An Interview with Dressage Rider Nicholas Fyffe

Nicholas Fyffe is a lesson in contrasts. A great example of things not always being what they seem at first glance. When we interviewed him at the end of a very long day, the interviewers sat slumped in their chairs, tired and disheveled (from sitting in lawn chairs all day), while the interviewee walked in impeccably polished, with obvious energy even after his 9-hour day of teaching and riding. When he sat down after changing out of his boots, he sat so straight, his back never touched the chair. His chiropractor must be proud. Feeling shamed, the rest of us sat up a little straighter, smoothed our clothes and tried in vain to run fingers through our frizzy hair.

With this discipline and precision, it’s easy to understand why Nicholas Fyffe is a top dressage rider – the equine sport born from the military. He was raised in Australia, trained in Germany, set up shop in Canada for a while and now lives in the equestrian paradise of Wellington, Florida with his husband and fellow dressage rider, David Marcus. He has trained with such illustrious names as Ulla Salzgeber, Martina Hanover, Hubertus Schmidt, Oded Shimoni, Catherine Haddad and Robert Dover.

Nicholas-Fyffe-on-Fiero-HGF_Photo-by-Annan Hepner Deselect Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF Photo by Annan Hepner
Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF Photo by Annan Hepner

But there’s more to Nicholas Fyffe than meets the eye. When we asked him if he has any superstitions or rituals before competition, his answer fit the soldier:

“I put my left sock and my left boot, my left spur and my left glove on first always. It’s not so much superstition, I think it’s more obsessive compulsive. That’s just my routine, I like to do the same thing every day and then I know what to expect.”

But when we asked him about his favorite TV show, he threw us a curveball:

“My all-time favorite TV show is Absolutely Fabulous, and the movie that’s coming out I’m sure it will be my favorite movie.”

This answer makes us want to do another interview with him over martinis in Wellington. (How about it Nick? Can we call you Nick?)

Dressage rider Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF Photo by Annan Hepner_Phelps Media Group
Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF Photo by Annan Hepner – Phelps Media Group

The contrast in these answers describes his teaching style perfectly. He’s articulate, his instructions always sharp and crystal clear. He’s tough and challenges the rider with high expectations. At first we were expecting him to yell “drop and give me 20”, but soon realized he also brings a sense of humor, warmth, patience and positivity to his teaching. Not an easy blend to master. Although let’s be real, the Australian accent does put the cherry on the parfait.

Dressage riders Nicholas Fyffe, Leah Wilson Wilkins on Fabian JS, DavidMarcus_Photo by Mary Adelaide Brakenridge
See what we mean? At ease soldier. L to R Nicholas Fyffe, Leah Wilson Wilkins on Fabian JS, David Marcus Photo by Mary Adelaide Brakenridge

So military precision, paired with a sense of humor and an Australian accent. What could be better?

His obvious love of horses, that’s what. Nicholas brings a love of the animal to his own riding and to his coaching that is reflected in his quickness to praise and reward, along with a recognition of the importance of good training.

“I love horses. I can’t imagine having a life without them.….They reflect reality. A horse won’t do anything brilliant unless the training and preparation is brilliant…if you’re a terrible trainer, it will be reflected somewhere in the horse. They are mirrors of the rider’s personality.”

What do you first look for when choosing a horse?

“I like to look in their eyes. I know that sounds very romantic and a bit ethereal. But you can tell a lot from their eyes. A relaxed eye tells you that horse is inquisitive to work with people. You can tell a little about their past experience with people. If they’ve got some fear there then it might be a sharp horse that possibly has had a bad experience and needs a little more trust. I think the eye is the first thing where I can get a gauge of their character and past.”

Dressage rider Nicholas Fyffe Photo by Annan Hepner_Phelps Media Group
Photo by Annan Hepner – Phelps Media Group

It’s not surprising that Nicholas has developed a perceptive and subtle understanding of horses. They have always been part of his life. His mom and grandfather were both in the horse business in Australia. In the ’70s his mom was riding and training thoroughbreds on the racetrack and was one of the first women to get her track work license. She obviously had a major influence on Nicholas’ understanding of horsemanship, starting with respecting the horse.

