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This year so far is already very good and very busy. With the event season just around the corner we have lots of horses on the yard, all in their various phases of fitness, getting ready for what lies ahead.
We had a great finish to the season last year, followed by a much-needed break in Mexico with the family. All horses that had a rest in September were back in work by the time we got home. We’ve not actually stopped all winter, pretty much like most eventing yards these days. The plan initially was to get ahead with the dressage.
But then Devoucoux – one of our sponsors - invited me to represent them at their Indoor XC Derby in Paris. It was my first ever experience of it. And Alcatraz and I only went and won it! We were the first ever Devoucoux representative rider to win it, so the Devoucoux team were chuffed to bits. I’m not going to deny, the ‘look at me’ gene took over that night, and Alcatraz and I worked the audience into an arena-rocking, high-fiving frenzy. The crowds loved it, and the rock star in Alcatraz shone - he has the temperament and ability absolutely suited to this type of event. We both thrived on the atmosphere and enjoyed the stardom equally! Then a day or two after we got home from the competition a guy in Geneva called me up and said ‘Heyyyy, Mr Showman!!’ I replied, ‘Erm, who is this??’ A chap called Michael saw our performance in Paris, and asked me if we would like to come to Geneva; so we went to the CHI Geneva show and very nearly won that too!
Now is the time of year where we sit down to formulate our plans and schedules. We put in lots of time and effort to clearly set out what we want to do as well as what each horse ‘needs’ to achieve in its immediate career path. As you might imagine, it takes a heck of a lot of organising when you have a yard with twenty competition horses in regular work. Schedules for staff and travel have to be like clockwork. We have three lorries – supported by the Equitrek fleet, which is an enormous help - going in different directions all the time, whether for training or competition. The timing and management from the team has to be spot on, then all I have to do is turn up and do my job right. For instance we went show jumping at Hartpury a couple of weeks ago. We took 16 horses, which meant we jumped 30 showjumping rounds across two days. As you might imagine, it’s important to ensure each horse is tacked up and ready to go at the right time! It’s a huge team effort.
Our team on the yard is working amazingly hard and pulling together really well. We’ve recently put a lot of time and effort into building and strengthening the teamwork with all of them by doing some management training exercises. Talking about things running like clockwork above, we try to help them realise that each of them are important cogs in the machine. If one cog stops working, or there’s a jam in the system, the whole thing stops working. It’s vitally important that every cog knows its role and importance within the team to keep the yard successful. It helps to keep the focus. We wanted to make sure all the guys realise that the grooms that stay at home, prepping the horses to be spot on for when I return to ride, are every bit as important as those grooms that go away to events. I never say it lightly when I say ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’
Right now they’re prepping EVERYTHING for the start of the season, so there’s an enormous amount of hard work being done on every level. Goals are set for different horses at different times of the season, meaning horses’ performances are peaked at intervals. This spreads the intensity of training out a little which relieves some pressure. At this time of the year it’s like a tsunami of preparation attempting to get everything ready for the first events in March.
We have 20 horses, with 4 full-time staff, 4 part-time staff, one work rider – plus Simmone and me, (and our three daughters when they’re not at school and not doing their own ponies). When we get a good result at a show, it’s a good result for all of us, and each person deserves some of the credit.
The quality of horses in the yard is incredibly high. Our owners are exceptionally driven and supportive. The yard team is very good and gelling together nicely. We pay well to ensure we get good staff, and have good camaraderie, which creates a nice atmosphere – so we seem to have struck a happy balance. Obviously, we have to ensure that everything that happens within the yard has to be the best at every level – whether that’s sweeping the yard, horse management, training, or performing. Success starts from the bottom up; you need a strong foundation then work your way up.
As mentioned, at this time of year we’re planning every step of what’s to come, using a combination of diaries, white boards and planners. We have a spreadsheet with all the events down the left hand side, and horses across the top (and because there are so many horses, events are on the right hand side too, so you can see at a glance!) We prioritise the 5* horses, then 4*, then 3*, looking firstly at Internationals, then Young Horse competitions, then Nationals, then age (such as 5-year-old) classes.
You can’t do more than 5 x XC rounds in a day, so that helps you to work out each horse’s programme. Then an extra horse might get added, so you have to shuffle them around a bit. Then you have to factor in the weather etc., so all your plans are provisional. Then I have to fit in my diary – including meetings with sponsors, owners, press, etc. and training days, clinics and so on. Communication is key, and it’s important to keep everyone updated and ‘in the loop’.
Then there are the yard diaries which lists what each horse does each day; also if we need the girls to do anything with the lorries (such as maintenance, servicing or restocking etc.)
We also have the white boards in the tack room – covering the next 10-14 days. This will tell them when ‘Alex is on the yard’, ‘Dressage training’, ‘Showjumping training’, ‘Gallops’, etc. Which means if I’m on the yard, they’ll know that between 8am and 3pm it will be mayhem and I’ll be riding all day. If I’m not at the yard, I’ll probably be away with 5 horses and it’ll be their responsibility to pack the lorry the night before etc.
In the main diary, it will detail (for example) which horses will be jumping that day, which ones will hack, which ones will lunge. It will also show which owners may be visiting and if any lessons will be given. If owners are coming then their horses may need to be specially prepped for a specific time.
White boards also list feeds; others will list tack, with jumping tack and flatwork tack. Then things will change on the tack boards as horses change shape over the season.
There are lots of reference grids on the white boards. The staff need to manage these boards carefully. Communication is vital. If I say something regarding a particular horse’s programme, or a trainer suggests changing a piece of tack in a session, they then have to transfer this alteration on the board so that everyone else becomes aware of it for future reference. Everything needs to be documented as it saves time and doesn’t impede progress with that horse. Simmone and I lead the way with this communication and the head grooms help. Whoever is on the yard that day has ownership and is responsible for passing that info on.
There cannot be a flaw in the system. We insist that everyone is on top of their game, to be in control of all their tasks and responsibilities. With such a high-pressured environment, it’s essential to have a good sense of humour. It’s better to impart some wisdom with a smile, rather than sounding like a nag. If ten things went wrong for one person on one day, it means there are ten things that person has learnt and hopefully won’t get wrong again. We try and encourage everyone to take a constructive and positive spin on things if possible.
As if life wasn’t hectic enough, we recently organised a fundraising Charity Ball – raising £14,600 for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, thanks to the massive generosity of an awful lot of people on the night. Big thanks to Simmone and Kelly Roe who worked tirelessly alongside me to organise it and did an amazing job running all of the ticket sales. It ran really well, and we’re over the moon with the result. This definitely looks like becoming a regular fixture in January/February time. Simmone and I literally flew in from Bordeaux, after just three hours sleep on Saturday morning following the arena eventing – we were pretty much running on fumes! - and by Saturday evening we were in full flow at the ball. Rookey Manor made for a fantastic venue and they were super hosts. Everyone was on point and in top form.
We feel that Team Bragg is flying high at the moment, we have the right horses, the right staff and all I need to do is put in the right performances. We have the Europeans to aim for this year, and then of course we have the Olympics in 2020. We’ll be looking at world domination further down the track!