Mark Phillips – a thinking coach

Story – Christopher Hector/Photos – Roslyn Neave and archives

I must say that I was not sure what to expect from the Mark Phillips clinic at Equitana. The poor guy has been dogged through his life by his nickname, ‘Foggy’, given to him by his former brother-in-law.

Mark Phillips won Badminton four times – here he is on Columbus who won in 1974

Mark was in fact my first-ever equestrian magazine assignment when he was the guest star at the Melbourne Three Day Event back in the late 70’s. At the time he had obviously been schooled to carefully think through his answers before giving them, especially as all the straight press wanted to talk about was his marriage to Princess Anne, and he had the disconcerting habit of taking some time before delivering his reply. They were good enough replies, and at the time I didn’t know enough about the sport to get more out of the interview.

Eventing’s Royal couple – Mark and Anne

A few decades down the track, there was Mark lining up for another interview. I told him, very sincerely, that I thought it was a wonderful clinic…

Mark chuckled: “I’m the wrong person to ask…”

No, it was very subtle, lots of new ideas – like the one where the rider puts his hands on the horse’s neck to gallop, is that a temporary measure to get their backsides out of the saddle, or a permanent position?

“It can be both. You can get into that balance where you can relax and have a holiday, as well as the horse.”

Mark demonstrates the way to get over the horse, with Chris Height on Caballo Castano

You must always ride in balance, shorten the stride by increasing the balance, not with hand that decreases the engine…”

“Ride more like William Fox-Pitt, stand taller with longer reins.”

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You wouldn’t have a problem with the rider balancing on his hands forever…

“No. The most important part is getting the hip over the knee, so that the knee works backwards and forwards, like the jockeys do. With the hip over the knee, the knee can go forward and come back, as opposed to your bottom going up and down, because every time your bottom comes down, the weight tends to come against the horse. It is exactly the same position as the jockeys, but we find it harder to get into that position because we ride longer, the jockeys are very short and get up above the wither because the knee is up there.”

“Get your hip above your knee, so the knee can work into the horse, and the horse carries the weight easier and faster. Hands on the wither and reins longer.”

Do you think our event riders are riding too long?

“The mechanics are, the shorter you ride the stronger you are, relative to the horse. When you ride, you are pivoting over your knee. The longer you ride, the longer the distance from the elbow to the knee, and the more leverage the horse has to pull you out of balance. That’s why the jockeys, who weigh nothing, can balance the horse at 30/35 mph because the forearm and the thigh are in the same position, at the same angle, so the horse has no leverage and can’t pull the jockey out of position.”

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So I think you are saying that some of our riders could ride shorter and be more effective…

“Generalisations are dangerous, but yes: a) because you are stronger relative to the horse if you ride a bit shorter, and b) if you have a fall, there comes a point where you need to leave the horse, and when you leave, you need to go as far, and as quickly as you can – if the horse is not going to stand up, you need to be out of there. If you are riding shorter, that is obviously easier than when you are riding longer.”

I was interested that in your dressage work you were stressing that dressage was the key to what was going to happen in your cross country round and jumping – yet you must have grown up in the era when it was commonly believed that TOO MUCH dressage RUINED your cross country…

“As a kid I hunted, went to Pony Club and had fun, and liked galloping and jumping. That was all I enjoyed doing. But when I was eighteen, I did my first Burghley and I was 39th out of 40 in the dressage. Tenth or twelfth after the cross country, and fourth after the showjumping. But I went away from that event saying to myself, if I want to be any good at this sport, I’ve got to learn how to ride a twenty metre circle. I had to go and learn how to do dressage.”

Mark stresses to Amanda Ross with Koko Popping Candy the importance of good dressage, more on dressage follows…

“In those days if you walked, trotted and cantered, and had a non-aggression pact with your horse and changed gear in the right places, on the letters, you were competitive. But now that’s not enough. The horse has to actually walk, trot and canter, and do the flying changes – and real trot, not just getting from A to B, a trot with expression. The canter has to be relaxed and uphill, it’s real dressage, it’s not like it used to be. In those early days, we were able to get to the top much quicker because we didn’t have to have the same skill sets as the modern riders have.”

