This week’s episode of the Practical Horseman Podcast features international three-day event rider, Matt Brown, whom I chatted with earlier this spring.
Matt has a reputation for being a hard-working, thoughtful rider who’s well-respected among his peers in the eventing community. We published a great profile piece about him in an issue of Practical Horseman last year, so I was glad I finally had the chance to meet him in person. I sat down with him for a conversation in between his rides at this Carolina International Three-Day Event back in March to learn more about his background, training insights and philosophies.
For years, Matt and his wife Cecily were based out in California, slowly building up a successful training and teaching program. During that time, Matt had incredible success with several talented horses, but he and Cecily felt they needed to be where the action was to give Matt the best chance to realize his dream of representing the U.S. in team competition. So, a few years ago, they decided to uproot their business and settle in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, one of the biggest hotspots for the sport. They’ve been there ever since and have once again created a thriving program at their new homebase.
See also: U.S. Eventer’s Quest to the Top
As we all know, competing horses has its ups and downs, and Matt’s certainly had quite a rollercoaster ride in his career. A few years ago, he was named to the USEF High Performance list and a top contender for the 2015 Pan Am team. He also received grants to compete his two top horses, Super Socks BCF and BCF Belicoso, overseas. But health issues with the horses threw a wrench in his plans and, ultimately, he could only take one. He and Super Socks made the trip to Europe to compete at the Nations Cup final in Boekelo, and their performance earned the U.S. team a 2nd place finish.
Since then, he and Super Socks have had two successful trips to the Kentucky Three-Day Event and had their sights set on making the team for last year’s World Equestrian Games. Sadly, Super Socks suffered from badly bruised feet after pulling both front shoes during his cross-country round at the 2017 event and was given months and months to recover…which meant no chance at WEG. But Matt’s taken it all in stride, and has several other horses coming up the levels, including a top horse called Big Berry. And, just this summer, Super Socks is slowly making a comeback.
Here a just a few of the excerpts from our conversation which you can listen to here or on iTunes or Stitcher:
Emily Daily: Tell me a little bit about your incredible partnership with your wife Cecily, who also rides, and how she’s been such a huge part of your life and career.
Matt Brown: So much of what we’ve done is because we have each other. I think it’s a very difficult sport what we do. Not just eventing, but horse sports across the board. If you don’t have people who are close to you, supporting you, it can really be too much. When we first met, I was starting to get back into competing, but I wasn’t taking it very seriously. She stopped me one day and just asked what I was doing. She said she thought I was good, but I wasn’t really trying. So I told her that I felt like I didn’t really feel like I could do it if I didn’t have the financial backing. And she just said, well, that’s BS. So, then I was like, oh… you’re right, that is BS. I think I was just afraid of trying and not being good enough.
So, she got me believing in myself again, and moving to the East Coast and really trying to push for team stuff and really pushing myself, personally. And trying to get better every day. You know, trying to get better every day is not for the faint of heart. If it’s just you, I don’t know that that’s very sustainable. You need a close friend, or a parent, or a spouse or someone that you can go to when it’s really hard and talk to them about what’s going on. I see a lot of other really good riders struggling with that because they don’t necessarily have the support. And I strongly believe that horses are what I’m passionate about, but I think whatever you’re passionate about, it’s worthwhile spending time doing it. I’ve never really been a big believer in “go and get a 9-5 job” in order to pay for your passion. Because there’s a lot of life that goes by in your 9-5 and if that’s not what you’re passionate about, then it’s hard for me to support that. At the same time, when we’re struggling to make things work financially, you do second-guess your decisions.
ED: How do you personally deal with disappointment and pressure in such a tough sport? How do you pick yourself up when things don’t go well and really stay focused on your goals?
MB: My goals have changed a lot. It’s been an amazing trip [moving to the East Coast] and there’s so many people that have been a part of this journey. But eventing is a difficult sport, especially growing up on the West Coast, so coming out to the East Coast and competing on different and at different venues, I was very low on the learning curve. Managing my horses on new footing, with a new veterinary team and a new farrier–everything was different. It took us awhile to get a handle on that. Then being named as an alternate for the Pan Ams and the Olympics. It’s really difficult to go to the team training sessions (like the Pan Ams) and then to wave good-bye to the team as I’m going back home is really tough. But I remember when I was on the Nations Cup team with Flaxen [Super Socks BCF] and we had an amazing show and he finished 6th individually. I remember Phyllis Dawson saying to me, ‘Just don’t let the highs get too high, because the lows can be really low.’ And she couldn’t have been more right.
So, the way I think about my goals have changed a bit in order to try and stabilize my mindset. It was really difficult being named alternate and feeling like I was just doing everything I possibly can and I’m not quite making it. It’s really easy to go to that place of ‘maybe I’m just not good enough…’. Whether that is right or wrong doesn’t really matter, but you can’t stay motivated when you’re thinking like that. So, the only way to motivate yourself is to decide what kind of thinking is going to empower you to keep going. That’s what I’m going to focus on.
ED: You do quite a bit of teaching. What are some of the key issues you see riders struggling with today in the sport?
MB: A think a lot of people struggle with control. I sort of grew up in the martial arts and have gone back to teaching some tai chi. I think there are aspects of tai chi that really relate to riding. There’s a theory in the martial arts, especially in the tai chi arts specifically, about ‘maximum efficiency and minimum effort.’ So in a lot of the martial arts, focusing on the ability of a smaller opponent to best a bigger, much stronger opponent. Because ultimately, if you’re not the biggest, strongest person in the room, and you’re relying on your strength, somebody is going to beat you.
I think about that a lot with horses. In order for you to defend yourself, and not have to be the strongest person in the room, or in order to ride a horse and not just man-handle it, we have to fight our own instincts. Because if we’re pushed, we want to push back or maybe we want to run away. But neither is good in a self-defense situation, necessarily, and neither is good for working with your horse. So figuring out how to fight our own instincts and work with the horse and re-direct energy, rather than push against or fight energy. In martial arts, we work a lot with resistance. And resistance has its place with horses, but I think we tend to overuse resistance and where you see that come out with riders and horses is when riders try to be overly controlling with their horses. The horse’s neck gets all tied up in knots and it just looks more like wrestling than riding. So, I think there’s a lot of control issues that we have as humans, that unfortunately our horses have to deal with.
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About the Practical Horseman Podcast
The Practical Horseman podcast, which runs every other Friday, features conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts to inform, educate and inspire. It is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors Sandy Oliynyk, Emily Daily and Jocelyn Pierce. Upcoming conversations are with eventing legend Jim Wofford and other top riders such as hunter trainer Tom Brennan and jumper rider Kevin Babington. You can subscribe to our podcast at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.