When I met William Micklem in February of 1989, I must confess that I had no idea of who he was. Forgive me, but I was only 18 years old, and the Internet hadn’t been invented yet! At the time, the only horsey news I received was the monthly Corinthian Horse Sport Magazine and the quarterly Canadian Eventing Newsletter. As a kid from a small town in Northern Ontario, I was very insulated from the wide world of international equestrian sport. I was ignorant, indeed, and not particularly impressed the first time I met him!
Nowadays, if you haven’t heard of William Micklem, a quick Google search will tell you that he is one of the horse world’s most iconic figures. His articles appear in respected publications like The Chronicle of the Horse and cover topics from breeding sport horses to the evolution of our sport, and the importance of producing happy horses. He is a sought after speaker, a published author, is known for breeding multiple World and Olympic medal winning horses, for producing top level riders and for supporting the love and growth of good horsemanship from the grassroots level on up.
His love for horses shines through everything he does, most notably spurring him to invent The Micklem Bridle; a more comfortable, humane bridle that accommodates the anatomy the equine jaw; which has won industry awards and been embraced by riders worldwide in every discipline of horse sport.
Like most horse people of his time, he comes from a long line of accomplished horsemen, where knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. The following is from his online biography:
“William’s Father was Dick Micklem, a horse dealer and young horse specialist who used similar methods to Monty Roberts, learnt from Argentine polo players. Therefore, William was brought up surrounded by horses and ponies in Cornwall, in the West of England. He and his sister, Marianne, and three brothers, John, Charlie, and David, spent a youth full of Pony Club activities and hunting with the Fourburrow Hunt, but ponies and horses were always sold on. Therefore, it was not surprising that William took six different ponies and horses to the inter branch area horse trials, making the national championships three times and being short listed for both the British Junior horse trials and show jumping teams. William also passed his Pony Club 'A' certificate with honours during this time. However, living in Cornwall always made access to higher level coaching and competition difficult. All the Micklem brothers have continued to be involved with horses, with John now dealing and coaching in Ireland after specialising in show jumping; Charlie coaching in Wiltshire, England, after a successful career as a very talented National Hunt jockey and Horse Trials rider; and David coaching and course designing and building in Cornwall, England.”
So, now you know a little bit about him, and I am sure you are suitably impressed. But at the time I went to Scotland to train with him on a Canadian Young Rider Scholarship, I had no idea how auspicious our first meeting would be, or that it would lead to such an important friendship, rekindled 21 years later when I spotted him walking the cross-country course at the 2010 World Championships in Lexington Kentucky.
William was there with his wife Sarah, to watch one of his homebreds, Mandiba, who was representing the USA with Karen O’Connor on board. Wondering whether he would recognize me all these years later, I was quick to introduce myself as I approached, but his eyes twinkled and he was equally quick to reply,
‘Yes Paige, I remember you! In fact, I have a picture of you in my scrap book from the local newspaper, without very many clothes on!’
While that sounds wrong, I assure you I can explain ...
As one of three Canadian young riders awarded a scholarship to train with Captain Mark Phillips at the famous Gatcombe Park - home of the British Open and the residence of his then wife, Princess Anne and their children -
we were initially sent to train with William at a facility in Scotland. The Captain Mark Phillips, Gleneagles Equestrian Centre in Auchterarder was brand new, and as part of the five-star Gleneagles Resort, it was a bit fancier than I was used to!
Upon arrival, while looking for the stables and feeling a little lost, we pulled up to a reception area all clad in glass and brass and leather, with a fire in the hearth and a smartly dressed secretary sitting behind a rich mahogany desk. When we asked for directions to the stables, she laughed, and opening her arms exclaimed;
“Oh darlings! Welcome. You’re here!” Slightly gob smacked, we certainly felt as though we had arrived!
After settling our horses into stalls the size of small paddocks, we were instructed to find William and introduce ourselves. He was riding in one of the indoor arenas and apparently, he was expecting us; although by the look on his face, I am not so sure he was expecting … us!
