Helen Richardson Finds Coaching Inspiration at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event

Equestrian Canada Technical Programs Coordinator for Coaching and Education and certified Competition Coach, Helen Richardson (left) of Ashton, ON, traveled to the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event (LRK3DE), presented by MARS Equestrian, on April 25-28,2019, with her husband, Dean, and daughters, Emma (middle) and Zoë (right).
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Helen Richardson

Keep reading to hear about the LRK3DE through the coach’s lens!

For the first time in several years, I got to head down to Kentucky to spectate at the LRK3DE. My husband, Dean, and I are lucky enough to have two horse-mad teenage daughters – Emma, who is almost 19, and Zoë, 14 – so my squad was excited to venture to the only 5* event this side of the planet and watch some of the best athletes compete at the top of our sport.

Of course, I can’t go to any horse show and turn off my coach brain. It’s the way coaches are, always looking for ways to bring out the best in our athletes. I’m an EC certified Competition Coach for eventing and dressage students and am lucky enough to work in a facility with an EC certified High Performance 1 Eventing Coach, and we work together to produce athletes who hopefully have a lifelong love for equestrian sport.

I’m always working on embedding skills in my students that will help them excel as they move up the levels. So I sat in the stands during dressage on Friday thinking, ‘What if I’m coaching the next Colleen Loach or Jessica Phoenix right now? What skills do they need to learn from me that will help them find their way to the top?’ Of course, there are all of the “heels down, ride leg-to-hand, eyes up” technical skills that they need me to keep drilling, but watching the rides in Kentucky, I realized there are several tactical skills that competitive athletes need to master, and coaches can start building into students early in their careers.

This isn’t just the ‘ride the whole course in the right order’ focus that students need to remember a dressage or jumping test. This is the ‘ride the test in the pelting rain and 50km wind with noisy spectators, a crying baby, barking dogs, a scoreboard the size of the side of a barn facing you behind the judge at C, a drone buzzing above you, an announcer commenting on the good, bad and ugly of your test, all while representing your country at one of the biggest competitions of your life’ kind of focus. How do we prepare our students for that? The riders who made it to this level have figured it out.

Let’s be real: we ride flight animals into some pretty tense situations. It might’ve been easier to pick something a little bolder to partner with, but lions have big teeth and can you imagine braiding those manes? The ability to keep cool under pressure is paramount in equestrian sport. It’s hard enough to jump cross-country jumps taller than most of us at almost 600 metres per minute, but to do it with hundreds of people standing next to it with cameras, dogs, babies, yellow jackets, coolers, programs and umbrellas? That’s focus.

So as my students refine their skills in a safe environment, we start adding distraction. That lesson in the rain or wind is actually building strength. Challenges during a lesson against other students may increase anxiety, so the feeling of riding under pressure becomes more normal. Schooling at multiple venues with different footing, weather, and questions builds experience. As students compete off-site, they will be challenged by more experiences than you can provide or even prepare for at home, I guarantee it. 

Helen Richardson Finds Coaching Inspiration at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event

The crowded scene at the LRK3DE provided a perfect example of why athletes need to be taught well by their coaches to focus through distraction.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Helen Richardson

A year or so ago in a show jumping round, one of my daughters had a tall filler bush in front of a standard catch a gust of wind and fall over in front of the jump as she approached. Two strides away, her horse saw the bush attack the jump. His response was, “Thank you, but no, I believe that is an alligator.” Thankfully, after a little seat-of-her-pants riding from Emma, that bush and jump were negotiated successfully. Sometimes our students need to be challenged to find a way over the spooky filler or other obstacle. They have to be prepared to block out any distractions and ride their plan. Maybe we don’t always need golf course quiet for a dressage lesson, or perfect weather to school.

Adaptability/Decision Making
I sat by the Head of the Lake for some of the cross-country day. The water complex was numbered as two obstacles that each had several parts and options. The direct route is often more tricky, requiring more control and precise footwork. Over-jumping one element or getting stuck somewhere had an interesting effect. Some horses and riders quickly adapted, turned to plan B and completed the element with a little slower time but no jump penalties, while some chose to continue with plan A with varied success. Decisions were made in milliseconds based on speed, direction, impulsion, reaction, and experience.

