Heather Mitchell-Matheson

The weekend of Easter Sunday & Monday 2009 brought one of the top show jumpers of our nation to DeWinton, Alberta. The clinic was hosted by Springbank Stables and open to aspiring and current competitive show jumpers. The audience was filled with all kinds of horse enthusiasts interested in learning what our 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist had to say.

The focus of the clinic was fundamental aspects of successful riding. The first day, Jill diligently observed every group of riders’ equipment, basic riding position, knowledge of the theory behind effective flatwork for jumping and their chosen mounts for the clinic. Insightful adjustments were made with tack, body position and sometimes the attitudes of the riders in order to open their minds for learning from each other. Jill always captivated her audience with humour and playful coaching coupled with serious advice for those interested in getting ahead in their sport. Lastly the group applied the basics to trot poles, gymnastic lines and eventually a jump course.

Jill reiterated that, without these fundamentals, success in the jumping ring was hard to obtain. She often referred to textbooks that explain the essentials such as George Morris’ Hunter Seat Riding, Elmar Pollman-Schweckhorst’s Training the Modern Jumper and Bertalan de Nemethy’s The de Nemethy Method. These books, among others, were some of the resources driving her wisdom. Jill often credited the masters of the sport, such as Canadian Olympian Ian Miller, for having influenced her objectives and she was merely passing the information along to her students.

The second day of the clinic was filled with high expectations and even more content than the day before. After reviewing the basics of flatwork for jumping, such as rhythm, students focused on smoothing their transitions. Jill also stressed the importance of implementing these effective techniques no matter which horse they ride. She noted that horses will come and go in riders’ lives so the importance of creating a good foundation of skill lies with the rider. After a review, riders came to cavallettis, bounces and a new jump course. This time riders had the option to negotiate any order of the jumps they chose. It was an exciting day for auditors and the pinnacle of the clinic for many riders.

The clinic ended on a note from Jill that the future of the sport of show jumping in Canada lies in the hands of our youth. Their development increases the future success of our national team athletes in an internationally recognized sport. With early skill development, our current national team can rely on the up and coming riders to have what it takes to be strong team players and winners in the show ring.

On Monday after the clinic, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jill Henselwood. Following are her insights for horse enthusiasts involved in any discipline to achieve success.

Heather: With your background in human kinetics, what other sports and activities would you recommend riders pursue in order to better their riding ability? You mentioned dance classes, weight lifting and video taping ones riding, throughout your clinic, is there anything else?

Jill: Any activity involving balance is beneficial. Pilates, low seated rowing and weights are all beneficial. I do suggest having a personal trainer involved who knows and understands the physical demands and goals of equestrian athletes.

Heather: How has your post secondary education helped you in your career as a top professional rider?

Jill: School helped me to gain knowledge and a skill set outside of the horse world that I can apply to my career & everyday life. Even beyond the classroom I have been involved in a coaching system from teachers who helped me gain insight into my sport and its business side like Ian Miller, Emile Hendrix and Bob Henselwood.

Heather: What is the importance for young riders to gain a further education beyond high school? Should they just jump into the industry after high school if they are talented enough?

Jill: No. Seeking a further education allows for skills and credibility out in the world. No one is interested in handing over money to someone who does not understand business. Having a formal education gives you credentials and integrity that are important in order for people to take you seriously in business and in sport.

Heather: What support have you had throughout your riding career that has been instrumental in achieving your current success? What do riders require to do the same?

Jill: I have had the ability to learn from other successful athletes and teachers. Ian Miller is a top athlete in his sport. Emile Hendrix has a wealth of experience dealing with horses. Their support helps guide my program for success. Riders need to find experienced athletes and teachers to guide them and to create a program for success that’s right for their goals.

Heather: Between a diversified riding experience and a discipline specific focus, which plays a more important role in show ring success?

Jill: Both. A diversified riding experience should happen in the beginning. Between the ages of 12-20 is when one should focus on fundamental skill learning. After the fundamentals are there, focus should be directed at skill learning specific to the sport they select.  

Heather: Quickly, what would be five key ingredients you would recommend to any rider in any discipline, be it hunter under saddle, barrel racing or grand prix hopefuls for success in their discipline of choice?

Jill: Management of the horse is very important. Selection of stock is also important; personality of horse and rider should coincide. Control emotions: riders need to have the ability to control how they feel under pressure. Have great ambition: it is essential to success. Lastly: Have support. Whether it comes from the community or from the stable they train at it’s a key ingredient to success.

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