AFTER COVID 19 – William Micklem – Part 1
PERCEPTION NOT FACT
An association with horses is provably life enhancing, an activity that can be hugely beneficial, both mentally and physically ….a sport for all, and a sport for life. Whether seriously disabled or seriously able extraordinary things are possible in partnership with ponies and horses. It is simply an exceptional sport that few other sports can match in terms of scope and benefits. We should not be afraid of shouting this from the roof tops. However as we emerge from lockdown into the new normal, with testing financial conditions and difficult choices needing a re-evaluation of both our working lives and sporting priorities, we should also not hold back from changes to make the most of our life enhancing sport and help those working in the industry to survive.
Here are 10 ideas that I hope are food for positive thoughts:
1. PROVE GENERAL HORSE RIDING IS NOT A HIGH RISK SPORT
All riding is usually labelled a high risk sport. This is absurd and is based on perception not facts. It has harmed the popularity and development of our sport for many years and significantly increased costs because of inflated insurance premiums. Pleasure riding and training in a riding school, or general low and medium level riding, should not be considered a high risk sport. Yet we continually encourage and endorse this scenario, largely as a cover all backstop in case of an accident. It is also in part used as a stick and marketing ploy to encourage formal training, although ironically much of this training is not ideal for novice riders, the group who are most at risk of minor accidents. It is no surprise insurance takes a disproportionate amount of our income as so many, including coaches, talk about horse riding being a high risk sport and use the throwaway phrase ‘a horseman’s grave is always open’. All stakeholders could come together to change this situation.
Even high level cross country riding is not as dangerous as the bad publicity would suggest. In 2015 I looked in detail at the statistics regarding fatalities, comparing different sports and activities. Statistics are notoriously difficult to compare but it is obvious that riding across country is not in the same category of dangerous sport or extreme sport as motorcycle racing, mountain climbing or sky diving. In fact, in terms of the number of fatalities, water sports are the big killers in Ireland, with an average 140 people drowning each year (Irish water safety data report on drowning in the republic of Ireland 1988 – 2012). 2014 was a bad time for fatalities in FEI Eventing with one fatality for every 16,447 starters in FEI horses trials. However this is almost exactly the same degree of risk as childbirth is in Ireland, with 1 fatality per 16,666 births, despite the fact that Ireland has exceptional maternity care and better statistics than in the UK. Another disturbing comparison is with car driving. The Irish figures showing I fatality for every 13,025 drivers on the road! I am not suggesting for a moment that fatalities in eventing are acceptable, or that we should stop trying to make cross country riding safer, but it is important to keep things in perspective.
In the USA, a country famous for insurance claims, they have found a somewhat perverse solution to the insurance challenge. Equestrian sports are thriving because the majority of States (46) in the USA have adopted a version of The Equine Activity Liability Act. It stipulates ‘that an equine sponsor or equine professional, or any other person, including corporations and partnerships, are immune from liability for the death or injury of a participant that resulted from the inherent risks of involvement in equine activities. Similarly, no participant may make a legal claim against any equine sponsor or professional or any other person for injury, damage or death that resulted from the inherent risk of participation in any equine activity’. This Act has allowed equestrian sports to thrive in the USA. Yes on the one hand it emphasises the ‘inherent risks’ of horse riding, but the best professionals flock to the USA, because the Act reduces the risk of both running an equine training business and most importantly running competitions. As a result, in general, standards of training and safety are very high, and therefore very attractive to participants and especially parents with children. Rather than just accepting the status quo this may be the right time for government bodies and equestrian NGBs to get together to sort out our own insurance challenges, to enable a financial kick start of the equestrian industry. If a solution can be found in the USA it can surely be found in the UK and Ireland.
