Time, reflection, challenge: five more questions with Clive Milkins

Two weeks ago, I published the first half of an interview with international para dressage and RDA stalwart, Clive Milkins. This week, I am excited to be able to share the second half, spanning perspectives on the world of para equestrian sport, classification, training, and reflection. Now is the perfect time to engage in conversation with others (near and far) about the world of disability sport, so please do feel free to share and discuss Clive's words near and far.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Tokyo has been postponed until 2021. How will the postponement make this new, out-of-sequence games more interesting?

I think the change of date has created a unique set of challenges that have to be faced, whether we like it or not. Firstly, we can’t change anything, so we should accept the idea and move on. This is an opportunity to sit back and reflect about how training was going: what could be better, and now we have more time, how can we improve. Is now a good time to rest the horses or is now the time to revisit our basic education and iron out those niggly little challenges that affect performance? We now have time to re-evaluate our basics. We now know that the games will be put back exactly 12 months, so the dates remain the same, just giving us another 365 days of training. To put it another way, an extra 365 hours training if you train for one hour a day. Adding an hour a day for reading, studying and reflection will double the time left. We also know that the qualification places from the FEI haven’t changed, so we still know which countries have qualified, and which athletes have attained the FEI eligibility criteria. So, the green light is on for athletes to train harder and with more knowledge. This removes some of the uncertainty that we are all facing right now.

On a more personal note as a coach, in many ways para equestrian is lucky because we can be a late maturation sport, the human element of para equestrian athletes generally tends not to be limited by age, and in many cases, another few months will only deepen the athlete’s knowledge and understanding of their horses and dressage training. Of course, sadly, there will be athletes both human and equine who will simply not be as fit and strong next year. This is very unfortunate for those concerned, and my heart does go out to any who may miss the opportunity. Sadly competitive sport isn’t always fair, and I know that decisions postponing the Games were not taken lightly. I know that many countries are offering psychological support to the athletes affected. Now is the time to support each other (from a distance), and help each other work our way through this.

What are your hopes for para equestrianism for (or by the time of) the Paris Paralympics in 2024?

In Europe, the sport of Para dressage is fairly settled and stable. I believe that it is parallel now to main stream dressage and recognised as a respected discipline, with many top coaches and trainers crossing over from one to the other quite easily.

With my work overseas, however, I can see that this is not always the case. In countries that have a strong therapy background, there is often a reticence to encourage athletes to be more independent due to coaches being nervous and also often athletes are riding as a treatment, rather than receiving therapy by achieving riding goals. In some countries, where riders have become disabled through injury or medical conditions, they have “just got on with it”, and found their own help in order to achieve their goals. In some places, athletes have had to stop riding when they wanted to stretch their education and ability. My dream by 2024 would be that we see more countries achieving success at the higher levels of the sport, and that there is a great education and knowledge in the countries that are just starting to explore para dressage.

Photo credit: Issy Buxton

There has been a lot of discussion (and discontent) in recent months about classification in para dressage. The sport is getting busier, but is it getting more or less fair?

This is a very interesting and highly emotive question. Firstly I am not a classifier and so my observations are made purely as a coach. I was involved with adapting the first profile system written by Dr Christine Meaden into being equestrian specific. I am always proud that it was the UK’s RDA that created the foundation from which the current system is built; I have always had an interest in the system and have watched it evolve since 1994. 

I have been very lucky to sit in on many classifications over the years. They have always been carried out professionally and carefully by suitably qualified people. When you have to classify everyone who has a disability into 5 separate groups, there is always going be a challenge. Humans are not designed to fit evenly into categories, and there will always be a risk of subjectivity with range of movement, co-ordination and balance. When there is a cut off point in each grade, some people will always be at the top end, some at the bottom end and some in the middle of each category. In my mind the classifiers do their best to get everything right, they spend a great deal of time discussing and observing the human functional capabilities, keeping away from the added complication of riding. All around the world, a great deal of time and effort is taken to ensure that the exacting standards of being a classifier are maintained through international training and support. The system itself is always under scrutiny and research is ongoing in order to ensure that a system is fit for its intended purpose: that of creating as fair and level playing field as possible.

As a coach and mentor, I have seen both the highs and lows of classification and recognise the importance to getting everything as fair as we can, but there will never be a completely level playing field in sport. Sport just isn’t an exact science and when you add a second sentient individual (the horse), it adds a whole different level of challenges. How can we judge any humans physical capability based on the ability to sit on a living moving animal? The only way to do that would be if everyone rode the same animal. Each horse moves differently, with a different contact and temperament. Once we accept that choosing the correct horse as the sports partner is part of training and developing knowledge, and that strength and muscle power is also part of training, then that is very different to functional ability.

