Our guest columnist of the week is Mary Phelps, owner of Dressagedaily.com, Horsesdaily.com, Phelpsphotos.com and a Markel Equine Insurance Specialist. A familiar presence on the international show circuit, Mary is a professional photographer and journalist.
She covers over 20 events a year, including international, national, and regional competitions in the Equestrian Olympic disciplines. In 1997 Mary saw great potential in the Internet, and founded two award-winning web sites: HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com.
How to Handle the Media and Lay Down the Foundation of The Right Impression
When I was asked by Lendon Gray to be a speaker at the Emerging Dressage Athlete Program (EDAP) “Mega Clinic” held following the Christmas holiday, I gladly cut my holiday short to head to Wellington in time to make it for the tail end of what was an amazing week for not only the 17 invited young dressage riders, but also for all those involved: parents, sponsors, organizers and support staff who devoted their time, passion and efforts to make it happen. As a longtime media person with a penchant for dressage, I was able to share some insight, advise, stories, and thoughts based on the years of experiences and travels as both a photographer and journalist. Lendon asked me to use the topic “How to Handle the Paparazzi” and as I developed my presentation seized on the opportunity to share some observations I have made along the way.
I am a long time member of the IAEJ: International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists, and began my international career in 1982 at the Dressage World Equestrian Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Dr. Reiner Klimke won the Gold Medal. I realized as we celebrate 15 years on the World Wide Web, many of the EDAP participants were not even born yet. As promised, I said I would report on our website DressageDaily the points I presented to the group. So here you go!
Journalists Are Not The Enemy
Most of us involved in equestrian sport share your passion for horses and the world we cover. While you attend a show to ride one, maybe two horses the photographers and writers covering an event are there for most of the show. Then their work continues beyond the final award ceremonies writing, organizing images, fact checking, hunting down sources, and more. Many are also horsemen like you, who compete and ride, often sacrificing valuable time away from their animals, home and goals to do their jobs. The pay is not great, the time and expense is often self-funded, and they like you share a passion for horses. Sometime mistakes are made; you may be misquoted, or the message you had hoped to deliver in an interview may not have been translated into what you had imagined would be in print. Appreciate the effort that was made on your behalf, and take the time to send a small note of thanks. That journalist will remember you favorably and look forward to working with you again. If you feel you were misquoted, then be gracious, thank the writer for their effort and offer them the opportunity to respond, explain and hopefully correct the discrepancy, if it has been confirmed to be one.
Some riders have had bad experiences, and the internet has opened the door to some who may not be as responsible as others in their reporting style and delivery. You have every right to ask the reporter if you can record your interview on your I-phone or a small flip video or tape recorder. This way you can listen to your delivery and learn how to improve, and have a record of exactly what you said. Be careful when you notice the interviewer not recording, as it is easy to miss something while taking notes or to not accurately word your response.
Know the Information
You should know and be able to deliver information often asked for, and know all the correct spelling; the breeding of your horse, the breeder, owner, your trainer, sponsors. You should have and maintain a brief bio of yourself keeping your latest accomplishments update to facilitate information for the show announcer, and organizer who may need it for the program or website.
Know Who to Thank - And Remember To
It takes a village for you to have made it to any event, so know who to thank both in print and in person, before, during and after the show. Be sure to mention your trainer, organizers, sponsors, owners, and above all your parents who have made this all possible for you. Remember to compliment your fellow competitors and teammates, and of course remember to thank your horse. Learn about the sponsors and pay attention to who they are. I guarantee you they have put out a lot of energy and money to help make the show what it is. Think of patronizing them as a thank you for their effort, and it will reinforce their reasons to continue. Thank them for sponsoring when you see them at the booth, or when they hand you a ribbon. Don’t forget the volunteers who also make it possible for the show to go on.
Make It Interesting and Fun
I love going to a press conference featuring the US Reiners. They are like the NASCAR drivers of equestrian sport. Some of our High Performance Reining team are, shall we say, “big guys”, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the international press. At the Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games press conference a Japanese journalist made mention of that fact, and asked the team about their size. Gold Medalist, and 2010 USEF Horseman of the Year, Tom McCutcheon leaned into the mike placed in front of him where he sat with his teammates at the table and said “Ma’am, when we come to a heavyweight event, we bring the heavyweights.”
Talk about your ride, your feelings, and don’t be afraid to mention your mistakes. Maybe someone reading the interview can learn something from your experiences. Don’t assume that all journalists or those reading the articles published are knowledgeable about your sport. Keep in mind you are an ambassador for your sport and your country.