AFTER COVID 19 – William Micklem – Part 2
THE LOW HANGING FRUIT
Sometimes we miss the simple things, despite the fact that simplicity and simplifying are such powerful and productive tools in training and management. So here is the low hanging fruit, three simple things we can do in the equestrian industry, that all improve performance with little investment and also improve the financial bottom line:
2. TEACH HOW TO STAY ON & FALL OFF
Not surprisingly if someone falls off minor injuries are a regular occurrence, so being able to prevent falls is a top priority…..to keep riders safe, to reduce insurance costs and to keep the customer coming back and hopefully telling their friends about their wonderful experience….including their gorgeous coach! There are obviously a whole set of well established strategies to prevent falls, but the key riding technique to prevent falls with novice riders is a good balanced rising trot, as by itself it can make a considerable difference to their stability and stickability. In addition it goes without saying that we need appropriate saddles for novice riders, that they can sit ‘into’ rather than ‘on’.
However a small number of falls are inevitable, so we also need to teach riders how to fall. Michael Eames, a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon in Northern Ireland, led a hugely impressive demonstration of teaching ‘how to fall’ at the International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College in February this year. Using Jiu Jitsu methods he demonstrated some of the work he has done to formulate a ten hour course for all levels of riders, of all ages.
Possibly the most valuable result of gaining this expertise is that at difficult moments riders are more calm, giving themselves that invaluable split second head start on choosing the right reaction…. a reaction that might well mean they don’t fall off! I have no doubt that, as with National Hunt jockeys, learning how to fall should become a mandatory part of riding education. It could make a huge change to the number of people having minor injuries and broken limbs, as well as a huge change to the perception of horse riding as a dangerous sport.
3. USE SMALLER HORSES & SMALLER FEEDS
The foremost requirement for novice riders is a steady horse of appropriate size. Many big horses, commonly used in the modern competition world, are unsuitable for the novice rider, so lightweight and middleweight cobs are invaluable and many of us also treasure our ponies for both children and adults. (NB breeders need support and encouragement to produce cobs as fewer and fewer are being bred.) We also want horses that are ‘easy keepers’. This is very much part of the equation to reduce management and feeding costs and be able to give horses a more natural life.
We all know that many private horse owners give their horses too much hard feed and not enough hard work, and this is often the reason for bad behaviour. In fact most forward thinking pleasure horses need little if any hard feed, and we shouldn’t have to feed concentrates to make a horse forward thinking! (In all seriousness for the sake of the planet we should try to feed all animals less grain anyway.) Many also have horses that are unnecessarily big and expensive to feed in comparison with smaller horses. Although there are obviously exceptions, on average horses eat 2.5% of their body weight per day, therefore if a rider is relatively small it will probably be more cost effective to ride a pony or small horse.
For example: An average 16.00 TB is approximately 1,000lbs/450kg, while a typical 16.2 warm blood/middle weight is 1,400lbs/650kg. With the bigger horse this adds up to a 40% increase in feeding costs, a considerable sum in a year, and that does not include the higher veterinary costs because of the increased incidence of lower limb injuries.
It is obviously a mistake to equate more size as an indicator of better performance, and of course a large pony or small horse can even be an elite performer. There are hundreds of high level examples, from Stroller to Itot du Chateau in show jumping, from Our Nobby to Lenamore in Eventing, and from Hyperion to Sadlers Wells in racing….and now we also have Charlotte Dujardin’s mighty pocket rocket Gio in dressage. All praise to Jennie Loriston-Clarke who was instrumental in changing British dressage rules so that adults could ride ponies in official competitions….and ponies generally don’t have Osteochrondrosis or proud flesh, and who doesn’t love a Connemara! And Ernest Dillon FBHS has just produced some excellent videos using a pony …. I told you they said their coach was gorgeous!
4. PRIORITISE LOCAL BUSINESS & PARTNERSHIP
In the short and medium term people are going to travel less, therefore our priority has to be local and regional business opportunities of all types. Part of this new reality will require attracting new participants to riding. A great aim would be to have say a 5% increase in the number of people learning to ride, which is eminently achievable with such a wonderful sport. This translates as thousands of new riders, but we are sometimes not good at introducing a modern audience and larger groups to riding, as we lack suitable equipment and accessible starter programmes.
I am not suggesting we need to invest in expensive mechanical horses. On the contrary I have often shown that, even for large groups, it is possible to teach a balanced rising trot, including mounting and dismounting, in just 20 min, using small, simply made, wooden horses. Then let’s add another 10 min for chat, and another 30 min on real horses or ponies with leaders, to gain the basic skills to control a quiet horse. After this hour the majority of participants will be feeling happy, safe, and ready for their next ride, or they may wish to repeat this process. Or it’s a perfect time for that demonstration and refreshments.
