I recently had the good fortune to attend the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals in Paris – which was RIGHT up my street! My formative years were spent living on a farm in the rural south of Sweden, and as a young child (then into my teens) I was a so-called ‘stable girl’, as my friends and I would spend all of our free time in the stables, combing the horses hair, cleaning their boxes and of course riding freely across the rolling fields. My walls were plastered with pictures of ponies – alongside the occasional Mariah Carey and kitten poster. Back in Paris, the FEI World Cup event is the pinnacle of equestrian competitions, their ‘Wimbledon’ or ‘America’s Cup’ equivalent if you like, so it was a real honor to have been invited the 10-year-old girl in me was overjoyed; watching the most decorated equestrian athlete of all time, Isabell Werth, dispatch a masterclass was a thing of beauty! This post is a behind-the-scenes account of the weekend, along with interviews with three riders, who reveal just how much of a physically and mentally demanding discipline this is. Click MORE to take a look at the fitness angle of world-class Horse Riding…
Now, I realise that not everyone has ridden a horse, and I’ve encountered the misconception surrounding the sport, that horse riding is ‘easy’ and female-oriented. I would challenge any seasoned gym-goer to mount one of these huge beasts and control its power – it takes more than just brute strength, but also technique and the ability to communicate more subtly with the horse. It’s a ‘new’ meta-language that bridges the communication gap between human and animal. Once you’re able to ‘converse’ with your horse, you work as a team. The partnerships these world-class riders have with their horses is truly fascinating – it represents mutual respect, understanding and unconstrained drive to accomplish victory and be the best.
In an age of virtual reality, smartphones and social media, with most of our hours spent indoors, horse riding is more relevant that ever before, as a reactionary and liberating escape into nature. Getting on a wild animal and riding outdoors delivers a thrill unlike anything else. It’s a great way to truly switch off and be present.
BACKGROUND INTO THIS ANCIENT SPORT
The roots go deeper than almost any other sport which comes to mind. Renaissance Europe is the birthplace of the modern classical equitation (riding in harmony with the horse), though scientific and artisitic accounts of horse riding date back to about the 4th century B.C. with Xenophon, the masterful Greek general, whos treatises On Horsemanship show the concept of Parade Horses, and how to care for them. The Hittite civilisation, over a thousand years before even that, were participating too.
More recently, horses were the mainstay of the medieval battlefield, with an obedient and well-trained cavalry horse making the difference between life and death. They were trained in kicks, leaps and tears, to counteract any footsoldiers who were too close when the knight had been un-horsed. By the Victorian era, riding was a fully-fledged art; times have changed again, but today’s Dressage discipline still makes use of the ceremonial movements practised by the Ancient Greeks and the Medieval Knights – piaffe, passage, the half-pass and the pirouette.
The word Dressage originates from the French word dresser, which in this context, pertains to training or dressing a horse. It’s a super-organised discipline with strict etiquette, perhaps stemming from military heritage. Riders enter the 20 x 60m arena and perform a suite of manouevres with increasing levels of difficulty; they’re marked on their execution of these ‘tests’, as well as their horse’s gait, submission, impulsion and the rider performance. From what I can tell, the performance has to look gentle, quiet, harmonious, supple, loose, confident and attentive, all at once!
But don’t take my word for it; here follows an account of my discussions with three celebrated equestrians; Ellesse Jordan Tzinberg, Carl Hedin, and Mattia Harnacke.
FIRST UP: MY INTERVIEW WITH ELLESSE JORDAN TZINBERG, MODEL AND FEI WORLD CUP DRESSAGE FINALIST!
F.O.T: What got you into Dressage?
EJT: I started off as a show jumper but about three years ago I really committed to Dressage – it’s always something that I’ve done especially in Asia, you only have so many shows that you can do a year and so if you only do one it’s quite limiting to your opportunities. So I’d always done both and been pretty good at both, and then three years ago I wanted to fully commit to one. I’d never been in a program for Dressage so I wanted to at least try it, so I could say I tried it, it failed!
F.O.T: Have you ever been interested in any other types of sports?