“I remember I rode at a gymkhana when I was very young, where you play a lot of games. I was 5 and my Shetland pony was 4 – we were young together. We were in the egg and spoon race where you carry the egg on the spoon across the finish line. My pony trotted and I dropped the egg. I was furious because I didn’t win and I really thought I would. I was very competitive and I took the pony back to the trailer and I was so upset with her I got off and kicked her in the stomach. My mother saw me and she sent me to sit in the trailer for the rest of the day. I wasn’t allowed to enter into any further games because I was very unfair to my horse. That’s something I’ve never, ever forgotten. Respecting the horse was something that is very important and drilled into me. That’s what I really learned from her.”

2016_Nicholas Fyffe and Esmaltado IV_AGDF 1 national_Photo by Mary Adelaide Brakenridge
Nicholas Fyffe and Esmaltado IV Photo by Mary Adelaide Brakenridge

Other childhood experiences have helped Nicholas evolve into the elite dressage rider he is today. He is incredibly athletic. We knew he had been a gymnast in his younger years, but watching him mount a large horse from the ground with less effort than most of us use getting in the car, it became obvious. This athleticism brings a lightness and grace to his riding. Although Nicholas credits gymnastics with helping him be more balanced and more aware of his symmetry, it also helped shaped his entire approach to training, especially from his experiences as a young person in that sport.

“I think some of the gymnastic training I had was negative, and didn’t encourage me. I feel that training in any way has to be positive and encouraging.”

After many years Nicholas returned to gymnastics with a supportive trainer, but this time, the hard work to retrain his body took its toll, and that made him think more about the horses.

“We’re asking the horses to do things they haven’t done before. Their bodies have to hurt the next day. So I became a little more sympathetic to that.

I also became more sympathetic to this trainer watching me do very bad gymnastics and be very positive about it. That kept me motivated to become better. That’s what I bring to training my students who are having a really hard time, or training horses that are having a really hard time. There needs to be some positive reinforcement in order to motivate them to keep going, the horse or the rider.”

In the next instalment, find out Nicholas’ training tips, the biggest mistakes amateur riders make and why the silence of neutral is the best gift we can give to our horses.

Dressage riders Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF, David Marcus on Binjora_Photo by Phelps Media Group(1)
L to R Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero HGF, David Marcus on Binjora Photo by Phelps Media Group

 

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Ten Tips for The Budding Dressage Diva

For those of us not looking at a palm tree right now, show season is right around the corner.  Showing takes a lot of time, work and expense, but there are plenty of things you can do before you get out the shipping wraps and put on those white breeches. Here are 10 helpful tips from a dressage coach to make showing easier, whether you’re at home or at the show.

1) Memorize your tests. Don’t rely 100% on a reader, because you need to know where you’re going yourself. There are times you can’t hear them, they get behind or you’re concentrating so hard that you tune them out.

2) Get to know the letters. Don’t be staring wildly around for the letters when you are in the test and the judge is watching. Before you ask; no, there is no discernible pattern to the letters and yes, a lot of them rhyme. No, it doesn’t make any sense and no, nobody seems to know why.

 

Dressage arena letter K

 

3) Ride every single corner and turn correctly. If you practise something correctly often enough at home, it will become habit. Corners are valuable for fixing balance and setting yourself up properly for the next movement.

4) Take circle size and shape seriously. Since the beginning of dressage, circles have been a mystery to many…like Outer Space.

Outer Space

Or Stonehenge.

 

Stonehenge

 

So for the love of God and your coach’s blood pressure, find some diagrams of dressage circles and sizes. Study them until you have nightmares.

5) Practise in an actual dressage ring. It’s harder than it looks to stay straight riding next to a fetlock high barrier. It would also be helpful to get your horse used to flower pots around the ring. You will find these at most shows and for some inexplicable reason, a lot of horses put these in the same category as Freddy Krueger or plastic bags.

Flower pots and horses

 

6) Learn the math. Some movements, like the free walk, are a coefficient of 2. Before your eyes glaze over thinking back to grade 5 math class, it simply means they are worth double. So if you get a 7, you’re really getting a 14.

 

Math addition

     This is a possibility too, but try to stay optimistic.

 

7) Pay attention to judge’s comments  if you have previous tests. This is especially important if they repeat the same thing multiple times or use a lot of exclamation marks.

