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 deal with tricky horses and how people they teach ride and I had always been impressed. 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 injuries.
Part 1 if you missed it.
I have had a few horses who had already evented, I had one particular horse who went 4* who when I bought it had done 3* with Matt Ryan. A Canadian girl then bought the horse from me, was unsuccessful with the horse in the states and I bought it back. Early on I rode a lot of horses who either did not suit other people or was what I had. You have to make something of what you have if that is your only choice. My first 3* horse, I think I did seven 3* on him. He was a lovely horse who I bought off a girl who did Pony Club on him. The horse I went to my first Olympics on was a horse who had raced on the flat until he was 7 and I bought him off somebody who had done a 1* on. The horse I took to Beijing Olympics had done a 1* in Ireland and became nappy with an American team rider and was sent to me to fix the nappyness and I ended up buying him. Another very good horse I bought off the racetrack as a 3yo for an owner for $2000. That was a very good horse who went 3* and did very well.
We have either made our horses or made them better. My wife’s 4* horse was a 1* horse who had behaviour issues. My wife saw it and loved it. They wanted a fair bit of money for him and we ended up trading a 3yo that we had in for training for him. There are ways at getting to the top level whether you have produced it since a 3yo or whether you have bought a horse that might not do dressage for someone else. You never know where that next top horse is coming from. At the Olympics in 2008 when you do arena familiarisation walking around the arena, I asked people about their horses. You could not imagine the amount of people who had horses at the Olympics because they could not sell them. Its great stories like that, which are really good. People who use horsemanship; which is a dying art. They are managing horses, to get the best out of them.
When I teach, it’s a different horse for each person. I taught someone last week who had a big slow horse which I would never ride, but it was perfect for this person. The rider did not have lightening reactions and nor did the horse. The rider was unbalanced and the horse was able to compensate for that. Its different horses for different people and that makes it interesting.
It is recognising a horse which is suitable for each person and it gets harder and harder with vettings. So now it’s about finding a horse which is suitable for you and then passing a pre-purchase exam. This gets harder with all the X-rays, sending them to specialists etc.
In America they do a better job of recognising that upper level horses who are no longer capable of that level have a lot to offer amateurs to teach them. At BE there is a lack of open divisions so if you buy horses with points then there is a lack of classes for them unless they are being downgraded. In America with the two types of division based on horse or rider then there is a lot more choice. There are a lot of people who could benefit from swallowing a bit of pride and realising that these horses could be a great asset in teaching someone the ropes rather than making you feel like you have taken a short cut by buying something with experience.
Those horses might not be expensive but a lot will not necessarily pass a vetting. They often have some age on them and require some maintenance. I think these horses have a lot to offer people and are very useful.
I try and buy horses that I like and because our market is varied between amateurs and professionals, then we have to make sure we buy horses that we like. We do look on paper that they have enough blood and try not to buy below 50%, but if I have learnt one thing since the warmbloods have been introduced into eventing is that blood on paper isn’t always the whole story. I have had horses who are 70-80% blood which are cold to ride and not upper level prospects and I have had horses who have 37% blood, who I know are going to gallop all day long.
So it’s a guide. You cannot shop for horses using a system, which is a calculation of how many ancestors went to top level and how much blood they have. Its useful information, but at the end of the day you cannot make decisions solely on it. You have people come over and say it has to be 65% blood, but what about the horses in the top 15 at Badminton who were 50% blood? Do more TBs excel at eventing because more event people buy those kind of horses?
The horse I took to Athens was a full TB. He was a lovely horse but would I ever want to do dressage on him again, no way! I think they all have their advantages and disadvantages. I love the TB mentality for cross country but I don’t like the TB mentality in dressage and I don’t like a horse with too TB a jump in the Show jumping. So essentially you want something which is good in all phases. But, you can breed something which is 70% blood which then has the TB brain in the dressage, the warmblood gallop and all the things you don’t want. So you just don’t know, so I buy what I like. I cannot say that I am always right, but I think I buy horses who like to work.
When I was a working pupil for Nick he told me ‘I always have time for a horse who likes to work and likes to do its job.’ And that goes further than how much blood it has. A horse who likes to work, wants to jump and wants to be careful will go further. Whatever shape, size or colour. They will be a pleasure to get on and I like horses that I want to ride every day.
You never know where you are going to find horses. We have people we have bought off for years in Ireland. We have gone to Richard Sheane a lot before he became Cooley sport horses. We go to the Netherlands. But we buy horses from anywhere. We buy horses people tell us about who are show jumping round 1.10m, who might make a nice eventer. It really does not matter where you find them from. The most important thing for us as we do sales, is that no matter what we pay for them we X ray them as if we are selling them for £100,000 and do a full vetting. That is because we can put 2/3 years into a horse before we sell it and it does not matter what I paid for it. It costs me £10,000 a year to produce a horse.