It is also easily possible to make a cheap rein simulator to mimic the movement of the head and neck in walk, with a dial to to show if the rein contact remains consistent. In fact it is possible to develop a whole novice circuit, complete with mirrors and short video loops, that someone can repeatedly use at very low cost at their own pace, with minimal direct supervision, to get them and hopefully their friends started without being frightened. This is not to belittle the skill of horse riding, or to treat horses in a mechanical way, it is simply about increasing the number of participants and opening the door to their long term involvement.
Then, like thousands of others before them, a proportion will take the opportunity to gradually learn the art of humane horse riding and the enormous satisfaction possible from partnership with a horse. This partnership being fundamental to what sets us apart from other sports and is of huge value, both to the participant and to the business model….and this is exciting and is why we should be optimistic.
AFTER COVID 19 – William Micklem – Part 3
THE KEY TECHNIQUE FOR ACCELERATED PROGRESS & SAFETY
I am nervous today! Nervous about using this post to enlarge on why I mentioned yesterday that a balanced rising trot was key for avoiding a fall, and therefore key for changing perceptions about riding being a high risk sport. Surely, the maggot in my mind says, it is not appropriate to talk about rising trot to an experienced audience! Then I remembered two things….1) the eventual death from her injuries of a rider I knew who didn’t have this balance, and 2) that last year I read a report of a George Morris demonstration for senior Australian coaches, when he spent 30 min on the rising trot and it’s central importance to balance, safe riding and jumping. Said George “Your teachers have to understand the principle that the rising trot is exactly the same as jumping…..both with a light seat.” If you are already on the same page as this then I apologise for the repetition. But from my own experience and brief research of insurance cases, I have no doubt that the failure to establish a balanced rising trot at an early stage is a major reason for novice rider falls and subsequent injuries, and in turn the discouragement of potential new participants. So, deep breath, here goes:
5. USE A BALANCED RISING TROT.
Whatever happens about insurance in the future we still need to avoid as many silly falls and minor accidents as possible. A balanced rising trot is a powerful tool to avoid falls….as I said, it gives stability and stickability. It’s the norm to see a balanced rising (posting) trot in North America, but in the UK and Ireland it is my experience that this is often not the case. Novice riders here are at times actually made insecure and horses made uncomfortable, because they are taught to do a rising trot keeping a VERTICAL position of the upper body, without consistent weight through the leg. However it is impossible to have a consistent balance and a safe lower leg position unless the upper body is ANGLED SLIGHTLY FORWARD at the point when the seat touches the saddle. (The angle depending on the length of the stirrups, the shorter the stirrups the greater the angle.) Then the seat can be controlled as it rises and lowers, not up and down in the vertical plane, but swinging forward towards the front arch of the saddle, as the knee and hip joints open. Then back again as the joints close and the seat kisses the saddle, before rising once again. Therefore the riders head goes up and down a little but stays in the same alignment over the knee, with the weight through the leg remaining consistent, during both the rise and the lower. When riders can do this easily they will be able to stay secure even when their horse makes unexpected movements. This can easily be practised off the horse, standing on the ground and then in a jumping or GP saddle when mounted. (See attached pic from my book – The Complete Horse Riding Manual – Doring Kindersley)
CLASSICAL MAY NOT BE PRACTICAL
Many riders will talk of their early days riding bareback as being instrumental to becoming a good rider, and many coaches will insist that developing a good ‘seat’ and starting with sitting trot in a dressage saddle, usually without stirrups and usually on the lunge, is the classical and vital way to produce good riders….but is this really the safest and quickest way to start riders? Surely this is something for later in the training progression. If you were on a €1,000 bonus for every beginner rider who had no falls and and was able to trot, canter and jump small fences competently, after say two or three weeks, would you do this having them sitting and bumping on their bottoms, or by getting them to use rising trot and a light or ‘kissing’ seat with a strong lower leg position? It is a balance similar to that required for skiing or downhill cycling, with the majority of the weight staying through the rider’s legs. I certainly know which the horse would prefer.
