Blyth Tait is really a no-nonsense old-fashioned horseman. No fancy theories, no wonder cures, just straightforward practical advice from a guy who has several times proven himself the best in the world, and who has recently decided to return for a second crack at the international scene.
We caught up with him at the Tonimbuk Equestrian Centre, at one of the regular clinics organized by Ebony Tucker. He has three keen students in the arena – Shannon Cattlin, Jodi Clayton and Chris Height, and they are gradually working their way through a series of jumps leading up to a little course.
Jodi and Ildiko are on the track: “Just let the fence come to you, make every stride the same, get your shoulders up so the horse gets into the air over the jump, you don’t want the horse to dive at the jump.”
The advice is similar for Chris and Blackall Park Dartagnan: “Don’t wait to see a stride, make one come. Don’t be in a hurry, wait so the horse is together…”
Shannon and Jaybee Carillion tackle the oxer, vertical, vertical: “Circle, look over your shoulder to the first jump, soften your hand, close your leg – the more we press to the oxer, the harder the verticals will be, just soften to the oxer.”
“Now this time canter to the fence and two strides out, halt. She can’t drag you, just because there is a fence in front of her, it doesn’t mean accelerate.” With a little persuasion, the mare stops. “Now go again, go through all the preparations for the halt, and then pop over. She has a very bad habit of cross firing as she leaves the jump, I don’t have a magic wand, I can’t fix the problem over-night, you have to do it by landing and focusing on the first couple of strides…”
What strikes you immediately is that Blyth Tait is a natural teacher, he doesn’t just know what he is talking about, he is warm, funny and encouraging. It’s no wonder that his pupils keep coming back for more every time he makes it to Australia for a clinic.
He is also ready to let his pupils jump, even if their work on the flat is still something of a work in progress:
Looking at your group lesson, I can imagine that some instructors might say, until you get that canter perfect I am not going to let you near a jump…
“I understand that basic principle as well, but at the other end of the scale, your horse might be sixteen before he gets to go to a competition. For goodness sake, it’s a learning curve and I say to them, that if they make a little mistake because they are on the wrong lead or something, they should think about that correct lead the next time and they won’t make that unbalanced turn. By avoiding the problem, and by stopping, they are never going to work through the problem, and that’s definitely the case with the little mare. She just lands and expects to be allowed to go away from the fence unbalanced, then stopped and the situation repaired, rather than, come on let’s train it and let’s go round the corner and jump a fence, and fall through it if need be, but learn from the experience. I just want to keep them progressing and I don’t want them to take forever to do it.”
Chris is one of Blyth’s regular students, and he is singled out for praise: “I like you, you want perfection, you analyse and you achieve…” But Blyth sent every rider out of the arena with a smile on the face and a determination to keep trying, keep looking for perfection.
The next student was Ebony Tucker who is responsible for Blyth’s trips to Australia. Her ride was the mare Bao Luck, and Blyth also proves that he is a cool, no nonsense trainer when it comes to flat work.
“Take her deeper, rounder, she’s just a bit sharp. Either take her more through, or more long and low until she softens, if you need to do a bit of sideways for control. Don’t keep chucking the rein away, you must be secure in the contact, but soft.”
Eventually the mare started listening to Ebony and it was time for some jumping exercises. Three little fences on a serpentine: “All we want is consistency from start to finish. Don’t make the turns too sharp, she’s wound up enough. Create and allow, you are not going to force anything. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to do nothing.”
“Softly travel to the first and then you won’t have to do as much in the line. You are falling into the trap, you want to dominate – allow. That’s the hardest thing, do nothing, relax and enjoy…”
Certainly, Blyth seems to be enjoying his return to eventing – and his on-going teaching program:
“I do blocks of teaching, I didn’t teach this year when I was trying to compete, but I’ve done a series of clinics since the season finished, I’ve got two more after this, then I am having a little holiday, then back to England. I don’t mind teaching, it’s quite rewarding and it is a good learning tool as well. You have to be thinking, how can I explain something to this one, then it re-affirms what you are trying to achieve with your own horses.”