8) Don’t discount show nerves. Participating in test-riding clinics and schooling off property can be helpful. (Personally, I can sum up what helps me in one word. You think I’m going to say meditation don’t you? I’m not, it’s alcohol.)

 

Dancing wine glasses

 

9) Embrace the mistakes and learn from them. Remember we love this sport and our horses. If we wanted utter consistency, we would all be sitting on bicycles and looking as happy as these two.

 

Old fashioned bicycle

 

10) And finally my budding dressage divas, above all else, remember the most important thing when showing…

Don't embarrass your coach

Now get out there and don’t forget to be awesome!

Who’s got number 11?

Your Very First Dressage Test? Relax We’re Here To Help

Are you heading to your first dressage show? As a coach, I’ve sent many students into their first dressage test and every time I feel like a mother bird kicking her fledgling out of the nest. I prepare my students the best I can, but they often ask for something they can study at home watching Netflix. What can I say? I teach a lot of over-achievers. They probably got beat up a lot in school.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Your First Dressage Test

1. When it’s your turn, the person organizing the warm-up ring, the whip, will call your number that you are on deck. This should not take you by surprise. You or someone in your party should have been keeping track of time. This is even more important if it is a small show and there is no one organizing the warm-up ring. If they are running ahead of schedule, you are allowed to wait for your scheduled time, if not, do not think, “I just have to do a few more transitions,”  they’ll wait. You hustle your ass to the ring.

2.  Ride around the outside of the ring. It will be helpful to the judge and the scribe to see your number, so ride by the booth, smile and say hello. It will also be helpful to let your horse see that those are just people sitting in the judge’s booth, not horse-eating Yetis.

Yeti Dressage Judge

3. You will now practise whatever you and your horse need to practise.  Does he need to be heated up or calmed down? Quick transitions or slow work? It’s the rider’s choice, dictated by the horse’s needs.

4. You will hear a bell or a whistle, signalling that the judge is ready for you to begin. You have 45 seconds to enter the ring. Do not panic. As long as you don’t walk the entire way, you can easily get all the way around the ring in 45 seconds.

5. Make your turn down the centre line. Turn earlier than you think you need to, because most people overshoot. It can be helpful to close your leg and accelerate a little bit after the turn. If you go too slowly, you’re more likely to drift around like a ship without an anchor. And remember, the judge will be directly ahead of you so will see every little bit of drifting, and trust me they brought their glasses.

6. Prepare for your halt at X. At the lower levels, if you can do a smooth halt from trot, go for it. If not, it is better to halt smoothly through a few steps of walk than to slam on the brakes with your horse’s head in the air and skid marks behind you. Your knees should line up squarely between B and E.

phonto

7. Take your reins in your left hand and drop your right hand down behind your thigh and salute by nodding your head to the judge. Your horse should stay immobile and round. Practise this, it’s harder than it sounds. A lot of horses use this moment to take a good look around and think about what they are having for lunch. If you have a whip, it should be in your left hand. You don’t want to salute with it.

8. Take your reins back in both hands. Don’t panic and rush, it should look smooth. Proceed briskly up to trot. Hopefully. I have had times where the horse slammed on the brakes and would not proceed down the centre line. They have now convinced themselves that those are actually horse-eating Yetis in the booth and nothing you do will convince them otherwise. You have 30 seconds to get that train back on track or you face elimination.                                                                               (Cross your fingers and beg the universe that this does not happen to you. I’m not going to lie, it’s embarrassing…and time to remind your horse how much showing costs.)

LoneRanger

9. If you’re lucky enough to get all the way down to C, half halt, because the turn at C is a sharp one. Don’t get so close to the end of the ring that your horse is shocked at which way you’re turning. It will look rough and your horse will be unbalanced for the next movement. It’s better to turn too early than too late. (If you think of it, this is a good time to smile at the judge again. My own coach told us we should smile every single time we passed the judge, but personally I think it will make you look like a deranged clown. But, hey, who am I to argue with an Olympian?)

