Story: Chris Hector
Our digitally switched on readers have doubtless been enjoying Hayley Coman’s refreshingly frank blog – posted from her new ‘home’, the training stables of Henk Nooren in Belgium. We caught up with the young Australian showjumping rider on a recent visit to Europe, and she tried to explain just what it is like being an Aussie in the middle of a strange country….
“I don’t speak French and no one in this part of Belgium speaks English at all, and they are not the most helpful people, they’d rather just watch you searching in the supermarket than give you a hand. Most people at shows are quite helpful, as soon as they know you are Australian, they want to help you.”
But the strangeness of the location, hasn’t put Hayley off pursuing her dream:
“I always wanted to come to Europe, but I never felt that I was ready. After 2010 when I did my first proper World Cup season – not particularly successfully, I had minor placings in most classes, but I didn’t disgrace myself – I thought that I had learnt enough on the horses I was riding to be able to come over and further my education. Before that I never thought I had enough experience, I had to jump some bigger tracks before I came here.”
“At first I decided to just come over for six weeks to learn and see what it was all about. The first week was really really tough, just a big change in everything I knew – the second week I loved it, I said to Mum and Dad, I’m coming home and I’m selling everything I have and moving back to Europe, because if you want to have a go, this is the right place to be. They offered me a position here, and that was the beginning of it all…”
Although as the daughter of two of Australia’s most successful showjumping riders / trainers, Sue and Jamie Coman, twenty-three-year old Hayley had spent a fair proportion of her life riding and training jumpers, the experience in Belgium came as something of a shock:
“Huge shock riding-wise. Most of my successful horses have been ones that were broken, or difficult or strong, or this or that, because my parents wanted me to be able to ride everything. To come here and sit on horses that are so educated and quiet… the first week I was riding this horse, so easy, snaffle mouthed, beautiful canter, and I said to Henk, ‘I can’t see a distance… The horse is not pulling, it’s not going this way, it’s not going that way, I have no idea what to do!’ Henk said, ‘just trust yourself.’ The first week riding was such a big change from the Thoroughbreds and the difficult horses I have ridden.”
“My main horse at home, my Dad always says, ‘people think he is so easy because he looks like a teddy bear but he really is so tricky in so many ways’, for me he is no problem, but when you come here and you are all of a sudden on these nice horses, I struggled big time.”
Crazy, a struggle because they are so nice…
“Exactly, I said to Dad ‘I just can’t figure this out’ – I thought before I came over here, I can ride a tough horse and I didn’t think I’d find anything particularly difficult to ride, and then there are all these quiet ones! Ones that you need spurs on to ride them up, as opposed to sitting against them. It was a huge change, there were many phone calls, tears, even since I’ve been back this time – crying because I can’t figure out what I am supposed to do, I can’t figure out how to work them, but you’ve just got to relax and then it starts to happen.”
How many riders are working here?
“Just me for Henk’s horses, I ride for his daughter – she’s fourteen. My deal is that I work for them, and I ride their horses, and then on weekends, and when it’s free in summer, I do shows. In Spring and Summer, I might only be here three or four days a week.”
How did you find your horse, Zidane?
“He’s very me. He’s a bit tricky and a bit sensitive, and not everyone can get through to him, but my Dad kept saying to me, these ones suit you. He’s got a big jump but he is different, he’s not a horse that everyone would want to ride because he is not easy, he has his own little ways – but he trusts me, so it is all starting to happen. Over here, because there are so many nice horses, when they are hot or tricky, they go ‘ah, just a horse’ but this horse is special. He just needs a bit of time.”
At the moment, you are jumping 1.20m classes with him?
“1.20m, 1.30m starting next weekend. I’ve had him just over a month. The first two weeks I stayed home trying to get used to him because I literally tried him twice, bought him – it took two weeks to vet him because I’ve never spent so much money for a horse before. He’d been in a dealing barn so he had no education on the flat. They know how to go, and they know how to look nice, but when you start to change things, they don’t know what to do – so he very much had to go back to basics. But he is very smart and he has a very good attitude, he feels to me like I can jump big classes on him. I need to take my time. It’s not just him, it’s me, I have to get my grip on everything over here and I am not going to do it too quickly, it is going to take time. We’ll stay at a 1.30m for the next couple of months, and then go from there.”
You were saying that even going to the shows was scary…
“Terrifying, terrifying! I was at a show the other day, and you turn up and there’s 250 horse trucks, that’s the Indoor, I can see that, go inside there’s 40 rooms, there’s VIP, there’s more people than I’ve ever seen at a show in Australia and this is just a national show. You have to find the offices, where to pay, what number they are up to. I made the smart decision of becoming friends with the guy on the gate, because he can now tell me when I am on, and how many horses before me. Then you tack up on your truck or your van, which I’ve never done before, so you learn to do that. Then you warm yourself up, with forty odd riders around you, none of whom speak English, but you learn to be ready.”
“The crowd is not big by European standards, but it is certainly more people than I have ever seen, it’s very overwhelming. Then at the practice area, in between classes, you are standing there, trying to have a chat, and there is a really nice horse jumping, and the person helping is standing next to me… ‘That’s a bloody nice horse’ and he like blah blah blah chatting away telling me about the horse. I walk off, then I realise that the person is Jos Lansink. Cool, Jos Lansink, how are you going… nice horse.”
