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Lessons Learned: With Kerry McCahill and Darragh Kenny

Wednesday, 06 December 2017
Lessons Learned

A young American talent, Kerry McCahill has trained with Darragh Kenny – one of Ireland’s very best riders – for the past three years. Combining a competition career at a high level with teaching can be tricky, but it seems Kerry and Darragh have found the perfect balance – and in the end, no one understands the mind of a rider like another rider.

World of Showjumping sat down with this student-trainer duo to hear more about the lessons they both have learned along their journey together.

“We ran into each other a lot during the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, and it all started there when he helped me out a few times,” Kerry explains about how it all began. “I really liked the way he trained, and I was interested to go over to Europe for half of the season which was something many of the American trainers didn’t really do.”.

Kerry is now based with Darragh all year round. “Wherever I am, Kerry is with me,” he tells. “I have a stable in Holland and during the summer months we are based there, and during winter we are based in Florida. My mother Catherine works with me, and I am very lucky that she is able to step in when I am busy riding. That is how I like to structure it for my clients; so they always have someone with them. My mother also helps Kerry a good bit.” 

The mental game

Picture © Hervé Bonnaud / "I think the mental part plays a huge role," Kerry says. Picture © Hervé Bonnaud /

“Even though there is a big physical aspect to riding, I think the mental part plays a huge role – I would say it is 80 percent of it,” Kerry says. “Even if you have all the physical ability but you lack the mental strength, you won’t get anywhere.”

In this regard, the 21-year-old rider has found great support in her trainer Darragh. “He is more naturally gifted as a trainer than he knows, I think,” Kerry says about the 29-year-old Irish rider. “He is very relatable, and being a top rider himself he is maybe able to communicate certain things a lot faster than a trainer that wasn’t in the ring all the time would. It is amazing to get that feedback, and watching him compete is inspirational to me. We also know each other well now, so we are able to communicate fast.”

Darragh agrees with Kerry on the importance of mental strength. “I think you have to be confident in what you are doing and calm when you are doing it, that you trust everything is going to go your way. Otherwise you get tense and the horse gets nervous – and then it for sure doesn’t work out. You have to learn to take the good and leave the bad behind. It is very important that you think openly, and that you realize that different experiences – like bad rounds – will only make you better. They are not going to make you worse, they can only make you better. I have worked with a sport psychologist myself, because I felt like I was not concentrated enough,” Darragh tells. “I want to take every advantage that I can.”


Picture © Hervé Bonnaud / "I always try to get more competitive," Kerry tells. Picture © Hervé Bonnaud /

“Now that I have stepped up to four- and five-star level, I always try to get more competitive. I have been striving to get top results,” Kerry tells about her goals. “Consistency is another thing I’m striving for. I am very determined, I don’t like to do the same mistake twice,” she says. “I think with that you can get pretty far.”

“Working with someone like Kerry, who is really interested in doing good, is something I enjoy,” Darragh fills in. “I think her biggest downfall is how perfect she wants it all to be. Sometimes she wants it to be too perfect. I believe that is also the reason why she finds it hard to be competitive on the level she is on now; she is trying not to make mistakes. Riding against the top 30 in the world can be intimidating – for anyone – and now we are working on her getting comfortable and competitive at a higher level. But for me as her trainer, the most important thing is that she really wants to do well and works hard at it.”

Patience, persistency and positive thinking

Picture © Jenny Abrahamsson “I think it is really, really important, that the feedback is not negative, but positive," Darragh tells. Picture © Jenny Abrahamsson.

“I have learned a lot about patience from Darragh. Coming out of the ring, my thinking is now completely different to what it used to be,” Kerry tells. “I used to easily over-think situations and he has helped me to simplify a lot of that and to enjoy the ride. He has also taught me the importance of dedicated work ethics; as long as you keep doing things in a certain formula, things are going to come your way eventually. Hard work and persistency are the keys.”

“With riding, you have to learn to bounce back quickly,” Kerry tells about facing downfalls. “There were times in the past where I would be so mad at myself for making a mistake, that my riding would just go downhill also on the next horse. When riding many horses a day, you need to keep moving on and put things behind you and not let one bad round ruin the next one.”

“When you come out of the ring after things go wrong, you are angry at yourself,” Darragh explains. “I could come out of the ring and somebody could tell me ‘Oh, that was stupid’ – but the thing is, you as a rider know you did not get it right. So, you don’t need someone telling you what you did wrong. It is better to take a minute and relax and then talk about how you can make it better – not about how you did it wrong,” he says. “I think it is really, really important, that the feedback is not negative, but positive. That is how you learn; you might have made a mistake, but you can learn how to make it better. Telling someone they did not do well enough – nobody learns from that.” 

A balancing act

Picture © Jenny Abrahamsson "Sometimes it is difficult with my own riding – to be able to separate the two enough can be challenging at times,” says Darragh about combining a competition career with teaching. Picture © Jenny Abrahamsson.

Combining riding and teaching is a balancing act for Darragh. “I love to teach – I really enjoy it and I love to work with people who are really interested in doing well, motivated and really care about their career in this sport. Sometimes it is difficult with my own riding – to be able to separate the two enough can be challenging at times.”

Being an active rider has its pros and cons as a trainer, Darragh shares: “As a trainer, I think my assets would be that I really work on the horses and the riders; I try to figure out the best combination and how to make them go really well together. On the other hand, my communication skills would not be the best at times – because I have a lot to concentrate on. The discussion after a course might get a little short if I need to focus on my own round shortly after. But I really care about how well my students do and I really stress about it – even in the evenings and at night, it is something I am constantly thinking about,” he admits.

“Because I ride on a high level myself, I know how stressful it can be and how disappointing and fantastic it can all be – depending on if it goes good or bad. I really try and stay very levelled. I understand that we all have the same feelings,” he goes on. “I think Kerry has learned to be very good at being a sportsperson – to take the ups when they are there and take the downs and deal with them, and make them better. That is something I think is not only good for her riding, but for her whole life – because things go right and things go wrong, and you are going to have to be able to deal with it and stay calm, levelled and make it better again.” 

Keep it simple

Picture © WoSJ. Keep it simple is the message! Picture © WoSJ.

“I am very lucky because my mum helps me with Kerry and they work brilliant together and really get on super,” Darragh tells. “At home, we ride every day and Kerry has learned to be very good on the flat so I don’t need to ride her horses that often.

Normally it is very simple; we do a lot of gymnastics, lots of poles on the ground, some little courses – for the most part it is all very basic, it is not like we are doing anything that somebody hasn’t thought of before. I try to help a little bit with the feeling I get off the horse; I try to explain that if I feel this, I do that to try and fix it, and that way I hope it is easier for Kerry to understand,” he explains about their training methods. 

Keeping fit

On top of the mental strength, Kerry also highlights the importance of staying physically fit. “I am very serious about the fitness – it is really important to stay on top of it. Surely you cannot be too hard on yourself if you are busy at a show and riding six or so horses every day – that is more than enough for a workout. And for Darragh, he rides ten horses every day so that is more than enough,” she laughs. 



Text World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen // Pictures © Hervé Bonnaud /, Jenny Abrahamsson and Nanna Nieminen

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