Damian Hallam is one of the most talked about trainers holding clinics in the region but he rarely talks about himself. He has a confidence in his knowledge, skill and achievements that doesn’t require self-promotion or showmanship but he has been described as ‘the most perceptive of readers of horses and riders’ 

DAMIAN’S first equestrian passion was for jumping and eventing. The 46-year-old Yorkshireman admits: “In my eventing days I was desperately bad at the dressage. Getting it right meant that I had to work at it and in that way I became fascinated by it and my interest grew and grew.”

Damian won the Spillers combined training National Championship in 2000, but his breakthrough in the dressage world came with Barbara Harrison-Bland’s Trakehner Vatout-sired stallion, Wikefield Grane Viking. Viking was both Shearwater international six-year-old and elementary national champion in 2002 and also took Damian to Verden for the World Breeding Championships. This brought him recognition and some financial support in terms of training bursaries.

Throughout his career Damian has continually sought opportunities to expand his knowledge and skills. Moving on from eventing when he worked for and trained with Olympian Ian Stark, British team member Helen Bell and European Championship individual gold medallist Rachel Bayliss, he worked in show-jumping for Paul Schockemohle and for show-jumping dealer Tim Beecher in Ireland. During his dressage career his masters have included FEI judge general Stephen Clarke, Seoul Olympian Trish Gardiner, former German team coach Conrad Schumacher, former Dutch team coach Henk Van Bergen — and he trained for a spell with former World Number One Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen. He has also worked with horse behaviourists, Jason Webb and Richard Maxwell. However, he says, six times Olympian Kyra Kyrklund was always the person he most wanted to train with.

“Kyra is a very intelligent trainer of horses. Back in my eventing days, I saw her give a lecture demonstration riding two horses we’d previously watched ridden by their usual riders. Within five or ten minutes they were transformed into something wonderful.”

No professional around in the early 2000s could have resisted the temptation of a job riding the fabulous and fabulously costly horses acquired by Tony and Sarah Pidgley. Their trainer of choice was former gold medallist and former German and Dutch team coach, Jo Hinnemann and they kept some of their horses with him in Germany.

But with the many calls on Jo’s time, and with his own and his owners’ expectations very high for the horses, Damian sought top-up help elsewhere. A load of that, he says, came from his partner, the dressage trainer Douglas Hibbert, but he also still managed to train with Kyra and her husband Richard White. This was by means of videos of the horses working that Damian and Douglas took along with them in lieu of the horses themselves. Damian explained: “Kyra and Richard commented on what they saw and I took notes and went back and worked on the basis of their suggestions. I learnt a lot from Jo Hinnemann, but what I loved and still love about Kyra and Richard, is how they pick stuff apart. If there is a problem they break it down to a process and look at which bit of the process isn’t working and sort that bit out so the whole process can work. Richard White has taught me so much.

“I don’t think it is constructive to mindlessly repeat stuff with a horse. I prefer to ask, ‘What is it we are trying to teach this horse to do?’ ‘Which bit isn’t it getting?’ Repetition is an important part of training, but it has to be done for a reason. If we’ve done five repetitions and the situation hasn’t improved, shouldn’t we change our tactics?”

When Damian is teaching he is wholly focused on the horse and rider in front of him and he’s passionate about what he considers to be “good, fair, ethical training”. But he adds that he also likes realism: “I don’t allow dressage to become an esoteric exercise. There is a lot in classical training that has stood the test of time, but today we are able to explore new methods of gymnasticising horses.

“When you are a competitive rider you sometimes have to say, ‘on Tuesday at 2pm, I have to show what I can do’. I think that is a good thing because it focuses you. A competition, undertaken in the right spirit, is a very useful benchmark of where you’re at with your training. 

“We are breeding better-moving horses than ever before but my belief is that they often break because of the amount of repetitions we’re doing. If you listen to me teaching I’m quite tough on the rider to apply a solution to a problem quite quickly, so that we can move on to something else, rather than keep using the same muscle groups in the horse while the rider gets their act together. The rider has to take responsibility and their message needs to be clear and positive, black and white. It’s important that the rider is confident about why they’re doing something, so that their communication to the horse can be clear.