“Then you realize that the riders over here are just people. At home sometimes, the really, really, good riders are treated differently, they have a different attitude. It’s not negative, or positive, just different. Here they are just people and most of them will talk to you. Penelope LePrevost and Kevin Staut, they are two of the world’s most famous riders, members of the French team, and they are based here, and they are just normal people. They come back after a show – how did you go? Well it is either ‘shit’ or ‘really good’, that’s what they say.
I hear you tried to kick Kevin Staut’s horse out of your stable…
Hayley is laughing:
“For sure, it’s a very uncomfortable moment when you realize that Sylvana is standing in your horse’s box and you are about to tell the groom off, because you wanted to put your horse away, and they’ve but their horse in the wrong stable. Then you think, maybe that’s not a great idea, that is one of the best horses in the world…”
Do you get a chance to watch the French riders train?
“We do. I think because I am a rider – well I groom as well – but because I’m trying to be a rider, they let me watch everything. At the end of June, the whole French team is coming here for a four week training camp in the lead up to the Games, I’m hanging out for that, it will be unbelievable to see them get ready. For them it’s just another show, it’s a big show, but just another show – it’s just the Olympics. I think they think more of the Worlds over here than the Olympics. They’ll be using the dressage coach we’ve got, he’s a Hungarian, Barnabus. He is unbelievable. He is very simple, nothing is over-complicated. I’ve been to dressage lessons with people and they say something, and you have no idea what they are talking about. He picks up on very little things, and they make a huge difference. He is here every week for three days, then he goes to France for three days. That’s another big part of the routine I had to get used to – this dressage training.”
What sort of a trainer is Henk – is he a George Morris who is really directive, or a quieter coach, like your Dad?
“Quieter, very technical. He is a man of very few words. If he says nothing at all, then you know it is good. That’s the thing, he doesn’t praise every correct thing you do but if he is not saying anything, you know you are going okay. He’s got three daughters. He’s a very nice person, and a very smart man. He likes perfection, and he likes people to take it seriously. You might not be a wonderful rider, but if you love it, and you want to do it, he has a lot of respect for that. He has a lot of respect for people who work hard, which I think is why we get along. He’s not a yeller or a screamer. He told me the guy he trained with,– Hans Günter Winkler (Henk Nooren trained in Warendorf with Winkler in 1974 and 1975) – Henk told me, ‘everyone credits this man with making me as a rider, but I hated training with him because all he ever told me was that I was useless, that I couldn’t do things right, he’d yell at me and scream. I was with him for two years, and I had to stick it out, but that is not the sort of trainer I wanted to be, because I don’t know if I actually learnt so much. It was the things he didn’t say, that I learnt things from’. He’s definitely not that sort of trainer, he is very quiet.”
You were saying he likes to vary the work, to get the horses outside the arena…
“Everything is to keep them active. Normally they have a day off after a show, just a walk in the field or they go out and play, they have a lunge at some point during the week, instead of a ride, but not just lunge lunge around in circles, it is a proper lunge. Not tying their heads down, but letting them get soft on their own. We do track work when we can, and interval work to make them really fit. They have small jumping sessions and big jumping sessions, dressage and shows. It varies every day, and depending on the horse, it can vary quite drastically what work they get.”
Do you get lonely, miss your family in Australia?
“Of course I do. There are times when I come into my flat and think, I would give anything just to have someone to talk to right now. People will stay with me, and say, ‘it’s not normal to talk to the television and the nav man’ – I’m like, well I don’t have anyone else to talk to. I just have to make do. I have a very supportive family, we Skype all the time. My Dad calls me at 11 pm their time, every day. Of course I get lonely, but I like to think of it as a stepping-stone to something hopefully better to come. I think there is a misperception. A lot of Australian riders come to Europe but a lot of them don’t stay, and I think the reason for that is that it is really, really hard. It’s really tough. You’ve got to be able to get up every morning at five and finish at seven or eight every night, in minus-fifteen weather. Be told that you are not riding well. Be told that you have to lose ten kilos, everything – you have to be able to say, okay, no worries. Sometimes you just have to be able to get through the day without anyone to talk to. There have been plenty of times I’ve been hysterical on the phone to Dad, saying I want to come home! Then I ring him back half an hour later and say, I’m tougher than that.”
“Going to a show, you don’t just tack up and go to a show. You’ve got to finish work at six at night, you’ve got to drive an hour to collect the van, come back, put all your stuff in the back, all in freezing temperatures, get up the next morning, drive two and a half hours to get to a show, for a minute and a half in the ring, pack up come home, drive the van back, pay the hire, then get up and go to work next day. You’ve just got to be able to do it, and not everyone can handle that.”
“Of course. There’s plenty of times when you think I’m just not good enough or I don’t know what I am supposed to do, but my parents made me tough and strong and resilient. Ever since I’ve been a kid, because my parents have had quite a prominent role, people always want to say negative things and bring you down. It’s no different coming over here. If I had a dollar for each person who said, ‘you are just not good enough to ride in Europe, you’ll never make it’, I would be very wealthy. People in Australia sometimes don’t want to be positive but I am quite a stubborn individual, I can say, well you are wrong, I’ll be fine. That gets you through the day. Really I just want to ride.”
And if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Hayley’s regular despatches from Belgium, just go to www.horsemagazine.com – I promise you will enjoy them…