We all know what most horses do if they have has an even slightly uncomfortable load on their back. They tighten and then probably drop their back to protect themselves. Then all hope of a connection through the back is lost. So a rider that struggles and bumps in sitting trot or canter is a rider that does little to help a horse improve. Therefore the first gateway to a horse using it’s back, and for accelerating the progress and safety of a rider, is a balanced rising trot. This is hugely important, especially as it is possible for a low level rider to do this well, and because leaving the door open to improving the horse’s way of going is both a vital part of keeping riders in the sport and operating a successful business….as then the school horses can do more hours and last longer. In addition I never teach a separate jumping position or jumping balance at this stage, because it’s the same as the balance for rising trot. Simple! There will be nothing else to teach except for them to get use to the feeling of jumping as they use an appropriate neck strap. As William Fox Pitt says of his early days, “If I got left behind over a fence and pulled on the mouth I had to get off my pony and the lesson finished. I soon learnt to use my neck strap and I continue to do this to this day. ”
STILL NOT CONVINCED?
I have been saying all this for many years, having had my lightbulb moment when I first saw Bert de Nemethy ride and coach in the 1970’s. But as I repeatedly still hear the command to stay upright or keep the body vertical in rising trot, I begin to think I am missing something. So I am heartened by the recent support of George Morris! And for those who think this doesn’t work at the highest level, George makes a very telling point. “What I am teaching is the light school of riding ….If you look at the jump off in Rio (World Show Jumping Championships 2018), then five of the six riders in the jump off – Peder Fredricson, Nick Skelton, Steve Guerdat, Kent Farrington, and the most forward of them all, Eric Lamaze – are all from that light school.”
Still not convinced? Then fix a solid chair onto the rear floor of a van or lorry, and and then try to stay sitting on that chair as the lorry goes down a road full of pot holes. It will be both difficult and jarring. Now take your seat out of the chair, putting your weight on your feet, and then use the ankle, knee and hip joints to work like a spring, absorbing the movement and keeping your balance. The ease with which you can do this will convince you a balanced rising trot is a safety no brainer, and one of the essential group of steps needed to ensure horse riding is taken off the high risk sports list.
AFTER COVID 19 – William Micklem – Part 4
NOT RESPECTING THE GAP
One of the most famous men in the world is a modest, down to earth, 90 year old. He is the American investment guru and philanthropist Warren Buffet, well known for saying that he and his colleagues simply try to be “fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” In practice this strategy has paid off in a very big way for his thousands of investors. As we enter this next period of time, after the worst of Covid 19, all sports are understandably very worried about the future and some will collapse. Therefore now is the time for us to find our courage and public voice to make some bold and ambitious plans for Equestrian sports. We are one of the few that are big enough and wide ranging enough to do this, and one of the few that are a sport for all and genuinely life enhancing. As there will undoubtedly be sporting vacuums we can move into some of this vacuum if we make the right products available: This leads to three really big thoughts: *John Millington Synge
6. OPEN UP THE COUNTRYSIDE
A key part of the process to kick start the equestrian industry after Covid 19, should be investment and goodwill in equestrian use of bridleways, greenways and forestry access; so that we can get more riders out of small destructive riding arenas and into bigger spaces …. and then even bigger spaces, including easier use of country roads. Our greatest untapped potential is the countryside, and there is a huge hunger by people to leave urban areas and experience nature and the diversity of rural spaces. The growth in cycle greenways is something that can be duplicated with horse riding as well. As Bing Crosby sang:
Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees.
Send me off forever, but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.
Anyone who has been to Wellington, Florida, in the USA, for their continuous four month show, will have been impressed by the planning that went into the construction of riding trails so that horses can be ridden to the show rather than go in a box by road. Yes this is because of the construction of specialist equestrian properties surrounding the show grounds, but providing riding trails to, and in particular FROM, regional competition and stabling hubs, is something that is essentially a planning challenge and the planners need to be shown what is possible. Riding FROM these centres, as part of a vast network of equestrian greenways, would offer huge potential for the equestrian world.
