When Madison and Oliver met William Funnell
You know the saying “Don’t meet your heroes, as they will disappoint”? Well I can guarantee you this does not apply to William Funnell!
One of the many perks of being chosen as the HorseQuest 2020 showjumping bursary winner was winning a lesson with one of the UK's best show jumpers, William Funnell. Since I found out about winning this, I have been looking forward to the lesson. Unfortunately Covid delayed it but finally social distance rules have allowed us to have our lesson and boy was it worth the wait!
The day started (at 6am!) with the long 4 hour drive from Cambridgeshire down to Dorking. When we arrived it was all go on the yard, if you thought Mondays were a chilled day you would be wrong, 6 Billy horses were already jumping around the course at 10am Monday morning. After letting Oliver have a bit of a rest in the lorry after the journey it was time to get our jumping gear on! Once up and warming up, it took Will about 30 seconds to see our problems without me even saying anything.
Anyone that has meet Oliver will tell you he is very opinionated and has a bit of an attitude, some would say Oliver barely knows I’m sat on his back half the time! Now this can be a good thing in the sense that if he wants to do it, there's nothing stopping him, and luckily for me he enjoys jumping so there's usually no problems with the actual fences. However as we try to step him up to the next level we both need to be able to ride the courses together, which means he needs to listen to me. Getting him to listen and understand my leg aids has been a very big struggle for me and William noticed this straight away.
We started off with some ground work, with a simple circle, main goal being getting Oliver forward to my leg. We did a few easy walk to trot transitions and Will quickly noticed Oliver had no respect for my leg aids at all. Having a horse listening to your aids is the most important aspect of riding but particularly with a big (18hh!) horse like Oliver. Will was very clear that I need to be much tougher and determined with my aids, for example if Oliver didn’t listen to the “normal” aid, I had to give him a couple “pony kicks” until he went forward. From a distance many would say I am being too forceful, but we must remember how big and strong these horses are and if we aren’t in control how dangerous this sport can become! After a few (A LOT!) of the pony kicks and a couple of tantrums from Oliver I could start to feel a difference. With leg aids it isn’t just about getting them forward but also keeping the horse in balance and square between you, I struggle a lot with losing Oliver's shoulder in turns so we worked on this on the circle as well. We did a lot of work in walk as William reminded us how important the walk is, if you can’t activate your horse in walk, you’re not likely to be able to in trot or canter either.
Once we had got Oliver listening as well as we could (this sort of work is the kind that can take months and years, rather than one lesson) we started the jumping. We warmed up over a single jump on a figure of 8, making sure he was getting to warm up on both leads. The jump had 2 poles lying in a v on the top pole, this is just to give the horses a bit of extra carefulness and also keep them straight over the jump, behind the jump was a pole on ground of each side to make sure the horses are always thinking straight over and after the jumps. This is how The Billy Stud warm up all their horses, and I highly recommend for young horses especially.
Once all warmed up, we jumped around the course set up there. Now this wasn't an easy course, triple bar as the first jump, plenty of related distances, jumps through turns, double and a combination! By this point Oliver (and me!) were very tired but we jumped around clear, not our cleanest or prettiest round but as always Oliver just pops over the jumps. This made it even clearer to everyone that the jumping isn't a problem but rather the ground work. After jumping around the course we had a little chat and decided not to jump anymore, and rather focus the remaining time on going back to listening to my aids. On their amazing yard they not only have a massive outdoor arena but also a smaller indoor arena where we finished the lesson. We finished off by just working in walk, after focusing on getting him forward most of the lesson we now turned toward the focus on movement from the aids. A big dangly horse that doesn't listen to aids like Oliver, will really struggle with any leg yielding or shoulder in exercises. The best exercise we did was to face the indoor arenas wall and make Oliver leg yield to each side, and went back and forwards a few time. Now this is quite confusing for any horse not familiar with your aids, as to them they pretty much think you’re just asking them to go forward, however you are facing a wall so there is nowhere for them to go. We just had to take our time and any small step to the side was a win! As Will said, I’m not going to win every argument, nor do i need to make big fights, but all these small wins will eventually add up.
And to top it all off, Will gave us a tour around The Billy Stud. We meet all the horses, from the 3yos that were sold in the action the day before to Will’s Olympic prospect horses, as well as talking us through all it takes to run this highly successful operation that is The Billy Stud with over 20 staff and over 50 horses being born each year!
To sum up my lesson, it was probably one of the most meaningful lessons I have ever had. Will really took the time and energy to engage with me, see my issues and actually give me solutions and help in a way that no other trainer has been able to.
It has now been a week since my lesson and I have been implementing all of his training and have already noticed a big difference. I can only thank HorseQuest and William Funnell for giving me this opportunity and it won't be one I will forget anytime soon! To say I am excited for the future and full of motivation would be an understatement!
You can catch a few of our Instagram highlights from Madison's session below...