Samantha Clark Catches up with Rebecca – Thanks to PRO

Samantha Clark recently interviewed Rebecca for the Professional Riders Organization blog. Her article is reproduced her with permission. You can find the original article on the PRO Blog.

rebecca & rupert hackingMere Farm is tucked away among the Marlborough hills in Wiltshire, accessible by a long, uphill lane, perfect for hacking and getting event horses fit, and this is where Canadian Olympian Rebecca Howard has been based for the past year. Traditionally November is an event rider’s quiet time of year but the yard is bustling with activity and there doesn’t seem to be a spare stall going. Rebecca tells me she is only (!) riding four horses a day currently, but that will increase to five or six of her own, and an equal number for Tim Price and Jonelle Richards, who she works for and is based with, by January or February. Riddle Master, or Rupert as he’s known in the barn, started hacking at the beginning of the month after a holiday at Manton following his 12th place finish at Burghley (to add to his 12th place finish at Badminton in the Spring), “That’s what so nice with events like Burghley when you’re done in September and then they can have an early vacation. I hate feeling in a hurry bringing them back. I like to take my time hacking and making sure that they’re built up slowly and correctly, and then he’ll have a good chunk of training time in January and February, which are such good months to do it because you’re not all over the countryside competing so I’d like to maximise that. He goes out for between forty minutes and an hour at the moment, mostly walking and a bit of trotting. I never walk my horses on the bit, always on a long rein at the walk unless he’s being silly which can happen as well! Trotting I’ll alternate between letting him trot free, and going long and low up some of the hills. Hacking is a fun time. I build it up gradually but not to the extent of being so mathematical and counting the minutes; he’s been out and he’s an active horse in the paddock, he’s not silly but he moves around, it’s not like he’s been on box rest which I think when you’re bringing them back from that it’s very different, you have to be much more systematic. He’ll start flatwork again next week and he’ll do a couple of weeks schooling and then I’ll just start popping him over some fences. It won’t be anything big or strenuous until closer to the end of the month or even January but he’ll start just training over poles and working on the rideability, stuff with a fence in there. It’s also just to mix it up a little, it’s a long winter in the indoor so we’ll do some schooling and flatwork with poles involved.”

This winter Rebecca wants to focus on Rupert’s dressage, “I’ve got to get ten marks off that score. I’ve contemplated going away but I feel like I have a good plan and I’m happy with the people who are around me here between Isobel (Wessels), and Jonelle and Tim. Isobel comes regularly and spends a day helping Tim and Jonelle and I’ve been cashing in on that. She has a lovely way with the horses – she works them really hard but it’s done in a good horsemanship way and I feel like I gain a lot from her when she comes.” Kiwis Tim and Jonelle are also a huge influence and help, “Jonelle has sat on Rupert a few times, she fits him well and it’s good to get some perspective sometimes. I learn a lot from watching them ride and their input, and comparing what they feel on certain horses to what I feel because I ride all their horses too.”

rebecca and rupertRebecca had always intended to stay on in England after last year’s Olympic Games and admits that it’s been a huge adjustment to get used to living in a foreign country, and also a whole new change in the Team Canada regime, “It was hard but I’m feeling better now. I miss my friends, absolutely. At home I had my friends, my reputation….and now having had to start to rebuild all that, I felt like I was 20 again! You miss what is familiar, but the lifestyle here suits me, I’m much more of an English girl than I would be a North Carolina girl, I think I relate to the Brits more; mind you I do hang around a lot of kiwis and I seem to have settled quite well into the kiwi way too! The Spring was definitely hard for me because I just tried to find my place a little bit, tried to get comfortable with the people around me and figure out who I could trust and who I wanted to learn from. You’re so used to having that massive support around you and then it being completely gone took a little time to reestablish, but I feel like I’ve developed it now with Tim and Jonelle and people like Isobel so now it feels better because I have people that I trust and can lean on for support. I still have very good communication with Graeme (Thom, Canadian Chef D’Equipe) but as a country we struggle to have a programme of strength, and certainly now that I’ve gone away I can’t rely on Canada’s programme because it’s in Canada or America, and it just doesn’t stretch as far. I certainly take advantage of Clayton when he can be here, there’s no doubt that he’s a big benefit but I just can’t rely on that.”

Clayton made a point of visiting Rebecca from his US base last year, but as Rebecca explained, it was more for the purpose of getting to know her and Rupert, and as his visits coincided with major competitions they were both reluctant to make any major changes. Hopefully, she says, that will change next year and he will be able to spend some time with her unrelated to the big events, “I definitely didn’t rely on David on a daily basis but I always knew that if I had a question I could call him at any time, and he knew the horse so well that he could just show up before a competition and that was okay, whereas that doesn’t really work with somebody who doesn’t know you or the horse, it takes a lot to get to that point.”