“With riders who have trained with me a lot, I can communicate in a familiar shorthand, but other people I might stop and say, ‘this is what we are doing and this is why we are doing it — now do it’. You don’t need to keep the horse in motion while you’re explaining what the right buttons are, and we need to give them frequent breaks.

“We are so wrong if we think horses are stupid, they are very bright in their own way. In my own horses I see recurring patterns and I think, ‘my God, he has found my blind spot’. In their language, and in the way they interpret their environment, they are very bright. We just speak different languages and therefore we can think they are being stupid, but they are just very good at training humans.

“A dog owner has access to a lot of information and training expertise on how dogs learn and what motivates them. At present many training methods within horse sports are based on traditional dogma and don’t factor in the horse’s natural behaviour sufficiently. I believe that as soon as the rider touches the right button, the horse will know how to be a horse, and will respond appropriately. I feel that this holds true to a remarkable extent.

“Managing somebody’s confidence is also really important. They must be clear and decisive in their requests, so the horse is not confused and we don’t go on for too long on the same stuff”

“I believe that the rider has to be confident enough to make mistakes. I don’t want decisiveness to become aggression, but equally mistakes when they come from good intentions are how we learn. I want riders to be confident so that when they’re working at home alone and they get it wrong, they will be able to take that on board and analyse why, without getting frustrated or upset about it. So much of this sport focuses on ‘perfection’ and we can become convinced that good riders get it perfect all the time. They don’t. Good riders are able to allow a dispassionate assessment of improvement even if something is not yet perfect.

“In training sessions there are often moments when it can look a real mess, but I can see that the rider is finding the thread — the start of where they want to go with the horse. When people are learning they need permission to make lots and lots of mistakes — to get it wrong”

During his teaching sessions Damian will sometimes need to emphasise to the rider, that they must give an aid, then let the horse alone. With the “white noise” of continuous aiding, he says, it’s no wonder the horse can’t “hear” the aid for a transition. He also asks people who come to him to put down their whip. He explains: “I  want  horses to be in front of the leg, not in front of the whip, so I rarely ride with a whip myself. I want to try to give riders the tools to be able to teach the horse to be reactive without one. Let’s face the problem and look at why so many riders are whip reliant.”

“For me dressage has got to be precise, because precision shows up little areas of weakness”

He works a lot on control: “Is every step the horse takes on the line that the rider is dictating? Has the rider actually got a line to go on? Most riders are quite woolly. In horse language it means that the horse can assume control and choose his own line. We have to be strict about that because we are dealing with a flight animal and therefore being in charge of where his legs go is a very powerful instinct. Many dressage riders are more interested in gaining control of the horse by positioning its head rather than firstly owning where each foot is.”

Damian continues: “The horse also needs to know when he or she has pleased the rider by getting it right. It doesn’t need to be a praise fest, but a release of pressure on the horse. Horses really appreciate the difference between pressure and the cessation of pressure. If we can create moments during their work where, when they give a correct response, we are then able to leave them alone and stop the pressure — that is what they really home in on.

“When someone takes up dog training they buy a lead and some treats, when someone takes up dressage they buy a hat and long leather riding boots but I think horses respond to praise much more than we realise”

“In a herd situation, one horse will put pressure on another to move out of its space, but as soon as it does, it stops pressing. We should be using the horse’s own language. Historically we just apply the aids for a movement. But how does a horse learn that ‘that’ is the right thing to do? We need to get riders to think of things from a horse’s point of view, so that we create a fairer format for the horse.”

“When a horse is misbehaving or is labelled a ‘problem’ horse, the first thing we need to do is eliminate the possibility of pain — even though this might not seem an obvious reason for their rebellion. But equally we might be dealing with a horse that has learnt patterns of behaviour that get the rider to back away from putting demands upon it.