10. Proceed to doing the rest of the movements. It’s helpful to think of riding each one individually instead of a whole pattern. Each movement should be clear and accurate to the letters, with your horse’s nose and your knees as your guide. The horse’s nose should be pointed straight at a letter or your knees should be dictating the movement as you pass the letter. The timing for accuracy depends on each individual horse. Does your horse do transitions exactly when you ask or does he have a more “yeah, yeah when I get to it” attitude? Some require multiple half halts to do a downward transition smoothly and some require a little bit of jazzing up and warning before an upward transition. And remember you are going for accuracy, but not at the expense of smooth, fluid movements. Which leads to the next point…

11. Always remember the foundation principles of dressage. Even rhythm, impulsion and straightness with clear back to front roundness and connection takes precedence over anything else. It is very hard at first to maintain these AND think about shape of figures, accuracy to letters and correct patterns especially when you are in front of a judge, but trust me, it gets easier with practice. Someone once said that you have to go down a thousand centre lines before it gets comfortable. I think it was the Elvis Presley of the dressage world, Kyra Kyrkland who said it. And how much more of an expert can you get than that?

Kyra Kyrkland saluting on Matador

12. You will finish with another centre line. Repeat the process of your opening centre line. Halt.        Salut. Give your horse a long rein.

A) If it went well, collapse in tears of joy, because you’re so happy. Pat your horse. Don’t forget to smile at the judge and say thank you.

Wonder Woman Dressage Test

B) If it was a disaster, collapse in tears of joy, because it’s over. Pat your horse. Don’t forget to  smile at the judge, say thank you and slip them $20.

Judge Judy Dressage Test

Thanks for the Fuzzy Memories Mr. Philippaerts

At the end of this post three things should be obvious:

  1. Why retail giant H&M decided to dip its toe into equestrian sponsorship.
  2. That dressage and show jumping are not so different.
  3. Why IFLHorses really needs to hire a photographer.

I was surprised when I heard that H&M was sponsoring a couple of riders from Belgium – a duo often referred to as the Philippaerts twins. I knew that name, given that it is a family who has been in equestrian sport for quite a long time now, but I wasn’t familiar with the younger generation, Nicola and Olivier. But then I had a chance to meet them when I traveled with a student of mine to The Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, Ontario, Canada last November. Any mystery as to why H&M would want to sponsor these particular equestrians was cleared up when I found myself staring up at two tall young men with tousled hair and the kind of big brown eyes usually seen on soap operas.

Philippaerts H&M
Any further questions?

After, we watched the twins school their horses in the warm-up ring while I fumbled with the fancy-pants camera I had borrowed to take some photos. I had underestimated how complicated this camera would be, being used to the point-and-shoot, idiot-proof type. I gave up and decided to use my phone. One of the twins (I’m not sure who is who), was walking his horse, talking to another rider during his walk warm-up. I pointed my phone at him as he walked by and I was shocked when he leaned down in front of the other rider and flashed a toothpaste commercial smile at me. What a great photo that would have been! But alas my big fat thumb was over the lens so you can only see part of a rider’s leg and none of the chiseled features of the young man smiling at me.

thumb covering rider
Curse my crappy photography skills.
IFLH Philippaerts Riding 3
They came around again, but the moment was gone.

After the walk warm-up, my student and I watched him school half pass, leg yield, haunches-in, shoulder-in, medium and collected counter, and flying changes. It was impressive. If you think about it, there is no real difference between a dressage rider having to lengthen the canter and then collect at the end of a diagonal and a jumper rider having to collect to a tall, skinny vertical and lengthen to a wide oxer. The difference is just a matter of degrees….and judging. Show jumpers have gravity as their judge, while dressage riders have humans in blazers and sensible shoes.

IFLH Philippaerts Riding 1
I like this picture. Since you can’t really see the tack, this could be a jumper or dressage horse & rider. Yeah that’s it, I made it blurry on purpose to prove my point.

 

IFLH Philippaerts Riding 2
I threw a filter on this one to make it look like I know what I’m doing. If you’re under the age of 30, feel free to use it as your screen saver.

After he was finished and had left the ring, we walked back through the barn. When we saw him holding his horse talking to his groom, my student suddenly went rogue. She walked up to him and chatted for a bit before coming back.

“What on earth did you say to him?” I asked.

“I said my dressage coach was impressed with his schooling.”

“Oh good Lord.”

I was mortified.