7. PRIORITISE REGIONAL COMPETITION, TRAINING & STABLING HUBS
At Wellington they have built the dream. From the middle of December each year to almost the end of April, they have more than 7,500 horses competing in eighteen arenas, including one of the World’s largest covered arenas, and a Derby field. In addition there are approximately 4,000 polo ponies playing at the numerous clubs near Wellington. While in Ocala, Florida, they are in the process of building the World Equestrian Centre, with a main stadium, 4 indoor and 17 outdoor arenas, plus climate-controlled stabling for 1,500 horses!
This is America! However, even in Ireland and the UK, ambitious further development of regional competition, training and stabling hubs, with access to riding in the countryside and flexible social facilities, is a no brainer as a catalyst to benefit the sustainable growth of every section of the horse industry. This ambition could be accelerated by planning and financial help for developing clusters of stables near central competition and training facilities. It will particularly depend on hugely improved design of flexible riding facilities that are more attractive for the needs of a wider audience. Certainly this is a massive long term project, but we need to be bold and think long term as well as short ….. as blind and paralysed Irish adventurer Mark Pollock says “we shouldn’t respect the gap between the reality and the dream if the extraordinary is to happen”.
8. WIDER VALUES & WIDER NEEDS
Last Thursday, supreme fund raiser Captain Tom Moore was 100, and at the last count had raise £33 million for the British NHS. He is a humble man with “a mighty spirit and a gamey heart”* and he has touched the hearts of the British people. He is a one off . At the the end of the day it’s worth remembering that even equestrian sport is primarily all about people, and we need to respect individuality and diversity and in the process reach out to a larger audience and touch their hearts.
If this is to happen the humane treatment of horses has to become a marketing strength, and non-negotiable part of every activity with a zero tolerance to anything that departs from this. The debate and changes about the use of animals in circus, the stick in racing, and the design of fences in the Aintree Grand National are all reflections of changing values and public attitudes to the use of animals in sport, and no equestrian sport can now hide from these issues. However much we nod and agree with such a strategy it is extremely difficult to deliver. It will require a reevaluation of what we do with horses, including their stable management, and it will need to be seen as a priority area for action and constant review.
For horses to spend the majority of their lives confined to a stable and an arena is one of the aspects that the public find unacceptable…as we probably all do. In addition in recent years the very public debate about rollkur, cranked nosebands, and using domination rather than acceptance, are all issues that have detracted from the development of dressage and reflected badly on equestrian sports as a whole. To a great extent it has wasted the golden challis presented to dressage by Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin. But I am very hopeful about the future because good dressage is about happy horses going beautifully and that will always attract an audience. In contrast show jumping has gone a long way to both update its’ product and present a more harmonious relationship between horse and rider, in the process attracting huge new sponsorships and greatly increasing the value of show jumping horses.
However Eventing still struggles to balance the risks and excitement of cross country with public perception of safety issues, but as a sport it probably has the most potential to be of benefit to the riding industry as a whole, including the breeding industry. This is because the vast majority of novice and intermediate riders, adults and children, need flexible use horses, that can do a little dressage and jumping but also hack out willingly and cross the country with or without fences. Eventing is also central to rider training as well as horse training, because all coaching organisations agree that effective rider education should include the basics and experience of all three disciplines. This is a fantastic opportunity and USP for all coaches with both a well rounded education and a Captain Tom Moore ‘mighty spirit’.
AFTER COVID 19 – William Micklem – Part 5
Today is the final part of this short series of musings. I hope they have stimulated some positive thoughts. Our greatest hope and strength after Covid !9 is that those in the horse world all work together to survive and thrive. We have so many new factors to respond to and learn about in this period of transition, therefore I think it is important to keep asking the ‘what if’ questions, and to experiment and not be afraid of asking for help.
My favourite thought and quote of the last 10 years is from Professor David Foster Wallace, the brilliant American author, who told a group of graduating University students that his own hope for the future was “to be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of what I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” Not a bad start off point for change and innovation for a post Covid !9 world.
9. MORE FLEXIBLE STABLING & RIDING FACILITIES
There are obviously many exceptions but in general the way many horses are kept in single stables, often with minimum turnout with long periods of nothing to do or eat, is one of the aspects of equestrianism that is increasingly looked as as an own goal and unacceptable to the wider public. At worse it produces obese horses with stable vices and depression, at best it is an open door to high costs, including labour and veterinary.
