Everything Else Interviews

Canadian International Eventer Mike Winter – Thoughts & Reflections Part 1

I met Mike Winter recently when I persuaded him to come and teach at a camp I ran. I am an avid watcher of the sport and spend hours watching people – how they ride, how they manage horses and how people they teach ride and I had always been impressed by him. Mike has a very dry sense of humour and tells it as it is which is refreshing.

Mike has had a long and established career which includes competing at championships and Olympics for Canada. I caught up with him to get his thoughts on his career, horses, Team Canada and the differences between eventing in the UK and USA.

On Starting Out

_Q9A0205Neither of my parents were horsey at all, I went to riding camp where they had horses and when I came back I had riding lessons in the city of Toronto as a child. I never thought about it as a career but it was a good excuse to take a gap year before university. My parents bought into that, and I have been doing it ever since.

I was an event working pupil for Nick Holmes-Smith an ex Olympian in Canada, Amy Barrington and Peter Gray who coached the Canadian team in Florida. I did not really work for Peter because it was around that stage that I started doing race horses, that was a big part of my starting to make a living out of horses and make money in the morning riding out flat horses and I did that for a very long time even after my wife and I (4* rider Emma Winter) set up our own yard in the USA. That was the main part of our business, working with two year old fillys who were tying up, or horses who could not cope with the training at the race track (In the USA most race horses are trained at a race track unlike the UK.) That was a good way to start the business. We had a business in the USA for about 12 years and we both evented very successfully in America. I rode at two Pan American Games, two Olympics and my wife had a 4* horse which she did Rolex and Burghley on.

The Business in America

We had a big yard, same as here, with about twenty horses. The big difference is that in America we had many more pupils and much more teaching, which is the main business in an event yard in America. Both our children were born in America but we both wanted a change. Not having a total teaching based business and there was also the factor of where we wanted to raise our children. We lived in Georgia in the South of the USA and it was very good to us business wise, and we have a lot of friends still there but we felt education wise if we were not going to be sending them to private school then England offered something a bit better. We made the decision; we have always been real risk takers, Emma and I. So we sold everything in the states and bought a lorry off the Internet and flew four horses over.

Moving to the UK

I bought a 2* horse over in 2009 with the idea of taking it to the London Olympics but shortly after I took it 2* and Advanced over here and we made the decision to sell it after being offered a lot of money. It was this which started our sales business. We buy young horses in Ireland and the Netherlands to produce to sell for both the UK and USA markets. This has been a big staple of our business. Coming here to Chedworth and taking on all the cross country and schooling facilities has been another big part of our business which has been really good. We still do a bit of teaching, we own about 6-8 horses, I have some horses on livery that we teach, some owned by owners, some that ship in for lessons and we sell a lot of horses to the UK and USA. Some that we own and produce, and some that we source for people. We go round to other professionals looking at horses for clients and the clients come over for 2-3 days. It’s been very good. It’s really different.

Differences between the UK and USA Eventing

The eventing in USA is predominantly amateur based. It’s starting to go more that way here in the UK, more so than when I first came over here 16 years ago. There is a lot more classes now at the lower levels and a lot more open classes. There is a lot more recognition of grassroots. If you look at the Championships at Gatcombe, the lowest level is Novice and that would be made up predominantly of professionals. This shows I think that the sport is about developing for the top levels in the UK. Whereas the Americans don’t have the numbers at the top of the sport, they rely heavily on their lower level membership. The American eventing championships start at Beginner Novice which is 80cm. There is 80cm rider divisions where the rider cannot have competed above 80cm and 80cm horse divisions where horses cannot have done above 80cm, which professional riders can then ride in. They accommodate everyone, it allows more inclusiveness.

That has started here in the UK, as the lower levels have grown. It shows that not only for participation, for growing a fan base and selling products associated that inclusiveness is really important for the sports sustainability. America has learnt so much from England, especially if you think back to the 1970/80s when the sport was in its infancy. There has been a lot learnt about course design, coaches coming over to teach and now the tables have turned where England has started to copy the American model of amateur and lower level inclusiveness, which is great as it needs to be a sport that is accessible to everyone. The sport is not without its problems but it’s really important to its long term survival.

In America pre Mark Phillips you can probably count on one hand how many advanced horse trials there were. Mark Phillips came over and did a very good job at getting upper level events put in. Now in America you can pick and choose what events you go to which did not used to be the case.