EJT: I used to play basketball quite a lot, both in college and high school. We have university sports in America but then you also have intercollegiate, which is not as competitive as NCA but it’s still quite competitive. So I played basketball a lot, and also was into fitness. I box a lot still. I’ve been boxing since I was really young so it’s something that’s always been in me. If I was younger maybe I would’ve committed to that instead of riding but it’s something that’s also been a big, big part of me.
F.O.T: What sort of sport specific fitness training do you do to complement your riding pursuits?
EJT: For Dressage, I love Pilates and I think it’s really great for all riders. Yoga is, of course really great for riders but I know that maybe not all riders like the pace of yoga. It’s quite slow, and we work with horses so we tend to like fast pace. For me Pilates is a bit more mentally my pace, I do that a lot and that really helps with posture. Dressage is so much about the core working, and so much so that you don’t really want to be seen moving very greatly, everything is about very minuscule movements – very strong small movements so Pilates in my experience really trains those muscles. Then I always thought boxing was great for all riders just because you’re using your entire body, you’re using you balance, you’re using coordination, hand eye coordination, speed, controlled movement, and there’s a lot of rhythm. You have to stick with the rhythm and there’s a lot of combinations – it’s the same with riding where you always have a rhythm whether your jumping or sound Dressage, you have a rhythm that you keep to and you don’t want to break that constant rhythm. It’s quite musical as well.
F.O.T: Why do you love yoga so much?
EJT: As riders we’re in the same position for hours each day. A lot of riders aren’t very flexible. They get quite used to using the same muscles every day, all day. And we sit in that same position. You talk to a rider and most of the time it’s always like their hamstrings and hip flexors are super tight as well as lower back. I like slower, more meditative yoga, as it also works on opening the hips up. It calls for a lot of mental strength too and the same goes for riding – mental patience, and mental strength. Yoga is practical for that.
F.O.T: How do you structure your training week?
EJT: A lot of professionals ride five-to-eight hours a day so that’s quite draining. It varies depending on the horse but normally you’d ride one horse for 30 minutes to an hour. Some days, you do end up really exhausted. You and the horse will always have a day off so I think it’s really essential to do something that’s going to change which muscles you’re using, to do something else with your body. Then I think it’s really important even if you’re riding 8 hours a day, to take care of your body so you’re training those other muscles that support the muscles you use whilst riding. So whether you do some plank work or core exercises, stretches, I think any little bit helps.
F.O.T: A lot of people who’ve never ridden may not realise the immense amount of strength required for horse riding…
EJT: I can definitely tell when I ride more horses or not. It does take a lot of strength, they’re such giant animals first of all; also, of course you immediately think you have to be so strong to handle these big animals but also because I’m like 56/57 kilos I’m never going to match up to a horse head to head so you have to find ways to use your muscles in a more practical way and being able to have your core strength and being able to be quick and hold, let go very fast… so it’s about being able to use what we have most efficiently also.
F.O.T: What do you do to really chill out and recover from training?
EJT: Massage!!! In Wellington which is where I live in Florida, I’m very lucky that there’s a wonderful massage lady there who I try and see every week. I think it’s so important for your body. Also someone with that profession feel things that you don’t know. They might notice that your hip flexor or spine is a bit crooked, so you need to have that expertise. Besides, getting a massage is just really relaxing too!
F.O.T: In terms of nutrition, so you want to stick to a certain weight?
EJT: For the benefit of the horse, it’s nicer to be a lighter rider. I also think that there are some riders who are light but they ride very heavy, and there are some riders who are a little heavier but they ride very light. Of course you want to be your fittest self whatever weight that may be – the fitter you are the better you are for your horse I think. I know that for the jumpers, it’s a little more essential for them to be lighter. For me, when I first got the horse that I have right now, I felt very weak compared to him because he’s a bit of a different ride. So for me I focussed a lot on getting strong in creating parts of my body – like my core, being able to have good balance whilst still being able to use my core and my upper body. It really varies on the type of horse and it’s personality.
