Olympic show jumper and Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Michael Matz considers the importance of learning horse care and equestrian sports history.
What do you consider a horseman?
To me, a good horseman is a good caretaker. You can have a good horseman who’s not that great a rider. Kenny Wheeler is a good horseman, but he doesn’t ride that much. He knows horses, and he knows the anatomy of a horse; he knows the conformation. He knows what he wants with the horse, how a horse should go.
Bert de Némethy—I never saw him jump, but he was a good trainer, and he could ride a horse on the flat very well.
When I go to barns and see horses that are turned out well, I think they have a good horseman either as the manager or rider, but the combination makes it work out.
I always thought Nelson Pessoa was a good horseman. Nelson was very stylish; his horses always looked good. It always seemed to make sense, the things he did with the horses, and those are things I look at that combine a good horseman and rider.
I don’t think you can categorize it one way or the other, that you have to do this, or you have to do that. I’m sure the veteran riders can put a bridle together, put a good bandage on, and I’m sure they’ve mucked more than their share of stalls. I don’t think they do it now, but they don’t have to do it now. They went through that.
I was lucky enough to have somebody like Bert de Némethy help me, so I felt a bit of an obligation—if somebody wants to learn—to pass things along. If you don’t, we’re going to end up with bigger bits, hurry-up-and-do-this, put them on a longe-line more, and go in the ring. This is what happens, and we’re going to get more ruined horses.
Do you think it’s an injustice to the sport when riders ascend to the championship level without having genuine curiosity towards learning more about horses and sport?
I would say it’s disappointing.
For instance, my daughter Lucy was riding in the FEI North American Young Riders Championships at the [Kentucky Horse Park] about five years ago. A rider there was standing with their trainer and said, “Boy, she sits nice on a horse. Did her parents ride?” and the trainer says, “Yeah, both her parents rode, and I want you to take a walk in the hallway down there and look at the pictures in the Hall of Fame and learn a little bit about, ‘Did they ride?’ ”
Here’s a girl that didn’t even know who I was or didn’t even know who [my wife] D.D. was, and D.D. was the president of the U.S. Equestrian Team at one time. Not that they should know who I am, but I think I gave quite a few contributions to the sport, and it’s just funny that [my generation] knew who the previous riders were.
Everything is in a quicker mode right now. Riders don’t want to spend the time with the young horse, and the horse isn’t doing this, so we put a stronger bit on instead of giving the horse time to get it right.
I went to a barn the other day, and I saw these bandages on a horse. It was on half the ankle and above the knee. I said, “Why do you do that like that?” and the rider said to me, “I don’t know.”
I asked the barn foreman, but they didn’t have any reasons as to why it was done that way; it didn’t support the horse’s ankle and probably would do more damage to the back of the knee.
I’m willing to change, and that’s why I asked about the bandaging. Maybe I can learn something about it that would make it better for my horses, but it turns out that nobody knew why the groom was bandaging the horse that way, and it was a horse that was just bought for seven figures.
Why do you think there is that lack of curiosity?
Show jumping has gotten to be a sport where the horses are very expensive, and there’s this, “I’ll just hire a farm manager that can do it” mentality. Some people do take a big interest in learning, and others don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or good, but if I’m going to get on a horse, I like to make sure the tack is right.
I see some people who really want to make themselves the best they can by learning about the horse getting shod, the horse getting bandaged, and the feeding of the horse. And then I see some that don’t go through that; it’s not what they want to do, and they always have someone who can do it for them. I don’t want to criticize those people because they have the ways and means to do that, but I was just more curious about learning.
How would you say that things like cleaning a stall, truck driving, grooming or knowing how to assemble a bridle really prepare someone for jumping at the top of sport?
I’m not saying you have to spend hours in the day just mucking stalls or grooming your horse, but each task has a small value to knowing your horse better and being a better rider. If someone couldn’t put a bridle together—that probably doesn’t mean they can’t ride a horse really well but I would say it’s a little pathetic that they can’t put a bridle together.
When I was at the point where I had a lot to do, I depended on my groom, which is fair enough, and I wouldn’t criticize anybody for that. But I think when you start riding, you should ask questions and start to learn: “How do you put the bandage on? How do you put that bridle on? Teach me how to tack up a horse.”
Maybe a person who has an hour for a riding lesson and has to drive a half hour there and back doesn’t have time to be taught bandaging. But they’d probably be a better rider if they understood a couple things like, when they got on a horse, why a horse is doing this, why a horse is doing that. I would think if they got to the international level they would understand when a horse is a little bit lame, and when you get on him and he dips down in his back, things to do about it.
I wouldn’t criticize anybody who says, “I just want to ride. I don’t want to be involved with that. I’m going to pay somebody to do that stuff for me.” But how many of those people go on? I don’t know too many.
Have you met a rider in the new guard whose work ethic, talent and horsemanship reminds you of your generation of horsemen?
I think we have a lot of good riders. The younger riders: Are they going to get to the same level as the veterans? Sometimes they don’t have to if they have a good horse and can ride well enough to compete with them.
There are always the handful of people who say, “I’m going to ride, and I’m not going to do anything else.”
There are other people who, when they get to the international level, certainly know when their horse is lame. They certainly know when their horse isn’t feeling right or when their horse has a temperature or what the temperature is.
In the race horse business, the trainer has all the responsibility, so it’s important that he has a good stable foreman and that he can tell the foreman exactly what he wants. Even when I had a good foreman at my barn, it was a mutual agreement on what we wanted with the horses, and when it came down to what was going to happen, it was my vote whether I was going to go along with it or not. The buck stops someplace, and usually it’s at the top.
What importance did you place on your children learning the sport from the ground up?
Both D.D. and myself felt our kids really had to learn the basics. Every Monday they’d go out and take care of the horses so the grooms had the day off. These are things they had to do.
Alex, Lucy, Robert—they all would like the opportunity to have a horse that can go in the grand prix. Whether that will ever happen all depends on them, but both D.D. and I stressed that they have to do things the right way with their horse from the ground up: learn how to ride the horse on the flat, learn how to take care of it, learn whether it’s sound. If you don’t know the basics on the ground, it doesn’t get any easier by just getting on a horse.
Michael Matz competed in three Olympic Games, earning team silver in 1996, when he became the first equestrian to carry the U.S. flag in a closing ceremony. He won individual and team bronze at the 1978 Show Jumping World Championships (Germany) and an individual and team gold medal at the 1979 Pan American Games (Puerto Rico). He won the 1981 FEI World Cup Final (England) and retired from show jumping in 2000 before being inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 2005.
He began training race horses in 1998 and won the Kentucky Derby with Barbaro in 2006. In 2012, he won the Belmont Stakes with Union Rags.
Matz, of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, has children Michelle and Michael Jr. from his first marriage with Brigitte Mathers and shares Alex, Lucy, Robert and Arthur with Dorothy Deaver “D.D.” Alexander Matz, whom he wed in the early ’90s.
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