Selling Horses as a Business
You have to think about it that way or you might as well have a livery yard. If I am going to fill that stable with a horse who is for sale then it has to be generating me as much money as a horse on full livery or you are wasting your time and working for free. I figure anything over £10,000 a year is profit. We sell perhaps around 25 horses a year. Not huge numbers. Some are high dollar horses, some are into six figures and some are young horses who are around £10,000. It’s a little bit of everything.
Up to 2* is a good level to sell, where you are maximising your profit and minimising your risk of injury or damaging the horses record. Both my wife, and I, are capable of being competitive enough at 2* level and giving a horse a solid record. Then all along the way you look at what it will cost you to take that horse to the next level and where the profit will come from. That 6yo over there was about to go Novice but the money was right that it did not make sense to keep that horse until he went 2*. I think it’s a 4* horse and it was money I could not say no to. It’s going to a professional who is looking to build up young talented horses for Tokyo Olympics. That 6yo is probably the nicest horse we have ever owned.
I love seeing horses we have produced going on to do great things for someone else. There is a lot of joy in seeing good horses you have started go on to do good things. I try to have a good business head. I try to make sensible decisions and turn a profit. I also want something to hand to our daughter if she wants to ride. It’s always easier for a second generation. We have the contacts, the connections for her to take over the business. It will be easier for her than it was for us.
What to Look for in a Horse
You are far better to start with a horse that is uphill. I have learnt that horses who jump in a consistent style, whatever style that might be it needs to be consistent. If they jump with tight knees, a bit looser or a good bascule then it’s not such a big deal if they jump consistently the same. I have ridden a lot of tense horses over the years and it makes everything so much more difficult. Those horses whether you can overcome it at a low level and then they become fit and things can get difficult again. Horses always revert to type and tension is very hard to overcome. I look for a horse who looks for its jumps cross country. They want to look for a fence to jump and take you cross country, it is very important.
I have ridden all types of horses – I have a big Irish Intermediate horse who would not necessarily be my type but I love him, he jumps double clears week in, week out. Then I have a little TB looking mare who is warmblood who I recently took to Aston. It doesn’t matter. We always have time for a good horse.
This thing about tricky horses being the best ones? The tricky horses are the best when they are in the hands of really determined riders who have no choice but to make something of them. You don’t go out looking for them, you don’t go to a sales yard and say show me your trickiest horse when looking for an upper level horse.
I have had a few concussions and concussions is a weird term. I think they are doing more research into baseline tests for people so if they have a knock to the head they go back and take the test to understand what might have affected. But, I had one scary concussion where I lost a good chunk of time. Beyond that just broken bones, separated shoulder, broken tibia, broken wrist. My wife has had similar with a broken wrist and collarbone.
I have three daughters which ride and I don’t know; I wish they would do something else like swimming, something less dangerous. It’s a difficult thing. My eldest daughter rides for pleasure and does not compete so I don’t worry about the risk so much. My youngest daughter is 7 and I am pretty sure she is not going to be competitive and, if she is, I think it will be dressage. She has no interest in getting out of trot. My middle daughter is 15 and so mad crazy for eventing that it scares me, so much to think that someday I will have to see her get hurt. It almost makes me sick to my stomach to think about it. It is all she has ever wanted to do, she has been around it her whole life and she is off to Pippa Funnells this summer. She wants to ride every horse on the yard and she can do it all. She rides well, she lunges well, she bandages well and plaits well.
I think it’s very scary. I could deal with her breaking a bone, I don’t know how I could live with the decision, whether it’s my decision or not, to let her compete if something horrible happened. I spoke to my friend Kyle Carter (4* Canadian rider) about it and he does not think his kids are going to ride and he is quite grateful.
I am not really worried about hurting myself but I worry that I would be hurt enough that I would not be able to be there for my family. Even to the point of breaking a leg or arm, it’s keeping everything going at the yard.
You watch people in the UK and it’s obvious that they have an amazing amount of ability, people like Kitty King who is a great rider who gets a lot out of horses. Tom McEwen who has had some success at the top levels, he might not have that string quite at the top levels yet is a really good rider. Gemma Tattersall’s ride round Badminton on Arctic Soul was unbelievable to watch. There are lots of people who up and coming. There is a generation of older British riders who will have to be replaced at some point but it’s exciting that the programme has bought through some really talented people.
The one thing I have learnt is you can never under estimate the value of determination. You should never discount someone in this sport. The scariest thing for people at the top is people who are hungrier than them. People like Gemma Tattersall have really shone at every opportunity they have had at the upper levels. People like Gemma have done their time, working hard without the success you see at just the big events, and I think it makes you more grateful when you get there. I think the people who persevere through the harder times and who really work appreciate it more. They realise that they have gotten there through their own hard work. When they go out on cross country there is a self-belief. This sport sorts people out; you have to persevere even when you are not on form. It is never easy. You look at someone like Tim Price who is having a batch of bad luck after an amazing year. Tim called it ‘success tax’; he is paying his due because he has had a good couple of years.
