Anthem to Zen with John French
By Jackie McFarland
A well-known name in both the hunter and jumper circles, John French is famous for his style in the saddle. Some weeks ago spectators and exhibitors alike were surprised to hear, literally, another side of John when he sang the National Anthem in front of a World Cup Qualifier crowd. Speak softly but carry a big booming singing voice is just one of the interesting aspects to this multi-faceted equestrian.
Certainly successful as a hunter rider, a handful of years ago John also proved he has what it takes to win at the international Grand Prix level. Over a five-year period, John went from Rookie Grand Prix Rider of the Year to qualifying for the World Cup Finals, placing in Britain’s Hickstead Grand Prix and representing the US on Nations Cup Teams in Great Britain, Belgium, Spain and Sweden.
In this conversation we not only wanted to delve into John’s vast equestrian knowledge and experience but also learn a bit more about who he is through a series of questions from A to Z…
Anthem: So Week II of this year’s Desert Circuit you sang the National Anthem in front of hundreds of people. Many questions spring to mind – how long have you had a passion for singing? Do you have any formal training? Have you ever sung the National Anthem in public before? How did it feel? Would you do it again?
John: When I was 10 or 11 yrs old I was one of 400 kids that tried out for this folk ensemble group. We had to sing the National Anthem for the audition. Only ten kids were picked, I was one. We performed all over as a group, I really enjoyed it. My parents didn’t really get involved, so I decided to drop it and focused on riding.
We had a singing coach when I was a part of the ensemble. I remembered learning the National Anthem for the audition, but had not sung it since age 11. I wanted to see if I could do it – so I off-handedly mentioned it to a client that I would like to. Turned out HITS needed someone, the word got out that I would do it and I thought ‘I can’t back out now…’ At least it was in front of friends and people I knew – but I was still super nervous. My mouth was getting so dry while I was standing there waiting.
Sometimes you have to take risks like that – do something beyond your comfort zone, it makes you a stronger person in the end. Next time I’m nervous before a class I will remind myself – ‘John, remember when you sang the National Anthem? Can’t be that bad.’
Favorites: Do you have a favorite memory from the show ring? A memorable ride among the thousands you’ve ridden?
John: Probably my most memorable ride was in 1985 at the Washington International Horse Show – I was riding a horse named Ice Palace in the Regular Working Hunter Handy class at night. I had gone back to the hotel to change, it was rainy, there was traffic and I missed my place in the order. When I finally got to the ring, there were only five rounds left. It got worse, I had forgotten my hat, so I had to run up and get it. The horse’s owner was angry, it was a mess. On top of that, the course was challenging, full of twists and turns. So I ran up to the stands to watch a few horses. Jumped two jumps in the schooling area and then had to go in the ring. I didn’t have time to be nervous; I was trying to remember the course, going from jump to turn to jump to turn… It was amazing – everything fell into place. Rodney Jenkins had the leading score and he was standing at the back gate. When the crowd cheered after my last jump, he mumbled, ‘Sh–.’
I had won! Rodney was 2nd, Katie Monahan was 3rd, Charlie Weaver was 4th. There has not been a bigger win in the hunter ring than that one for me.
Finesse in the Saddle: An avid performer, you’ve won in the hunter ring on both coasts, at all the top horse shows on a number of different horses. What advice can you give to a hunter rider on how to achieve that winning round? Tips to finesse the ride?
John: You have to go in and be confident. Pick up the pace right away – don’t doubt yourself. To have a winning ride, you can’t think ‘am I going to find the distance’ you have to let that go. When you are tentative it interrupts the flow. Let the doubts go out of your mind – that’s when you ride the best. Take risks – believe in the ride.
In the show ring you do want to finesse the ride – try to get relaxed in your body – relaxing your muscles will carry over to your mind. If your body is relaxed your mind will follow – so if you choose to be relaxed and breathe, that will in turn finesse the ride.
Idols: Whom do you consider your idol – equestrian and non-equestrian?
John: Idol – let’s see… my equestrian idols would probably be… ones that are no longer riding. The one I have the most respect for on the ground and as a rider is Bernie Traurig. He is so insightful. Also Patricia Heuckeroth – she is such a horsewoman. And another is Kathy Kusner – not only as a horsewoman but also because of what she’s doing now with Horses in the Hood*. She’s giving back and I have a lot of respect for her. [*a non-profit organization that offers 5-day riding camps to inner-city children in Los Angeles, learn more at horsesinthehood.org]
Non-equestrian idols – Jack Kornfield* – do you know who that is? He’s a spiritual teacher. And the Dalai Lama. [*A practitioner for over 40 years, one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. Author of many books and CDs, he is also the founder of The Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, CA.].
Nerves: Do you ever get nervous? Any advice for dealing with nerves?
John: Oh yeah – I always get nervous. When I do there are certain things I do to un-nerve myself. One is to remember to enjoy the process – have fun. Smile and think how lucky I am to do this. Mistakes are not the end of the world – it’s a horse show! Another is I remind myself that it doesn’t help to be nervous about something I can’t control – a ride happening in the future – so I let go and focus on what I can control which is being in the present during the ride. Yet another is I pretend no one is watching, that I am just schooling. I don’t go out thinking that I am going to win – or that I need to beat somebody else. Just do the best I can – ride better than the last time.
Sometimes when I’m on a really good horse, I’ll go in and pretend I’m somebody else on a different horse – depending on how the horse needs to be ridden, then I’m not nervous because I’m not John French, I’m somebody else!
I rode in the clinic with McLain – he definitely taught me a few things. So when I went in the jumper ring after that, I pretended I was McLain. It went well, first class on a horse I hadn’t really shown before I won, beat Richard. Then I only had the last jump down in the Futures.
Relaxing: Since you spend a majority of your time riding and competing – when you do have spare time what do you like to do? How do you relax?
John: I live in a really super quiet place – an old western mission town – San Juan Bautista, population about 1,700. Walking down Main Street, you would think there is going to be a shoot out in one of the saloons. I can relax, no hustle, bustle of a big city. I don’t get a lot of free time – when I do I go on retreats. I’ve been on four retreats.
Winning: What’s your approach to winning? Losing?
John: I’ve learned to get perspective – center myself – which can be difficult when you are always competing. A few years ago I was winning but not happy. I would win this big class or award but I felt nothing. I was essentially depressed. I wasn’t certain if I wanted to keep riding.
I went to a retreat. I learned that I wasn’t alone feeling this way – it’s not you alone against the whole world – but everyone is connected in feeling and wanting the same thing. To be happy. But that has to come from within. So I gained perspective.
It is so easy to get caught in that winning cycle. But the winning can’t be the only reason. You can’t be happy – achieve true happiness just from that. When I put it in perspective I let go of the winning as the reward. I remembered that I ride because it’s my passion, I love it. That is happiness.
Zen*: The path of enlightenment… Can you tell us about your interest in Buddhism and how that helps you? [*school of Mahayana Buddhism asserting that enlightenment can come through meditation and intuition rather than faith]
John: That’s a hard question. In the big picture, so many other religions tell you what you can and can’t do. But Buddhism is about a state of consciousness, seeking that greater interconnectedness, it’s a way of thinking. Things happen for a reason. Buddhism helps you learn about these lessons presented to you and to seek the path of enlightenment.
In order to achieve that state of consciousness, I practice the ability to acknowledge the nerves, the stress and then let go. Sometimes I meditate before a special class, when there are too many things going on in my head. I try to do some yoga and meditation in the morning in order to clear my mind.