When Kelato sponsored rider Danaë O’Keeffe departs for France next month with the Australian Pony Club team competing at the World Club Tournament she knows her role as ‘coach’ is also code for counsellor, travel agent, interpreter, chaperone, sports psychologist, cheer squad and more!
Over the past decade the elite eventer has firmly established herself as one of Australia’s top coaches, is a Pony Club Director of Coaching, a member of the organisation’s Chief Instructors panel and has been instrumental in the training of coaches in China as part of the introduction of the Pony Club model into that market. Canberra-based Danaë says coaching and her involvement with Pony Club in particular, is a way of putting back into the sport. “I was fortunate to have some fantastic mentors growing up in Pony Club that not only built my riding and horsemanship skills but also a sense of community. It’s been a powerful driver for me and I have a real appreciation for what Pony Club offers kids.”
Pony Club for Danaë began at age 7 on a shaggy pony by the name of Timmy and she believes the opportunities offered through Pony Club, from beginner rally day lessons to international competition are unmatched. “It offers all riders such a great foundation. I wasn’t someone who had the backing to have multiple lessons a week and I didn’t ride expensive horses, but through Pony Club I had really good instruction and some great competition opportunities. It helped me take those horses all the way through to FEI. These days there’s even more opportunities and the World Club Tournament is one of those.”
Held in the Loire Valley, south of Paris, the Generali World Club Tournament takes place each year and is one of the biggest equestrian events in the world, bringing together more than six thousand riders from clubs in countries including Spain, Great Britain, South Korea and Madagascar. Danaë will manage, coach and chaperone Australia’s team of four Pony Club show jump riders, Hannah Dearlove from Queensland, J’aime Mallon from Victoria, Tasmanian Georgia Pearce and Jessica Towns from New South Wales, who are the first to compete at the event across a week in mid-July. “It’s going to be an amazing experience for these girls,” says Danaë, “and they’ve had to work hard for it, excelling not only in their jumping but horsemanship through the Pony Club certificate system.”
The competition happens in two stages with the horse and rider combinations jumping courses approximately a metre high. According to Danaë, the biggest challenge for her team is the fact that they’ll be riding borrowed horses. “It’s a difficult thing to do, to compete a horse you’re unfamiliar with and preparing the girls to be able to do this will certainly be one of the challenges for me as a coach.”
In fact, Danaë says the role of coach is often one part sports psychologist and she’s expecting it to be no different in France. “It’s very much a balance between not creating dramas that don’t exist but also helping the girls manage the stress of being in a foreign country, at a huge international event on unfamiliar horses and also for some of them, feeling a sense of pressure and expectation considering the number of people who’ve donated money to help get them there.”
As for her approach, it depends on the rider. “It’s tricky because the girls all live in different states and we’ll all meet for the first time at the airport so for me the trip over will be about getting to know them and how they’re feeling. Riders are all different, some need their coach to be a cheerleader, others need reassurance and some need a more tough ‘get out there and do it’ pep talk. Matching them with the right horses will be important too. I’ve been able to look at videos of them show jumping so that’s given me a feel for the way they ride and will be helpful considering we’ll only have a couple of days with the horses before the competition.”
For Danaë the role is as much honour as a challenge and comes during a period where she’s had to take a break from riding due to a serious shoulder injury. She says coaching is her way of giving back and the reward in France will be seeing the girls learn from the experience and achieve personal goals. “I feel like I’ve been given so much over the years by the equestrian community, my parents and coaches. Also my sponsor Kelato Animal Health which is an Australian company involved in supporting equestrian sport on so many levels. I think it’s really important and for me to do the same is a privilege.”
The Generali World Club Tournament runs from the 25th to 27th July 2018.