Like anything in life, it is not straight forward. Both the Brits and the Americans do a really good job of trying to make sure there is a younger generation coming up through who will replace the old guard. America lost the O’Connors and Bruce Davidson through retirement and they were lucky that they had the Australians (Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin) come through to fill the void. They have done a good job with hiring Leslie Law as the Under 25 coach. Riders like Lauren Kieffer have been a long time in the making. Lauren has been there working hard, riding not such brilliant horses and has taken her opportunities when they came along. You cannot dismiss how many people the O’Connors have produced.
I was lucky enough to ride with David O’Connor when he was Canadian team coach and he taught brilliant lessons. I learnt a lot about horses. I learnt a lot in dressage about biomechanics. He really takes the time to get you to understand something so you can apply it without his help later. He is a very talented teacher.
I cannot talk about teams without mentioning Canada, who I think has failed to develop any kind of a programme for a very long time. We don’t have any better numbers of horse rider combinations at a high level than when I was a kid admiring the people who were competing at the top.
The problem is that there are a lot of people involved in Equine Canada that should not be there, that are in a position of power for all the wrong reasons and in the job for the wrong reasons. It is very clique, Canada is not alone in that, but it’s very backwards. They think the way to win a medal is to teach the best riding lessons you can to those 8 people on the short list. Not developing the base. The first thing should be getting advanced competitions in Canada because it gives kids something to aspire to, gives owners in Canada something to watch. It’s vital that the sport has some kind of relevance in the country in competitions – for fund raising, getting owners and development of young riders. There has to be a targeting of talent among young riders and among horses.
The coaches job is to say these horses are not good enough that you ride, you need better horses. If you would like better horses, don’t have the owners then how do you find better owners? The system and coaches should be helping. Canada’s fund raising is like a charity. Our poor riders who live in their horse boxes and eat packaged noodles, give them money so they can put shoes on their horses. Do you think they raise money for a Formula One team like that? I need some money so I can put tyres on my car? Canada does not sell anything that anyone wants to be a part of and they create this layer of exclusivity like a secret club at the top rather than having a transparent system and criteria that people want to buy into.
I know I am going to catch flak for this, but it really needs to fail and have a completely new structure. Is there no other way that we can achieve 7th at WEG through virtue of a team failing a dope test? It is not any kind of recipe for long term success. Canada would never have hired a Yogi Breisner like when the UK hired him. They would now. They would not see that someone did not have to be a medal winner, to coach the team. In Canada, they would select the one who won the most. Not the coach who produced the most riders. I was listening on the radio about swimming coaches and how some of the best swimming coaches have never had any competitive success. Yogi Breisner wasn’t unsuccessful at competing but he did not have the success of someone like Mark Phillips. Whatever Yogi is, whether it’s the best coach, best manager, what you cannot deny is he has had a lot of success. The programme is phenomenal. The size and scope of that programme is incredible.
The Germans have had amazing success with Chris Bartle but really how big is the pool they have to select from? They do a brilliant job of managing that group of riders and horses. Maybe it’s a smaller nation for its participation in the sport. New Zealand would not have the level of participation so you are dealing with a smaller pool. The UK has a large pool but the training has gone into not just those elite few. What I am saying about Canada is whether we mimic a country with large participation like the UK or America which we are not, or we mimic somewhere like New Zealand who have smaller pool and participation, the important thing is we should not be mimicking anyone. The way we go about it is backwards and archaic.
In teams at Championships having a cohesive structure is absolutely vital. You are stuck together and you are on edge because you are used to riding 7+ horses a day and you are all there with one horse each. Everybody is concentrating on your one horse. You need a group of people who will create a unit for success. In WEG 2010 it seemed Canada had a great unit and they were riding round a competition they were all familiar and comfortable at.
The sport is a great leveller and anything can happen.
I used to be very superstitious when I was younger but I am not anymore. I change, I have a saddle I love for a month or two and then I changed. I go through stages where if there is a bit I love and then I might ride everything in it, but on the whole apart from my cross country whip, I am really not very attached to anything.
I regret that I did not learn from each horse until I had moved on to other horses. Horses have been great teachers and sometimes you think if only I knew that when I had such and such a horse. Not because I could have been more competitive necessarily but because I could have gelled with the horse better. I still really enjoy riding at every level. I enjoy breaking in babies, competing at whatever level they are capable of competing at. At the same time that is scares me that my daughter might do this for a living, I would get great enjoyment from seeing her do the sport and enjoy the lifestyle that we have enjoyed. If I had another great horse that was owned by an owner then I would love to compete at Badminton. But I don’t obsess over it. I think when you have family it makes you realise that the world does not evolve around eventing and I thought it did for a long time!
I owe the most to Nick Holme-Smith because I learnt a lot from him. More than I learnt from anyone else. Then I really owe the ability to do this as a business to my wife. Emma had the vision. I was one of the people who lived from hand to mouth in my camper and trucking round and competing with one or two horses. I think I owe a lot of the success I have had in terms of having a business, having owners and having a vision where things are going long term to my wife.
Thanks to Mike for taking the time to speak with us. For more information http://www.wayfarereventing.net/