My students need to learn to make decisions based on what they are feeling out there. I can tell them what I want them to do or what the ideal outcome would be, but they also need to know what to do if plan A starts to fall apart. While I don’t expect my riders to make the right decisions every time, they need to recognize what they are feeling and start analyzing their performance. Watching the riders in Kentucky, the students I was with had many discussions about what went well and what didn’t. It was eye opening for our group to watch riders at the 5* level and realize that they make the same mistakes that grassroots riders make; they are just a lot quicker to catch them before they cause a real problem. 

Helen Richardson Finds Coaching Inspiration at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event

Students who accompanied Helen at the LRK3DE were able to observe the lightning-fast decision making skills of 5* athletes.
L to R: Alexandra Bresnahan, Emma, Zoë, Hunter Carrington
Photo Credit: Vicky Carrington

Working with horses is a fascinating challenge. Your partner has an opinion, feelings and instincts, so the same course will ride differently every time. Therefore, learning to feel, know your options, make decisions and adapt, is imperative for our students and they need to practice, practice, practice. The more times your students repeat finding those short/long/perfect distances and the more frequently they analyze their performance, the quicker that decision making will become. You’ll see them start adapting and using plans A, B, C or D as needed.

Confidence in the Team
Let’s be serious, every one of the riders in Kentucky left that start box for cross-country knowing they could absolutely jump all of the things out there. They were supported by the knowledge that their coaches would never send their athletes out to compete at something they aren’t completely prepared for. The riders at the top of the sport have to have confidence in technical leaders and coaches to know their teams, horses, and riders well enough to advise them on the right plan. They have confidence in their grooms to know those horses inside and out.

Our students need confidence in their coaches, too. We gain that confidence by being good leaders, making good decisions, being ethical horse people and keeping our athletes safe. We have to earn that confidence from our students. We have to learn their comfort zone and push them to the edge of it, but never beyond.

The riders at Kentucky also have confidence in their equine teammate. I heard a few comments from riders like, “Well, I made a silly decision on the way into a complex, but my horse took hold and got us through.” Just watching, you could almost see some horses thinking, “Hang on buddy, I’ve got this,” for a second before making a heroic leap. Our students need the confidence that their horse enjoys working with them. As Emma was learning to compete at the Preliminary level, she told me after one cross-country ride, “Sox totally let me ride the first seven jumps, but then I tried to go to the angled cabins with too much energy, so he just took over and got us through. I’m pretty sure after he landed I heard him think, ‘OK kid, you can try again at the next one.’”

Putting our students on appropriate horses is vital. How can the horse and rider have confidence in each other if neither knows what’s going on? The scariest phrase I ever hear from parents or coaches is, “We bought a green horse so they can learn together.” That’s like learning to drive a transport truck full of dynamite that doesn’t have working brakes. It’s a great recipe for an accident sure to push someone out of equestrian sport forever.

The riders in Kentucky all competed individually, but you can bet your butt they were all sharing information, cheering each other on and commiserating over unfortunate outcomes. You could see lines being ridden differently and tactical changes being made after the first few riders reported back to the rest. Everyone obviously wants to win, but they also want to see everyone else have a great day.

We need to raise good sportspeople who congratulate one another for a good ride, offer help to competitors, and take time to thank the volunteers running the competition at every level. The winner of the weekend, Oliver Townend (GBR), stopped on the way out of the dressage ring to shake hands with the tiny human tasked with opening and closing the ring behind him. She was thrilled. She’ll be offering to open and close that gate forever now, until it’s her turn to canter down the centre line.

We started out in sport to have fun. It shouldn’t stop being fun or become a task to be endured. There were lots of smiles and high fives out there between teammates. There were also a few rumours of personal challenges over the weekend: Americans Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton allegedly had a gentleman’s challenge to complete the straight route at the Normandy banks. Most who tried the straight route struggled all day, but it seemed to work for them. They both did it, made it look easy, and had some fun with it!

We need to keep the fun in the sport for our students, too. Simple things like a group hack on those walking days, a challenge ride on a rainy day, or adding a twist to a lesson like seasonal decorations on a course or jumping in unison (for many of our students, the cross-country lesson with three jumps side-by-side that they have to jump at the same time is a summer highlight). Anything that brings a smile and the saying, “Can we do that AGAIN?”

Helen Richardson Finds Coaching Inspiration at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event

Helen’s daughters remind her that, above all else, equestrian sport should be fun!
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Helen Richardson

So, as we drive home to Ottawa, I’m left with a few new plans. I’m inspired to create more resilient, focused, adaptable and fun-loving team players. I hope my students are ready!

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