Amy Stovold Interview: “Training horses with kindness and in an understanding way”
As we all return to the equestrian competition circuit, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to catch up with and interview elite dressage rider and trainer, Amy Stovold.
Discussing all things training, competing and life after lockdown, Stovold gave us an insight into her principles of ‘kindness and understanding’ in everything she does with horses and clients and her future plans.
Hi Amy, for our readers who may not know you, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Your riding history, achievements, and where you are at now?
I am an international dressage rider, although it feels like forever ago since I rode internationally! I have competed up to Grand Prix really successfully for Great Britain, on a horse called MacBrian, who I also competed at Olympia in 2010 and was 5th.
I was selected as part of the World Class Programme, where I had help from them to encompass everything; training, sports psychology, nutrition, physiotherapy. From this, I was then selected as part of a group who got to go to the Olympics as an athlete, seeing it backstage. Taking a select few from their team, it was a chance to prepare for quite a daunting experience. It was pretty amazing and something that will never, ever leave my memory. I am forever grateful for everything they helped me with.
MacBrian unfortunately sustained an injury when I was in Biarritz but I did get to compete him at GP again, so that was quite an achievement. I went to the Nationals and won two titles.
I had a baby three years ago, so it’s taken me a couple of years to get my body strong again and get back to it. But now I’m in full swing again, trying to get the horses back competing.
So not only are you a rider, but a very established coach as well! How do you approach your own training and the training of your clients?
With my training, I’m very much about the horse understanding what it is he is required to do. I don’t agree with putting loads of pressure on the horses – it just goes against everything I believe in! I want my horses to ‘want’ to work. I want them to feel like it’s fun. That they are listening but at the same time enjoying it!
I have a very varied routine with them so they don’t get bored. So they go hacking, every horse of mine goes out in the field in the day, they go on the walker, they do pole work, schooling, lungeing, in-hand training. If it’s not varied, work can become very regimental.
With my clients, I try to give them the tools they need so that they don’t have to rely on me. I try to put a building block system in place, where if something goes wrong with their training when they are riding on their own, they can go back to the previous step and try to build from there. We begin with simple things, such as transitions, changes in the pace, balance, rhythm, and one of my primary focuses is that they stay working on the hindleg. I change training throughout the horse and rider’s development, but I really want riders to start thinking about their progression for themselves. It is the way that I was trained by Kyra Kirkland and her husband, Richard White. They trained us in a way that we could think for ourselves and I think that is very, very important.
What are your key training principles?
I use a lot of positive reinforcement including using food. I’ve been clicker training, with a friend of mine, which I met in South Africa, for about 7 years now so I do a lot of positive reinforcement including food. With a click tends to really secure that they know what they have done right, especially with the high-level movements.
We start using this technique on the ground with clients. It starts from mounting. So, all our horses, and I encourage all my clients, to ensure their horse stands by the mounting block, we get on the horse’s, and wait there until they are given a treat. We will give them a treat when we get on, position them to the mounting block followed by a click reward and treat when they stand still. Then we get on, click reward, and they take a treat from our hand. It’s not until we ask them to go, that they are allowed to move off. In the end, I can usually get on without a contact. Kyra Kirkland was also one that encouraged that on the mounting block, as the worse thing is when you’re at a show and trying to get on, especially if you are on your own, and you can’t! I always say that training starts from the minute that you get on the horses.
We also use this positive reinforcement technique on the ground to encourage leg yielding, walking forwards to halt, relaxation, training all those things until we begin with a rider.
When I ride, I use a voice command like a click (a ‘t-s-a’ sound) and then reward. So when I ride a flying change and it’s clean, I will instantly make the sound and reward, so they know that they have done right. It works from the very basic things to the very technical, such as piaffe and passage. It definitely reinforces positive behaviours in horses, instead of negative. It also gives horses a way to relax, which we always teach before we do anything else too.
Relaxation give a horse a place they can go; if they are worried, they can put their head down and relax, rather than run. When horses have their head down, naturally when they are eating, endorphins will be released. When they spook, normally a reaction to a predator, their head will come up, adrenaline is released, and as they are flight animals, they’ll run. So that’s the ethos behind the technique; we try to keep the adrenaline down as much as possible. Also, with their bodies are relaxed, their muscles are relaxed, their minds are relaxed, and they learn much better like that, rather than having tension all the time which could lead to injury.
I helped so many people with things like loading as well – I’ve become a little bit of an expert in loading troubled horses! I’ve helped with horses who don’t like the horse shower, clipping, spooking, leading – I do all my training from the ground up using the same principles as I do and teach in ridden work. It enables the rider and handler to be precise and reward, as with pressure and release it is very easy to not release the pressure at the right time. But with my training, I try to make the rider or handler more aware of timing and rewarding at the right moment so it’s much clearer. In the beginning of training, you have to reward one-for-one but now I probably reward every fourth time my horse does something correct.
You are obviously a fantastic coach, but you are also a very established competitor in your own right! So, what are your future competing plans? Do you have any exciting prospects in the pipeline?
I have one horse who is nearly at Grand Prix and I’m hoping he will be my next contender at this level. Then I have a 5yo, which I bought five weeks ago, who I’m very excited about. I’ll train at home and get his confidence, build up trust and go from there.
Before COVID came, I thought ‘I’m going to do all the premier leagues’ etc. etc. on one horse, the progress it onto two (horses). But then with COVID, I have sort of gone ‘lets get the horses out a little bit’. I’m not going to take my 5yo out yet, as I really want him to get to know me and trust me 100%. I’ll take him to different venues, because even loading and riding in a new environment can be really stressful, so I try to put all that into place before I start taking young horses out competing. Ensuring I have the breaks, they are relaxed, and I know that they are going to be okay.
