Ride of Your Life

An event­ing profe••ional treat• hi• client• like part of the team.

Practical Horseman - - News - By Tri­cia Con­a­han

Top even­ter Jonathan Holling shares the highs and lows of his ca­reer with horses.

PHWhy did you choose this sport?

JHThe truth of the mat­ter is, I was al­ways a com­pet­i­tive person. But I ma­tured late. In ele­men­tary school, I was good at all the sports. But by high school I was one of the smaller, slower kids. After a while it is no fun play­ing base­ball or foot­ball if you are not com­pet­i­tive. But the horses? I was al­ways good at that.

PHDid you al­ways know you would be a rid­ing pro­fes­sional?

JHNot really. At 18, I spent one day at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin. I hated it. When I walked in, the pro­fes­sor had a list of stu­dents and for some rea­son my name was not on it. I was sup­posed to be some­where else. So I said to my­self, “This is a sign from God that I am not sup­posed to be do­ing this.”

When I told my par­ents, my dad was an­gry, my mom was cry­ing. But the great­est thing my par­ents ever did for me was to be adamant that I was not go­ing to stay and run our fam­ily sta­ble. They wanted me to go away and learn some­thing. So I went to Toronto and worked for Peter Gray and Paul Del­brook. Ev­ery­thing I do for my horses now, I learned from them.

PHHow did you find suc­cess?

JHI had a lot of peo­ple help­ing me, peo­ple say­ing, “Keep try­ing!” My fam­ily was there. Then I was lucky enough—I think be­cause I am a gen­uine, hon­est, straight­for­ward, hard­work­ing person—to at­tract clients who ap­pre­ci­ated that.

PHWhat have you learned along the way?

JHWhether you are young or es­tab­lished, peo­ple who are go­ing to own horses and be clients want to feel like they are part of the team.

You can’t think of them as a spon­sor— they are a cus­tomer and a friend. They want en­joy­ment, they want com­mu­ni­ca­tion and they want a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship. They need to feel that you want their help, you want them to be part of the jour­ney. That is the big­gest thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years. You don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be a four-star rider to have a great group of own­ers. You just have to un­der­stand their mo­ti­va­tions.

PHWhat is your ap­proach to teach­ing?

JHMy stu­dents know that I care. When they do well they see me jump­ing up and down—they know I am ex­cited be­cause I un­der­stand how much work they have put into it. I am just as pleased as they are. Holling Event­ing is not just my horses and my rid­ing. It is also my clients and their horses and their suc­cess. We are all part of the team.

PHIs there a par­tic­u­lar say­ing you tend to use fre­quently with your stu­dents?

JHI of­ten joke and say, “Rid­ing is very sim­ple. It’s just in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult.” We can all com­pli­cate this. But you need to keep the train­ing sim­ple. You put your leg on to go for­ward. Close your hand and put on leg to col­lect. Walk, trot and can­ter with the horse rea­son­ably sup­ple. That’s all you really need. Once you es­tab­lish those ba­sics then the rest of it more eas­ily falls into place.

PHWhat do you like most about your­self?

JHI am gen­uinely hon­est with peo­ple and I al­ways try to do right by them. Peo­ple know that and see it. Even if you make mis­takes, they can tell what your in­ten­tions are and that mat­ters.

PHAfter your win at Bromont CCI*** in 2012, your friends dared you to streak across the com­pe­ti­tion field. There’s a video of you run­ning naked in the dark that went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia.

JHThis is such a dif­fi­cult sport. There are so many near wins, so many dis­ap­point­ments. When it goes well, I am a big be­liever that you should en­joy the mo­ment, sa­vor it. Bromont was my big­gest win to that point. Streak­ing was one of those things I did that was fun and ridicu­lous. For­tu­nately, the video was edited well and the an­gles were just right!

PHDo you have a train­ing phi­los­o­phy?

JHIn event­ing, we ask our horses to do dif­fer­ent jobs. We get them nice and round in dres­sage, then we gal­lop them and get them flat on the cross-coun­try course. Then the next day, we ask them to col­lect again for the show-jump­ing phase. If you don’t have the ba­sics in place, then you have to be a ma­gi­cian to get this done. And I don’t want to be a ma­gi­cian.

So we spend time from the very be­gin­ning mak­ing sure these horses un­der­stand the ba­sics. Whether it is a Novice horse or an Ad­vanced horse, I am teach­ing the same stuff. Very of­ten I have peo­ple who are rid­ing up a level, and they are strug­gling. And every sin­gle time I go back to the ba­sics. Is the horse in front of your leg or are you nag­ging him to go for­ward? When you ask your horse to col­lect, are you see-saw­ing on his face or does he re­act softly to that re­quest? Do walk, trot, can­ter un­til you have mas­tered the ba­sics.

PHIn 2008, your horse Di­rect Merger died on cross coun­try dur­ing the Red Hills CIC*** from a sus­pected heart is­sue. How did his death af­fect you?