Don’t be intimidated by the tough questions, be honest and don’t be defensive. Take a moment before you answer the question, don’t rush, take a sip of water as a tactic to give yourself the time needed to formulate your answer. Give a short but straightforward answer. You don’t have to say anything you do not want to. At Aachen, where Edward Gal was competing for the first time at the same event as his former mount Totilas a journalist asked him about his feelings. He stated simply that Totilas was now the mount for German rider Mathias Rath, and they should direct all questions about the horse to him. When the journalist pressed for a response from Gal, he responded short and sweet at to the effect; “Yes of course there are mixed emotions, but life goes on.”
Not all equestrian superstars give a great interview, and as journalists we can often direct the information we are looking for. If they forget to mention those they would like to thank, we can ask for names, or even though we know the answer can ask a question about the sport, show or their performance to help guide them to a better interview. We talk among ourselves too. “If I hear one more time ‘I love my horse’ as the only response to a winning medal” said one fellow journalist, after an interview, “why bother to even ask if that is all we can get!” Provide some detail about the ride, think of some good, original and descriptive “buzz words” to use for the writers to seize on. Writers often have to condense the interview into a much shorter version of all that was said, so keep that in mind when giving answers. Get to the point with some unique response, which shows your personality and feelings. We know that most of you have the dream of becoming an Olympian, or of being on the team of your country, but that should not be the ultimate goal for your career as a horseman. That too becomes a standard answer, and personally I feel not the right goal. Be the best that you can be, as a horseman, trainer, and professional if that is your direction, and the opportunities will come. Your education is important too, so be sure to talk about the balance in your life if it should be a part of the interview.
I also have many of the same questions from reporters presented, “How did it feel? Or how do you feel?” . When you are sitting there in an interview you might think, “Well how do you think it feels to win a medal, awesome!” Be prepared for this kind of a question and try to come up with an original funny or interesting quotable answer.
And please please, please, avoid using the redundant words “like” and "you know" .
Creating Lasting Impressions
Not all of you will have the privilege of being at the press table or being interviewed by a journalist for the news, but I would like this opportunity to share some more thoughts and ideas about the impressions you will make throughout your riding career. They say that first impressions are lasting ones, and in the horse world, which can be very small, this is very true. At the show, in the arena, with friends, stablemates, and at the barn you board and train remember to be kind, courteous, and helpful. Be neat and clean in your appearance, especially when you ride, even if you are just going for a hack after arriving on the grounds.
In the show ring, be immaculate. Watch out for too much bling. Be sure your jacket fits well, your hair is neat and plastered down, boots shiny, no dangly earrings or bouncing bun behind your head, and that your horse is presented in the best appearance ever. When you make the effort to present your self in the best light possible, you will ride better too.
Whether during the test or in her victory round Ashley Holzer always has a winning smile.
Learn to smile, even if it is hard to do when you are concentrating on your ride. Many of our top riders who compete have expressions that we as photographers struggle to work with. Look at photos and watch Ashley Holzer. She presents the perfect picture of serenity and happiness on a horse. So if you find a natural smile a distraction, just try to do it down the centerline as you finish your test. Look the judge right in the eye, and give them a smile, which says “thank you for watching”. If you had a horrible test, don’t let them see you sweat or look upset, or shake your head. They have seen it all and many have had along the way an awful test in their lives too. It is insulting to a judge to display your feelings and emotions about your test. They know what they are looking for you don’t have to tell them. And for Pete’s sake, don’t cry, or storm out of the arena blaming your horse. Smile with your mouth open. When you smile with closed lips it displays a level of insecurity. Many of your parents have invested into those lovely straight white teeth of yours, so work it. All that said no need to overact, getting all gushy and falling over your horse at every halt and salute as if he just delivered the gold medal ride of a lifetime. The first time I saw a well known cutting horse trainer at work, each time his mare would navigate a calf from the herd, he would just stop as she stood perfectly still after her accomplishment. “I wonder why you do not reward her with a pat on the neck.” I asked. “The best reward is to just leave her alone.” was the straightforward reply.
Tina Konyot is a dear friend and so I know she will not mind me telling this story: I have photographed her throughout her career. She is a beautiful woman, and gorgeous rider. She has a lovely smile and dimples, yet when she rode, she looked like she was just angry. “Tina, I finally told her one day, you look like such a (I used the B word) up there. “Work that beautiful smile, not all of us are endowed with dimples like that.” Tina has taken my advise to heart over the years, and it was such a joy to photograph her and Calecto V at the Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games, as she grinned with joy at the movements he delivered in the arena.
Just like journalists, judges are not the enemy either. Put yourself in their shoes from time to time. Sitting in a hard cold chair for hours on end, usually following a hard day of travel, with the prospects of another long return trip home. I talked about my smile theory one time to a judge, and she responded. “You know, if I was vacillating between a 5 and 6 on a score, and the rider made eye contact and gave me a nice smile, I might be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and the higher mark.
