Having met Jamie for the first time in the Maldives 3 years previously, a very wet Hickstead at the end of July surrounded by horses and Barbour jackets couldn’t have been more of a contrast. So in between the customary veterinary visits and Nations Cup team meetings, we sat down for an hour to discuss his modern approach to health & fitness in this very traditional sport.
Many moons ago I had the privilege to ride for the late Ted Williams and various other big names in the sport of showjumping, so my interest and knowledge has always been there. My enthusiasm for jumping on a horse may have subsided a little these days but I have always understood first hand the effort, agility and fitness required by both horse and rider. So much so, my first published articles were for horse and rider magazines to help bring this subject to the attention of those spending all their time on their horses and very little on themselves. So, fast forward 18 years and it was refreshing to listen to this talented 33-year-old actually taking this aspect seriously when so much is at stake professionally.
Jamie and his wife, Averil, purchased an old 15-acre dairy farm in 2012 on the outskirts of York, England, with the sole intention to create one of the best facilities in the country. After a hard 18 months worth of renovations, they completed an outstanding training centre for both horse and rider and something very much in keeping with the European approach. With 19 stables, a stunning indoor school and a purpose-built gym for the riders and staff, nothing was omitted when working through the design.
All this really shouldn’t be a surprise as it represents Jamie’s training experience over in Germany when he was riding for Ludger Beerbaum – the Olympic Gold Medallist. With Personal Trainers and some general nutritional guidance on hand from the start, it was a health & fitness programme for everyone involved. I was aware of this too back in the early 2000s, as a previous sports massage client of mine was the International French Dressage rider, Michel Assouline. He stated he had to work hard on his fitness levels when competing, and if he didn’t make the grade, he didn’t make their national team. Simple!
The Europeans took it seriously back then and still do, which has resulted in Jamie now monitoring his daily nutritional intake, avoiding the alcohol and the customary bacon sandwiches at the shows and regular yoga sessions.
GFG: Who else has built a facility such as yours with a gym and personal trainers and Yoga instructors on hand?
JG: In showjumping, no one over here that I’m aware of…in Germany and across Europe, yes.
GFG: With passionate investors like Lord and Lady Harris and Lord and Lady Kirkham, and with riders like Jennifer Gates, Jessica Springsteen, Eve Jobs and Georgina Bloomberg competing on the international circuit, have the levels and financial interest in the sport increased over the years?
JG: Yes, there is vast wealth in the sport after some modernised in the last few years – a lot of prize money, which attracts investment not just through their passion but as a business model. There is a real Formula 1 circuit feel going on…an interesting dynamic! And then there is diversity too. Our business model is to have stallions and mares for breeding purposes via embryo and semen samples, which it’s an additional revenue stream for us now.
Is the UK in line with other nations for showjumping and riders health and fitness facilities?
There’s definitely room for improvement. America leads the way of course, so why not strive to be the top nation in health and fitness within this sport? It can only help.
The Nations Cup team – is personal health, fitness and nutrition discussed at team meetings at all?
We have an overall infrastructure in place but we only have mental coaches for the riders – nothing for fitness or nutrition.
Have your fitness levels ever been analysed professionally? Body fat levels, treadmill tests etc?
Yes, by Jodie, my Personal Trainer, but not for a few months now.
Do you feel that your facility is helping to raise the standard of the sport in the UK?
Yes, I hope so. There is a different dynamic to it all for the horses and riders here. All a little different because we offer an open-house approach, the whole package, which people find refreshing…so we have been told.
Is this born out of frustration and/or a real understanding of what’s needed?
I have always believed in my approach and my own identity, which is important in life – it’s a vision both Averil and I have had from the start.
Of course, there’s the old school way, but how much do you feel this modern scientific approach has helped your progress?
It is definitely a combination these days. You can’t take away the skill and the eye of an experienced horseman and the classic approach, but modern techniques have proven to help. There is too much over-analysing at times, but it is an art form to combine them both effectively.
Many in the UK say that if you haven’t made it to the European Championships by 22 then you won’t make it any further as you haven’t had the exposure to the top. My way is understanding the process as a whole – as long as you’re learning! In the UK, 33 is an old rider, but in Germany, I’m classed as a young rider. They have a slightly different outlook as they view it as a longer process…caring for the horses, detailed horse management and everything else that goes with it behind the scenes for both horse and rider. You can’t know all that by the time you are 22. This UK approach almost set me back as I started competing at 20 years old, which is late, but people kept telling me that I will never make it. My response was to push harder and do more!
You had double knee surgery in 2012..what happened?
I always had issues with them and x-rays in Germany showed I had bone chips the size of a two-pound coin in both knees! After the operation, I was in the hospital for 3 months and then a year and a half of not riding. The doctor told me to look for another sport, so I gave myself 12 months off. However, I was in more pain post-surgery due to muscle wastage so I decided to start swimming and regular Pilates sessions. Over time I was back in the gym and slowly squatting heavier weights and performing deeper lunges. I even went down to London to train on an anti-gravity treadmill, which was great for my rehab process.
Was this the moment you realised physical fitness was important or has it always been there?
