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CHAD CUNNINGHAM: LEADING BY EXAMPLE

January 22, 2020, Author: Contributor

Chad Cunningham needs little introduction in equestrian circles. A top child and junior rider – the protogee of legendary rider and trainer Gonda Beatrix –he learned firsthand the value that high-level coaching and experience can have on youth development – not merely as riders, but as young humans. Equestrian Life speaks to him about his European exchanges, what makes a great coach, and how some borrowed boots inspired an international friendship! 

Chad doesn’t agree that his love of teaching necessarily starts with the pupil: for him it always comes back to the horse. “I like to ask the juniors ‘Why are you here doing this?’ and it’s interesting to see their responses. Some are short term focused say ‘I am here to jump this line until I get it right,’ and I say no, I mean why this and they get ambitious and say ‘I love competing and want to do it well’ or, most commonly…. “Um”. 

What is your ‘why’? Why I get up and do this every day is because I love horses. That has to be it, because the other stuff doesn’t always come off!” Chad’s passion to coach should be the motto for equestrian coaches everywhere: help riders to help their horses. When we put the horse first, we find a clearer path to excellence.  

It was this ethos that led to Chad being chosen to travel with the South African children’s team for the first time in 1999 to the FEI Children’s World Championships (now the Children’s World Classics), sparking what would become a lifelong affair with travel and teaching. Over the next few years Chad’s team would attend nine times, in cities from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, with incredible results: out of nine visits they won four times and took the style award another whopping seven times. Chad’s excellent networking skills led to an invitation to Lars Meyer Zu Bexten inviting him to bring children to the German Friendships.  This experience allows youth the opportunity for international teamwork, intercultural understanding, finding new friends, and celebrating a love for horses together. All in six days! While there is a team event on borrowed horses at the conclusion for the approximately 140 riders from more than 30 nations, the emphasis remains on friendships and not competition. 

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Teamwork makes the dream work  

In 2010 Chad found himself again in charge of a group of riders, this time attending the inaugural Youth Olympics in Singapore. He had five children in the Group 9 team who had never met, and he couldn’t help but notice the cohesion and mental strength that the more established teams had, which definitely contributed to better rounds and ultimately success. 

 When he was asked to take the role again in 2018, first at the Algerian-held Youth Africa Games in anticipation of the next Youth Olympics that year in Buenos Aires, he had a definite plan of action. Aided by the FEI president Ingmar De Vos who approved and encouraged the initiative, Chad wanted to do a “bootcamp” for the five attending riders to adequately prepare them for international competition. The other national federations were incredibly supportive, both financially and logistically, and from his Gauteng base he hosted the children from Mauritius, Zambia, Egypt and Zimbabwe, as well as the South African based rider.  

The camp lasted a week and saw a daily routine like that he had used abroad: in the mornings the young riders would gym – “If you want to be an athlete on the horse you must first be an athlete off the horse!” – and then they would have two lessons a day, rotating amongst the eight top quality horses that local riders had loaned to Chad for this experience. Their knowledge was extended to their equine partners, learning stretching and warm-up techniques from Equine-Librium director and therapist Ronel van der Sijde, and being privvy to veterinarian treatments and discussions. Charmaine Gardener trained them all on the equine simulators, perfecting their seats and refining aids, while the other children had an opportunity to watch and support their teammates, going on from there to work with Springbok mental coach Dr Greyling in group and private sessions.  

By the time they arrived in Buenos Aires, they had a team! The external coaches all engaged together, the kids had already been chatting on social media in the run-up, and the incredible cohesion in their Group 9 team saw them bringing back a bronze, a mere (and painful!) one timefault off the leaders.  

 

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Learn from the best to be better than the best

All the while Chad has been persevering with developing international relationships and getting young riders from around the world on training camps. At the Athens Olympics he was sitting in the grandstand and loudly exclaimed how he adored Chris Kappler’s technique. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and he found himself talking to Chris’ mother, who promptly took him to the edge of the warm-up arena to meet his idol! Kappler, holder of an Olympic individual silver and a team gold, is now one of the connections that has opened his Florida yard to Chad and his initiatives for international training. He joins the likes of Dutch silver medallist Albert Voorn, Jan Verellen, and German-based Martin Suiermann in being parties passionate about educating youth.  

On these trips students from around the world join Chad for a week of immersive education, learning from the best on excellent horses, a non-negotiable for Chad. Suiermann takes them to Global Championship Tours shows, giving them a taste of the big leagues, while Verellen embodies the universal style that is seeing so much success. Kappler is a management guru, and students visiting there can expect to see the inner workings of top stable yards and veterinary care, maybe visit a high end stud farm, or take a cultural visit with their new friends if they have finished mucking out early enough (shock! horror!). Chad, ever holistic, also facilitates airtime with renowned equestrian mental coach Annette Paterakis, known for creating rider confidence through positive talk and visualisation techniques – “Be stronger than your excuses!” – to create future athletes with the temperament to go with the skills… and the blisters from actual hard work! 

 

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Being the leader you would follow 

What is being passionate about development, without being passionate about the developers? Chad’s philosophy is very inclusive of all professionals, and he runs regular “Coach The Coaches” clinics on his travels in an effort to share knowledge. In a sport where revolutionary advances are constantly being made, it is the duty of coaches to stay progressive and constantly try to be better. The old-school methodology of standing in the dust shouting at people is fading, and if we want to stay relevant we need to be pooling our vast experience to improve horses, pupils, and each other.
 

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible 

In Chad’s utopia we see a future with a European base for our African riders. Perhaps it is a timeshare situation, perhaps the students go there to study an Equine Science degree (like Chad did) in their gap year while they are paid to manage the yard and produce horses for sale. It can become more inclusive with development sponsorships, the right team, and a successful blueprint. Chad says that it can happen if we can “be creative, and a whole lot brave,” and honestly I think this is the best life advice I have ever heard for any big dream!

In the interim, his international training tours are in their ninth year with several camps already planned for 2020 around the Tokyo Olympics. His pupils continue to dominate the South African showjumping scene, and he has a couple of his own broodmares percolating champions at home in Mnandi, where he resides between travels with longtime partner and successful rider Ian van Schalkwyk, manager and competitive rider for London Lane Stud. As for his own riding future, he has an imported eight year old in training with the incredible Chris van der Merwe, but his priority lies in development currently, for both himself and his students: “If I ever feel like I know enough and I don’t need to learn more, I’ll be in trouble.”

Sage words for anyone on the path to enlightenment, equestrian or otherwise. 

 

Anyone interested in contacting Chad with regards to his training tours and international clinics can contact him on chambourne@mweb.co.za 

 

Content: Georgina Roberts 

Images: Supplied