Chatting with... The Showjumping Coach

Chatting with... The Showjumping Coach

Showjumping: Talking coaching and talent with Tom and Elaine Slattery

Tom Slattery is the Head Coach at Manton Grange Stables. He has represented Ireland numerous times and is a 5 times Irish National Champion. He has won 36 Grand Prixs and more latterly was the team coach for the Irish Pony Show jumping team. He joined Manton Grange Stables in 2015 with with wife Elaine, who is the Senior Groom and has worked all over the World on the International circuit.

As we type, the Manton Grange team are competing at the Global Champions Tour in London.

The Sporting Blog: Tom, what do you look for in a young or aspiring Show-jumper? Are there key attributes?

Tom Slattery: Well you're not just looking at the individuals talent, you're looking at the horses talent as well. They have to be keen and want to do it, they have to be inspired. To be successful it is all about hard work.

TSB: How often when you see kids or newcomers, are they actually naturally talented?

TS: The majority are naturally talented but you can see the real progress through proper coaching.

TSB: But is it the kind of sport where you see someone hop on and think "Yeah, they've got it"

TS: Oh yeah. There are plenty that can do it, especially in Ireland you'll see lot's of kids that can't afford the training but progress nicely along themselves to a point.

TSB: How important is it to for them to progress slowly, get to understand horses better and so on? Are there occasions where kids can try and progress too fast?

TS: Yes, you'll see some parents that might buy their children expensive ponies and it will put a lot of pressure on the kids and the parents themselves. You can see sometimes by 16 or so they can be burnt out with it, with their parents maybe a bit too much on top of them at times.

Elaine Slattery: There are the kids from more affluent backgrounds who get the best ponies which they kind of just have to 'point and steer' who might not stick with it. Then there are the youngsters who don't have that privilege and they can sometimes be the ones that really stick with it.

TSB: So on the money side of the sport, are there avenues for the less 'well off' to get into it? Are there grants or subsidies or anything like that?

TS: There are more and more now. There are bursaries and so on. The point is, if they are good enough they will go on. There are good jobs and opportunities in Europe and out in America, but that is because the people they go and work for, have money. Bottom line is to be successful, there has to be money. Whether it is through a sponsor, patron or whatever. You have to have a good horse or pony no matter how good you are.

TSB: How does that fit in with the aspirations of the various International associations?

TS: They have to work with these people. They put the coaches in place to work with people at the various levels. Junior coaches, Senior coaches, managers and so on. It's up to the riders to make use of that setup, some of them don't as they have private coaches if they have more money.

TSB: Do the associations have goals in place for participation?

TS: Oh yeah, they have competitions at every level. There are Championships every year for ponies, juniors and younger riders. For the senior riders there are the Europeans every two years and then of course the Olympic games. For the Seniors the most important is the Olympics, then the World Championships and the Europeans.

TSB: Do you see a noticeable increase in take up participation wise after something like the Olympics? I'm thinking after the success of Nick Skelton and the like?

TS: Yeah, it does yeah. Just like the swimming and cycling over here in the UK, it certainly does.

TSB: How about yourself? How did you get into Show jumping?

TS: My Dad had horses on the farm for breeding but I started competing quite late, at around 17. Most are competing at 10 or 12. They start even younger now at under 8's and under 10's. There are better plans in place now than 20-30 years ago.

ES: It's like any sport; it has evolved and there are more chances for youngsters than there were before. The sport has grown.

TSB: When you first started riding did you have goals in mind? Was there a path to go and do certain events etc?

TS: For me it started out really about just getting the experience. In my situation we didn't have lots of money so I got a job in a dealing yard and got some experience there, then to a Show jumping yard. I went there as second rider and was lucky enough to quickly go to first rider so I got to ride all the horses. So I was very lucky as I had a lot of good horses to ride and that kick-started my career. Then I went to America for 2 years and worked for a Lady that had some great horses. We travelled all over the US doing shows.

TSB: Talking about the horses for a second... how important is it for someone to learn and ride the same horses regularly? 

TS: For Show jumping it's very important as they have to get to a certain age before they are fully developed. It can be up to 9 years of age until they are totally developed, physically a bit earlier at 6-7 years of age but in terms of the full package it can take a while. You couldn't just buy a 4 year old horse and expect it to perform.

TSB: And to play devil's advocate... how easy would it be for the best rider to jump on the best horse and be successful? Would they still need the time to bond and so on?

TS: You'd still need time, but the best riders would need less time! You could go out and buy a £3m pound horse but you'd have to take a step back still to get to know it. You couldn't just go straight in to the level the horse had been used to competing at, you'd need a bit of time. More than likely a couple of months to bond with the horse.

TSB: So when Fred (Fred Goltz, owner of Manton Grange Stables) looks to buy a horse, you're looking at what?

TS: I'll get on and ride it, as will Fred but the most important thing is that he is comfortable with the horse. That's number 1. 

ES: The bond between the rider and a horse is incredibly strong, especially if you've been riding it for 2-3 years. It's just like the bond between an owner and a dog, sometimes it takes longer and other times it just clicks.

TSB: When you are coaching someone at a show, what is your general role and how do you coach?

TS: Well we walk the jumps with them first, you advise on the stride patterns; is it long or is it short? Is it uphill or downhill? Then they have practice jumps in the practice arena and we will warm the horses up. We tend to do less warm up jumps than others but always around 10-15 practice jumps. You start small and build up to the height in the actual ring. After they finish their competition rounds we'll analyse and try and pick out the positives, and we'll always look at the video after their rounds. That's an important part of the training now.

TSB: Moving onto the 'life' of a Show jumper, most people won't be aware of the amount of time away from home...

TS: It's definitely easier when you're younger and you have no responsibilities! But yeah, you're living out of a suitcase and generally each show is Thursday-Sunday and you'd be home Monday and Tuesday. Doing that every week and catching flights on Tuesdays and Sunday nights is tough when you have commitments at home.

TSB: Does that affect peoples motivation at all to keep going as they get older?

TS: Well as long as you are having success and you're riding nice horses it keeps you motivated!

TSB: Did that effect your decision to move towards coaching?

TS: Well as I got older I was thinking about moving towards coaching and I'd always enjoyed that side of it. It's great when you coach kids and they go on and be successful. When you are part of the team and they go on and do well that's like competing.

TSB: You are still competing though?

TS: Yes, when I started working here I started competing a bit more again. My main role is to coach Fred and his daughter but there a good horses to ride and that's nice.

TSB: To round things off... what do you think about the general state of Showjumping at the moment? Is it in a positive place?

TS: Yes it's in a very positive place, there is a lot of money, mostly private. There are lots of opportunities in Eastern Europe now, more chances for high quality training and therefore more shows, with better prize money.

TSB: On the prize money, is it good enough across the board?

TS: It has got better and better over the last ten years, but you don't win every week. You couldn't live on the prize money alone. It needs the sponsors and the owners to make the career viable.

TSB: Do you have any advice for people looking to get into Show jumping?

TS: Well you'd need some affinity with horses, you don't just walk into it. If your child shows some interest, get them a couple of lessons first, don't just go out and buy a pony. See how keen they are and then go from there. The coaches will be able to advise you how keen they are and whether it is worth spending the money on a pony. They have to really want it in order to get into the sport. It's a great sport for kids to get involved in, they get to mix with lot's of different kids and is a great community, we've made friends for life from showjumping. 

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