We can’t make something that is unfair, fair. We are not all born with the same talents, and if we were, cultural background, financial capability, and training opportunities through coaches, horse power and facilities would immediately and inherently change the dynamics of talent.

It is very easy to critique an existing system, and I am always interested to see what people would constructively change about it. It is easy to raise the cry of “not fair”, and it is right in a fair, open, and honest community that everyone can voice their concerns and discuss them in a civilised way. When people watch from the sidelines and judge classification, however, they tend to do the sport a disservice. Often there is a huge discrepancy between an athlete's capability on a horse and their physical capability in real life. Athletes often learn to compensate for their challenges by using other muscle groups (as an example). By the time athletes are competing regularly at international level they will have been seen by several classifiers who will be in agreement about the level of function in each athlete. I agree that athletes are often seen on social media, and around the stable yard away from the horse, showing, strength, co-ordination and balance that may incompatible with their para dressage grade. Maybe this is a learned behaviour; developing other skills as compensation.

How do we change the system? Most critics do not seem to have suggestions for doing so. Recently athletes from around the world have been given the opportunity to discuss classification and its future confidentially. As I have already stated, you can’t test everyone on the same horse, and not every country would have a simulator. We have to have a system that is accessible. Do we need more grades? International sport would not allow more medals at Championships. Coaches and athletes have human traits and it would be very difficult to come up with a new impartial system. If physical testing of the human body is what everyone wants, how different would a new system look?

Now that we have more athletes registered and competing than ever before, and if we remember, that the classification system is based on profile numbers, maybe it is time to see if it is always the same profile numbers (with different athletes), who are achieving the highest scores. If that is the case and certain profile number dominate the sport, maybe that is another place to start the research.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Many athletes of all levels are currently unable to ride and/or train as usual. Do you have any constructive ideas for them to use their enforced “off-horse” time effectively?

I think this is a very useful question for all of us to be thinking about. One of the great things about dressage is that it is about knowledge as well as experience. Knowledge is power, and time spent in study is never wasted. Whenever I have a challenge to face in coaching, I refer straight back to my books and to my own mentors and coaches. There is so much existing information out on the internet and in books that it is easy to use the time, that we usually spend riding, constructively. By reading and researching established text books and watching videos we are keeping our knowledge current. Remember that most coaches are in the same position as their athletes, so contact your coach, asking pertinent questions. They will be pleased to hear from you as contact establishes communication, discussion and learning. If you are able to ride but do not have eyes on the ground, film a dressage test and send it to Dressage Anywhere to be judged, or send it to your coach as part of a lesson. If you are really technologically competent, do a Facetime, Skype, or Zoom lesson with your coach. Away from study and mental stimulation, keeping your physical fitness is really important. We are allowed to go for a walk and fresh air is vital as long as you can socially distance yourself from others. There are plenty of online stretching and exercise workshops that are helpful. Talk to a physio about which exercises would be useful. Talk to friends online and share experiences. Friends are never far away.

What could we be doing better or more of in the UK or further afield to support grass roots (including RDA) para riders?

I have to say that the British system is the envy of the world. RDA has created such a great base from groups being encouraged to coach riding skills as well as the benefits of therapy. There is a recognised pathway of training, and competition for coaches, parents and athletes, and the real beauty of that pathway is that within the rules of the sport it is inclusive to everyone. Not every will make it to the top, but then sport is like that - not every tennis player plays at Wimbledon, but everyone can have a go and find their own level while still striving to achieve their best and to improve. This goes for coaches as well as riders. One of the beauties of our sport is that a coach can improve their knowledge to stay working with an athlete. I stayed with Sophie Christiansen for as long as I did because I had the opportunity to develop my own skills and bring in those of others. RDA coaches are often happy to find their niche and to watch the riders they help move on to others. This community coaching is a vital key to the success of the British system.

Of course, there is always room for improvement, and ongoing education for coaches and the training of horses is always vital. Coaches have to search for their own master coaches and develop their own systems and beliefs. Truthfully reflect on your own knowledge, recognise the strengths and weakness and then honestly reach out for the right help and advice. Be realistic in your aims, and realise that every rosette and medal from grass roots to Paralympic level is a return on your own investment: a symbol of the time, effort, determination and financial effort that you have put in. 

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

Have you enjoyed reading this blog?

All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.

Can you help?

We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.