Show jumping is possibly the most misunderstood sport in the world.

We often hear “It’s an individual activity,” “The horse does everything, the rider just sits there,” “I’m a professional; I’m too good to need a trainer.” While you may recognize how ridiculous these comments are, many in the industry abide by that last one.

I believe this is the only sport where some competitors do not think they need a coach. But the truth is that show jumping is a complex and intricate endeavor; you have two living, breathing beings working together without verbal communication. The communication is all through physical aids and emotional energy, and this is why it takes so long to train and develop horses to the top levels of the sport. The prime age for a competition horse is eight to 14 years and for a rider it is 25 to 45 years of age. This separates the sport from others because an athlete’s peak isn’t limited by age.

Wayne Gretzky said it best in this quote: “No matter who you are, we’re creatures of habit. The better your habits are, the better they will be in pressure situations.” Horses and people both learn the same way—through repetition.

I am a believer in the 10,000 hour rule and I see the results every day in my clinics.* In order for repetitive work to be successful, there are three key steps:

  1. Employ a structured system to achieve a goal.
  2. Establish a timeline of goals that need to be accomplished.
  3. Create a solid foundation with horse and rider in order to be prepared for any eventuality.

Once that foundation is complete, the responses become a part of the subconscious.

“Horses, like humans, learn through repetition. In training, the goal is to expose a horse to a training stimulus often enough that the horse’s response and performance become predictable and seemingly automatic. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

~ Ian Millar, as quoted on

I trained with former number-one rider in the world, Ian Millar, as a junior and ended up competing on the Canadian Equestrian Team with him. Throughout my riding career, he was always there with great advice and encouragement and I encourage all riders of all levels to seek knowledge from the legends of their sport. Here is a link to Ian’s training philosophy that was published on the World of Showjumping website.

The journey of becoming a show jumping rider is a long and complicated process, an adventure that has countless ups and downs. Every successful international (and most other level) rider has a great team behind them, and the horse is obviously the most important part of that team. Owners, barn managers, grooms, veterinarians, farriers, and trainers all play an integral role in the career of a rider. The trainer is a key piece in the puzzle and many top riders make sure that they get the very best coaching they can. I always say, “A successful person never loses, they either win or learn.”

A great example of this is emerging star Vanessa Mannix of Canada. The 29-year-old equestrian is currently ranked #194 in the Longines World Rankings and is getting the notice of professionals all over the world with her classic riding style and emerging string of horses.

Mannix has always surrounded herself with great coaches. Olympian Jonathan Asselin was a huge influence on her early career and his instruction was supplemented by both World Champion Gail Greenough and yours truly. Today, Mannix works closely alongside Irish Equestrian Team rider Conor Swail (ranked #48 in the world) and James Chawke (ranked #522).

I have been so impressed with the progress in the sophistication of her riding and her problem-solving techniques in the grand prix ring that I was compelled to feature her in this article about the importance of great coaches. We sat down together and here’s what she had to say:

Jay Duke: What is the emotional make-up of a great student?

Vanessa Mannix: One of the important “emotions” is to have trust in your coach. If the student is doubting the process, the relationship is not going to work. You have to surrender your ego, and trust and have faith in your coach. Conor, James, and I will walk the course and, in many classes, I will do different [stride] counts than everyone else as Cru [Grand Cru van de Vijf Eiken] has such a big step. But, having trust in your team, being open-minded to new things and to learning, and being personally responsible are important. Do not listen or rely on what your parents, peers, or stablemates say at the barn—you are responsible for your own headspace and creating your own environment, and you are accountable.

JD: What character traits make up a great coach?

VM: Being level-headed and having a consistent voice. When the pressure is on, staying practical and focused on the task at hand while not letting all the emotions interfere is important. I can get nervous and a little hyper in the warm-up ring, but my coach helps me handle my emotions. The triangle of communication between Conor, James, and I leads to great dialogue and clear communication.

JD: What is your motivation? What drives you to put so much into the sport?

VM: My relationship with the horses. The high level of communication I achieve with my horses is a special motivator. I also love the technicality of the courses and solving the problems that have been set out by the course designer. I love to win and am a competitor, but I am more a perfectionist and that has taken time for me to find. The ribbons and wins are a byproduct of answering the technical questions, not the end goal.

©Starting Gate Communications Photography

JD: Do you set goals? Name two.

VM: Yes, I’m a big goal-setter. I set yearly and long-term goals and write them down at the start of each year. They include individual goals for each horse and FEI computer rankings for myself. One of my long-term goals is jumping in the CP International Grand Prix at the Spruce Meadows “Masters” tournament and qualifying for the top 12. To jump in the second round of that class, that is the pinnacle of the sport.

Also, I would like to achieve the ranking of top 100 on the FEI World Rankings. Currently, I am 194 and 121 was my highest ever. I am proud to be in the top 200 since most of my horses are just nine years of age. Developing a horse to the international level is one of the most satisfying parts of the process. Conor is excellent at picking out top quality horses, and I trust him and his opinion when purchasing young mounts.

JD: What separates a top coach from the other coaches?

VM: The desire for the student to do well. They believe in you as a rider and are very passionate about the student achieving their goals. If the coach does not believe in you and want to see you succeed, it is very hard to create that all on your own. Conor gets more nervous for my rides than his and probably gets a bigger kick out of my successes than his own.

JD: What is your favorite type of class?

VM: Table A speed. I love the speed classes. Riding forward is when I ride my best, but that being said, nothing compares with the start of a grand prix.

JD: Think back to an important class you competed in and had a subpar round. When you left the ring, did you want to hear encouragement or criticism? You can only pick one. Why? What did your coach say?

VM: Criticism. Before the class I need things to be positive but, after the round, I want to hear what needs to be different and what adjustments need to be made. The biggest class that happened to me was the Nations’ Cup in Mexico when Cru stopped at the water in the first round and I finished with a nine-fault score. At that moment, I wilted when I needed to step up. Conor told me I needed to take control of a situation that was going sideways. In the second round, we jumped the water clear and ended with a five-fault score. That was a huge learning moment and taught me that I need to be much more aggressive and determined when I feel things not going well. Instead of shrinking, getting soft, and freezing, I need to channel my focus on riding positively.

JD: When you’re not on a horse you are….?

VM: Usually playing golf or squash, working out, or assisting with the family business. I also try to get out to experience some of the great places I am lucky enough to travel to.

“There are no shortcuts to achieving sustained success in show jumping. As a rider, you need to use a structured and methodical progression to reach your ultimate goals”

~ Ian Millar as quoted on

*You can read more about this as a learning behavior in humans in the book Outliers: The Story Of Success by Malcolm Gladwell 

About Jay Duke
Jake Duke is a show jumping rider, course designer, clinician, and Canadian Equestrian Team member, who has represented Canada in Washington, New York, and Toronto. A four-time Canadian Junior Champion and Leading Rider at the Spruce Meadows North American Championships, Jay has an extensive background with horses of all levels and breeds. For more information about Jay, visit: