Written by: Kelly McCarthy-Maine
Canadian Rebecca Howard reflects on her top-ten finish at the Olympic Games in Rio and what it’s like to live, train, and compete in the UK.
Rebecca Howard nailed a top-ten finish at the Rio Olympic Games with her long-time partner, Blithe Hill Farm’s Canadian Sport Horse Riddle Master (‘Rupert’). The highest-placed female eventer at these Games, UK-based Rebecca has competed at Luhmühlen, Badminton, Burghley, and Rolex Kentucky and has double-Olympic Games, Pan Am and World Equestrian Games experience. Named Equine Canada Equestrian of the Year in 2013, Rebecca is busy producing her string of horses up the levels in eventing behind Rupert, supporting her clients and working pupils, and travelling to Canada and the USA for clinics and lectures.
“I was relatively established when I left North America in 2012. I had a business, great clients, and some good horses I was getting results on,” explains Rebecca. “It was always in my mind that I wanted to experience eventing in England and moving to the United Kingdom for the London 2012 Olympic Games became the next step in my career. And yet, one of my first thoughts when I arrived in England and saw just how professional the level of the sport was: ‘How am I ever going to compete with these guys, they are so freaking good?!’
“At that point, I started to find out what I didn’t know. The learning curve has been incredible. It hasn’t been easy and my goodness, all this learning and growing can certainly knock you down a peg or two. I’ve begun to trust what I do know and what I can do and allow myself to feel my way through the learning process. Rupert and the young horses are responding all the time.”
Flocking to the UK
There is a history of international event riders uprooting and moving to the United Kingdom in a bid to make a name for themselves on the British eventing circuit. Wave after wave of riders have settled in over the last 40 years, including the likes of New Zealanders Sir Mark Todd, Andrew Nicholson, Jock Paget, and Tim and Jonelle Price; Australians David Green, Clayton Fredericks, Sam Griffiths, Chris Burton, 2016 Rio individual silver medalist and team gold rider Astier Nicolas of France; and others that have worked to become legends of the sport.
Following the London 2012 Games, where she had a fall during the cross-country phase which resulted in elimination, Rebecca stayed on in England, basing herself with Team New Zealand riders Tim and Jonelle Price in Marlborough, Wiltshire. “Settling in with Tim and Jonelle for my first few years in England was just the best possible environment to be in,” she says. “They are absolutely quality people who have worked their tails off to become as successful as they are since their own arrival in the UK from New Zealand in 2005. Working with Tim and Jonelle helped me get to grips with how a big yard runs over here – they can have 25-30 horses competing between them through the season and the scale and professionalism of their operation is just … wow.”
Embraced by her new Kiwi family, Rebecca rode 20 horses a week for them as she set about developing her own string of horses to come up under Rupert. “One of the hardest things about moving to the UK was leaving my support team in North America and stepping away from my owners and clients, as well as my family and friends that helped me develop my career. I had quite a lot of rebuilding to do,” says Rebecca.
The hugely popular eventing season in the UK runs from March to October, with nearly 100,000 runs made at just fewer than 200 affiliated competitions. “Being based in Wiltshire means most events are within a few hours’ drive, and the model is much more focused on one-day eventing, so you go home every night,” explains Rebecca. “You can really pick and choose the events to suit your horse and there are enough events around to make changes to your plan if you need to.”
Adapting the training regimen
“Luckily, I had made a few moves before coming to England, so had some experience adapting my training and fitness plans,” says Rebecca. “So much of it depends on the physical environment you are in and the facilities you have access to – and in North America, that often means a cross-country move twice a year between a north and a south base and a season that sort of rolls on year-round.
“Trot sets on farmland used to be a big part of the horse’s fitness and conditioning, as well as carefully organizing my gallop days to coincide with the rain, the watering truck, and how much time I could spend on the tractor aerating the ground, as it tended to be so firm.
“In England, a lot of early fitness work is done on the roads and hills and many yards have a deal with a local racehorse trainer to share their all-weather gallop track. For the last couple of years, I’ve galloped on an old-turf grass gallop – it takes twenty minutes of hacking up hills and through fields of grazing cows to get to the strip, which I think does a lot to warm the horse up and prepare their bodies for work. The horses feel really well on it and the view over the countryside is so unmistakably English, with rolling hills, farms, and fields of wheat. It is really inspiring to work up there and that helps everyone push that bit more,” Rebecca notes.
Early in 2016, Rebecca leased a yard a few miles from Tim and Jonelle at Lucinda Fredericks’ farm, Rosegarth, where she could concentrate on her lead-up to Rio and have the space to expand following the Games.
“Rupert pulled up really well following his performance in Rio. Despite the heat and the hard work he had to do, Rup actually managed to gain weight while he was away. Some of this is due to the fact that he is an incredible athlete and came in to the games on really good form, and the rest is due to the care and attention of his travelling groom, Angela Molson, whom he has trained as his personal carrot dispenser,” says Rebecca, laughing.
Rupert is currently enjoying a holiday in the field and will rest for six to eight weeks before starting his slow fitness work over the winter in preparation for next season, which may include a run at Badminton Horse Trials.
Rebecca is keen to hear from young Canadian event riders looking for international working pupil positions at her training base in the UK (rebeccahowardequestrian.com). And her advice for young eventers? “Surround yourself with good people that will help steer your development. Go to the center of the sport and work hard to become the best athlete you can be. Be hungry. And wear sunscreen.”