My first memory of him, is of gazing up into the stoic face of a handsomely attired rider over the top-half of the Dutch door at the entry to the arena, and of him silently scrutinizing us from atop of his tall bay horse before speaking. His reception was less than warm and fuzzy, and I have to say that the lecture that ensued about how we were to behave, dress and generally comport ourselves as representatives of our country and recipients of this scholarship, was a tad off-putting!
To be fair, we were typical North American teenagers and I suppose we didn’t look anything like the typical up-and-coming European young riders he was used to! In a land of muted shades of houndstooth, oilskin coats and Hunter boots, we stood out with our 1980’s love of neon clothes and asymmetrical hairdos. Poor William didn’t know what to expect, but he made sure that we did!
After a brief assessment of our motley threesome, we were instructed to be early for all lessons; to be properly attired with our jackets fully zippered, our hair in hair nets, our hands gloved, our tack glistening and our horses gleaming. We were advised that we would be a part of demonstrations and lectures and would be under public scrutiny in our lessons, and that as such, we were to comport ourselves accordingly, to speak when spoken to and to answer only when asked. That said, we were dismissed, as he carried on training his lovely bay. We walked away, three disgruntled teenagers with three distinctly different characters and reactions, but we all got the picture.
Our lessons began most mornings at 6:45 Am, before the centre got busy. William was a stickler for detail, and we were lectured on everything from the proper use, timing and positioning of the whip … to correctly mounting and dismounting. I can remember having to mount and dismount multiple times, after William witnessed what he described as a sloppy dismount at the end of a session. I was not impressed! He scrutinized every detail of our lunging, our tack fitting, the positioning of our keepers and runners, our use of the lunge whip - nothing went unnoticed, and we felt like no good deed went unpunished! What we didn't appreciate at the time, was how important the details were to the whole of our lives with horses. William believed in;
An holistic approach- characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. ~ William Micklem
I have to say, that our experience as Canadian working students at Checkmate Farms did NOTHING to prepare us for the standards we were expected to keep, or for the level of formality and discipline expected between European mentors and mentees. Let’s just say that those of you who know ... know, what life as a Canadian Young Rider looked like. For those of you who don’t … it was slightly less formal and disciplined, involved hundreds of barrels of 180 proof alcohol and living alongside our more loosely-moraled mentors, like vagabonds in campers and horse trailers. Less said, the better! Obviously, this was a bit of a culture shock for us, but we adapted.
The first thing we did, was scope out what the barn staff did for fun! The female grooms snubbed us, but one of the young men quickly hooked us up with memberships to the Gleneagles staff Social Club. We became regulars at the pool table, the bar and the weekly disco and tried our best to make friends, introducing them to shooters they had never heard of, and to some ‘extra lyrics’ in David Bowie’s popular song ‘Mony Mony’ that they were unfamiliar with!
I felt like we made quite an impression … but our regular invites back to our apartment were turned down politely. Until one night, when we lost our keys in a snowball fight after the bar closed. Our heroes saved us, just as we were about to ring our landlady at 2 AM. With our fingers posed on the buzzer, they announced through chattering teeth that they had found our keys in the snow! Too cold to turn us down, these three young sous-chefs ventured in and accepted our hospitality and we never looked back. Curious about what had taken them so long, one of them - a young Cockney - explained in rhyming slang, how it ‘just wasn’t done’! Apparently, we were from two different worlds and in their world, we didn’t mix.
Poppycock! From that point on, you couldn’t keep us apart!
Being friends with young sous-chefs had its advantages and disadvantages. Their hours were a problem. They generally didn’t get out of the kitchens and into the Social Club until nearly midnight and started late in the day. We, on the other hand, started very early! Unwilling to compromise and with a motto of,
‘Plenty of time for sleep when we die!’
we continued to dance, play pool, drink shooters, host parties and generally carouse until it took its toll.
Rachel was caught nodding off on a couch by William mid-lecture, Karen nearly slipped off her horse while drowsing on a hack and I was sent to the doctor’s, after handing my horse to William and running off to be sick during a morning lesson. You can imagine what he was worried about, with this bout of sickness in the morning … and he took his duty to us very seriously! But as a tall, awkward teen with her sights set on the Olympics, he needn’t have worried about that. Trying to explain to the doctor why I was in her office, however … was difficult and embarrassing!