“These days the qualification process is much harder in the interests of safety or risk management, it takes much longer to qualify your way to the top. To be a top rider these days, you also have to be skillful in all three disciplines.”

Every now and then in this debate, the trogladytes will drag out Jack le Goff who allegedly said, I trained my horse to Prix St Georges and ruined it for cross country, I think Michi Jung might have put that theory to rest…

“Jack le Goff, god bless him, was a good friend of mine, but that is bullshit. Some people say, too much dressage takes away the free spirit and free thinking of the horse – well that is BAD dressage. Bad dressage does do that – if you are working the whole process with your hands, that’s bad dressage and the horse is only thinking backwards to you. The horse has to be thinking forward, drawing to the bit, in balance along the line of the rein – and if you ride like that, I can’t see that anything is taken away from the character and the thinking of the horse.”

I thought that was very interesting your exercise of getting the riders to get out of the saddle to do their downwards transitions, that had a dramatic effect…

“Muscle memory is a bitch. We get into the habit of using our hands for everything – alarm clock, light, tea, coffee, everything we do, we do with our hands. So we have to train the brain that actually the hands are only there to guide (the horse), and to balance forwards, and everything else happens through the core. Thinking about the core and your balance is not the quick fix, but at the end of the day, you are going to get a lot more out of your horse, and a lot more quality.”

I’d like to raise a topic you addressed in your Horse & Hound column – and that is, all over the world, with the possible exception of Germany, there is no new generation of eventing riders coming to the fore… Our last real international new face was Christopher Burton and he’s now in his 30s, in the US you are re-cycling Australians, and in the UK, it is the same old same old… We see it a lot in Australia, there are lots of two-star riders, lots more at one-star, but the ones coming through to three-star are few and far between… You were pointing to the same thing in Britain?

“It’s a complicated subject. Every country has cycles. We had our cycle when we had William and Pippa and Tina and Zara and whoever. That was a cycle and when those people are going really well, they tend to be the focus, and the direction, and that doesn’t promote a natural progression for the young – it’s like the door at the top is closed. I think the Germans are approaching that place now. Michi Jung is still looking great, but Ingrid is getting older, and that group, the Dibowskis and the Ostholts, are all getting older, and the question is, what’s coming next? The girl they had in Rio, Julia Krajewski is clearly not in the same league. You look at the Brits, the girls we had there were clearly not in that league YET. But that British window of opportunity is going to stay open, I don’t know if William is going to go on, and Pippa and Tina are not getting any younger, so there are going to be more opportunities for the Kitty Kings and the like. The next generation will come through, but I also worry that there are now so many programs for the elite up-and-coming riders and I hate that word, elite because it makes people think I’m an elite rider and therefore I am good enough – actually, you are just starting!”

“When you get into one of those programs, that’s not the time to sit back on your haunches and say, Hello, I’ve Arrived. That’s the time when you should examine every single thing you do in terms of your weight, your fitness, your training programs, your veterinary program, the whole thing, because this is your opportunity to develop your skills and benefit from that program. It’s not telling you that you have arrived, but I’m not sure the young riders always get the message.”

“A couple of years ago I was doing a clinic in New Zealand for the FEI of ‘elite riders’. I said to the NZ Horse Society afterwards, you’ve got to change the name of this program because these people all thought they were Mark Todd or Blyth Tait, and they couldn’t do simple two-star exercises. And they didn’t actually think it was funny when I told them – although it was perfectly obvious that they couldn’t do them. They may be the best of what you’ve got coming on, but they are not elite riders. You have to think of a different word to produce a work ethic… You see it over and again, these up-and-coming riders make a mistake and they don’t often say, I stuffed up, it’s my fault. It was the footing, it was the horse, it was the crowd, but it was never them. I don’t believe in luck, I think you make your own luck.”