F.O.T: I’m Swedish; I know you spent some time there too…
EJT: Yes! I lived in Skåne for two years, and that’s where I moved to from California, but it was a huge culture shock. One winter there and I thought ‘I need to find somewhere else warmer’ and that’s why I went to Florida – warmest place to do it! I moved there and that’s where I really immersed myself in Dressage. The horse I have now is from Sweden it’s from a Swedish rider. I still have a special place in my heart for Sweden.
F.O.T: Is there a benefit between switching horse?
EJT: I think so because really the horses are just so different. Personally if I look at the Grand Prix horse I have now, compared to my last one, they are completely different rides. The last one was very nice in the sense that he was so soft and light, I really didn’t have to be very physically strong, however I had to be a little bit stronger in my legs and I had to ride him in a more forward aggressive way. Whereas with this one I have to be very strong to control his energy. His energy is already there, so it benefits me to be able to swap from different horses and be able to change in that situation or adjust the way your style is.
F.O.T: What would you say makes Dressage so special?
EJT: I think as far as fitness goes, it’s an amazing workout. I’ve had friends who are huge fitness buffs, soccer players, tennis players, and when they’ve gotten on a horse, the next day they literally can’t walk. So it’s definitely a great workout in terms of strength, but I also think it’s so special compared to other sports because it’s really the only Olympic sport where you work with an animal, so that brings this whole other element to it. You’re not only training yourself you’re training a horse and then you’re training yourselves together. I’d say if you like mental games and mental sports it’s definitely one of them but from a little bit of a different aspect.
I have my own horse with whom I compete and then I work for a show jumping rider and I train his horses in Dressage. A lot of jumpers will tell me ‘oh you still go to the gym but you do dressage’ – they think it’s so much more of a physically intense discipline. You do have to be enormously strong to compete in Dressage.
SECONDLY, MY INTERVIEW WITH CARL HEDIN, DRESSAGE RIDER & INSTAGRAM PERSONALITY!
F.O.T: What got you in to Dressage?
CH: I started riding at riding school, when I was 7 years old in Sweden. I’m not from a horse background. My parents have always been very clear though, this is my passion, they’ve always supported me, and said that it was my ‘thing’. At first at riding school I just wanted to be like a cowboy riding out in the woods and doing three day eventing and all of that. So I started off doing eventing and then when I was 16, I realised I wasn’t any good to be honest! I was always very good in Dressage though – I’ve always been a perfectionist and I loved training with horses, and understanding how you can teach them, and just the whole behavioural aspect of riding really. Then when I was 16 I did some two star shows at eventing and hadn’t really caught a break for eventing so then I said to my Mum, ‘I think I want to do Dressage full time’, because somehow whatever horse I would get on, whether it would be an Irish pony or anything, it would just end up as a Dressage horse so I thought ‘why fight against it, just go for it’. That’s when and how I started Dressage!
F.O.T: What goes in to training a horse?
CH: I think there’s different aspects of that. The easiest way I would divide it up is into three parts. You have the rider and the horse as two singular units, and then you have the partnership between those two. These three aspects all need to collaborate in order for it to just work. So if you have a really good rider but not such a good horse, that won’t be a fit and you can have a really good horse but not such a talented rider that wouldn’t work either. Sometimes you might have a good horse and a good rider but it s still not working because you don’t have the chemistry, and the third factor isn’t really there. I think those are really the three aspects you need to look at.
F.O.T: You mentioned ‘the behavioural aspect’ – what do you mean by that?
CH: I think it’s important that when we work with live animals, that we can never expect animals to understand our language. Instead, we can just try to adapt to their way of communicating with each other. Therefore I think it’s amazing – it’s a new language that you understand little by little, how to read a horse, and how you build that trust and relationship, for you both to do these amazing things.
F.O.T: Have you always been an animal person?
CH: Yes, absolutely! I can do all the lines from National Geographic, I’ve always been so into animals since I was really really young. It falls naturally for me to work with horses.
F.O.T: Can you read the horse emotions, for instance can you tell if and when your horse really enjoyed a ride together?
CH: Yes I think that’s a very important part of being a professional rider, and to work with horses – you can always try to understand what’s going on in their minds, or you won’t have that third aspect of the ‘partnership’.