Be Positive, Always – Make it a Way of Life
It is everyone’s inclination to talk, gossip, complain. I have been guilty of it and work very hard these days not to do it. Find something good to say about everyone which in only a very few cases in my life can be very difficult. Don’t ever talk badly about anyone, never, ever, ever. I know this is a tall order, but practice it in your daily life and it will come easier all the time. It has a domino effect. People will try to suck you into their gripes and issues, which may be justified for sure, but I just find it tiring and uncomfortable to be a part of it. Riders and trainers who are well known become a bigger target, o be prepared the more successful you become to know it could happen to you. How would you like to be the topic of a joke in a Jay Leno monologue? That is what famous people and presidents have to deal with all the time. Years ago I did an interview with Isabel Werth, when the European press was making much of the rivalry between her and Anky Van Grunsven. I asked her if it bothered her, or if this was the price that you pay by being on top. I will always remember her response. “I am a farmer’s daughter who had the great fortune of being discovered and trained by Dr. Uwe Schulten Baumer. In the beginning when I had success at the shows everyone was happy for me, and congratulated me for my successes.” She recalled. “It is different when you are at the top in some ways.” That year we did the interview her Gold Medal mount Gigolo had been injured and was not able to compete at Aachen. “I rarely have the time to sit in the stands, but at Aachen this year I had no choice.” Isabel remembered. “I got to hear the comments about another up and coming German rider, and knew I was not alone.”
So you had a bad show, a bad ride, a tiff with your trainer, your parents, or the show secretary. Don’t brood, sulk and worst of all, don’t take it out on your horse. There is always a way to turn a negative into a positive. “Today was just not our day, but I learned something from my mistakes, and it will be better next time.” It never hurts to apologize when you know you said or did the wrong thing. When I used to work all day as a show photographer and ran our then video company, there was never a perfect day. We could miss a ride, or not get the shot someone was looking for: sometimes with the website someone may e-mail and be upset I did not mention their horse or ride. The day could have gone so well in so many ways, but when that happens it just puts a cloud on my tired self who tried my best to please as many people as I could.
Make Facebook and Social Media Your Ally Not Your Downfall
As a journalist I use Facebook all the time to access riders for quotes, images, feedback. Employers, potential clients, owners, sponsors all monitor Facebook. This is your chance to project the right image about yourself as a young person who is aspiring to excel in what you do. What you say and do on Facebook could follow you for a long time, even with your so-called private friends. I could do a whole other article on this, and might sometime, but here are a few thoughts:
Your Facebook page is often how you project first impressions in the new age. Don’t wine, insinuate someone has hurt your feelings or be too silly or goofy. Don’t put suggestive photos on line or talk about how you got drunk at the party in your dorm last night. I know of a horse owner, very active on the Internet who was looking for a young rider to sponsor and give an incredible horse to ride. The owner ruled out a few potential candidates being seriously considered simply by reading their Facebook page.
Make it interesting. Share your show photos, keep a little blog on your travels, successes, and perspective on your challenges. When I began my website there was no Facebook or Google or Twitter. We told some stories about our travels. Astrid Appels of eurodressage.com has been a part of our lives since we first met on line in 1997 when she was 15 years old. She would keep her “journal” on line when she travelled with us to shows in America when she came over to visit. We learned then how people loved reading these reports almost more than the coverage of the show. You are allowed to have opinions, but don’t be mean, negative or critical. Keep it happy, positive and respectful and you may be surprised to see what could come your way from your Facebook page: Maybe a job, an opportunity, a horse.
When you are immersed in a serious competition which requires your concentration and focus, stay off the phone and computer. I recall being at a Young Rider clinic with Ulla Salzgeber, who admitted she stays away from articles about herself. So even the best of the best have feelings and can be affected by what is commented and said about them. With Facebook and the internet, multiply that factor by a million. You don't need it , you need to ride and keep your head in a good place. I am connected to just about every US team rider and know that when the competiton is underway, unless I meet them at a press conference, I do not expect to hear from them or see updates on their page.
In closing I can’t tell you and all of our readers how exciting, inspiring and effective this program, The Emerging Dressage Athlete Program and the inaugural Robert Dover Horsemastership course was. Although I was just there for part of one day, the energy and excitement from not only the young riders in attendance, but also those who developed the program, Lendon Gray and Robert Dover was exhilarating and an inspiration. As we head into a new year, with hope and promise for good things to come, I can’t help but get a sense of growth we have in our sport.
-- by Mary Phelps of Dressagedaily.com
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