“I’ve been with the Americans for 20 years, and people often ask – what do you do? Well I try to keep them honest. What do you mean you try to keep them honest? They say, I got unlucky I had a rail down, or I got unlucky I had a glance off – no, you didn’t get unlucky, you rode a crappy turn, which is why you had the rail down or the glance off. That’s not bad luck, that’s bad riding.”

“We had it a bit this year at Burghley, we had two or three, including Andrew Hoy, fell at the Trout Hatchery. Pippa Funnell said, I was an idiot, I came round the corner, I was too fast, too flat going in, and the horse fell. It was my fault. All the others went, oh the water is too deep, the bottom’s too this, dah di dah di dah. None of them were taking the personal responsibility for the horse ending on the floor. It was a big log and it had a little gap in front of it where the ground dropped away, so it was really difficult to get to the base and if you weren’t in a good balance, you got launched out into the middle, then bingo!”

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“They never blame themselves and that’s one of the problems we have in the modern sport, one of the problems that comes out of the funding and the help that people get from these development programs, is that riders think they are better than they are.”

If you get the chance to design the track at the WEG what can we look out for?

“At this point in time, I am not the WEG course designer. I design at the venue, Tryon, at the moment. My name has been put forward to be the designer in 2018. I’ve done a lot of work on the track but it is due to be ratified by the FEI this weekend in Tokyo.”

What is the terrain like?

“I actually worked there years ago when it was being developed as part of a golfing community, but it went bust in the financial crash of 2008, 2009. Mark Belissimo and his team, bought it off the bank, and are in the process of turning that golf course into an equestrian park. There aren’t any big hills, but the fairways are not flat. What are we doing now? We are filling in the bunkers. I’ve learnt a lot about the construction of putting greens over the past few weeks, they have eight to ten inches of very fine sand on the top, then at least twenty inches of rock underneath that. In the centre there are all these pipes that suck the moisture down and out. As a result all the greens have had to be taken down about two feet, so we get back down to the dirt again. So there’s a lot of work going on at the moment to produce a gallop track for the cross country.”

And you’ve got enough room?

“The planned track at the moment is 6500 metres.”

Hasn’t the FEI decided that the track has to be dumbed down to three-star to keep it like the Games?

“No one has sent me that memo. I’m a course designer, I can do anything I’m asked to do, but my understanding at the moment is that the WEG will be four in a team and three to count, and two individuals. I’m old and crusty enough to believe that the WEG is the one four-star world championship that we have left in the sport and, unless I am told otherwise, it hopefully won’t be a dressage competition, but I haven’t even been appointed yet…”

Will there be a climate problem? I note that we have moved the WEG on a month to improve the weather, is it going to be hot and sweaty?

“It is in the Carolinas and it does get hot. In America you have to go north to Vermont or Canada, if you want a temperate climate. So will it be hot at the end of September? Yes, but not unbearably hot. It’s not that far north of Atlanta, and although people were worried, Atlanta ended up not being a problem, but it is the same part of the world. Atlanta was in August, Tryon will be in September in the Autumn, and you can get lucky or unlucky. I can’t promise sunny days with a cool breeze, but when I’ve been there it has been like that on some days. Some days are cold, and some are bloody hot, but it won’t be that heat humidity combination that we had in Atlanta or Hong Kong – and they weren’t as bad as we thought they were going to be.”

Do you have a signature? If someone asks, what does a Mark Phillips course look like…

“If you take Burghley, it’s probably my best course because I have license there, we always want Burghley to be Burghley, it’s long, it’s big, it’s technical, but it is real four-star – I hope I have the same license with the World Games. Luhmühlen is a first time four-star, because that is what the requirement was on the continent, as opposed to Burghley which is over 60 years old. You’ve got to build to what the market is, and what the requirement is, and what the standard is…”

Even after the tape was turned off, the ideas kept rolling, as in “With the American team, I’d tell them to stop riding their young horses in the run up to a championship, because young horses can hurt your riding style…”


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2 thoughts on “Mark Phillips – a thinking coach

  1. This is the best article I have read about eventing in a very long time!! Kudos to Mark he knows what he is talking about!!

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