ZOE SOPP, formerly Zoe Colgate, has been associated with horses and with teaching people to ride them most of her life but she’s not one to sound her own trumpet. So it may have passed you by that Zoe trained two of the winning freestyle combinations at the 2018 Winter Championships.
One of the riders was her daughter Holly Colgate who danced Zoe’s leggy and quirky Danish warmblood Dalvangs Lorenzo to victory in the Medium silver freestyle. The other, Nicola Byam-Cook, competed a quite different sort of partner, Welsh pony Twyford Salamander, to win the silver Elementary freestyle.
Talking to Zoe and to some of the people who come to her for training help, you learn that while she doesn’t sound her own trumpet, her own guiding principle as a trainer is harmony”
So who is Zoe Sopp and how did she learn to ride and train? Zoe, daughter of Terry Colgate, was involved in the family riding school business from a young age. It was based first at Chestnut Lodge Farm, Boxhill, Surrey, and later, under the name Southern Equitation Centre, the business operated from Wishanger, near Frensham Ponds. Zoe recalls: “We had over 70 horses with 50 of them being in the riding school. My brother and I used to bring them in from the fields riding bare back and no bridle, and see how many cross-country jumps we could get over on the way.
“As a family we were involved in all sorts of equestrian sports. My dad trained point to pointers, we evented, we show-jumped and we did some showing. We did whatever a horse had a talent for and we had a lot of fun. Dressage was a minority equestrian sport when I was a teenager but I first got into it when I was 16 when I went to work for eventer and trainer Judy Bradwell for a year. Judy rode my Dad’s horse, ‘Just Cal’ to win the Spillers combined training at Wembley.
“I was involved with my father’s business until I was 25, although by then my interest in dressage had grown. Dad had bought a job lot of horses from a field. Among them was a colt that was kept entire as a competition horse. We called him ‘Binkie’. He was by the grand prix dressage Hanoverian Wendepunkt and I competed him as King of Confidence. I got him up to PSG, beyond my Dad’s level of knowledge, without having a trainer. I watched Kyra Kyrklund training videos instead. One I remember was ‘How to ride a canter pirouette’. I’d watch and watch it, then go out and have go, then watch it again.
“Around that time I was selected for the British Dressage ‘Youngish Trainers scheme’ and started to have proper lessons. During the winter Dutch Olympic rider Ellen Bontje would come over and with her help I got King of Confidence up to Grand Prix”
“I like hot horses”
I like hot horses, although perhaps I shouldn’t at my age, 50, but I particularly like ones that are a bit insecure and super-sensitive. I like finding an approach that they’re happy with and that helps them perform. My biggest asset is that I have a great feel for balance and rhythm and how a horse is underneath me. For example, if I a ride a movement I can feel if it’s struggling somewhere and I know what it finds difficult, so instead of insisting that the horse does the movement, I find a way to make it stronger and then able to do the movement more easily.”
“I love freestyles”
“Apart from Binkie, the other horse that I took up to a high level was Faberge V. He was a little Russian stallion who came over to England with all the grand prix movements but was very tense and backwards in the neck. I spent a year teaching him the basics and when King of Confidence retired I did small tour and an inter II with him on the Spanish Sunshine Tour. I eventually did Grand Prix freestyles on him at Premier Leagues — you could just do freestyles back then — and it’s a nice way to take them up a level because you can design a floorplan to help them.
“I enjoy riding to music and the artistic part of trying to move with the musical crescendos and diminuendos. And it’s more of a challenge than a set test, as sometimes if the timing on the surface isn’t right you have to think on your feet to fit in all the required movements”
All people and horses are different
“With both horses and riders you have to find a way that works and gets the response you’re after. I like applying some lateral thinking. I feel it’s up to me as a trainer to find a way that works and that the horse likes — to get the best out of them rather than stick to the main highway, so I may go down some byways. I’m never dogmatic.
“I’ve taught riders all my life and I love doing it, but again I don’t like dictating; I prefer to arrive at a mutual understanding and build a rapport so that I can help the rider with whatever issues they might have. I don’t mind what level a rider is, or if they’ve never sat on a horse before. What I do like is a rider who has empathy for the horse and wants the horse to be happy in its work, so that it works for itself.