F.O.T: In terms of training, what do you do in the lead-up to competition?
CH: It starts from the age of three really, when the horse is very very young, and you start with very easy exercises. Just to carry a saddle for a horse is very unnatural, so that takes quite a long time. The horses that we see her at the FEI World Cup finals will have been training for maybe ten years. In the short period of time before a competition I’d say that most horses will have been training almost everyday that can vary a little bit in terms of how they’ve been trained.
F.O.T: What does the training look for a rider like yourself?
CH: It varies a lot. I work professionally with horses so that means I’ll be riding from 8 o’clock in the morning until like one o’clock in the afternoon, non-stop more or less. So that is serious training in itself. Then there’s the fact that you have to work hard to be a top athlete; you have to work with strength, conditioning and stamina. So yes we do train a lot. I’ve been running a few marathons myself! My best time is 3.26 I think that’s pretty good. I think a lot of riders nowadays take their own physical health into consideration because there’s a long career. Maybe it’s not vital that you are in top shape just for your single performance, but it matters in the long run because you have to be able to go to the stables everyday and stay fit and healthy.
F.O.T: What are the most common injuries would you say?
CH: Back and hip injuries are the big ones, but also knees – especially for show jumping because they are standing up a bit more in the saddle so they tend to ruin their knees if they’re not careful.
F.O.T: What do you do to relax and ensure you get the best recovery?
CH: I think that’s a weak point for the equestrian community – we’re very good at taking care of our horses, having all kind of treatments and therapies and physios and all of that but we are not so good at looking after ourselves: that’s an area that can and should be improved.
F.O.T: Nutrition wise do you follow any particular diets or ways of eating?
CH: I have for periods of times been quite strict with my diet but right now I think that, I wouldn’t say it has so much to do with my equestrian career but my general life wellbeing. I do look after myself, and try to watch what I’m eating and be careful of what I do. I think that’s also something that can be improved. I like to be aware consumer of meat so I like to know what I eat and where it comes from, and I pick my days. I rarely buy my meat for my own household but if I go out to a nice restaurant and I can ask where the meat comes from. I try not to eat as much meat because I don’t think there are that many benefit to it.
F.O.T: For anyone who may be considering riding, what would be your main reasons for giving it a go?
CH: I think that riding is the most wonderful sport! In a modern day society, we have all the virtual realities and social media and all of that and in that world I think that equestrian sport is such a beautiful activity where you still have the element of the real animal! You can only get one horse, you can’t copy-paste a horse. You can’t produce them like an iPhone X on a factory line, with a million copies of a horse. That would be great in some ways because we could all compete against each other more equally, but they’re all individuals just like you and I, that’s the beauty of working with a live animal! Give it a try…
FINALLY, MY INTERVIEW WITH MATTIA HARNACKE, A CELEBRATED MALE MODEL, AND TALENTED SHOW JUMPER
F.O.T: How did you get into Dressage?
MH: I got in to Dressage when I first started riding at 8 in Italy. I started with jumping but found that all the horses I owned could never jump. So by default I got into Dressage which I really loved, and now I have my Dressage horse, but I do want to get a show jumping horse when I move to the Netherlands too. I jumped a few times and really want to get into it, it’s the next thing for me but I still want to do Dressage. I think it’s good to have a bit of variety.
F.O.T: What does a typical week look like in terms of training?
MH: It depends because my schedule is unpredictable; I model and I fly a lot. So if I’m in Australia [home], I usually ride 5 times a week and I get one or two lessons with my coach, Denise Rogan. I like to have a really good balance between riding and my normal life because horses can take so much work – as much it gives back, but I’m the kind of person that I would never want to say no to something that I won’t do because I’ve got to ride ten horses; that’s not the kind of life I want. I want to be able to pick up and go and make the most of every opportunity and then also still enjoy my horse!
F.O.T: So five times a week and how many hours a day would that involve?
MH: Well, I’m the kind of person, I’m quite slow because I like the process. So I like go there, I enjoy racking up, spending time with them, doing a few fun things before I ride and then I ride for maybe like 45 minutes.
