“If we aim to maintain the integrity of our sport, it’s crucial to approach our groundwork training with the correct mindset! It should be inspiring to witness riders in training.”
Text & photos Therese Alhaug
For decades, the renowned Swedish trainer Pether Markne has dedicated himself to teaching elite show jumping and dressage riders the fundamental principles of riding. According to Markne, the ‘groundwork’ is the most crucial aspect of riding, which cannot be rushed if we want to succeed in the sport.
Markne’s philosophy centres on the essential elements of relaxation and harmonious communication, where the horse willingly responds to the rider’s aids. As for him, equestrian sport is built on a delicate communication between horse and rider, aspiring from deep passion.
“Forcing a horse into action only results in tension, which not only impairs performance but also damages the vital connection between horse and rider,” he says.
GLOBAL PRESENCE. I meet Markne at Majo Stables, an impressive and modern training and competition facility in southern Sweden. Here he dedicates several days a week to imparting his wisdom to young talents, such as the newly crowned Pony champions Mathilda and Jonathan Hansson.
12-year-old Jonathan, who is aspiring to follow in the footsteps of successful riders like Peder Fredricson, Malin Baryard-Johnsson, and Marcus Ehning, effortlessly clears the fence, appearing to be in perfect sync with his horse and seemingly unaffected by the height.
“Light hands, and balance your seat,” Markne says while eagerly demonstrating the correct posture in the saddle.”
Esteemed equestrian figures such as Sweden’s Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Switzerland’s Ryan Balsiger, and American Jessica Springsteen have all flourished under the mentorship of the former Olympic rider. However, Markne is most notably recognized as the head coach for the show jumping and dressage teams in Norway, and his previous role as a head coach in Sweden, with a specific emphasis on nurturing young riders. Transitioning between disciplines doesn’t seem to pose a challenge for him, as he firmly believes that the foundational principles are the same.
After the class, we enter the stables, which open into a bright, spacious indoor arena. Although we could dedicate an entire article to the impressive facilities at Mayo Stables, our current focus today is on the importance of groundwork.
Nine years have passed since our last meeting, where we delved into his recently published book, ‘Hästens grundarbete’ (translated to ‘The Groundwork’), at the Falsterbo Horse Show.
“I would say some riders may lose focus on their everyday work. For many, riding becomes primarily about competing and seeking validation.Pether Markne
COMMUTES BETWEEN SWEDEN AND DENMARK
The newly turned 60-year-old kindly offers some pastries to go with the coffee.
Markne seems genuinely content with the direction his life has taken. Despite being a Swedish resident permanently residing in Denmark, he commutes to his home country every week for teaching. While he has a deep appreciation for the sport in Sweden, Markne truly enjoys the overall lifestyle in Denmark.
“We’re fortunate to reside in a small Danish village by the ocean, offering a serene atmosphere. It’s simply perfect.”
Despite its relatively small population, it’s safe to say that his birth country has emerged as the epicentre of showjumping. Being Olympic champions in 2021, World Champions in 2022, and European Champions in 2023, the Swedes have undoubtedly been at the forefront of the sport. On the other hand, Denmark is currently ranking among the top nations in the world of dressage.
-I guess you couldn’t be in a better place at the moment?
“No, that’s absolutely true. Show jumping in Sweden is enormous and has been for a long time. It’s formidable and incomparable to anything else. Likewise, dressage in Denmark holds significant importance, and they are exceptionally skilled, ” he states.
Living with the Danish Olympic dressage rider Per Sandgaard, Markne gains insights into the sport from two perspectives and cultures.
–Do you see any major differences between the two countries in terms of the sport?
“Yes, I would say that with strong ties to Central Europe, the equestrian sport in Denmark leans towards a more business-oriented approach. While in contrast, in Sweden, the focus is less on business and more on the sport itself. But one must know that the sport in Sweden has been evolving over numerous decades, with several influential figures contributing to its development. It didn’t happen over the night,” he adds.
MODERN TIMES. Over the past decade, equestrian sport has witnessed a significant rise in competitions. Moreover, social media is flooded with posts celebrating victories. – What are your thoughts on this, I ask.
“I would say some riders may lose focus on their everyday work. For many, riding becomes primarily about competing and seeking validation. I have witnessed riders rush to post their achievements on Instagram before even getting off their horse. I really don’t like that! It’s a trend that isn’t good. But unfortunately, it happens. To truly connect with your horse, it demands presence both on and outside the ring.”