I’ve always been keen on sport so, yes, an element of it has always been there for me, but it certainly reinforced it there and then. I’m a tall rider and therefore naturally heavier than others so my training style and body composition is something I manage and analysis in detail.
Any other injuries?
Are most of the young top riders focusing on their fitness levels now?
Yes, more of the younger generation are now aware and do treat it seriously. They’re understanding the focus shouldn’t just be on the horses but their own ability too as a professional athlete. However, it’s not across the board yet, but it’s changing, which is positive.
And what about the older generation?
No, not really here in the UK. The sport is unusual as riders can compete at the top level for several decades so it is possibly more of a challenge for the older generation to adopt a new approach after being so successful for so many years.
Are you the odd one out with your own training regime, and if so, do you find it surprising?
Many Europeans have a similar approach and so do the Americans. The best riders in the world are very focused. I can’t see why if something will give you an edge over your opponent you wouldn’t want to embrace it?!
When you and Averil designed your facility was the gym there from the start?
Yes, always. It was an important factor to include it.
How often do you use it?
Every night that I’m home.
How long for?
50 minutes a day.
Do the other riders use it?
Yes, and we encourage all our team to train after work actually. We feel it’s important to offer this to everyone to maintain our high standards.
Any other instructors?
Yes, Yoga twice a week when I’m at home.
At shows…here at Hickstead…how often do you hear a conversation about the rider’s health, fitness, nutrition and general performance?
Yes, quite often actually. Like-minded riders stick together generally. I think that is just the same in life really.
What is your personal health & fitness routine at the showground? Run, stretching, yoga, massage or just exhausted at the end of the day?
I sometimes run at the end of the day, but it’s usually stretching and yoga. Not too much to impact the riding ability though. There’s often a gym at the hotels so sometimes I head in there.
Do you take protein shakes or electrolyte drinks during the show to keep the levels up and to aid recovery?
No, I don’t. I should do more electrolytes/carb drinks to replenish throughout the day but at the moment I don’t.
Is there any kind of sponsorship from human health & fitness or nutritional companies in showjumping?
No, not that I’m aware of.
Is there drug testing in the sport for the rider and has anyone been caught?
Yes, there is testing and I have known people over the years to be pulled up.
Recovery routine at the end of the day – stretching? Ever had an ice bath??
No, never, but I do stretch out of course.
Breakfast – I’m terrible. I don’t have breakfast. Just coffee!
Lunch – A chicken salad or something similar.
Dinner – A chicken based main meal with vegetables usually.
In the gym, do you focus on specific areas – core – flexibility – endurance – strength?
Core, balance and flexibility. For my sport, I need to be lean and elastic so I try not to bulk up, but I have to keep strong, flexible and light.
Any weaknesses in your fitness levels – tight hamstrings or knee issues for example?
Hamstrings…always! Adductors too as we all suffer from adaptive shortening being in the saddle for so many hours.
The Gornall Gym
The Personal Trainer
‘For horse riders to perform at their best it takes a multidimensional approach to their fitness. Not only are riders contending with controlling their own body weight, but the forces exerted by the horse; the rider must be able to stabilise and then perform in all eventualities.
One of the key things we focus on when training is resisting forces from external stimuli; using equipment such as medicine balls, a Bosu ball, Swiss ball, wobble cushions and the TRX all help create an unstable base or point for the body to work with.
We also include a lot of unilateral work to ensure each side of the body and each limb can work independently. Single leg deadlifts, pistol squats, side planks and single arm rows all appear frequently in Jamie’s training programme.
Before any session we always start with glute and core activation; the core supports the whole body and allows it to be safe and strong, whilst the glutes support the whole posterior chain of the body, when we spend a lot of time sat on them they become lazy. The best tool for activating the glutes is definitely a resistance band (made into a loop) and for the core, we opt for dead bug and superman (resting on all fours and reaching opposite arm and leg out).
We also take a lot of time with mobility exercise; riders spend a lot of time in the same position with hip flexors, hamstrings short and the temptation to round the shoulders. Spending a little time at the start and end of each session to work on correcting this can make a huge difference to not only how the rider looks on a horse but performs too.
5 minutes of cardio followed by dynamic mobility working through each major joint and muscle group.
Resistance band side steps
Side-lying clams with resistance bands
Single Arm Row
TRX Bulgarian Split Squat
Push up with one hand on a medicine ball and swapping sides
Wood-chop using the cable machine
Single leg deadlift with a kettlebell
Side plank resting on Bosu ball
Pike using a Swiss ball
Although late to the arena, Jamie’s approach to health & fitness isn’t unexpected. He’s extremely focused, dedicated and has a thoroughly professional outlook. With a skill set learnt from many of the best European riders, his yard now offers the whole athletic package and must be the way forward as a template for the modern showjumping yard.
However, the real disappointment for me is that there still seems to be so little development in the rider’s health & fitness levels in the sport generally. Very little progress seems to have been made in this area in the last 20 years, and to not even include it at the national team level is baffling! Therefore, I’m curious to know why this is as I very much doubt it’s due to a lack of funding for such a lucrative sport?!
Yes, a new breed of professionalism may be hard for some to accept, but isn’t it wrong to expect a finely tuned horse to jump over a course of 5-6ft obstacles with unconditioned riders at the controls – it’s simple physics, no?