To give you a sense of my life – I had maybe 9 months out of Australia last year, I’m constantly back and forth, and I like to commit to an animal and do it right so I can’t have ten horses – so one is enough just to manage between me and my coach.
F.O.T: Would you say there are any benefits of riding different horses though in terms of improving your riding?
MH: Absolutely, every horse is different, it brings out different skill sets in you as a rider but I’m very content with just one.
F.O.T: How did you find your horse?
MH: I sold my first horse and I was going through the last year of school, so I was focused on my studies but as soon as I sold my horse I was so lost. Horses were always part of my life, and it was such a coping mechanism for me as well when I struggled with things. I was very down, I lost a bit of purpose so it took me a year and a half to find my horse. I travelled all of Australia, flying, looking, I checked three horses and they all failed so I was like really bummed out. And then I was at a competition one day and I bought a horse, just a fun project horse, and then at the competition I realised this is not what I want to do, I still want to look for like that horse to be more competitive on, to really set myself up some goals. I started looking and this ad came up, and I saw his ad on Facebook and I saw that this girl in Australia who buys a lot of horses had made a comment – so I was like damn it I’m not going to have another horse bought from underneath me so I said I don’t want to see photos, videos – when can I just come and see him?! Then I saw him, he’s massive, he’s 17.2, which is 176cm at the shoulder and then you still have the neck – and he’s quite big there as well. So I was like; wow this is a very big horse and I’m like 6,3 so I kinda needed something like that. We clicked straight away, he feels like a brother in a funny kind of way. He’s always testing the boundaries a little bit, like pushing. He’s very cuddly but he’ll bite every now and then just to be like cheeky, not painful, just playful. He’s super interactive with humans in general. He just craves attention. If I go on the paddock he’ll come and eat the grass just beside me, just under my feet, he loves that. The people who work in the stables, they’re in there doing the racking out, or cleaning out the stable and he’s biting their hair or pulling their clothes. He just loves attention! So that personality aspect really won me over, and the fact that he just so big and he takes care of me when I ride, that’s very important to me too.
F.O.T: It’s fascinating to hear about that connection you share with an animal!
MH: That’s the thing, it’s almost like a person, you have to hang out every single day and you do things sometimes when you both can’t be bothered, but I always think you got to train with a horse and you got to be happy – but the horse isn’t going to want to train everyday. It’s like picking a flatmate – you want someone that you can live with. You can’t just see them once a day for a couple of weeks you know. It was a very special partnership to find.
F.O.T: Does your horse ever have bad days when you just think, he’s not in the mood?
MH: For sure, but I’m the kind of person, I don’t need to win. I don’t need to be like Grand Prix so if it’s a bad day I literally just get off. I’m like it’s just not worth it. There are some days when I get up and have to go for a ten kilometres run – it’s not fair.
F.O.T: That’s really interesting, how do you complement your training? Sport specific stuff on the side of horse riding?
MH: I used to go the the gym quite regularly but now that I travel it’s been a bit interrupted. I’ve got to stay quite lean as I do the fashion circuit, so I’ve got to stay quite skinny.
F.O.T: How do you recover in terms of training?
MH: We have physios who come for my horses, we ice the legs, the place that I’m going to now has a walker, you have a treadmill and a water treadmill. I think for the rider, a lot of riders have back and hip problems as well. I think if you ride as well 6-7 horses a day it affects you. It’s all about riding correctly. Keeping up your fitness like doing something else – weight training as well. Yoga is great too. I come at this from a different perspective I’m not a professional rider. That’s great to see because if the sport only had professional riders there would be like a tenth of what there is now. What we do as equestrian influencers as well is showcase these massive events for amateurs, who aspire to one day compete, or even who are competitive, and want to achieve higher goals with their horse!
F.O.T: Does weight play a role when riding?
MH: It doesn’t matter too much within Dressage but with jumping it would matter a bit more. There are still some heavier riders who do well but of course the lighter the rider for the horse the better for the horse, ethically as well, I think.
F.O.T: What are the basic things to look at for anyone who’s never ridden or is new to Dressage?