He quickly adds:
“But I don’t want to come across as a bitter, older man stuck in old patterns, so I try to engage with my students in terms of Instagram etc. And of course, as with anything else, there are pros and cons. But to really be connected with horses, it’s essential to pay attention to them, not only when riding but also after a class. They deserve that.”
Establishing a good connection with horses is one of the things Markne values most as an equestrian. The trainer himself grew up as one of 8 siblings without any direct connection to horses. Instead, it was the neighbor’s horses that fascinated the young Swede during his upbringing—a fascination that has endured for over 50 years.
“I still have a deep passion for horses! It feels fantastic to be involved with them. I genuinely love them!”
“It’s crucial to distinguish between the horse’s respect for its rider and any misinterpreted fear. Nowadays, horses possess so much talent that one must be cautious not to demand too much.”Pether Markne
KEEPING IT SIMPLE.From an early age, Markne sought inspiration from the very best, such as his longtime student, Malin Baryard-Johnsson, equestrian legend George Morris, German Marcus Ehning, Brazilian Pessoa, and the Dutch trainer Henk Nooren, among many others. The list goes on.
–What do these equestrians have in common?
After a brief pause, Markne answers, ‘Simplicity.’
“But keeping it simple is, in fact, quite challenging. Riding can be made as complex as one desires, but if you remain faithful to a few core principles: Relaxation, contact, and straightness, and ensuring that you master them thoroughly, it makes all the difference.”
– Go on!
“First of all, you should always start your session by riding around without demanding too much from the horse until you feel it is breathing correctly and is relaxed and straight. Only then can you begin to introduce exercises and communicate effectively. By investing more time at the beginning, you can shorten the workout towards the end, as you will have a better starting point for your training session.”
“Also, as a rider, one must also become aware of one’s position and posture and strive for self-carriage while maintaining a foundation of relaxation in one’s horse.”
“You see, It’s crucial to have a good connection with the horse, ensuring it follows your hand, as without, the back and abdominal muscles will not function properly, and the horse may become too heavy on the front. It’s all about the hindlegs!”
“Forward from behind, over the back, into the hand. The key is to always be able to adjust and at the same time maintain the horse’s energy and ride with the motion.”Pether Markne
Markne describes riding as a combination of feeling and body control.
“You need soft hands and strong core stability. But it’s also about being clever!”
–By clever you mean?
“By clever, I mean finding balance in how much you ask of the horse and having an honest self-assessment of your abilities.. Also, one must be able to accept feedback on what is good and what is not good. However, many riders today may never devote three weeks to practicing transitions only and discovered the joy in it!”
“Let’s say you ride an exercise, but perhaps it doesn’t go so well. So you try it again. You might attempt it a third time, but then you should be smart and make it a bit easier for the horse so that you both succeed and feel a sense of accomplishment and comfort. That’s when you’re on the right track.”
-And this is where intelligence comes in?
Markne agrees, “Yes, exactly. Riders must stop acting like the horse’s training wheels. I strongly dislike riding with ‘the brakes on.’ And all the talk about control – but what is control? Control is when you can release the reins, and the horse carries himself.”
THE SHOW HORSE.Speaking about control. I’ve sometimes observe that dressage horses tend to appear more tense at shows compared to their counterparts in the jumping ring when confronted with loud sounds, music, applause, and so on. So, I ask Markne his thoughts on this. In response, he is nodding thoughtfully:
“Undoubtedly, a horse can experience more tension when going to a show. Therefore, if the horse isn’t already supple and self-sustaining when this tension arises, the overall performance loses its harmony. ”
He keeps delving into the different mindset of horses:
“That being said, a dressage horse is naturally more focused on its rider and less on its surroundings, which may explain why a showjumping horse, which naturally has more opportunities to observe its surroundings, tends to cope better with the environment.” He pauses..“
However, if a horse rushes away from its rider and becomes unresponsive to rein aids, it might be necessary to reevaluate the training system. In such cases, an even higher level of precision is essential to ensure that the horse’s energy remains controlled and doesn’t transform into excessive tension,” he ads.
Markne touches on a topic that clearly worries him.