You have a fairly specific teaching style, you are working on that horse, that problem rather than getting carried away with theory…
“I do try and teach them a system of training, and I do try and expose riders to the basic principles, but I think they want to come and hear how to improve their own horses, so I do try and be specific with them. They can read the theory in a book, but with a set of eyes on their particular horse, I can highlight a weakness or a strength for them.”
“I try and just talk like a human, I try not to make it rocket science. I say things like ‘don’t push on the accelerator and the brake at the same time’ because they can understand what they are doing. I shy away from the ‘I am the master’ military approach, I don’t think younger riders relate to that.”
You have never really left the sport, you were involved with the team after you stopped competition riding, but that is not quite the same as fronting a big four star, was it different coming back the second time?
“No. Not at all. When I finished, the big change to short format had already been introduced. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a much much stronger basic quality of horse and rider eventing now. The riders are educated right from the start so they understand all the basic principles of rhythm and engagement and control, so the gaps are very much filled up. When I used to go to a big four star competition, you used to pretty much be able to guess the winner out of half a dozen, maybe ten people – now any one of 25 could be the winner because they have the ability and the form. But really it is all still the same.”
Dressage not tougher?
“The dressage is tougher and the dressage standard is better, but all the riders who won when I was riding are still winning. You move with the times, you keep improving, you work out what is required and when the tests become more demanding, you realize that you need more engagement or more collection, or whatever – but at the end of the day we are still only doing pretty much Medium standard.”
The extraordinary one is Mary King who when the flying change came in spent a whole season doing simple changes – she just keeps getting better and better, she is a wonder…
“She is an example to all of us. Her showjumping riding has come on incredibly as well. She used to perhaps not have the quality jumpers she’s got now, but now she rides her showjumping in a really nice rhythm, she rides nice and light, she’s got a little bit more modern in her approach to everything – she’s been a classic example of keeping up with the pace, and she still keeps winning her fair share of everything.”
“I think the showjumping has got better, the cross country has got better, the dressage has certainly got better.”
Are the courses much different?
“Not really. Looking at the courses in England this year, I think they’ve got better because they have got over the skinny, yank them round, carry on. Bramham was a fantastically bold course, Ian Stark is a real talent for course design, he is going to be great for the sport. He produced some really positive riding, he rewarded forward riding. Burghley this year was pretty much back to the same sort of thing, it still had a degree of technicality, it was clearly too technical for me… I think the cross country courses are about where they should be.”
What is the future for you?
“I’ve decided to stay in England indefinitely. I am really enjoying it, even though I had a really frustrating season. I had only two horses at the upper level, and one was off the road completely and the other might as well have been. The mare had a little accident at the swimming pool and chipped the bone in her stifle and had to have that removed. Santos, the horse I took over, has had on-going back problems that we couldn’t really get to the bottom of, I believe we have now. At the very end of the season, when it was all over, he was back to how he was when I bought him. Hopefully next year – I’m just taking it step-by-step, but if you are asking me do I think I’ve got any chance of being on the New Zealand team for London, I’d say very slim, but stranger things have happened. So if I come out and have a good spring, who knows…”
Where will you go in the Spring?
“I don’t know for sure. I am going back to England at the beginning of January and I will get out and showjump the horse, and if that is going well, there are a couple of three star events very early, really before the season gets going, in Italy and Ireland, because neither of them are qualified and they want to try and get more ranking points for their riders. There are a whole bunch of us – like Pippa Funnell and Tina Cook – who aim to go, we all need to get the qualification situation out of the way. I would ideally still like to go to Badminton because I think if the horse is right, he is a four star horse, no doubt about it, but I would need to have a good number of runs under my belt before I did that. I’ll just take it as it comes, but I am really looking much longer term.”
What is the kick, why are you back on the competition scene?
“I think I am getting the right kicks out of it, it’s fun, it’s a challenge, and you want to improve, so you want to be successful, blahdy blahdy blah. I think the freshness again is a real plus. I’m eager, keen to get better. The one thing from having not gone cross country for so long, is that I am full of confidence cross country. I haven’t fallen off for a while, and I am touching wood as I say it. I’m frustrated because last season I didn’t get much competition. I’m just going to try and build up, produce some young ones to sell later on, just enjoy it again.”
Story: Chris Hector
Photos: Roz Neave and Libby Law