I’ve ridden since I was 4 years old. I came from a non-horsey family who happened to live next door to a girl who had riding lessons at the local riding school.
started there and never really grew out of it! I tried a few other things throughout my career, going to university and started teaching, but nothing really grabbed me. I always gravitated back to horses. I’ve now been coaching since I was 18.
I was an active competitor from 8-21 through my local Pony Club, then as a natural progression as an older member of the club, moved into assisting with coaching the junior riders. It developed into private coaching and I went overseas to train in Holland for 3 years for more experience in the hub of the dressage world. Coming back, I started my own business, Balmoral Equestrian Centre in Victoria, in 1989, and have been coaching riders and competing up to Grand Prix level ever since.
I had begun coaching a few athletes with disabilities privately when the role managing the para equestrian high performance program came up with Equestrian Australia. One of the riders talked me into putting my name down and I’m really glad I did – it’s a decision that constituted a big change of direction for my career.
My role involves managing the High Performance for both able-bodied and para equestrian dressage. I began the role following the 2008 Beijing Olympics in 2009, and the able-bodied program accounts for 20% of the work while the para program accounts for the remaining 80%. There’s not really a clear division, as part of the objective of the role is to integrate the two disciplines, which I take very seriously. Whatever program we put in place has to work for both sectors of the sport, which does ultimately benefits both para and able-bodied.
When we do talent identification for para equestrian, by knowing what classification is required – Class IA through to IV – we can go to able-bodied competitions and identify athletes who are currently competing in the able-bodied sphere but are eligible to compete para equestrian classes as well. Lisa Martin is one of those, who has been selected for the Australian Paralympic Team on her horse to compete in Grade IV, and is also on the national high performance squad for able-bodied dressage.
Often riders will confuse para equestrian with the national Riding for the Disabled (RDA) program, however para equestrian is a competitive discipline restricted to functional disabilities rather than intellectual, unlike RDA which is more of a therapeutic program for all disabilities and is non-competitive except for Special Olympics classes. In the para classes, for Grade IA, the horse only performs in walk, Grade IB is mostly walk and some trot, Grade II includes some canter, Grade III has all 3 paces and some lateral movements, and Grade IV is the approximate equivalent of an able-bodied Medium-level competition with some higher movements allowed. Some of the Grade IV athletes are incredible and compete at the top level, Grand Prix, against able-bodied athletes very competitively. It’s a very professional and high-level sport now.
My coaching doesn’t differ between an able-bodied and a para athlete. We focus very much on what they can do, not what they can’t. If there’s a limb or strength and coordination deficiency, my approach is to find a way to do what we need. I very rarely discuss what they can’t do. Essentially, it’s still dressage and the horses still have to perform the same way and at the same standard of movement as in able-bodied competition. We’re still looking for the same quality of paces and accuracy of riding. When I start with a new athlete, I will ask them outright what their limitations are in respect to strength or flexibility or similar so I know what I’m working with, but that conversation is never had again. Instead, we are mostly focused on how the horse is going. You do have to be a little more inventive with the para athletes to create compensating aids for the horse. For example, if a para-rider has a short arm or can’t hold the rein correctly to give the horse the correct signals to perform a movement, then you need to invent a new way to give that signal to the horse and have the horse understand it correctly. It can be quite challenging as a coach, as you’re trying to create a situation where the athlete and horse perform as if there was no disability.
As a coach, I think it’s vital that you always challenge yourself to grow. I’m part of the AIS Podium Coach program which involves working with other podium-level coaches from a range of sports and is very empowering. It involves learning about your own emotional attachment to the sport and how you manage not only the athletes but your peers and other coaches. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. Taking on the role in 2009, I didn’t realise I’d been so insular and stuck in my sport, but now I’ve realised how similar coaching is, regardless of the discipline or sport. The other sports have similar issues around performance, expectations, sport science, even the same pitfalls and learning to manage your inner critic. If you don’t look outside your own sport, you don’t realise that everyone else is in the same situation. You can learn so much just by talking to other coaches about how they think and process things. How to encourage a talented athlete when the sport gets tough. It’s about the emotional component, not just the technical.
FINDING THE RIGHT EQUINE PARTNER
Para equestrian athletes are competing on world class horses, the same as able-bodied. I have a part in finding suitable equine partners for the para-athletes, with the aim to compete at the Paralympics. Occasionally a para-rider will find a horse outside of my input, but I try to encourage the athletes to run those decisions past me. I’m very comfortable putting those combinations of horse and rider together, as you learn what judges are looking for at each classification level, and what each disability is able to perform with best. With a paraplegic athlete, for example, the horse can be a little more solid in the contact with the rein as they have generally good use of their upper body, but an athlete with advanced multiple sclerosis or another similar disability that means they’ve got minimal use of their fingers, they will need a horse softer in the rein and connection. Once you understand what style of horse is going to suit that athlete and their abilities, then you can start putting suitable combinations together.
A good example is the London 2012 gold medallist in the Grade IB para equestrian competition, Joann Formosa, whose horse was retired after the Paralympics and needed a new mount to contest selection for Rio. In her class, the horse mostly performs in walk, so we needed to find another horse with a world class walk. At an international level competition in Sydney, I heard a horse walking behind me who had a fantastic, very clear, purposeful walk. That horse, GB Winchester, competes at Grand Prix with Gary Lung, who was then kind enough to give Joann the opportunity to contest the Rio selection events with his horse in the hope of making the Australian team.
‘WHAT IF’ SCENARIOS
I think we have a very good chance of bringing home several medals if everything goes to plan. The athletes selected are: Sharon Jarvis (Grade III), Emma Booth (Grade II), Katie Umback (Grade III) and Lisa Martin (Grade IV). We’re lucky to have such great support and funding from the Australian Paralympic Committee for our para-athletes, and from Equestrian Australia as well, particularly as it is a medal-potential program.
In preparation for an event that not everything goes exactly to plan, we run through a lot of ‘what if’ scenarios prior to Rio. We practice emergency situations, if the warm up time before competition changes, and more. We also look at how the athletes can manage situations that affect their mental and emotional state. You’ve got to have in mind what that actual situation is, and we focus on what we do know and learn to be resilient with those that we don’t. It’s a learned skill that we work a lot on. We have access to the APC’s psychologist, and part of my role is to set a daily training environment around each athlete that includes having a sport psychologist in their own team is a critical part. I don’t like to do a ‘what if’ scenario around under-performing, as I feel this creates the wrong mindset. We’re very much focused on positive performance.
Before Rio, we have a dressage team staging camp in Aachen in July, then fly into Rio on the 3rd August. I then fly to Holland after the dressage team performance is complete for the para-equestrian staging camp and then to Rio with that team. Being away for large amounts of time is part of the role, so it’s a matter of setting structures in place within your family life and business that allows you to do this.
A real highlight for me in my position as a para coach, has been the London 2012 Paralympics, where for the lower grades with the greatest disabilities, the crowd did not clap, they waved to avoid startling the riders’ horses. It is amazing that you can have a crowd of 10,000 people, silent, and just waving their applause to show their appreciation and understanding.
Talk to other people and really listen to them. Develop a questioning technique where you really understand what they’re communicating. Really engage with other coaches and allow yourself to learn from them.
ONES TO WATCH
The British are a massive strength in the sport and the Dutch are also coming up very quickly. After that, I’d like to think there’s us!
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!