HOW QUICKLY can a raw novice rider gain sufficient skill to compete at international level? To the uninformed, dressage looks easy performed well. For the novice at the beginning of their training the challenge can appear overwhelming. Chasing down the wrong paths to enlightenment, as many have found, can be a costly and demoralising experience. But Vicki Thompson-Winfield, Chief Rider and Chief Instructor at Oldencraig Equestrian Centre has proved many times that it is possible to fast-track to the top with a knowledgeable, diligent, trainer ally. (Main picture above, Vicki competing Sam Francis’ Mango Jacaro at grand prix in the Nations Cup 3* international at Hickstead 2017.)
Vicki emphasises: “It’s also very important to have the right sort of horses to ride. I’m a big believer in the value of older horses. Jill Timms, one of our clients, wanted to get to Prix St Georges and she did exactly as we advised and bought older horses at the beginning. She was lucky enough to be able to run two horses. We found her five-year-old Rebel who seven years later she competed at grand prix. She spent the rest of her budget on an older medium/advanced medium horse that we replaced a couple of times until I had trained Rebel sufficiently to become her primary competition horse.”
Toni Terry who trained up to grand prix level at Oldencraig was in the fortunate position to be able to buy very good quality older horses. One of them was Diamond Fritz who had competed internationally and is now one of Oldencraig’s resident schoolmasters.
Vicki continued: “Fritz is a diamond of a horse and you’re very lucky if you find one like him. He was worth every penny that Toni spent on him because he taught her everything. Schoolmasters are invaluable, because if they are not asked correctly, they won’t give the right response. It’s not easy to ride an advanced horse correctly and I wouldn’t start a totally green rider on a grand prix schoolmaster. Firstly, the student wouldn’t be able to maintain their balance — it wouldn’t be fair on either horse or rider. The schoolmaster needs to be warmed-up, suppled and set-up for the trainee by a knowledgeable rider. Then when the trainee does sit on the horse, the instructor has to be very strict about how they ask the horse — nicely and correctly — to do something.
“When Toni bought Fritz I spent a couple of years detuning him. A highly-tuned competition horse has to adapt to understand it’s down to them a bit more to interpret what the new rider is wanting, rather than being a hot, very reactive animal who listens and obediently and immediately performs exactly what the rider asks. The horse has to know that if he misinterprets something, he’s not going to be picked on or correctly quite so quickly. He will adjust and become more tolerant of the less precise rider and you have to be sure that the exercises you are expecting the student to do on him are ones appropriate to their ability at that point.
Vicki has been trained according to the best classical principles. She trained initially for dressage, like many of our current top trainers, with British Olympic rider Sarah Whitmore at Hilders Farm in Edenbridge. There she met and also trained with Franz Rochowansky, a former Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna. She went on to work with him at his own yard at Sedgewick Park, near Horsham, and then moved with him to Wayne Channon’s Exfold Farm when Wayne was being coached along his own fast-track dressage journey that later took him on to the British Team.
Vicki commented: “Most of the time when I was with Rocky, the schoolmasters were either ex-competition horses that I had competed or were ones that Rocky owned and trained. The important thing is that the novice has the opportunity to acquire a good seat and good balance.
“Novices who come to me with an agenda, say, to compete at the Asian Games, have to have the time to put in the necessary work. Dressage is a discipline as well as a sport, so they have to be prepared to make some sacrifices and put in some serious effort.”
Carl Hester calls Vicki “Queenie” and says of her, “she is still one of the most elegant lady riders” — and a good seat is a hallmark of riders who have been trained by Vicki. She commented: “People don’t understand the importance of lunge lessons; they’re not just about doing exercises with your arms and legs without stirrups — although I think that is very, very important — but you can also have quite advanced lessons just riding a perfect 20m circle! Riding an exact 20m circle you can become very aware of your outside rein and your balance, and whether your body is correctly aligned for the bend.
“I remember having lessons on a grand prix horse with Georg Wahl [a Spanish Riding School Chief Rider and famous trainer of many-times Olympian Christine Stuckelberger]. If I didn’t keep that lunge line stretched straight in consistent tension all the way round a circle, he would go mad. He would ask me incredulously, ‘Can’t you do it? It’s your job to keep the lunge line straight, you’re the one riding the circle!’ That takes a lot of focus.”
“The higher you go the more important the basics are, but you have to have an incentive to work at them, it’s hard and it’s monotonous. You have to want to struggle on with the detail to get to the interesting bits”
“I can’t overlook it when I see a rough rider who is not able to balance themselves. You cannot have a horse in balance or working towards self-carriage, if the rider isn’t in a good enough balance themselves to have at least a relatively neutral impact on the horse — that is before ever the rider gets to the point of making a positive one.
