Show Jumping

From Wretched Ponies to Coping with Pressure: Beth Underhill Talks About Developing Young Riders

Chef Beth Underhill and the Canadian children's team (Anya Bereznicki, Carly Stevens, Kyara Semrau, and Kieley McQuaker) at the 2017 North American Junior & Young Riders Championship.

When I was a junior I was fortunate to be able to ride with a young, up and coming rider and trainer, Beth Underhill.

I vividly remember her sense of style, patience, attention to technical detail, and positive attitude. Underhill never raised her voice, never lost her composure, and always respected the horse.

Underhill went on to become one of Canada’s show jumping elites, representing Canada in Pan American, Olympic and World Equestrian Games as well as many Nations Cups around the world, thrilling audiences with her wins aboard the likes of Monopoly and Altair.

Today, Underhill still competes at the highest level with Count Me In, a 10-year-old Hanoverian, that she places “right up there with my favorites.” (The pair recently finished fourth in the Longines $130,000 FEI World Cup Qualifier at Royal West in Calgary.)

She also gives back to the sport in a major way. As the chef d’equipe of the young riders team, she develops the future prospects of the Canadian team. This past July, those team hopefuls dominated the podium at the Adequan/FEI North American Junior & Young Rider Championships in Saugerties, NY, winning team silvers in both the Children Championship and the Young Rider Championship and gold, silver and bronze in the Jumping Individual Finals.

Underhill also oversees the National Talent ID Program, and sits on the High Performance Committee that selects Canada’s team riders for all major competitions, placing her in prime position to see exactly what is needed to support young riders as they vie for those elusive spots.

I caught up with my old trainer to talk about Canada’s Young Riders today, and how her own young rider days and experiences have shaped her work with the team.

Horse Network: How did you get involved with Young Riders?

Beth Underhill: So the Canadian Equestrian Federation and our jumping committee recognized that the under 25 group is a little light and was lacking in the education, the opportunities for competition, and just the program. We looked to put someone in place to get that off the ground and mentor those riders and I got the position.

HN: What is your main role as Chef D’Equipe at competitions?

Underhill: When I’m Chef, I try and create a positive environment for these kids as a team rider. When you have that Canadian flag on your jacket and you’re all of a sudden representing your country, that’s a whole different type of pressure. As international riders, those team events, the Nations Cup events when you’re an ambassador for your country, are the most important to us.

Regardless of who we are, what we’ve achieved in the sport, everyone steps into the ring with butterflies.

Bringing my experiences to that is helpful because I’ve been in their shoes and I know what that pressure is about. I feel like the team spirit that’s created at these events is what people remember. I can tell you, many times Canada, at the international level, on paper, has been nowhere, and we’ve ended up winning a gold or a silver medal at the Olympics. It’s incredible how much that support and that team atmosphere can impact you. That’s been something I stress very much. So we try to have team meetings every morning before the event to have them motivated to do their best and give tips to control their nerves and pull on their strengths.

Horse Network: Can you share one of these tips?

Underhill: First of all, regardless of who we are, what we’ve achieved in the sport, everyone steps into the ring with butterflies, with that concern, with that lack of confidence for a moment and it’s what you do with that. So accept that it’s normal to feel that way.

A lot of the young riders feel like they’re alone in that. They’ll think Eric [Lamaze] never feels this way. Nothing is further from the truth! I’ve ridden with these guys for so long and we all have our own idiosyncrasies that we do to prepare ourselves, naturally. So recognize that’s part of what makes you great—the desire to do well—and that these feelings can work for you to have a better result.

Often times I’ll go in the ring and ask myself, all right, if you feel this way, would you rather scratch? And of course that kicks in my competitive spirit and nature, and I say, of course not, I’m going to go in and do my best and make this happen! So I think that ownership and that acknowledgement first, and then the reaction to that concern, fear, or nerves, and then creating a desire in yourself to exceed and excel is something you learn with experience. I think it’s important to create that environment with the kids going forward.

HN: As chef, what is the most challenging aspect of working with Young Riders?

Underhill: We’re Canadian and it’s inherent in us is to think of ourselves a little bit as the underdogs when we go to these big away shows or a big event in Wellington and you see all these people who you look up to and have heard about. These are all pressures that we have to accept and deal with. We have to remember that these kids feel that on a whole different scale because they’re just getting started and they haven’t necessarily learned how to deal with those pressure situations.

So the exposure and ability to create more competitive opportunities is really vital so that they understand how to go into a pressure situation and ride their best, not fold and get weak and the next day say, gosh, I wish I’d ridden better, I wish I’d taken a hold of that opportunity when it came. That, to me, is very important. Maybe not all of them are going to make it onto the team but they have that as their goal.

HN: What is the best strategy for young kids who want to make the team?

Underhill: I’m a big proponent of the pony jumpers. If they start at the hunters and do a little equitation and now all of a sudden they’re 16 and 18 and they’re just getting started on the jumpers, it’s too late. The equitation divisions are fabulous and they teach the kids to be stylish and effective but maybe the pendulum can swing too far if you stay in that division for too long. You can lose your instincts in order to look stylish. They need to be getting that aptitude to kick and pull and use their instincts.

Don’t be looking at your phone or be thinking about your friends when you’re riding.

It’s hard because you want to create that technician in your riders. That’s so important the way the sport is today. But you also need to not lose that instinctive nature that some of us older guys had to use to scrabble our way to the top. You learned to ride tough and you fell off a lot and you had to pull up your socks and figure out how to do it. The sport has evolved and we need to keep that element alive where kids recognize it’s tough and it’s going to require courage and a work ethic and the ability to keep going when it goes bad.

HN: Is there a particular horse from your young riding days that taught you lessons you still draw on today?

Underhill: I had a wretched pony named Teddy that used to try to get me off. He used to run me under apple trees and knock me off. He was a wretched, wretched pony but he taught me perseverance. I had to whip that pony! (laughs) Sometimes he won and sometimes I won. But he certainly taught me what it took to gain a pony or a horse’s trust, and what it took for me as a rider to accomplish even small steps. I was able to get him past the apple tree!

Sagan was another horse who taught me so much. If you weren’t accurate he would stop. So talk about having to quell those butterflies at a young age jumping bigger jumps, knowing if you made a mistake you’d fall off. It taught me to be accurate and to be brave. I was able to overcome the fear of falling off and screwing up and it was more important for me to go out and try. If I had a poor round, I was able to go back the next day and ride more accurately. It mentally strengthened me for sure. He set me up very well for Monopoly.

Monopoly was a very similar horse. Your range of error with him was extremely small and if you were accurate and everything went well, he’d give you his all. But if you made a mistake, he did not suffer fools gladly. So I think Sagan instilled that in me, that sense of accuracy.

And I try to instill that in my students: every time you ride a horse, every time you approach a fence, focus and concentrate. Don’t be looking at your phone or be thinking about your friends when you’re riding. Give your horse respect and your utmost concentration because every jump affects your horse and if you make mistakes just by not being present, it will be chip away at that horse’s confidence.

That’s a lesson I learned early on: to really stay focused. Every moment I was on my horse it was important to stay in the game.


About the Author

Anne Helmstadter is a writer and lives in Las Vegas. When she’s not riding her OTTB she can be found supporting her two girls at horse shows and driving to and from the barn in her horse scented car. Her writing has appeared at literarymama.com and in Las Vegas’ Zip Code Magazines. Follow Anne’s blog at www.bitspieceslife.com