“It’s crucial to distinguish between the horse’s respect for its rider and any misinterpreted fear. Nowadays, horses possess so much talent that one must be cautious not to demand too much. Asking for too much can overwhelm the horses. It’s a luxury problem, really.”
–Do you think we as riders can get too eager sometimes?
“Yes, I believe so. Many want to progress quickly in the sport. That’s when problems arise. The horse will experience tension because it can’t comprehend or perform the task. As a rider, frustration sets in, and you end up on the wrong path. We must remember to enjoy what we do.”
–Like the joy we felt as children?
“Yes exactly. It’s worth repeating. We must remember that we love horses and continue to be fascinated by them. They haven’t chosen to be with us. We have chosen them. One should be equally proud and happy when training at home, accomplishing simple tasks as winning at shows; they are just as valuable.”
A gentle smile graces his face.
“I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing Isabel Werth when training at home. I will never forget the joy on her face when her horses did well and understood what she asked for. It was pure joy!”
“Riders must stop acting like horse’s training wheels. I strongly dislike riding with ‘the brakes on.’ And all the talk about control – but what is control? Control is when you can release the reins, and the horse carries himself.”Pether Markne
DRESSAGE VERSUS SHOWJUMPING -Teaching both dressage and showjumping, even though the groundwork is the same, how do you approach them differently?
“I do emphasize more precision in dressage to prepare them for the dressage tests. Even when riding on a large circle, I practice precision. But I also try to be more attentive to this aspect with showjumpers to introduce more precision. There’s a gap there among showjumpers.”
–And what would you say is the most essential for both of them?
“To keep ‘the wheels turning’, no matter what discipline or level you are at.”
–Work on the flow you mean?
“Yes, exactly. For example, in exercises like piaffe, it’s essential not to compromise the horse’s mechanics. While performing piaffe, the horse shouldn’t move backward; instead, you aim to create volume in the exercise while maintaining a forward-thinking mindset. This approach engages the hindlegs, works through the horse’s back, and maintains a continuous forward motion, like a rolling wheel.”
“The horse should not appear tense in one place, though some tension may occur during the learning process.”
Markne provides an example from showjumping, encouraging a study of riders like Malin Baryard-Johnsson, Peder Fredricson, and Marcus Ehning on how they can slow down and make the horse wait while maintaining a forward-thinking mindset.
“Forward from behind, over the back, into the hand, Markne says while demonstrating with his hands moving forward. “The key is to always be able to adjust and at the same time maintain the horse’s energy and ride with the motion.”
“You should aim to create volume in the exercise while maintaining a forward-thinking mindset. This approach engages the hindlegs, works through the horse’s back, and maintains a continuous forward motion, like a rolling wheel.”Pether Markne
THE ROLE AS A COACH.Before becoming a coach, Markne competed internationally in showjumping. He later transitioned to dressage, leading to his Olympic debut in Sydney 2000. Although his success as a dressagerider, he openly admits that showjumping holds a special place in his heart.
“A jumping horse gets to work more freely. But I am also fortunate to collaborate with accomplished showjumping professionals across Europe, including Henk Nooren, Thomas Fuchs, Bryan Balsiger, and his father, Thomas Balsiger, all of whom have been a tremendous source of inspiration for me, and highly developmental. Engaging in discussions with them as colleagues always yields valuable insights and ideas.”
“In summary, it is a privilege to be someone who is needed, someone people trust for who you are and what you can do.”Pether Markne
According to Markne, his coaching journey has not only shaped his professional life but has also contributed significantly to his personal growth.
“Throughout the years, I have gained a better understanding of everything related to performance. Furthermore, I have become more aware of making myself understood. How to communicate in a clever way. In summary, it is a privilege to be someone who is needed, someone people trust for who you are and what you can do. And if you encounter a problem, there are always people in the sport with more experience than me who can assist.”
In the realm of equestrianism, knowledge is always within reach. Brimming with gratitude and a fervent desire for continuous learning and advancement as a trainer, Markne once embarked on a journey to Germany. There, he humbly took a seat on a plastic chair, immersing himself in the invaluable experience of observing the renowned German rider, Marcus Ehning, as he trained his horses at home.
“I could study Marcus riding for hours, and his way of being able to communicate with as little use of the hands as possible. I hope to be able to do it more often! It’s wonderful to see!”