William showed us what a consummate horseman, a great mentor and a gentleman looks like.
Our lessons, while initially strict and serious, gradually became more fun, as he adapted his teaching style and approach to support our three very different personalities. And, while initially determined to get us out of the local hotel Social Club and into high society, William eventually gave up setting us up on dates to go to balls with strange well-to-do boys and made an effort to get to know us. Which leads to the story about a picture of me in the local paper of me ‘without very many clothes on’ and to a nickname he earned from us.
Towards the end of our stay, there was an indoor horse show at Gleneagles that fell on ‘Red Nose Day’: a day when people across the land join forces to raise money for brilliant causes in the UK and around the world. The tradition apparently, was to dare people to do something to raise money for local charities. We knew nothing about this, but perked up when we overheard a conversation between classes.
“No way!” exclaimed one of our Irish friends. “I won’t do it. Not a chance!” And then, “Ask the Canadians – they’re MAD!! They’ll do anything!”
“Of course, we will!” we answered immediately, without knowing what we were committing to. “What exactly is it we are doing?” We were being dared to ride a show jumping round in our nickers! Taking a moment to consider the state of our decidedly comfortable-for-riding-in under things, we negotiated. We wouldn’t ride in our underwear, but we would agree to ride in our bikinis!
We ran off to our apartment in the middle of the Scottish winter, to swap our natty bras and underwear for our bikinis, put our riding clothes and boots back on over top, and returned to the horse show to wait for our cue. Eventually, in the middle of a very cold arena and a bunch of dumfounded unsuspecting riders warming up for their classes, we stripped off our outerwear, donned red noses and mounted up in our bikinis. With a bunch of fanfare and one male rider accompanying us in boxer shorts, we galloped in the main arena and jumped around a course of fences. Rachel’s horse spooked and she fell off and may or may not have fallen out of her top. The rest of us were too busy and red in the face to really know! Much money was raised … and some of it stuffed into our tops … and a picture was taken for the local papers of me ‘without very many clothes on’, which apparently William still has in a scrap book.
So, there you have it – I guess I made a lasting impression – certainly enough to remember me all these years later, as we bumped into each other at the World Championships in Kentucky, but it wasn’t as nefarious as you thought! I told you William was a model mentor. What were you thinking?
The nickname William earned from us came shortly after. Determined to get to know us and why we insisted on attending the hotel Social Club, William accepted an invitation to spend an evening dancing with us in our favourite haunt. We thought it would be hilarious to bring our stuffed-shirt mentor there, but William surprised us as we got to know him. He proved to be gregarious, curious, and fun-loving and was the centre of a decidedly motley collection of young people. He mingled and laughed with our friends, and we got to know the fun-William.
And could he dance, you ask? A great night on the dance floor led to Karen’s obsession with his ankles and to his well-deserved nickname, ‘Crazy Legs’!
While I am sure that is more than you expected to know about my friend and mentor, we so often put our mentors and leaders up on such high pedestals as to de-humanize them. William Micklem is decidedly human. A very well-loved, well-rounded human that I have gotten to know as a friend through letters shared over the years. He has been there throughout my tumultuous life, listening to my stories, encouraging me to write, asking questions, probing for more depth, always compassionate and very generous. A mentor, an idol, a great dancer, a poet, and a true friend.
Something of value I would like to pass on that I learned from William – His three Golden Rules of coaching - The three S's:
I hope that this spurs you to search out some of the brilliant articles written by William, and his wonderful bridle – you won’t be disappointed.
If you would like to hear a special interview I did with William about what defines horsemanship across the disciplines and mentorship across the millennia, I have a special treat for you! In it, he shares a few special secrets. Find out about his 3 F's, and what PA, PB and PC mean to him. I am offering it as an unedited bonus episode to those who listen to my new podcast, review it and share it. To access it, go to A Leg Up; The Magic of Horsecraft and Life, share it and receive a link to this wonderful chat with one of the world's most iconic horsemen, along with much gratitude for listening!