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Posted by Shelley Tilbrook on 01/06/2023.

Coach of the Month, May: Fiona Heysen

Congraulations to our May Coach of the Month from South Australia, EA Level 2 Coach, Coach Educator and B Level National Judge, Fiona Heysen.

As well as being a skilled artist, she has ridden to Grand Prix level. 

Fiona's exceptional expertise, unwavering dedication, and outstanding contributions to the equestrian community make her a truly deserving recipient of this recognition.

Fiona Heysen's passion for equestrian sports is palpable, and her journey as a coach is a testament to her lifelong commitment to excellence. With an impressive background in both competitive riding and coaching, Fiona brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, enriching the lives of countless equestrians under her guidance.

We spoke with Fiona to learn more about her coaching journey. Here is what she had to say.

How I got involved with horses?

I was obsessed with horses from very early. I was drawing them on everything from the age of 3. Pestered my parents who had a dairy farm. Had a borrowed horse for a while when I was 5, probably to see if having one that trod on my feet and did all those things that might put a small kid off, but instead  I was busy working out how I could line her up next to the fence so I could scramble on and sit in my favourite position in this world!

So Christmas when I was 7-years-old, there was the best kept family secret; a long piece of string that went from the xmas tree via the fridge for some carrots, then out the door to a pony! Topper was not ideal but certainly tested whether I really wanted to stay with horses by kicking me in the face one day...45 tiny stitches around my eye later I’m making my parents take me to where he was in the yard where I cried and told him it was my fault. I think my poor parents realised then that there was no hope, and so the journey began.

Then followed so many horses all teaching me so many things; primarily patience. From the tricky frustration of “you’re not going to catch me”, to the frightened horse not wanting to go on a float, to the super sensitive OTT  learning to relax in the Dressage arena. 

Learning the craft of horses 

I decided to break my 2nd pony Holly Berry in to harness when I was 15 and did it all from a book. 

I broke in racehorses and went on with trackwork whilst working on a TBred stud for the late brilliant vet Dr Peter Irwin. I have always broken in my own horses mostly because I couldn’t afford to buy a trained one unless it was an OTT and then it was actually much harder anyway.

Who influenced your career? 

I had so many wonderful coaches/instructors over the years starting with the wonderful NaN Scott (Scott Keach’s grandmother), through Helen Heagney (then Cherry), John Vaughan, Jane Bush, John Patterson, Molly Sivewright, Jeff Evans, Pru Foletta, Clemens Dierks, Edgar Lichtwark, Roger East, Glennis Scott and Peter Shaw. 

One coach (not one of the above) told me many years ago that I was “not a talented rider” which was a bit deflating at the time until I worked out that in fact talent didn’t matter and all the bad habits that I had slowly overcome, actually helped me in my coaching to feel what was going on for those other ‘everyday riders’ and be able to help them.

From Study to Coaching Certification

After completing a Cert 4 in Equine Studies at TAFE,  I was asked back to lecture there and then went on to work as the instructor at the Morphetville/Cheltenham Jockeys course. This led to helping with bringing Tom Ivers to Australia with his seminars on The Fit Racehorse. I also went to the 2nd Symposium on The Equine Athlete in  Luhmuhlen in 1982.

It was around these years that Gill Rolton and Di Keach mentored me to  NCAS Level 1 General coach and I also began judging as a way to give back to my sport.


I rode to Novice (now 1*) Eventing for a few years until my nerves got the better of me, and as I had a very clever tb (Leonardo) at the time and was always doing well after the Dressage phase, I decided to go on with that & took him to Inter 2. The next horse was one I bred and trained through to Grand Prix (the lovely Sir Hans who was by Valuta). I have taken several more to FEI level & love the training challenges of each individual horse. I did get back into Eventing in the last few years with Kalinga Nora, Kalinga Otto, & Kalinga Bramante & still love the thrill of going XC and all the fitness work involved. My 2 wonderful daughters have supported their crazy mother’s old age Eventing fantasies by strapping etc for me even though they’re very good riders themselves.

Drafting, Designing and Sitting the Level 2 Course

While I was still teaching at Cheltenham I was asked to draft the NCAS Level 2 instructors course (and do the artwork) which I did and then sat for it to become a L2 General Coach.

Instructing and Judging

I’ve instructed at both local riding/pony clubs and also became an RDA L2 instructor so I could help out the local RDA for 3 years. This has helped with my knowledge and capacity to assist those with some levels of disability and I am also now a Para Judge. I’ve served on Horse Trials and Dressage club committees and am currently on the Dressage Judges Sub committee here in SA assisting with training and upgrading Judges.

Coaching in Darwin

I now coach in Darwin a couple of times a year and help them as a CE to increase their own knowledge and coaching group. As my own ‘arena’ is not exactly ‘all weather’, I tend to be a mobile coach & travel to riders’ own places. SA is such a small place & it can be very difficult to do much coaching along with being a B Level judge, with the COI issues. 

Advice to riders

I think it’s very important for riders to become better all round ‘horseman’; to observe and understand their horse, it’s condition,it’s general well-being and it’s demeanour. They can be safer and better riders if they can do this and adjust their training practice to suit. 

What do you take from your riding into your Coaching?

I  have gained an enormous amount from listening to my farriers and my vet friends for my horses, plus my physio and her exercises along with practicing yoga to improve my body awareness and strengthas a rider and always recommend others to do the same.

What keeps you coming back?

I get a huge thrill from seeing partnerships develop. I love to watch horses and riders have those moments of comprehension , whether it be a lateral movement or a step of collection or a feeling of better balance in the saddle. I love thinking of exercises that will show a rider and/or a horse the next little thing to learn. I place emphasis on the understanding of the what, why & how and the importance of the training scale as a guide for all of us because so many of us ride many hours/days/weeks without ‘eyes on the ground’. I do love the use of video to reinforce teaching and corrections in addition to riders being able to see themselves almost instantly. 

Advice to those considering becoming a Coach

To those thinking of becoming a coach I say; find a qualified mentor, follow their advice and the EA education courses and be prepared to learn an enormous amount about not only horses and riding, but about yourself as a person and how you relate to others.

Fiona's coaching philosophy revolves around fostering a positive and supportive training environment, where riders are encouraged to push their boundaries, set ambitious goals, and embrace the joy of continuous improvement. Her ability to adapt her teaching style to meet the individual needs of her students has garnered her the admiration and respect of riders at all levels, from grassroots enthusiasts to elite athletes.

Beyond her dedication to individual rider development, Fiona is also deeply committed to the wider equestrian community. She actively contributes to the growth and promotion of the sport, serving as a mentor, educator, and role model to aspiring coaches and riders alike. Her willingness to share her knowledge, insights, and expertise has had a profound impact on the equestrian landscape, nurturing a new generation of talented equestrians and coaches.