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Thank you very much. I hope it works.'”

And judging by your show record thus far, Mr. Philippaerts, I would say it is working indeed.

 

IFLH Philippaerts Riding 4 copy

 

Charlotte & the Fangirl

I’m a long-time fan of Charlotte Dujardin. Not in Trekkie or Star Wars territory, but a pretty solid admirer nonetheless. If you aren’t familiar with Ms. Dujardin, she is the most successful British rider in the history of dressage.

Charlotte Dujardin riding Valero at the World Equestrian Games
photo by Florence.Skowron

With Valegro, she currently holds the individual Olympic freestyle, World freestyle and Grand Prix Special, World Cup individual dressage and European freestyle and Grand Prix Special titles. She is the only rider in history to hold all of these titles at the same time.

So clearly, girl has some credentials to admire. Now I should admit, I do love all things British.

british flag in London

At my fantasy dinner party everybody is British. Granted, I probably stand a better chance of getting Charlotte and Carl Hester there than Elton John, Prince Harry, and Adele, but I’ve already made the place cards.

Anyway….even with this love of the British, I was still just an average Charlotte admirer. Unlike one of my friends (I won’t name names, you know who you are) who so badly wanted a photo of her at the World Cup in Las Vegas last April, she took leave of her senses. When we had the opportunity to see Charlotte up close as she sat at a table in the trade fair smiling and signing autographs, my crazy fangirl friend waded through the crowd, all elbows and apologies, and dropped the lens cap for her camera. She pretended it rolled under the table, thus giving her a valid reason to crawl under it to get a close up picture of Ms. Dujardin. The resulting photo was indeed a close up; a blurry close-up of unidentifiable knees and feet. Luckily, Charlotte was very gracious. I would have called security.

But after I started to follow her on Facebook, my admiration for her grew for a completely different reason. I found out that not only is she a great rider and trainer, she’s also an ambassador for The Brooke, an organization that travels to the developing world to help working animals lead better lives.

Click here to learn about The Brooke

It’s hard to look at the photos and it’s tempting to look away. But not Charlotte. She didn’t look away. Instead she took off her white gloves, boarded a plane…

British Airways carrying Charlotte Dujardin

…and went to experience what The Brooke does first hand.

So Charlotte, thank you for introducing me to The Brooke and the incredible work they do. Thank you for being an inspiration, not only in your riding and training, but in the fearlessness of your compassion for animals. You are truly a great role model for me and the younger generations who look up to you too. I am in solid fangirl territory now and just may be the crazy person crawling under the table to get a photo of your knees at your next autograph session. Just please, please don’t go and do something embarrassing to muck it up. I don’t want to catch you drunk and naked on YouTube doing the Nae Nae.

images-4

 

 

Horze – It’s a Lifestyle Indeed

An equestrian accessories company was brought to our attention recently. Horze is a Scandinavian company that has mainly been in Europe, but is now making its way into the North American market. So we’re wondering, since their name is a play on an English word, were any of the creators native English speakers? Kind of like when someone first suggested naming the stallion Pik Bube, didn’t anyone in the group speak English well enough to raise an eyebrow when the name was spoken out loud?

Their slogan is, “Horze. It’s a lifestyle.”

Sound it out.

It’s not Horse with an S. It’s Horze with a Z.

Still not getting it?

We’ll circle back.

IMG_5524

A cool bag made by Horze came into the IFLH offices at Christmas time and our resident dressage rider was on it like mustard on a hotdog. We know very well that she loves anything organizational or storage related. And we also know that she is….let’s say efficient, and therefore wants to make as few trips back to the tack room as possible. This bag is perfect to store and carry boots, bandages, stable wraps, cottons or quilts. It would also be handy to carry spurs, gloves and a dressage whip or two. No return trip to the tack room needed. It’s made of heavy nylon and has six separate compartments. It even has a clear window all around so you can see what’s in it without opening the top flat. Clever.

Horze bandage bag

OK back to our original point. Our dressage rider says this bag is definitely going with her to shows, because she cannot wait for the day she can shout across a crowded warm-up ring, “Could somebody run back to the tack stall and get my whip and spurs? They’re in my Horze bag.”

#yeahwewentthere

Sorry Horze.

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