“I strive to create empathetic partnerships and for me that involves an emotional rapport — and I focus on where the rider can be more effective”
“A lot of problems are not down to the horse at all. The rider’s seat, straightness or physical asymmetry, are a massive influence on how the horse works. If we’re not straight, then the horse is not going to be either. If we want to improve we have to look at ourselves and our own bodies honestly. I can get quietly obsessed and I can probably bore some people because I feel you have to be in balance, in the right position and using yourself in a relaxed way to ensure that you’re not blocking or even injuring your horse.
“I work a lot on rider position — to correct a dropped shoulder, a collapsed hip, or a stiff elbow — and I won’t move on until the rider has learned to feel and be aware of what their body is doing correctly and incorrectly. Riders have to understand that it’s crucial to progressing the horse’s training”
“If you’re not balanced and don’t have an independent seat and you can’t sit without using your reins for balance or tightening your legs, you’re not going to be able to give your horse a nice soft aid. I used to lunge Holly until she was blue in the face when she was younger — no stirrups, no reins, knees up like a jockey, knees down, legs away — and I was lunged like that by my Dad or by our head girl.
“My father’s partner at Boxhill, Sheila Morgan, had an Anglo Arab stallion Morning Glory that he rode in the Golden Horseshoe Endurance ride. And Sheila was the first person who put me on a horse, holding my leg while she led us around the arena.
“One day, when I was about five — I had pigtails then — she said to me, ‘Zoe you mustn’t pull on the reins!’ She got hold of each of my pigtails and said, ‘this is what it feels like to the horse’ and she yanked my head from side to side’ I never forgot it”
With her convictions, Zoe sounds as though she can be quite a tough teacher, so I asked one of her long-term clients Fields Wicker-Miurin about her. Fields said: “Zoe’s teaching style is quiet, positive and deeply attentive. She focuses on developing rider feel and to listen to what the horse is telling them.
Fields: “Zoe is unique in my experience. There is a deep, deep focus on listening to your horse and responding to what you’re hearing, not just doing what the book tells you you should be doing”
This image courtesy of Lovell Photography
“Secondly, Zoe is all about lightness and harmony. Nothing should be heavy and no aid should be any stronger than absolutely required. You start with the very lightest aid — and a horse can feel a fly — so you don’t have to kick it: the question is, does the horse want to respond to what it feels? Which is a completely different way of thinking about it. The horse feels you, does it want to respond: are you asking it the right thing at the right time to get the right response? The rider’s complete being, head and body, has to be ‘inside the horse’ rather than on top executing a movement. And that’s very hard to do!
“You should feel everything the horse is doing and respond the instant you feel it is beginning to react to your aid and then you cease giving it. It’s as if you and your horse are two people having a conversation. You ask a question and stop asking the nano second the horse responds so that you can listen to his reply. Most people keep asking. But the moment you are able to do that (I keep trying) the lighter the horse becomes. The horse is happy because he’s not being kicked or dragged around.
“The lighter you are, the more responsive the horse becomes because it gets rewarded sooner. And that reinforces the understanding and the trust between you”
“The other thing that Zoe has taught me is to let the horse show me what he has learned. It means that I stop asking and stop holding on every time. If I think I’m teaching a horse how to do a half halt, and to be in self-carriage, I don’t keep holding him up. Zoe says, ‘let the horse show you what he’s learned’, which requires restraint and deep sensitivity on the part of a rider.
“Often, as riders, we think we got it right last time, so we reason, ‘let’s do the same as last time’. No! If the horse has learned you don’t have to reteach him, you can do much less and, increasingly, you are able to do less and less because the horse is showing you more and more that he’s learned. It’s much more harmonious, it’s much more graceful and the horse is happier. But if he does need a little bit of help you’re there for him.”
As Zoe will be running affiliated dressage at Priory Equestrian Centre, Frensham, this summer, you will be able to find out any more you need to know by introducing yourself at one of her shows.
Celia Cadwallader, 5 May 2018