Safety Culture Differences

There are a lot of safety differences. In America there is an overall concern about safety including the injury_Q9A9828 of horses. Where I feel in the UK there is more of a focus on rider death. The sport has a lot to answer for and there are a lot of safety concerns. Keeping in mind that the sport did not  have the numbers in the past. With more people taking part and more events then its perhaps inevitable that we will see more incidents?

I think there needs to be more focus on the non-volunteer athlete. People understand the risks when they take part in the sport but this is different from the horse, who I consider the non-volunteer athlete, dies. I think there is a lot more focus on that in the USA. That is not to criticise the sport over here it’s just that there is a balance between different things by different nationalities and federations within the sport. Eventing survival is not purely based on Olympic involvement but it is very important. Horse deaths are going to affect our feasibility at the Olympics and that is a big concern for everybody.

I think a lot of riders are critical about the hoops the FEI is jumping through to try and their involvement at the Olympics but we need to realise that the FEI is trying to come up with ideas which sustain the long term sustainability at the Olympics.

The Americans and the Brits have a very different approach to eventing. You find that the Americans are much more lesson based. In the UK riders do not take as many lessons. In the UK there is an expectation of a level of proficiency. In the UK if you are signing the entry form and going to the event then there is an expectation that you should not need someone holding your hand every step of the way. In America everybody is hand held all the time. Both systems could learn from each other.

Proficiency of Riders

In the UK there could be a lot more supervision of people who have a low skill level and in America there could be a lot more teaching of self-sufficiency so that when they get to a high level there is a level of confidence and capability in their own skills and not always looking to a coach for the answer to everything.

There is a problem in the sport in general where there are a number of people on unsuitable horses in unsuitable equipment who are looking for the answer in changing of a bit or a calmer. They are looking for the quick fix. A lot of those things might help or make a difference but, the difference is a very small percentage, maybe 2% which might be the difference between winning and coming second. It is not going to make a difference in being able to see a stride, horses packing it in because they are being socked in the mouth from a lack of balance or a sore back from landing heavily in the saddle. It is a difficult thing because you cannot control what people do all of the time and you cannot control what people go off and do on their own. But these are not the people who are getting the serious injuries from eventing. When you look at it, it’s the people who are very capable and established at a level who are being injured.

There are a lot of smart people involved in eventing and if the answers were easy in eventing it would have been done by now? It’s not straightforward. We were chatting earlier about Michael Jung at Rolex being admired for making the time and taking some risky decisions on cross country, if it had been anyone else, would we have said well, he knew what the risk he was taking, but another person could have got a yellow card for the same thing? Whether that is right and wrong is complicated. He is making those decisions  out of knowing his horse inside out and someone less experienced might not be, so maybe they do deserve a yellow card? But it’s a fine line because Michael Jung took some risky decisions and for him on that day they paid off but this is where there is such a fine line in a risk sport.

Styles of riding

I taught a lesson recently with a British girl who rode in a real half seat and she complained the horse was pulling and I had her sitting in the saddle with long reins getting the horse to lighten in front. I said to her ‘I love the half seat, but you have taken it to the point where it is a detriment to your riding.’ I like to believe that if I ride for someone and they tell me to sit in the saddle then I can sit in the saddle, if they want half seat then I can ride in half seat.

To be a good rider, the most important thing that David O’Connor said to us when he was our team coach was ‘Everything in riding is right and everything in riding is wrong.’ If you only do one thing it becomes the problem. You need tools in the box. I like the half seat for those who cannot do it. I like someone to ride long and low for those who cannot do it. Once you can do all these things then you can decide which horse needs what, at what point. In the UK there is a lack of understanding about the half seat and the use of the half seat and instead there is a lot more use of longer stirrups, deeper seat and defensive position. It does not mean those things are wrong, but they are wrong when they are over used and the other skill set is not mastered.

The Americans are taught mainly half seat because of their background with jumpers. Here with Hunting and Pony Club, it teaches a deeper seat with a defensive position. In America you say sit back and slip your reins. They are sometimes perched. I would never advocate that style of riding over there because it is already too ingrained. I am a fan of good riding. Good centred riding which is appropriate for the confidence levels of the horse.

Working Pupils

file_5760x3840_011339When I was a working pupil I had no money but all my expenses were taken care of with the horse and myself. Then I had another working pupil job, where I had a small salary. I left the working pupil system and decided it was better to gallop race horses and pay for my lessons and pay for my livery. It was better for me to be a customer, than a working pupil. I think I am a bit more business minded and it seemed to make sense to me at the time as it gave me more freedom. It’s a difficult one.