With my more advanced horse, I did a competition last week in Inter I and got 72%! I’m competing next week doing a PSG and Inter I, just to get him out again. Then, I’m going to keep working on the GP stuff so that I can hopefully do an Inter II either at the end of this year or the beginning of next!
Are you planning on returning to the International stage?
Oh, I would love to! To be honest, after I lost MacBrian, he had a tragic and freak accident, I don’t make too many plans for all that stuff. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I was younger with him for the Olympics, for team GB. I was so devastated and so heartbroken when I lost him, I had to re-evaluate things. Now that I have a daughter as well, I don’t want to put myself under that immense pressure again and be disappointed, because it actually effects my entire life. I really have to evaluate; why am I doing this? What do I want to do this for? Do I want to do it to compete for Great Britain? Yes, of course I do, but I really enjoy it and I really enjoy training the horses, I enjoy training people, and I enjoy competing. So, for the moment, I’m trying to keep the enjoyment in it and see where things go! If my horses are good enough and I can compete internationally, then brilliant; it would be my ultimate goal! But if not, then I can’t have it that it’s the ‘be-all or end-all’! Hopefully we will be out on the international circuit again, as it is one of my dreams. But as I say if it happens it happens, if it doesn’t then I’m just happy doing what I’m doing and passionate about training horses with kindness and in an understanding way.
What top tips would you give for any rider trying to reach your heights of success, especially as we come out of ‘Lockdown’?
It takes a lot of work. I would say you need to make sure your horses are really strong in their body before pushing them to do too many things that they are not capable of. But, you need to be surrounded by like-minded people that encourage you and support you; that is one thing I had. I had a lot of people around me that were 100% behind me, like World Class. If you are good, then I think the World Class Programme and other programmes for younger people are definitely worth applying for. If you have a horse that’s potentially a medal-winning horse or with that background, and you’re a potential medal-winning rider, I would definitely, definitely encourage to go down that road.
Go out to shows. Try to figure out warm up times. Grand Prix riding is very different. With Grand Prix, someone told me; ‘you need a year of getting to know how to ride Grand Prix and the next year you ride in it’. Grand Prix, there’s so much in it but you need to have a good horse, trainer and network of people around you, like your home team of farriers, physio’s, dentists, in place too. That’s what the World Class Programme taught me.
Work hard and stay focused, working on yourself as much as your horses! I was personal training to keep getting stronger in my riding, especially after having the baby. It’s not just about the horse, it’s also about you as a rider. Eating well and sport psych really helped me, especially at big-level shows with helping me to focus. Look at it as a whole; two athletes doing one thing.
To get more from you, as I’m sure you won’t want to reveal all your trick of the trade, riders can attend your clinics and bootcamps – What can they expect?
Clinic-wise, I can help anyone, with any horse, in any discipline. I’ve helped eventing riders, show-jumping riders; I’m not just a dressage trainer-rider. I think you can improve any horse; I think you can improve any rider. I do exercises to help the horses with the discipline they are doing. Some have the opinion of its ‘dressage’ but it’s not it’s just flatwork – it makes your horse supple, yourself straight, and it does help every discipline.
Bootcamp-wise, we haven’t got it all nailed yet. However, I really want to have physio’s come in, and sport psych’s, so riders can really work on themselves. Then, horses can have vetting’s or physio sessions, so the combination can get the whole experience about riding. Then, I think the group could get together in the evening and have some fun, making it more of a social thing!
And you’ll be launching online tutorial sessions soon too? How these will be hosted and do you think this may be the future of equestrian training?
So, we are just finishing my website and now we are looking at doing the clinics. Again, the online tutorials are still in the works!
There are opportunities now for people to have lesson’s online, it can be done! So, with my tutorials, I want to give an insight into the exercise’s I’m doing. Short clips which people can log onto and have a look at. I’m embracing the moment and using a bit of everything; people don’t realise that there are so many tools to training!
I think it’s an option for the future, that if you can’t get to your trainer then you can do online training. It does work! It could be one-on-one, with headphones in as you ride, that could be another option (for the future of training). Trainers should do everything to help people, especially if they can’t get to you. I think, going forward we have to be more open about how we do training.
However, I personally love to teach one-on-one, so I can see what’s going on! Also, getting the chance to sit on the horses so I can feel what’s going on, because somethings how it looks and how it feels are two different things!
What would be your top tips to surviving another ‘Lockdown’?
That’s a good question! Well, my lifestyle changed completely because obviously my daughter has been home from nursery, so she was with me all the time. Initially, I was not upset but frustrated that I couldn’t go to the stables and ride, but then I just embraced it! And I think everyone ended up embracing it eventually with whatever situation they found themselves in – some still manged to ride. Although it wasn’t in my normal routine, I actually really enjoyed being with my daughter, Florence, as I didn’t have that much maternity leave. I thought to myself, actually, this is my maternity leave and changed my mindset.
It’s difficult though. I think keeping in touch with friends and family is important. I kept in touch with old friends. We used Facetime a lot, so that we didn’t feel completely isolated.
At the end of the day, we all got through it and it was all fine for myself and those around me. But it’s so difficult when something like this happens. No-one has a clue how to deal with it. Let’s hope we don’t have another Lockdown!
Where should we keep an eye out for you over the next year?
Events-wise, I’m not sure. I have a couple of up-coming shows but my social media channels are probably the best way to keep an eye on what I’m up to! My new website will be also be live in the next couple of weeks.