Rider profile: Mandy Johnston

By Caroline Malan

Photos: Jacqui S Woods

1. Why will you not be competing in the main Derby 2018?

Lambus is quite a quirky sensitive horse and is not overly keen on the “funnies” in the Derby track – the steps, the bank, the road crossing etc. I have formed such a great partnership with him and don’t want to risk upsetting this, as could potentially happen with a horse of his nature. In addition we have other big competitions in this arena so I need to keep him happy and confident in there.

2. Will you compete in any other classes?

Unfortunately I won’t be competing as my other two young open horses are not quite ready for the Micro Derby, so they will compete at Post Derby and prepare for Derby 2019.

3. Will you come watch the main Derby and will you dress up in line with the theme “Spring in the Hamptons”?

I shall definitely be there and weather permitting, dress to theme!

4. Tell us about Lambus – what makes him tick? His dislikes?

To handle on the ground and in the stable Lambus is very uncomplicated and easy, and actually quite enjoys being fussed over. He loves his food and has a propensity to put on weight easily so his diet has to be monitored closely. His groom, Lackson – his biggest fan – also has to be monitored closely as I have caught him sneaking Lambus extra wedges of teff on occasion!! He is not a fan of water and does not enjoy being hosed off or putting his feet into it – he will rather leap over a puddle than walk through it, which I find particularly strange for a horse that grew up in England! Under saddle, however, he is larger than life. He has quite a mind of his own and I have to define his boundaries very gently without him realising. He is not a horse one can argue with – he actually squeals when he is reprimanded too strongly! But he has an incredible “Joie de Vivre” and puts his all into his jumping, and it is his quirky, sharp nature, at the end of the day, that makes him the talent he is.

5. Explain his work routine to us eg walker, flatwork, track, outrides, jumping etc – how often do you do each one per week and why does that work for the horse?

My weekly program with Lambus is pretty much determined by his show schedule and can vary slightly depending on that. Flat work training is very important for me – ensuring that my horse is kept fit, supple, balanced and always in tune with me. Correct flat working is like pilates is for humans – to assist the body to develop in the right way to make the job of jumping easier and lessen the risk of injury. So I would say a large portion of my program is centred around this, which would also include pole and cavaletti work. If we are between shows I will mostly set up a gymnastic exercise which I will do once or twice in the week. I do not tend to jump very big at home, particularly between back to back shows, and if we have a layoff between shows I may take him to a weekend show and jump around a 1.30m or 1.35m track. I will do track or hill work once a week and use one day for an outride where he can chill, which is sometimes quite hair raising as he can be quite a handful.

6. What has been the biggest challenge for you personally in Derby – ie what do you have to work on the most before the show as well as on show day?

Falling asleep the night before!!! Honestly though, I think the most important thing, other than ensuring my horse is prepared, is fitness of both myself and my horse. As professional riders we are all pretty riding fit from working many horses every day, but the Derby can really take it out of you if you are not fit enough and then the mistakes come towards the end of the course. The Derby track is 50% longer than most normal tracks we jump and when you come out of the dike at number 12, you still have a serpentine of 6 fences left!! It’s at this point you really need to regroup and keep yourself and your horse concentrating.
I combine my efforts to increase my horse’s fitness as well as my own by doing more track work where I start in the trot and do a few laps rising trot without stirrups – this really gives you quite a work out – and then some laps in light seat at the canter without stirrups. I am generally a pretty healthy eater, but I make a concerted effort to ensure I am getting the necessary proteins, minerals, vitamins etc into my body. On Derby Day, if I am not competing in the earlier class, I will ride a couple of horses at home in the morning. This helps to get me in the zone and stay focused and relaxed. It is also really important to stay hydrated, so I will mix up a drink with electrolytes, pack some bananas and head off to the show.

7. How do you ‘get into the zone’ before the big class?

I am not very comfortable in large crowds of people in general, so I always like to find a quiet place to sit and relax and focus by myself. Derby is a tough one as there is such a lot of waiting, and the waiting is the worst. I feel a lot better as soon as I get onto my horse to warm up.

8. In your opinion, what are the biggest errors made by riders jumping the Derby course?
As I mentioned previously, fitness of horse and rider is really important and a lot of the time the mistakes start to happen at the end of the track where horse and/or rider begin to tire and concentration lapses. It is really important to be able to get onto a good canter and a good rhythm and maintain this. When the horses start to tire, they get a little on the forehand and then the rider is having to pull back and rebalance, negatively impacting the rhythm and canter. These days everyone really makes an effort at preparing their horses for the Derby obstacles so these don’t often cause big problems. I also believe that there are some horses that just are not Derby horses and riders should be discerning about the horses they present to the Derby.

9. For those training for the Derby, what should they focus on most (eg fitness; certain exercises; Derby-type fences etc)

Any horse facing the Derby track will most likely have competed before in the Mini and Micro Derbys, so riders will have a pretty good idea about any particular issues that need training. Fitness, as I have already addressed, is very important and one should really start about 4- 6 weeks before the Derby refreshing the horses with the Derby obstacles. Jumping up and down hills is very different to what they are normally doing, and with the steps, the balustrade at number 6, the road crossing, the bank and the dyke they need training and the rider needs to ensure the horse is balanced on landing. For me the steps have always been my worst jump as it feels really awkward and they can lose momentum and from the top of the steps you have to get going quickly to the wide oxer at number 5. The balustrade can also catch a lot of horses, particularly if the course designer places it close to the lip of the slope, and they drop their hind legs a little too soon. It is important to try and get the horses down the bank correctly so as to make a comfortable distance to the planks. The idea is that they slide halfway and then jump, staying straight, to give the momentum for the two strides. If they land in a heap at the bottom it makes riding the planks very difficult and the rider needs to make a very quick decision to add a stride or not. So all these things need to be worked at in order for horse and rider to feel confident going into that course.

10. What’s the best Derby round you’ve ever witnessed?

The one round that really sticks in my mind was Jade Hooke on A New Era the first year she won the Derby. This young girl who virtually came out of nowhere, first time out on the big stage, rode that course to perfection. She had the most perfect rhythm the entire way round and displayed serious big match temperament.

11. Who are your favourites for this year’s Derby?

Anne Marie Esslinger’s Alzu Oregon has been on form and has won the Derby before and it would be nice to see her do that again. Ronnie Lawrence is always one to watch for as a Derby winner and then there’s always Capital Don Cumarco!!!

12. How does the crowd impact the riding in the area? Did you ever hear the crowd when you rode?

I think you are so concentrated during the round that any noise from the crowd is really at the back of your mind, but they are a wonderful sound as you pass through the finish.

13. Explain your best ever Derby round to us – when, on whom, why was it the best?

Obviously the year I won the Derby on Listor in 2001 was the best. He was a great Derby horse and had been placed the previous 2 years. I was so determined to win that year. The water jump was always his nemesis as he would often have a foot in the water. Once I was clear over that I remember going into concentration overdrive and could literally feel the crowd carrying me over the last couple of jumps. I won with the only clear round. It was truly an amazing experience.