“When I’m teaching I’m totally involved with the horse and rider not keeping anything back: if I’ve got a tool that might help them, I let them have it. It’s a matter of seeing a horse and rider and understanding where they have their blind spots.

Getting people to be soft in their body is really underrated in riding. It is very difficult if one of the partners in the performance is stiff.

“How is your breathing?” Damian frequently asks riders in his sessions. He comments, “I was in the World Class Programme for a bit and I used my budget on sports psychology. The horse sees straight through us — we are transparent to them — that’s why they are such good teachers. I’m not a nervous competitor, but I know that having my brain in the right place is crucial, so I work a lot on people’s awareness of their breathing. If a rider holds their breath, they are holding tension, often due to trying too hard. We are hearing more and more how important mindfulness is — living in the here and now — that’s how horses live. If we want the horse to be soft and tension-free, we have to look at our own tension issues, the horse so often mirrors the rider.

Softness in the horse is a priority because if you have a blocked stiff body that you are trying to force into a shape — and then ask it to move — it won’t work.

“Off the horse I do a lot of different forms of dance, movement meditation and yoga. I do a variety of different practices — ‘Movement Medicine’, ‘Contact Improvisation’, ‘Biodanza’ and ‘Five Rhythms’ are the main ones, but I’m always interested in pushing my boundaries and learning new ideas and concepts. Five rhythms was devised by a choreographer who is also a psychologist who realised that whatever is in a human’s head is going to be manifested in their body. You dance the five rhythms — flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness — which require the body to move in different ways and that unlocks the body and the mind and becomes a meditation. It’s amazing for raising your body awareness, your breathing, suppleness and fitness. Classes for yoga and pilates, considered way out 25 years ago, are offered in every village hall now. They are also about ‘stilling’ the mind. If you believe that our horses do tune into our minds and our moods, then a frenetic mind will make us difficult for the horse to be with.

Horses often just stand in stillness and calmness together and they get huge security from a human who is tranquil, in control of themselves, and calm.

“You have to be able to go into a pressured situation, like a competition arena, and be able to give a horse that vibe of calm and security. They don’t always react positively to a ‘come on, let’s do it!’ We are breeding horses to be ever more sensitive so we need to be in a really good place. When the human is level and balanced in their head, their bodies can be soft.

“I think it is a problem that spectators and riders at shows in the UK are so judgmental about what other people are doing when they’re riding. It’s a great shame that there is not more warmth and camaraderie. People are idealistic about what they should be seeing, rather than realistic. We’re a bit ‘small island’. In Germany there is much more acceptance and understanding of each other’s issues. In six months’ time that young horse will be great; at the moment it’s going through its education.”

In a judged sport, the judges may love you one week and the next they don’t. It’s not personal, you just have to train and ride better. If you can’t accept that with equanimity you will end up on a roller-coaster of emotions. You have to steer your own course and measure by your own standards — what has been good and what has not — and you have to be realistic if you’re not yet polished up enough to present a perfect test at the level. But we need to go out and have a go at it. It’s being realistic and being in charge of your own assessment of how you’re doing.

“In our ‘I want it now’ world, we are producing three-year-olds that look like they can do grand prix movements and they can give people a glimpse of a finished picture. But it’s incredible what you can do, given a fair wind and time, with a horse that has just three solid paces. So often it is the horse that people have no expectations of — the one perhaps that they can’t sell and plugs away — that emerges as being brilliant. Sadly, many that have had all the pressure and expectation loaded on them snap and break, either mentally, physically or both.

“To take a horse and train it and see how far it goes, I believe, is the healthy approach to the sport of dressage: ‘I am interested in this horse, let’s see what we can do together.’”

Damian Hallam holds regular clinics at Blue Barn, Kent; Belmoredean, West Sussex; Parwood, Surrey; and Ganderdown Stud, Hampshire.
For bookings contact: sarah.craighill@outlook.com

© Celia Cadwallader, 4 February 2018

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