“Unless the rider is capable of making conscious effort while remaining in balance and soft, their effect on the horse will be negative: they will be the one creating the blockage or the resistance”
“I was trained to think like that. To ask why didn’t that work? Or why did something work sometimes: what was I doing differently? Most of the time the horse will be trying to tell you why he couldn’t do it. It’s pretty dull and boring to focus just on acquiring a good, stable, balanced seat and good posture and I like to give clients a little taste of what is, at the time above their heads, even if they can’t yet do it very well. Then I can return to the reason the seat is so important in order to have nice control of a shoulder-in or a travers, or a proper circle. The reason the more advanced movement is not working is the same reason their 20m circle doesn’t work. Then the student comes back all fired up to ride a circle better.”
Vicki, a former Atlanta Olympics British Team rider and 19 times British National Champion added: “I always hope that the people I train will make the most of what I can offer. If people come to me with an agenda, say to compete at the Asian Games (prix st georges/inter I), I tell them it won’t happen if I stand in the school and talk to myself. They need to be prepared to come back day after day, wanting to improve, and take on board what I say and do something about their problems. But if, for example, they need to get a bit fitter, they don’t necessarily need to do that on a horse. They can do that running round the field or going to the gym — whatever means are at their disposal.
“I always give riders who come to me for lessons on our school horses some homework to do with their own horse at home. I try to find something they can do on that horse at whatever level it may be.
“I will also suggest ‘silly’ things that will help their body awareness, like walking around their house with a bit of paper under each elbow and try to pick things up or put them down like that for 20 minutes, so that they become aware of where their elbows are. There are many things that you can do without involving a horse”
“Rocky gave us trainees at Sarah Whitmore’s yard a lesson like that. We had been fooling around at lunch, balancing on the back legs of the dining chairs. He said, ‘if you can’t treat my chairs with respect, don’t think you’re getting on one of my horses!’ He made us bring our chairs into the school while he taught the others on their horses. Basically, he was saying ‘you have to think about posture [and respect] before you sit on a horse’!”
Vicki continued, saying that if you can only ride once a day, think how you’re sitting when you drive a car: “Do you sit crooked? Have you got equal pressure on both seat bones? I try to get my pupils thinking like that when they’re driving here for their lesson. And to think about what they did in their last lesson before they get on the horse again. Not long ago at Jo Hinnemann’s in Germany there was a girl just standing around in the yard and he shouted out to her ‘legs, legs!’ He explained to us, ‘you have to start before she gets on, then when she comes into the school on her horse, she will remember!’”
“If you want to ride competitively, like a professional, you have be ‘on it’ the moment your foot hits the stirrup: you must be mentally and physically ready”
“In terms of mental preparation I make my students write little notes after each lesson, especially if they can’t come so often. I tell them, ‘have a cup of coffee in the cafe and sit there and make some notes about your problems and how you solved them. Then look at that piece of paper later and before you get on a horse again.’ If you get on your horse unprepared you waste 5-10 minutes of your next lesson. Those minutes are charged at the same rate as for the rest of my time.
“If you can’t ride for five hours a day, you have to make the 45-60 minutes of your one session count. So, warm your body up before you get on the horse. You need to learn what exercises your body needs and how long it takes for you to warm-up and become supple and free-moving — as much as you need to learn what warm-up the horse needs. You need to be in that mind-set to get the most value from your lesson.
“Once you have a reasonable understanding of the basics and a reasonable standard of balance you can move on to the next stage, but you can’t skip stages. It is possible for one horse to take you from the beginning to the top, but at some point there has to be an intervention with the trainer saying, ‘you must sit on a school horse to correct such and such a problem’, or in order that the student can acquire the feel of the next stage. Meanwhile the trainer can ‘unpickle’ the young horse’s brains and help him progress. If a rider does just have one horse there will be times when the trainer should give the horse some input — perhaps while the owner is away on family holidays.
“The clever thing is to keep a wide enough gap between the level the horse has reached in its training and the level the student rider has reached. If the rider tries to make the step up to FEI level too soon — and before the horse is established at that level — it doesn’t work”
“Most clients with their horses based at Oldencraig will ride four days a week and we would try to put them on different horses on some — or even on all of those days — while their horse is being educated, so that the rider’s education can progress. We have schoolmasters capable of helping riders from absolute novice up to grand prix. When riders are ready they get a chance to feel things from better horses. We also have horses at the very bottom end of the scale that will tolerate lessons on balance, posture, feel and basic rider skills. They also allow riders to step back to the basics while their own horse is doing something more complicated.”
Most of the horses supplied by Oldencraig live with their new owners. ‘Gues’, left, was bought as an 18th Birthday present for a former frequent competitor at Oldencraig shows, Taylor Denness. Read Taylor and Gues’ story below
“I never mind who is in the arena when I’m teaching. Just by being among other riders, something will rub off. It’s also more fun riding in a group than on your own. At certain points it’s useful to have other people to bounce off: if you have a problem, you can ask, ‘what do you think?’”
