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.
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?)
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.
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.”
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.”
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.