Some people who have working pupils seem to put out rider after rider. The great majority of top level people get working students based on their competitive accolades, not on their ability to teach, so you get a lot of people who are not good teachers who are trying to educate the next generation and this is possibly a hole in the system. I fall into that hole myself, as I have no formal teaching qualification. I try and do a good job, I cannot say I do a perfect job but you try and work out what works for each person. You see a lot of people, possibly more in America than here, that should not be teaching and they have working pupils.

I have had a lot of working students; they are obsessed with the lessons. They are often missing the huge lessons, which can be learnt around the yard. They might still bandage like crap after two years, still don’t have any idea of how to transport horses well, because they might drive too fast. If people believe that success comes from the lessons that they have on their horse and that they are giving you there labour in return, then they are probably learning nothing. Being a working student is not for everyone. It’s more than a job; so much of top class success is in the detail. You should know what size shoe your horse wears, whether it’s eating well, what details your farrier does when he shoes your horse to help the foot and thus soundness. Where is the suspensory ligament? Where is the deep digital flexor? This is detail you should know for your horse.

In America I remember going to events with 25-30 horses with what I was riding, what Emma was riding and pupils. People won’t warm up unless you are in the warm up with them so I was getting off one horse, riding a motorbike to the warm up to warm someone up and then waiting for a groom to bring my next ride and put the test in front of my face to make sure I knew it. Here in the UK as a top rider you are better catered for with teams behind you and they are purely concentrating on competing not on trying to teach at the same time.

When you go to America you even have what I call the professionals’, professional. This would be someone like Phillip Dutton or The O’Connors – they are followed round Rolex by their 10 or more students and possibly round a 2* by even more people. Then they will go and walk with their students afterwards. Everybody rides with somebody. It’s not the worst thing. Pursuing knowledge and skills is very important. There is a balance between the States and the UK.

As a coach, there is pressure to tell people what they want to hear if they are your main source of income. Parents can be an issue, as much as they say they want their kid to have fun, they want their child to be competitive. I think in America, people stick to one trainer for everything whereas here people go to more specialists for help – dressage trainers for dressage etc.

Making a Business out of Eventing

I really think I realised very early on that in this sport, or in life in general that people look out for themselves as the sooner I started looking out for myself and trying to make a living in it and making sure I got the help I needed the better off I was. Rather than putting all my faith and subsequently any credit for success, in someone else, I have always been very self-sufficient. Although, I think Nick Holmes-Smith taught me about work ethic, about horsemanship and what makes a good horse. But I think it’s been my job to pick up little bits along the way. Some of the most valuable things I have learnt, I have learnt from people who I never even took a lesson with. Watching someone in the warm up, walking by their stables at a three day, and looking at tack and feed.

People who want to do this professionally need to learn to not wait to be told what the answer is. They need to open their eyes, look around at people who are more successful than them and seek out that knowledge. If you cannot afford the lessons then you can watch them in the warm up, are they lunging in the lorry park? What are they doing? If you ask someone for help or advice on something, then people are not unhelpful. People need to spend less time taking advice on social media and more time opening their eyes and seeking out knowledge.

I have not been the most successful person in riding, I am not saying I am a model to follow but I have tried to see my own weaknesses and my own faults. I have tried to seek out ways to make myself successful so that I am happy and I have a business that we rely on ourselves on and that we have good owners and employees. Ultimately you are responsible for your own success in how you treat people, in decisions you make and knowledge that you seek. Not having a safety net to fall back on means you make better decisions. There is nothing wrong with being handed things on a plate by parents who might want the best for you, but sometimes it does not teach you sustainable success. I regret not taking a business course; I had to learn to bookkeep on my own!

Jimmy Wofford is an example of a real horseman and it’s very hard to find those people these days. He genuinely loves horses and is fascinated about every aspect of them.

The loss of long format has been devastating to horsemanship. But it has been a benefit to horses. The stables at a three day used to look like a hospital ward and generally the horses look quite well. There are more events now which mean better decisions are often taken for the horse. People are not scraping around because there is nothing to go to until the autumn. You learnt a lot more about fitness and how to get a horse back up to fitness after a holiday. In America the season never really ends. There is a 6 week period with no events whereas in the UK there is a definite down period because the season ends on October and does not start again till March.

Part 2 will be looking at horses – what makes a good horse? What to look for in a horse? and Mike’s thoughts on Team Canada.

About the author

Lucy

An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.