Alex Van Tuyll: Eyes on the prize

Alex Van Tuyll: Eyes on the prize

As 2021 continues to be unpredictable for the sport, world-class groom and part of British Equestrian’s team in Tokyo, Alex Van Tuyll talks resilience, mindset and how Team GB has always been focused on gold.

For anyone involved in equine sports, you’ll know that you need a level of resilience not often required in other walks of life. Riders need a strong mind and strong will to negotiate unexpected twists and turns involved in competing at any level.

If you compete in cycling and get a puncture, you repair your bike or swap to another, and continue on your way. For equine sports, you’re dealing with two athletes each time and despite the best preparation in the world, it can often rely on the stars aligning for both horse and rider to achieve and maintain optimum fitness at the same time.

I’ve been at many top-level competitions, such as Badminton, Burghley and events overseas where, on the first day of a three-day event, a horse that is groomed to perfection and at the top of their game, unexpectedly gets an injury and is unable to compete.

This is, without doubt, one hell of a setback both physically and mentally. However, as this is so common to the sport, all of those involved need to accept that so much is out of our control and there is an air of inevitability about such setbacks. The fact is today may not be your day, but there will be another day.

For those of us who have ridden from a young age, we know that this is par for the course. Many of us competed as children where our ponies behaved perfectly in training, only to do the exact opposite during a competition and with that experience comes an acceptance that we can only do so much. For those who come later to the sport, it’s a difficult lesson to learn.

Taking the rough with the smooth has had to become second nature, which is just as well given the past two years. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic saw the sport come to standstill, then restart behind closed doors. The greatest disappointment of which was the postponement of the Olympics for an extra year.

For our top-level athletes, human and equine, all their training has focused on the Games and its four-year cycle, producing horses to be at their optimum level just at the right time. Riders have used all their talent and skill to keep their equine athletes at the very top of their game, but with the Olympics being postponed for a year, that’s threw everything into disarray. But, like everything, you accept that things change. You can’t dwell on the plans you had, you need to adapt and move on, ready to go again.

And of course, for athletes, waiting to hear if they’ve been selected for the Games is a painful process. Selectors across all disciplines have to make their decision at the last minute to ensure both horse and rider are fit to compete but then it’s all systems go. A huge team, which I’m delighted to be part of, springs into action to ensure all bespoke elements, such as saddle pads and jackets, are created for each individual.

For Tokyo, through my role with British Equestrian in operations, I’ve been responsible for ensuring Team GB has everything it needed when the horses and riders arrived. I flew out early to set up the stables and everything is considered and included, right down to drinking buckets and brushes.

I’m fortunate, I thrive on pressure and always have. I’m incredibly competitive and love to be involved with the team that is striving for the top spot. For me, it’s all about winning, and the whole team for Tokyo feel the same way.

The atmosphere at the Games is always electric. Everyone pitches in to do what needs to be done, all with an eye on the ultimate prize: the team gold medal. Of course, every rider would love to get an individual gold – every rider dreams of being at the top of the scoreboard – but it’s the team gold that matters most.

First published in the Summer 2021 issue of British Eventing Life magazine