Richard Spooner: How To Develop Advanced Horsemanship

One of Richard Spooner’s specialties—of which there are many—is to take the time and effort to develop his young horses for upper level competition. When talking to him, the passion he has for his horses is palpable; they aren’t just animals—they’re more like family.

We caught up with Richard while he competed at the Del Mar International Horse Show CSI3*-W last week to get inside his mind, with his vast knowledge of what goes into working with top-level equine athletes. Richard shared examples of his own horsemanship that are key to the health, well-being, and success of his string of horses. Incorporate these points into your own journey with horses to reach your next level, either in sport or in your everyday relationship with horses:

• Horsemanship has to do with doing your best to make your horses happy. I think one exercise is to turn your horse out for a while. In this competitive world we are in, with 5* competitions around the world, it’s easy to get rolled up into going from big money show to big money show, so I would say turning your horse out is the simplest way.

• Another key is their physical soundness and trying to keep your finger on the pulse on their physical well being. It’s very difficult. It takes a super relationship with your vet. I would say your farrier, as well. One of the keys to that is a long-term relationship with your farrier and vet. They are neither cheap nor wolf in the relationship. You have to have a healthy relationship with the two so the three of you and conspire for success. I find it costly to keep the relationship but I want my farrier to go with me. My farrier goes out with me every six weeks.

• One of the other things that is important is mental fitness, as well as physical, [which means] getting them out of the ring and letting them go on trail rides—and for us that means going up into the mountains. I’m a big fan of the mountains with the horses; it helps them align mentally and physically. I think you have to do your best to give them incentives and fulfillment and [to make them] happy. The more you can make them happy, the more you can demand from them when you’re competing.

• One thing to focus on is the footing and the conditions. The conditions you ride your horses in is pivotal to your horses’ health. You have to make a conscious effort where you work at home and at shows. You have to find some where on the grounds.

I actually think the footing in general has become too hard for the horses and there’s now a lot more jamming injuries than I saw in the past. Although there is less tendon issues because there is a lot of consistency in the footing. At home, I like to have softer footing. I don’t want to hear them land, [to] hear their feet slap the ground as they canter across the arena. At the same time, I like to have horses walk on harder ground, stones sometimes—walk up and down steep or uneven areas. Although I don’t want to hammer them in that footing, I still want them to be rugged and be able to function on different surfaces.

• Transportation to the show is very important, and I think it’s important for a rider to take a close look at how horses are transported. Sometimes it’s taken for granted. It’s difficult to avoid transportation–we do a lot of transporting, more so in the past. There are a lot of people on the road. Safety is key to the horse’s transportation.

Are they comfortable? Did they get there in the same shape they left? The main safety component is to take a hands-on approach to the horse’s transportation. There are so many things that can go wrong that it’s very important to be involved with the transportation: when, what’s the temperature, where are they stopping, is it clean? A lot goes into it. In general, that can be overlooked as well as on the flights. It’s important you get a rapport with your shipping agents. If you can do it yourself, great. But if you can’t, you need someone that you have confidence [in their abilities]. The goal is to get them there and home safely.

• Once they get home you need to let them relax after a few days. It’s a horsemanship issue that can be overlooked—the recovery period after competition. With human athletes, it can take a few days after competition to get some rest, get your muscles back into shape, before you work again.

There is a tendency to think horses are Hercules—that they can just go on and on because they’re stoic. But unfortunately, you don’t even want to see smoke, let alone fire—you want to catch things when they’re warm. You want to know your horse and their legs. You want to check on them when they get home and have staff that can check on them.

It’s important to reevaluate. Take a few days to reevaluate and see where they are at and start back again when you feel they’re ready to go. People want to train, to learn, to practice, but it doesn’t do you any good if you practice and prepare and then your horse isn’t sound. It’s a lot less expensive to catch problems before they are problems. You have to know your animal and have a relationship with your animal so you know something is up, something’s not right—so you can catch a problem before it’s a serious problem. The odds are, over the years, you’ll have more consistency with your horse.

• When you have a fit horse, generally, they’re easier to keep sound. When they’re defined as sound, it’s important to work them hard. The idea of the way that we treat these horses—we tend to treat them like mushrooms for 22 to 23 hours of the day. That is not an athlete.

I certainly wouldn’t think that a basketball player would sit around all day then try to run a couple of miles. You need to avoid that trap. They have to stay active and get out a lot because your intent is to have a top horse, a top athlete. If you don’t treat them that way, injuries follow.

People say they don’t want to work too hard. I would argue that’s not the right way to go. When they’re sound, you have to work them hard to stay sound. Horses’ fitness is key. So there has to be a diversity in your training because if you say, “Okay, I’m going to work for three hours a day,” and you go up in your ring for 3 hours a day, that is not going to really accomplish mental fitness as you have physical fitness; you have to find a balance to get the healthy work done, both mentally and physically. Having the horse out doing different things isn’t unrealistic. Physical fitness is important.

• The horsemanship of trying to put the horse in a place where they can succeed is key. We have a tendency to put our hopes and desire on their shoulders. We sometimes make the mistake of: “Well, I bought the horse for X, in the hopes of he/she doing this.”

We force that issue because we think that is what we purchased so that is what they become. Horses don’t know what they cost—3 million Euros or 3 Euros. Your expectations can throw the baby out with the bath water. Your expectations of what they are taint your horsemanship. It taints the way that you deal with the animals. It’s very hard not to do that.

We have high hopes and financial expense; it doesn’t always guarantee but it positions where you need to be. It positions you. The amount of money you spend gives you the opportunity to have a 1.50m or .1.60m horse. It doesn’t make a difference, but those are human expectations not equestrian-based expectations. It’s unrealistic to have that perception.

The amount of investment doesn’t always dictate the amount of success, sometimes you buy a horse half a million and it’s worth $150,000. Sometimes, it’s the opposite. It gets our expectations—the pressure we put on these animals. The pressure could lead to a breakdown, both mentally and physically. It becomes a self-fulfilling exercise. The horses are working so we try to push.

• I think also, we have a tendency to over-complicate; it can become the biggest liability. If you’re producing a product, the more ingredients you put in the hopper, the harder it is to get a consistent result. The more you try to grasp at straws and a million different changes with the horses, add all these supplements—not that they’re bad, but I see a lot of over thinking in this sport.

When I come out of the ring I want to say to myself, “I made this mistake, I did something wrong.” I want to fix it. But the muddier the waters, the harder it is to fix. There are so many different things—crutches—that we can use for support.

Maybe I have been criticized for being too simple, but I would say that isn’t an accident. I’m simple because I want to know what I did wrong when I come out of the ring so I can do my best to fix it. If you come of the ring and say, “My horse did this or that wrong,” well, horses are hard to change.

When I come out of the ring I try very hard to look in the mirror and find fault in myself and not in all of these little crutches—tiny nuances—because everybody sees the icing and tastes the icing, but they don’t always notice the cake. I think it’s key to notice that bulk, the bulk of the problem could be you. I would say it’s important to keep it as simple as possible.

• Last thing is having a sense of humor and having a proper aspect of that. If you can’t laugh at your failures in this sport, you’re going to need a lot of Kleenex–myself, included. All of that pressure we put on ourselves—horses are more sensitive to that than we are.

This sport is one [in which] one minute you’re at the top, but it’s like climbing Mt. Everest: you can’t stay at the top forever—you’re going to freeze. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to come down. Your success is tentative; you’re going to have a lot more failures than success. You have to have perspective when you’re winning, and optimism when you’re not.

As told to NF Style

All photos by Bret St Clair