MH: So Dressage at a higher level is about ‘collecting’ and thats a hard concept to understand. The horse if it’s carrying a rider needs to work in a certian way so the muscular are working with the rider, so you want the horse to be through the back – which means instead of having a hollow back they round in the back so they carry the weight, distribute the weight evenly, it’s not pinching down on one spot. So the head, which is connected to the spine, it’s all connected to the the rounding of the neck and bringing the back up and engaging the hind, which kind of gives you that rounding. To make it simple, Dressage is a horse moving through certain movements without you seeing the rider do anything and I think you have to show a lot of passion behind it as well.
F.O.T: Do you think, perhaps a bit of a controversial question, but are there instances where horses are mistreated in Dressage?
MH: Absolutely, in anything – in racing, in dressage, in show jumping – this is the sort of thing that the FEI try to monitor thoroughly because in any sport that involves money (though it doesn’t always have to involve money), people will do anything to get away with winning. That’s also the case in the Olympics where people are engaged in doping, it happens anywhere but when you involve an animal, the welfare of the animal could come second to the win or selling it for money. Just like any sport it has it’s dark sides.
F.O.T: But the bigger question; ‘Is Dressage cruel?’
MH: I think going into this, we need to understand that riding is a selfish sport. There’s no way of denying that, but if you’re giving a horse a good life, looking after it, and if you’re training it the right way, a lot of horses really enjoy it. Like my horse really enjoys the work. If you’re doing it correctly and you’ve got the right training and you respect the animal for what it’s giving you, there’s no reason my horse has to go round everyday in the arena form. I respect that, and I train him the correct way – there are certain things that you don’t do. I think if people understand that then it’s definitely not the case that dressage is cruel.
My horse had a tumorous growth which we had to get surgically removed, so we’ve definitely assisted; it’s just about managing that and making sure you have the horses best interest at heart.
F.O.T: Finally what would you say to anyone who is considering horse riding for the first time?
MH: When people tell me horse riding is easy I always say it’s like playing soccer but the ball has it’s own mind and feelings – it makes it ten times harder. On top of that you have, injuries, emotions, feelings, nerves. You may have worked your whole life, spent millions of dollars and you get to the olympics and your horse freaks out; there are people who get in the arena and they freak out and don’t even do their test. The road to getting there is hard, so hard, so competitive and so costly. Purely because of the fact that all this is going against you; how costly it is, and then you’re training a horse you get to the olympics, and it can take ten years to get in shape, but in that ten years, one injury and you’re done – the horse is gone – it happens a lot.
But if you’re considering riding as a hobby, there are a lot of benefits to it, and I actually used to be a coach at a riding school in Australia. I got the certificate so I used to coach a lot of young kids. I think from a child’s perspective, there’s so much personal growth that goes with it. Responsibility. For me it gave me a lot of confidence as well. I think handling these big animals who have so much presence was very scary at first, but you get used to it, and it really boosted my confidence as a child. Then moving on from that when I had to manage my own horse I had responsibilities of looking after it, and it really made me grow as a person.
But I think for anyone who wants to start, have a lesson and see how you go. It is costly so it’s something you want to think about especially if you want to buy a horse. What I always tell people is that it’s not actually the first outlay of buying a horse which costs the most; it’s maintaining it, and keeping it, giving the horse the best lifestyle you can. The vet bills, I just had a bill of 10,000 for surgery. Things like this happen and you just have to be ready for it.
If I ride – and this is why I feel like riding is so emotional for so many people – it’s the only time in life when you are 100% living in the moment. You don’t think of anything else, you don’t do anything else, all your emotions are concentrated on the outcome you’re seeing straight away. I don’t know any other time in my life when I have that. It’s crazy, that’s why I can get off a ride and just feel like I want to cry, if things go bad, it’s just because you’re so involved. And when it goes happily, you’re on cloud nine. And if you have a bad day it ruins your whole day. It’s one of those things, I can’t think of one other thing that gives you that. Even when I work and I model I’m thinking of other stuff and planning other things. My emotions aren’t there and if the shot doesn’t come out great, I can be of course maybe not 100% thrilled but it doesn’t affect me as much. Riding is crazy like that!