is pointless saying I have started over 2000 young horses if I hadn’t taken something away from every one of those horses (and owners!). To be a successful trainer, you should learn something from every ride (the good bits and the bad), and every person you “talk horse” to, whether they are an Olympic medallist or a happy hacker. An open, enquiring mind is key!
5. COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM! In a sporting situation, being able to communicate concisely and accurately on the field and in breaks of play is key. With horse training, I view everyone connected with each horse as a team that I have to communicate effectively with, which is why I encourage a comprehensive hand-over period to the owner/ rider at the end of each horse’s training. I have to say this is an area that I have had to work hard on, and I hope it has improved with age and experience!
6. KEEP CCD; CALM, CONSISTENT & DECISIVE! Ever wonder how someone has the guts to take a penalty in a football World Cup final? Sports psychology has become increasingly important in top level sport, and the most successful have trained themselves to be able to stay “in the moment” regardless of the situation. When training horses, it is essential for my safety and for improving the horse that I stay fully concentrated and sensitive to every change that I feel. In certain situation, It takes focus to stay calm and not let my emotions affect my movement and decision-making (I’d be lying to say that the heart-rate doesn’t spike every now and again!)… Keeping CCD is at the forefront of all my training!
7. ALWAYS GIVE 100%! You can’t always win, because you can’t always control the opposition, and sometimes they may just be too good. But what you can do is aim to put in 100% effort, and perform to the best of your ability each time you step onto the field… I think that speaks for itself!