Making the Switch to DressageDec 16, 2022
Our discussion today is with two riders who’ve switched to dressage from other disciplines.
Joining us today are Bill and Linda, both part of our beautiful Performance Riders family.
This is an edited transcript of an episode of The Collectives podcast – listen here or watch the video version above.
We live in Armidale, we've got a property about 10 kilometres out of town and we’re lucky enough to have an indoor arena now. Predominantly my wife Tonia is the true horse person and I sort of tag along. It's been a great journey of course, but in the last few years have been involved with the Gold Program and Brett, and now we are coming along in leaps and bounds.
We spent 20 years showjumping and eventing from the nineties onwards. That was back in the day when in the three-day events we still had the roads and tracks, we had the steeplechase, and it was really quite a wild game back in those days. We would get thoroughbreds off the track and work them up to novice level, but in those days, novice was a pretty serious event. We had the showjumping to go with it and had some terrific showjumping horses, mostly B and C grade showjumpers.
Tonia used to go to lessons with a fellow called Edgar Lichtwark who was German and an incredible horseman. The knowledge he had gave us a glimpse of what was out there. At that stage Tonia was able to understand, she could take that information forward where I would be looking at it and going ‘geez, I'm not really sure what they're doing at the high dressage levels’.
Even years ago I can remember Tonia would be going around in circles and I just could not understand what she could possibly be doing going around and around in circles for. I thought ‘you've done the circle, what's next?’.
Heath Ryan also started bringing the training to us in a theory, but in those days there really wasn't a lot. Colleen Brooks was another one. But someone can tell you a lot about horse training theory, but you've still got to have this ability to feel it, experience it, and then you've got it. It's years and years of working through that and doing it over and over until one day you go, I get it. Even then it’s like you go into a room and you work something out, and then you open the next door and you go ‘oh wow, what's out there? Here we go again’. I'm sure the importance of a system and what a breakthrough that was when we got involved in an actual system of Brett’s to train a dressage horse through.
I made the switch to dressage after I had a terrific show-jumping horse that had a pretty nasty accident and damaged my shoulder. And then I had a series of operations that put me out for a couple of years, and I didn't come back into it in any substantial way, I was busy with work and so on.
I remember one day Tonia said ‘you should get back on’. And that's how I got back on, we only had a chestnut there that was out my good show-jumping mare and she was a spooky bugger. So that's the horse on which I started riding again.
We didn't have time to go eventing, show jumping, and go to dressage. We only got to choose one, and Tonia doesn't have a truck license, it just wasn't feasible to do everything and it's not what we're about in our sixties. We're not chasing gold medals, we're just doing it to enjoy what we do. And the fact of the matter is dressage is an incredibly difficult sport. Much more difficult than show jumping. There's no doubt about it. I and all my showjumping mates, they'll tell you it is difficult. If you ever go to a combined training day, get the show jumpers out there, they need some help with the dressage!
Dressage is like a science, and you peel back the layers and it just gets deeper and deeper and deeper. And then you think, well I can go and put this into practice, so you load your horses on the truck and you'll drive three or four or five hours, you'll drive across the country for a dressage test. But we love it. The whole fellowship of the community and especially in the regions, it's all good fun. It's always good fun, good social, and a good passtime.
I have a small boutique horse breeding farm between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I give mostly lessons in the afternoon and train horses in the morning. The lessons are mostly flat work – dressage, a bit of jumping, and a bit of cross country.
I grew up on a farm in Holland where we had crops, but we also did spelling for race horses in rehab and foaling down. I grew up amongst it, and then I went to pony club. My dad thought it was a good idea to buy a two-and-a-half-year-old pony for me because according to his theory, you were only good enough to go to pony club if you could break in your own horse.
The result was I came to pony club with this young pony and I was only eight years old myself. Word spread around that I had started the pony and then during the summer recess we had a stable full of ponies for me to start under saddle, we just popped them out. So I was just busy all day jumping on Welsh ponies between the age of eight and ten. So that was my start.
My father, who was a very good all round horseman, said ‘you can learn something from every breed of horse and every sport’. But the other thing that my parents told me was ‘you can do whatever you like in life, but you must get an education and a degree and do not work in horse industry. Get a real job’. That was always the message I got. Get a real job.
They knew all the pitfalls, all the hard work and effectively the very little money for all your hard work. So they meant well and they really wanted me to get a real job and just have a horse on the side.
So I went to America for a couple of months after I had my final exams at university, just to work in the horse industry to get it out of my system and then to start my normal life.
I started working at an Arabian horse farm in America in Kentucky. When we went to the horse shows there, they would have literally offered 2000 entries and they weren't just doing dressage, they were doing all sorts of classes, all sorts of the American show classes, driving, Western classes. And I thought, well while I'm in America, why not do something American? I had the typical equestrian background from Europe, so I did a lot of show riding in America, and Western riding. It is actually skills I learned in Western riding that I have been able to use to my advantage in dressage. A lot of the things that Brett is talking about in the Gold Program today are what I actually originally learned in Western riding.
However, I'm talking about the late 1980s when I was in America, so at that time, the world wasn't global as it is now. All the training techniques that I learned in America and then took with me back to Europe were very unknown and uncommon in Europe, but they worked a treat. Funnily enough, a lot of those particular aspects of Western riding are really commonly used in dressage now.
I think my box of tricks as a rider and coach is much fuller because of all the various disciplines I’ve ridden in.