Michelle Strapp

For someone who at 14 certainly didn’t want to come to Australia – the land of snakes and kangaroos – coach Michelle Strapp has actually become quite the Aussie. There’s barely a trace of an English accent in her rapid fire words as she talks about her love of coaching the New Zealand high performance jumping squads.

As a youngster, her parents had no spare money to put into lessons or a pony so the besotted would-be rider worked at the local riding school. She was just nine and would ride absolutely anything. It stood her good stead when her parents “dragged” her to Australia to start a new life. Once again though, she found a way to entrench herself into horses, tracking down the nearest pony and started riding for others.

She happened upon Jim Schmul and it marked the beginning of a great partnership. “I only had $200 to my name and I bought my first horse in Australia from him,” says Michelle. “I had nowhere to keep it so I just knocked on the doors of local factories until I found a small paddock behind one of them.” Michelle joined the local Pony Club, made the jumping team and people started to notice the Brit import.

By her own admission, Michelle was fanatical about horses, which came at the cost of education. Years down the track though, her dogged determination, natural talent and sharp eye have proved she followed the right pathway.

Michelle working with Jumping HP Squad riders Julie Davey and Logan Massie

Michelle went on to compete professionally and enjoyed a successful career during which she produced a number of very good horses including Mickey Mouse. “He really was special,” said Michelle who had him from a yearling until he was 11. Together they competed at World Cup level and caught the eye of many but one night it was the legendary Vicky Roycroft who called and said she wanted him for the Seoul Olympic Games.

“It is everyone’s goal and dream to have ‘that’ horse but I had just bought a big equestrian centre and it was expensive to run. She offered me a lot of money. I called my mentor George (Sanna) who said it was too much to turn down.” After the horse sold, Michelle couldn’t talk to anyone for six weeks and it marked a turning point in her equestrian career. She was right about the horse, who went on to Seoul and World Champs but died young.

This was a turning point for Michelle as whilst she continued to produce horses to higher levels she was now open to sell them on a business basis rather than an emotional level. She felt the higher turnover of saleable educated equines enhanced her knowledge and understanding of horses.

During this time Michelle bought and sold plenty of thoroughbreds. One day she brought home two – a bay and a chestnut. The latter was “a freak”. “He was sold to the United States and became the leading horse in America. Eros . . . he was famous.” Scandal was another she had a big hand in. The horse was owned by the Wagner family and while the horse was very talented, Michelle said she further enhanced the horse’s education. Scandal competed internationally with success by Chris Chugg and was later sold offshore.
As well as successfully showjumping at top national level, Michelle also rode dressage under the watchful eye of Mary Hanna after being curious to understand the difference between dressage and showjumping training.

“I couldn’t find an acceptable balance between financing a high level horse and my drive to succeed because to get to and stay at the top you have to be 200% committed. I never do anything less than that,” she says. “I always want to keep improving at whatever I do.”
In her world of coaching, she’s still just as driven and determined. “I turned my dedication to be a very good trainer of horses and I approach coaching the same way.”

While she has certainly taught some of Australia’s best, her mantra is simple. “My students don’t have to reach the Olympic Games but if you are going to jump a metre, do it the best way you can as it is only fair on the horse,” she says. Although Michelle is very humble about her successes as a coach, those of her students speak for themselves. The list is long and includes several who are now based in Europe competing and producing horses.

While based in Europe she was a sponge who listened and learnt all she could. “Never stop listening and learning,” she says. She carries with her gems of knowledge that she’s learnt off some of the best, including the likes of George Sanna, George Morris, Joe Fargis, Frankie Sloothaak and Bill Steinkrus. All had a very classical foundation to how and what they taught.

Her link to New Zealand came through her trainer and mentor George Sanna. He had been crossing the Tasman to teach but there came a time when he just couldn’t continue and recommended Michelle and the rest is history. She flies in a few times a year to teach squads at clinics in the North and South islands. “Coaching is rather misunderstood in our industry,” she says. “It is frustrating.”

Her own coaching style is not that different to some of the greatest. “It has to be a methodical and classical system,” she says. “I am very lucky my whole life to have had good coaches, I sourced them because I was hungry for knowledge.” A coach needs to be able to simply and clearly explain what they want from their students but, do they also have to have had a successful competitive career at high level? “I think it is difficult to teach someone to do something you haven’t done yourself,” says Michelle.

There was much to be said for understanding the mental state of a horse, the mechanics of a horse, the feel of achieving certain movements, and the adrenalin, nerves and pressure that goes with it all. That’s not to discount coaches at lower level who have been successful up to 1.20m or so creating essential building blocks for riders at that level.

Michelle works with Talent ID Squad rider Dylan Bibby

She, like many others, believes there is a distinct lack of flat work done by riders on both sides of the Tasman. “There is a misunderstanding of its importance,” she says. “George Morris once said ‘there are only two ways to ride – good and bad’. He’s not wrong!”

The question which Michelle puts to riders is, “do you understand how your horse is moving his legs and using his body to produce what you are asking? Do you understand how your horse is reacting to your aids, and does the horse understand what you are asking of him”. But that’s just the start. Michelle emphasises the importance of the correlation between flatwork and jumping for each individual horse by instilling into her students an understanding of what they are asking their horse to do on the flat and how it relates to the areas in which they want to improve in showjumping. Her goal is to emphasise and apply the core ingredients of flat work into showjumping to enhance the way they feel and ride to a fence.

She loves working with the Kiwis and says they are quick to understand her logic in her lessons. “A lot of the riders who come to squad have talent and a natural way of getting to a jump. After a while when they come back and I see them, I ask how things are going and they can now explain to me the issues they are facing and what they are working on to improve the horse’s rideability on course in a very intellectual and articulate way.”

Michelle says this is not only beneficial to the riders in the short term but it is also to the sport in the long term as these riders are the trainers and coaches of the future. “Training does not have to be complicated or complex as the horse needs to understand what you are asking of it,” she says.

The dressage correlation Michelle brings is not to get them to ride a dressage test, but rather to improve flat work and the rideability of a horse to allow them to ride a more sophisticated distance and smoother courses.

She loves that when she finishes her ESNZ clinics the riders are all enthusiastically still asking questions. Michelle keeps in touch with them between clinics and looks over their videos. “There is a real willingness to be open and learn, and that says a lot.”

Michelle lives in Victoria with her “no-horsey” husband Peter who always comes to New Zealand with her. “I choose not to own a horse,” she says. Six months ago she got on a client’s dressage horse and while it felt fine when she was riding, she says she could barely walk for four days after.

“I am at a different stage in my life. My husband loves to travel and we recently spent two months in Italy. There are so many other things to do. As a young person all I did was ride . . . it’s time for a change.”

By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison
Photos Supplied