JHI con­sider my­self to be a pretty good horse­man. I had won Red Hills the year be­fore and knew what I was do­ing. But I had two horses in the three­star and the turnover time be­tween horses was short. In or­der to have Di­rect Merger warmed up to make my sec­ond start time, I had him longed. Then he was put back in a stall. I got on him, warmed up over a few jumps and he went out of the start box like a can­non. He was hot and wild.

All I know is that as a horse­man I changed my rou­tine on that horse. When we got to the fence where he had his ac­ci­dent, he jumped that fence, stag­gered, stood up on his hind legs and he died.

The ex­perts say it wasn’t my fault. But in my heart, I was the guy on him, I was sup­posed to be tak­ing care of him, I was his part­ner. And I feel like that day I let him down. I re­gret that and I use it every day to drive my­self to be a bet­ter horse­man.

PHWhy did you get in­volved in sup­port­ing equine car­dio­vas­cu­lar re­search?

JHThat day at Red Hills was with­out a doubt the worst mo­ment of my life. I lost my horse. A good friend got trau­mat­i­cally hurt, an­other horse died on course. I re­mem­ber say­ing after­ward to Jenn (my wife), “I am not go­ing to keep do­ing this un­less I can be part of the so­lu­tion.”

So I got in­volved in the gover­nance of the sport and helped spear­head a long-term study. Event­ing is such a small world that get­ting the data is in­cred­i­bly

dif­fi­cult. It is like with or­gan-trans­plant re­cip­i­ents. You don’t want a horse to die to get the info, but every time a horse col­lapses on course we do a necropsy on them. That is manda­tory now so we learn some­thing every time.

We have learned a lot since 2008 and there is still a lot more to find out. But as long as we are mov­ing for­ward, that is what lets me sleep at night. I feel like I am do­ing some­thing to help.

PHYou’re 40 years old now. What ad­vice would you give your 25-year-old self?

JHAt 25, I wanted to be a four-star rider. My goal was to get own­ers to buy horses for me and sup­port me to go to Rolex, Burgh­ley, etc. I wanted to rep­re­sent the U.S. in­ter­na­tion­ally—a su­per dream. But I kind of ne­glected that to get there you need to build a busi­ness of teach­ing and train­ing—a busi­ness that ac­tu­ally makes money.

There are no fairy god­moth­ers in this sport. I spent too long early in my life wait­ing for that person to come along. Start by build­ing a base to draw on. Be­come an ed­u­cated horse­man and build your busi­ness first. Once you are able to take care of your­self and your horses, the rest of it will come.

PHWhat do you re­gret?

JHIn the horse world, it is easy to ask for ad­vice, but you don’t al­ways get the best busi­ness ad­vice. If I had lis­tened more to my fa­ther, who had run a good busi­ness, I would have been bet­ter off.

PHHow do you make sure your horses are in the best con­di­tion to do event­ing?

JHYou learn as you go to pick out the right horses and make sure the con­for­ma­tion is the best it can be. But any­time I have a horse with an in­jury, I ask if I did ev­ery­thing right to make sure this horse had the best op­por­tu­nity to get there. Look at your pro­gram, your feed­ing, your far­rier, your fit­ness. And part of the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the trainer is to move a horse on to the next ca­reer be­fore it has a cat­a­strophic prob­lem.

PHHow do you feel about com­pet­ing?

JHI love to win and I hate to lose. But you need to show that you have joy and you love your horses and you ap­pre­ci­ate them for what they have done. When I win, I think of all the time and ef­fort that this horse has put in and how it’s great to get a pay­off for that. And los­ing? I can fin­ish a com­pe­ti­tion in last place and if my horse did his job to the best of his abil­ity for where he is in his train­ing, I can be happy with that.

PHWhat is next for you?

JHI know how lucky I am right now. I have worked my en­tire life to get to this place: an eight-stall barn filled with eight qual­ity com­pe­ti­tion-level horses with a great group of own­ers. That has come from a lot of hard work, fo­cus and ded­i­ca­tion and from a lot of luck meet­ing the right peo­ple.

I ap­pre­ci­ate all my sup­port­ers be­cause they have put me in the right place—this is the best group of horses I’ve ever had. I have a good bit of time left in this sport, but at 40 you need to be do­ing it on the right an­i­mals.

PHWhat will be your con­tri­bu­tion to this sport?

JHSo much of how I think came from my dad. When I was a kid, he would say to me, “If you are go­ing to bor­row some­thing, you re­turn it in the same con­di­tion you got it or bet­ter.”

The peo­ple who came be­fore us brought this crazy sport to Amer­ica and laid the foun­da­tion for the busi­ness that we have to­day. At the end of the day, I am just bor­row­ing event­ing. When I am done, I’d like to think I’ll be re­turn­ing the sport in a bet­ter con­di­tion than I got it.

Jonathan Holling won the 2012 Bromont Three-Day Event CCI*** in Canada with his long-time part­ner Down­town Har­ri­son.

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