We all know that horses are best suited by living in groups, small or large, and to spend much of their time moving about eating low food value grass. We have to make some compromises but good flexible stable design will increasingly allow horses to live in small groups, and allow for ad lib feeding of low food value grass, hay or straw. Good design should also put an end to hours of time wasted mucking out individual stables. It is a no brainer to make full use of mechanical systems to manage bedding. Personally I haven’t used individual stables for over twenty years, but allow groups of three or four horses or ponies to live together when inside, and all have ad lib access to oat or barley straw if they have finished their hay. This small group system can work with all levels of horses, as long as there is an introductory process. To cut costs and survive in coming years some stabling facilities in big sheds will have to consider removing internal walls, to allow for groups of horses and mechanical access, or at least replace some fixed walls with mobile walls.
People say that they need the individual stables for feeding, but the mantra ‘feed according to work done’ is now especially important, and in many cases horses and ponies need very little if any hard food. However if hard food is needed (because of hard work) and all the group are having similar feeds there is not a problem. If different quantities are required for different horses in the group it is possible to either use standing stalls or even individual nose bags, in the same way they do in many polo stables and they did in war time. This seems a strange idea until it is used, as it works well.
All this is good for the horse, but it also saves money which is obviously a top priority. The same is true of good design of riding and training facilities. For example rather than having separate facilities…small arena, bigger arena, cross country etc….I always try and get added value by designing for flexible use so that one riding area gives added value to another. Therefore I often design a water complex at one end of an arena and a bank complex at the other end or on a long side, so that the arena becomes part of the all weather surface for the jumping complexes. And it is always better value for money to create jump complexes that have numerous different connected routes and levels of difficulties, that share the same prepared surface. It’s all about great design.
My own young horse and novice children’s area is an oval, 25m x 20m, but slip rails at both sides and in the middle allow it to connect to a 60m x 25m arena to make a very large 80m arena when required. Depending on needs and land available it is also often possible to get better value and greater training flexibility by developing arenas along French and Italian lines, with all-weather tracks and circles mixed with partially all-weather or grassed areas. And so much the better for training if a slope can be included. Then with planting a really beautiful and large riding area can be created at a similar cost to a standard all weather arena. (On one related facility issue, horse walkers are good for straightness as the horses cling to the inside of the track, bringing the shoulders slightly to the inside, but lunge arenas with outside fences are bad for straightness as the horse clings to the outside.)
10. BELIEVE, SELL & THRIVE
There is a very real problem with many coaches, riders and I would dare to suggest some equestrian organisations, of false modesty…or probably better described as low expectations. This is a problem that leads to all sorts of difficulties for both our sport and our horses, especially a vicious circle of deteriorating standards as low quality work leads to lower quality work and greater discomfort for both rider and horse, as well as reducing income. What we need is the opposite, a virtuous circle of better quality work leading to an improved way of going and more comfort for horse and rider, leading in turn to even better quality work and an equestrian business that thrives.
All levels are important. Strength at the bottom produces strength at the top, which has been the focus of the majority of these posts, but it is also true that strength at the top produces strength at the bottom. This is why the higher level training centres and higher level coaches are so vital. Ireland and Britain should aim to attract student coaches from round the world and become the equestrian coach training and testing Mecca for the world. Why not? In comparison with other countries we are unique in having all the cultural, historical, geographical, rural and language advantages for a complete equestrian coach education.
A dream? No, it’s a very real outcome if we all focus on achieving this, and believe both about our special advantages and about what a special sport we have. As I said at the start…. “An association with horses is provably life enhancing, an activity that can be hugely beneficial, both mentally and physically ….a sport for all, and a sport for life. Whether seriously disabled or seriously able extraordinary things are possible in partnership with ponies and horses. It is simply an exceptional sport that few other sports can match in terms of scope and benefits.”
However, because of Covid 19 our challenges are huge and there is an urgency for action ….let’s help energise our NGBs and our coaches to ensure that every employee and every coach oozes this belief and enthusiasm. Let’s believe together and sell together, then there is every chance of thriving together.