hat would you do if you had the opportunity to learn from one of the best event riders in the world? You'd jump at it, of course. That’s what Swiss eventer Felix Vogg did several years ago when he went to work for German Olympic champion Michael Jung. But working under the world’s best also comes with its own version of pressure. For a self-proclaimed perfectionist such as Felix, this almost proved to be more challenging than any difficult horse or tough course that came his way.
Early in 2018, Felix temporarily relocated to the U.S. in a concerted effort to prepare for the upcoming FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. While based in the U.S., Felix learned from greats such as Phillip Dutton, Boyd and Silva Martin, and Anne Kursinski. He credits that time with allowing him to let go of the personal expectations he was clinging to so tightly. One of the most important lessons he’s learned, Felix says, is to embrace the process and learn to be a bit more forgiving of himself.
'How Does He Do That?'
Felix grew up an hour from Michael’s farm and originally worked with Michael’s father, Joachim Jung, in dressage. Eventually, Joachim asked Felix if he’d like to come and work at the farm. He became a full-time student of Michael’s in 2010. By that time, Michael’s rise to eventing fame had really come into its own, and Felix notes the opportunity to be around the farm during this period was invaluable — it wasn’t just riding lessons that helped Felix improve.
“I think the most you learn from him is just in his company,” Felix says. “You learn when you’re around him all day, moving jumps, going to shows. This is where you learn, by seeing how he does things each day.”
This, however, caused some frustration for Felix, who found himself struggling to emulate his mentor in his own riding. “Sometimes it’s still a question of, ‘How is he doing that?’” he explains. “Still now, I will watch him and ask how he did something, and even he won’t really have an answer because it comes down to feel.”
Photo by Shannon Brinkman.
We often talk about the topic of “feel,” and how this is something that cannot be taught. Michael arguably has one of the strongest understandings of this concept of any modern event rider, and this sets the invisible bar high for those who want to learn from him. “Even after all these years, I still ask,” Felix says ruefully.
As he struggled to achieve the same finesse that Michael seemed to possess naturally, the perfectionist inside Felix had trouble seeing the positives in a ride that was less than perfect.
“You do copy his riding, sometimes without even realizing it,” Felix says. “I see a lot of improvement with my riding; he really helped me smooth out my position and earn more marks in my dressage tests. But the little details you cannot copy.”
Learning to Let Go
Felix credits his work with Phillip for making the biggest difference in his riding during his time in the U.S. One of the biggest takeaways? Don’t be so nice.
“I found I was always too nice, not determined enough to make it happen on cross-country,” he explains. “And Phillip really helped me with that little ‘extra’ so that I didn’t ride so much for style.”
The desire to make his riding look as smooth and stylish as possible, Felix notes, originates from riding in Germany for so long. He chuckles, “You know, we Germans always have to have it perfect. Maybe it’s a bit different in America. And really, maybe this is to [the German style’s] disadvantage. When you have a problem, it’s easy to stay on the safer side, which can make you too passive. That is what I struggled with. I needed a bit more aggression.
“That’s what's different with Phillip or Boyd [Martin],” he continues. “If something is going wrong, they get it done.” Have you ever seen the video of Phillip getting, through sheer determination, Mighty Nice’s shoulders through the flags on a very skinny corner on the Rio de Janeiro Olympic cross-country course? Felix has a point.
And so Felix is slowly but surely learning to let go, to ride more boldly, and to not be so hard on himself if something goes amiss. “Silva [Martin] says I always come out of every dressage test talking about what went wrong,” he says. “And that will always be a challenge for me.”
Photo by Sportfot.
A true student of the sport, Felix says there is much to be gleaned just from spending time around the right people. He credits Boyd here, saying that even though he did not do much actual training with Boyd, being around him and observing him elevated his own training philosophy.
Another method he’s found to help ease up on himself is taking on more young horses. With young horses, he explains, a rider has to embrace the development process. This is something he enjoys. “Now, I can go into it and look at the big picture and see my results for what they are,” he says.
Make the Horse Think, Too
Eventing is a three-phase sport, after all, with the athletes needing to be proficient in three separate disciplines. For that, cross-training is often encouraged, and Felix took the reins when given the opportunity to ride with legendary show jumper Anne Kursinski. Under her instruction, Felix learned to allow the horse to think independently.
“The horse has to take care of you sometimes as well as itself,” he says. “Anne encouraged me to let the horse be a bit more on his own. She really had me practicing the ‘old school’ head up, light feet, quicker speed. I’ve never ridden with so much speed before!”
Felix has since returned to his home in Germany, where he’s set his sights on preparing for a possible go at the European Championships. With all of the expert tutelage now under his belt, Felix says he’s taken bits and pieces from each country, each instructor, each school of thought.
“I’ve gotten a bit more relaxed now since I’ve been back,” he reflects. “Of course, you always want to do your absolute best, but I know that if a test or a course doesn’t go exactly right, it’s not a life-changing thing. And after a dressage test, I just remind myself that until Sunday anything is possible.”
Feature photo by Sportfot.