Another change has been adjusting her fast work to her locale, and again she’s looked to Tim and Jonelle for inspiration, “My gallop routine has changed, if just purely for the dynamics of it because we ship off site to go the gallops, and it took me a little while to get comfortable with the all weather surface. Before Badminton I didn’t really want to go on it much and I kept Rupert on the turf and on the hill that we’d been using before the Olympics because I knew how he felt on that. Gradually though, after watching these guys (Tim and Jonelle) train on their gallops I’ve switched him over to using the all weather gallop that they use to train on. It’s a wood chip surface and it’s up a hill, but not as much as a hill as I was using which was also a factor into changing over because I thought that turf hill was maybe too hard on him and I wanted something a bit less. Now as a result I’m using a little bit more speed than I did before but it’s continuous, it’s easy on him. The hacking is different territory – hacking on the roads was a completely foreign concept to me before I came here but I don’t think it’s changed too much apart from that. I think it’s really important before and after rides, as well as having days where they might only go out on the trail.”

I ask Rebecca what she thinks the other major differences to her daily routine are, “Mostly it’s just been schooling and training horses which is what I continue to learn more and more from being here. For Rupert, to me, it’s still just continuing time and increasing his education and comfort level with the movements so lots of exercises in the flatwork for sure. I do think I jump more than I did too, finding ways to do it so that you get the maximum benefit out of a school without pounding them, but it’s important to keep working on those tools to a fence. My intensity of training has increased but not consciously whereas before I thought I would really train my horses and if anything verge on drilling them too much, now it’s more organic.”

So is Rebecca planing on returning to Canada in the near future, “I do just love it here and if I can make it work with my visa I would like to stay. Logically you knew when you were at home that eventing as a sport was on another level over here, the history of it is over here, and the numbers are that much greater, the accessibility to competitions, yada yada yada…you knew all that logically but I didn’t have a concept of what that meant until I was actually immersed in it, it’s just set up to be a professional game over here. Professionals ride and compete, that’s what they do. Just for the simple hours in the tack versus the riders at home who have to spend hours standing in the arena teaching and traveling around to do clinics. They do have to have pretty well-oiled machines at home here because they are competing at weekends, then getting back in the truck and competing again on Monday and Wednesday but it’s set up to do that – the one day format, the accessibility to events, just the mentality of it. It’s pretty luxurious to be in my position where I would love to go to Badminton because it’s Badminton and I’ve got a great horse and I’d like to have a good crack at it, but if the powers that be and everybody decides that that’s not the best thing to do for the horse there are plenty of other options that I’d still be pretty comfortable with the ground and the calibre of competition. It’s a bit of a tricky thing because I feel like the rest of the world will be doing CCI****s to prep for the World Equestrian Games, and I don’t think I have to do one but I don’t know if that means I shouldn’t . I’m still on the fence as to what the best preparation for the WEG is. I feel like before the Olympics we got into a little bit of preservation mode and that was not a good thing, and I think the majority of the world have to keep fighting for their place and that is at CCI****s. Having said that, I just have one horse and I want him to last. He’s done four CCI****s, two this year (Badminton and Burghley, placing 12th at both), he’s twelve, he’s a good age, knock on wood he’s sound and happy and healthy so I think I’m just going to see how he feels coming out at the beginning of the year and then really sit down and think about what truly is the best preparation for him. Getting down to it, it’s the first day – he has to get his flying changes. The rest of his work is really coming and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be competitive in the dressage so I’ll use this time to go to some dressage shows. Once I’ve put all of those pieces together we’ll see what ends up being the best competition for him.”

Although Rebecca owns a portion of Rupert, he still primarily belongs to his breeders Caroline Bazely and Jean Watson, a mother-daughter combination from Ontario, “it was their dream to breed a Canadian horse who would be ridden by a Canadian”. Unfortunately they didn’t get to watch their horse this year, and Rebecca hopes they’ll be able to make it over to see him compete in 2014.

Rebecca working her new horse Micky

Rebecca working her new horse Micky

In the meantime Rebecca has a seriously nice 4 year old to bring along: Mickey, an ISH with plenty of TB and also a bit of warmblood , a Cooley horse imported from Ireland just five weeks ago, “He’s just a lovely horse to sit on and a happy pony to get on every day. Regardless of what he decides to do in life he’s a nice horse to train and he’s going to have a good job. He’s very mature in his body and in his way of going, and he’s just a really sweet, happy kind of person.” He’s also, in my opinion, a lovely mover, very athletic, has an effortless and scopey jump and lots of presence! Ideally Rebecca would like to keep Mickey as her next potential superstar but “It usually all comes down to finances; if I really need the money then I’ll have to sell him but I will try and find some owners for him so that I could keep the ride.” Mickey will stay in work for another couple of weeks before going on holiday to consolidate everything he’s learned thus far. Conveniently this will be about the same time that Rebecca will be winging her way to Mexico to do bridesmaid duty at Sinead (Halpin’s) wedding; although she’s only seen pictures of the dresses so far, contrary to urban legend, she tells me they look very pretty. I’m looking forward to hearing all about that on my next visit, and checking in with Rupert and Mickey again, as well as meeting her other horses, and finding out a little more about the daily routine at Mere Farm. Many thanks to Rebecca for her time, and to Tim and Jonelle for letting me spend the morning at their yard. Stay warm, stay safe, and thanks for reading!