Renowned show jumping competitor and Olympic gold medalist Peter Wylde spoke with Practical Horseman at the 2021 Kentucky Three-Day Event in April about his role as show jumping coach for the U.S. Eventing Team. Wylde was brought onto the Team as a show jumping specialty coach for the short-listed eventing riders as they prepare for Tokyo.
How did you come into your role with the U.S. Eventing Team?
A little more than a year ago, in February of 2020—actually, before COVID started—Erik Duvander [U.S. Eventing Performance Director] asked me if I’d work a little bit with [U.S. Olympic eventer] Boyd [Martin]. I worked with Boyd with a couple of horses and that seemed to go quite well. Schooling some horses is basically what I do with the riders. I work with them, tell them what I think, about what I do. A lot of it is conversation. Like, we talk about ideas, which I think is really important.
That went well, and then they invited me to Aiken [South Carolina] to Stable View, which is where Boyd is based in the winter. And I went and worked with Boyd and [U.S. Olympic eventer] Phillip [Dutton] together and that also went quite well. And so then I got an invitation to do a sort of a test period. I worked with basically all 12 of the short-listed riders. I went to Middleburg, Virginia, I went to Pennsylvania, I went to California to work with Tamie Smith. I sort of covered everybody that was, at that time, on the short list. That happened by July, I think.
Everybody sort of seemed to sign on and seemed to like it, so I got the thumbs up that they wanted to have me sign a contract. That happened in the fall—we went through the National Championship and after the National Championship, it seemed like people were quite positive. So, they had me sign a contract, which goes through 2021.
My role is really to work with all of the short-listed riders, but I’ve actually also started to work with some of the Under-25 riders as well. So whenever I go to a location, if for whatever reason, there’s only a certain amount of short-listed riders, they’ll fill in my day with some of the up-and-coming riders, which I really actually enjoyed a lot. It’s great, I love it. I’m still doing that.
So, [with the short-listers], basically just working with them. I set a course and we do exercises, and just try to work on a little bit style, a little bit of more sophistication in show jumping, again, sharing what I have learned in my time as a show jumper.
Some of the riders have asked me separately to come to their stables and train them just on their own. Boyd has done that a lot. I’ve worked a lot with Boyd. I actually showed Tsetserleg and Long Island T in 2020 when Boyd had had some surgeries, which was really fun. I think it was helpful for Boyd also to keep the horses going and to do just some show jumping so that they could get a little bit more supple and a little bit more rideable in the show jumping.
What’s it like riding an event horse coming from a show jumping background?
It really depends on the horse. But honestly, the best event horses are actually really great horses. One of the things that I started to really like about this was the appreciation for the quality of these horses at the higher levels. Some of these top event horses, they’re wonderful. They’re just athletes in all disciplines. They’re beautiful to ride on the flat. The biggest theme that I have found with most of them is that most of the horses jump a little bit too at the fence and are a little bit too aggressive. They end up either doing one less stride or they “eat” a line, as we say—they get too deep in a line. So, what we’ve really been working on is actually slowing the jumping down and doing a lot of actually low-jump exercises where the horses stay round and jump and maybe add a stride and just practice bringing all the momentum down. I think that that helps, because people think sometimes that horses are un-careful, but it’s not that they’re un-careful, they’re just too at the fence in show jumping. If you train them to slow down, all of a sudden they become a lot more careful.
It’s hard [for horses] to distinguish between cross-country and show jumping. Show jumping on grass is much harder for eventers, from what I’ve seen, than it is on sand. When the horses walk into the sand ring, they all of a sudden sort of say, “OK, this is different from cross country. This is show jumping day” They’re smart enough to know it. That’s what I like. Again, the intelligence of some of these horses is incredible. That’s the good ones and the good riders. The good horses, they know it and they know their job. I find [that] to be interesting.
I’ve done hunters, I’ve done equitation, I’ve done jumpers. I’ve enjoyed all of it. And now, this is sort of something new and fun and different. It’s a different crowd, it’s a different group of people, it’s different venues. I found myself this winter in Wellington thinking, you know, I’ve been coming to this ring since 1983, I would like to try something different. I mean, I was lucky that I went to Europe for 12 years in the middle of that. That sort of freshened it up. But, I felt like it was the right time for me to do something different. I’m really enjoying it.
Can you elaborate on the kinds of jumping exercises you practice?
We do a lot of exercises, like for example, we’ll have a jump and then we’ll have six very quiet strides to say a bounce or three in-a-row bounce and then six strides to a jump. So, we practice jumping over a fence, then slowing down and collecting, then doing the bounce and then relaxing and jumping after it. And that’s a really helpful tool. It’s a way for the horse and the rider to really connect and get in one and be able to have this seamless communication. And again, the biggest thing is a lot of low fences, a lot of doing the normal stride, but then adding one more stride in the line. So you have this ability to in your mind to add a stride if you need to or leave out a stride if you need to. Honestly, it’s very similar to equitation lessons in a way. We set bending lines, we do these little patterns with small little fences and it’s very similar to that. Of course, we’re not really looking for arched backs and heels down, but we are looking for good correct posture and that kind of thing. So, there’s a lot of that.
When I watched [Germany Olympic gold medalist] Michael Jung ride in eventing, and he rides so beautifully and so perfectly, and then you see him in the show jumping world, and he’s also incredibly skillful. It made me say to myself, these [disciplines] are a lot closer than I had thought they were. Good riding—whether it’s hunters, equitation, jumpers, eventing—good jump riding is good jump riding. It was also really interesting for me yesterday—I watched all the dressage Thursday and Friday—and to see the issues in dressage are very similar to the issues jumping.
When you’re at an event, what’s your strategy for helping the riders?
Walking the [show-jumping] course is a big part of it. They’re all professionals, so they all know in their hearts what they want to do and what they don’t want to do. Some of them will do a little bit of a jump [in the] morning just to try to slow the horse down a little bit. And again, that part of, “What’s the right thing to do?” In show jumping, we never have horses coming off of a cross-country course, so that’s new to me. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. That part I’m learning. And that’s where, again, because these are all really skillful professionals, we have conversations about what [they] want to do and I’ll be there to help, and then I give my thought about it and analysis. At this stage, I don’t act as a dictator. That is not my role at all. My role is to be the sounding board and to give my knowledge of whatever that is and my opinion without it being a command. It’s never a command.
So then, the warmup is actually quite similar. Once it’s the right-before-you-go-in-the-ring warmup, that’s actually quite similar to what [show jumpers] do. For me, whenever I’m show jumping, I’m always trying to—unless I have an ultra careful horse that’s spooky and backed up most of the time—you’re trying to get your horses slowing the jump down. So, our warmup is about jump a jump, land and walk, rather than flying at fences out in the practice area. Everything is about canter out of hand a little bit, jump a jump, land and walk. Slow the horse’s brain down, just get everything calm. And they actually come around quickly.
Do you have any final thoughts on your new position?
I’m at a learning point right now. This is new for me and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve made it clear from the beginning that, yes, I’m a show jumper, but it’s very different. And I feel like this needs to be an open conversation. But so far, it’s gone pretty well and I’m pretty happy.