Vicki sums up: “A rider never got to the top on their own. With guidance, and the right horses available, they can avoid the all-too-many pitfalls and their hard work will be rewarded. So, yes, a raw novice can ‘fast-track’ to the top.” She adds a cautionary word: “Having ridden one horse at top level, doesn’t mean you’ve read the whole book: that takes a lifetime — even with help!”
© Celia Cadwallader
Ian Winfield, proprietor and director of the Oldencraig enterprises with his wife, Vicki Thompson-Winfield, the training centre’s Chief Rider and Chief Instructor
For more information about training at Oldencraig or buying your next dressage horse, visit http://www.oldencraig.com/pages/contact.php
Client story: How Jill Timms earned her tailcoat
“Preparation in dressage is everything — it includes getting the horse athlete’s diet right, how to figure out an appropriate work programme running up to a competition like Premier Leagues. At Premier League you have to raise your game to the level of the professionals who are doing it 24/7 and you have to be confident enough to own the centreline when you ride down it.
“We competed at Inter II and at Grand Prix — although we were only ever half-way up the score board — I learned how to squeeze every drop out of Rebel in performance because many horses we were competing against were more athletic and had more natural ability. Rebel isn’t a particularly athletic horse. That said, the horse match that Oldencraig found for me was exceptionally good. The partnership is good and I feel right on him. When I rode him the first time, I liked what I saw in the arena mirrors. I could see the potential and I felt comfortable on him. It was important for me to feel he was the right size and weight — he had a bit of bone and substance about him. I’m 5ft 8in and medium build and he was the equine equivalent.
“If I’m honest, when I started out, I didn’t know what I wanted. I needed help. I had done hardly anything in terms of dressage before. I arrived at Oldencraig a 30-something complete novice but with aspirations to ride and compete at PSG. I wanted the top hat and tailcoat and what I found with Ian and Vicki is that they took both me and my aspirations seriously”
“Ian and Vicki were very good in guiding me. Rebel certainly wasn’t the most expensive horse I looked at but for me he was a horse who loved to work and loves being around people. He would all but put his bridle on for me!”
“We matched because we were both eager to learn. Obviously, Vicki was there for me when the going got tough, when I was scared or confused. When I didn’t know what I was doing, she’d jump on him and show me, and she’d explain it to the horse. Then I’d jump on, almost a passenger, and learn how the movement should feel. You need a certain type of horse to do that. He had to be quick to learn but also a nice enough person that if you made a mistake it wasn’t the end of the world. You could say, ‘sorry Rebel, let’s give that another go’.
“As novices we often don’t realise how difficult the task is that we set ourselves when we aspire to ride at higher levels. You need people who do understand and can guide you, be empathetic towards you — not belittling you — but supporting you”
She continued: “To be riding and winning at Premier League level, you have to be living the life of a professional rider, doing the whole thing 24/7. I had children; I had a job. I was an amateur but because the horse was so keen and quick to learn and because I thought, ‘why not give it a go?’ we did go up the levels and we got to the Nationals twice. Sometimes our marks could be terrible, but some were really good and that makes it worthwhile.
“When I was competing I had the support of Ian and Vicki to help me prepare as well as I possibly could. With my business and domestic responsibilities, I think I managed to give it a decent shot. Rebel is a ‘shy’ horse — all his senses are switched on when he goes into a new environment — but I rode to the best of my ability.
“When I arrived at a showground Rebel was so wired that he would be piaffing on the spot, chomping on the bit, while I was standing on the bottom of the horsebox ramp trying to get on. I used to go to shows by myself to gain experience and trying to get better, but I called Ian, saying, ‘I can’t get on him’ and he dropped everything at Oldencraig and came down in his Range Rover just to get me on a horse. He made a point that every time I went to an important show that he would be there at the beginning just to help me on board!”
“If the show had gone really badly, or I had got lost in the test, Vicki would say, ‘don’t worry, we’ll get back on tomorrow and we’ll sort it out’. So you learned something from it”
Had I warmed up for too long, or not long enough? Should I have ridden the day before? You find a pattern of behaviour in your preparation for a competition that is most suited to your horse at the time. And you learn by making mistakes.
“Ian used to call me when I got back from a show, or send someone down to the yard while I was unpacking the lorry, saying ‘Ian wants a quick word and to have a drink with you before you go’. If the show had gone badly, he’d say, ‘don’t worry Timmsie, it’ll be fine’. And we’d chat the day through and I’d go home feeling philosophical rather than depressed.
Or if I did well and I was chuffed to bits — and there were loads of those occasions, too — we’d open a bottle of bubbles and toast ‘Good old Rebel’!” © Celia Cadwallader
Client story: Taylor Denness is given a best 18th birthday present
When she was 14 she got her first horse Amaro O, who is known at home as ‘Timmie’. His timid nature has meant that he did not realise his competent rider’s competition ambitions. Then as an 18th birthday present Taylor was bought a Dutch horse from Oldencraig, a 17.2hh Zjengis Khan x Don Primaire four-year-old, known as ‘Gues’.
Gues at Oldencraig, plaited up ready for his full vetting, before Taylor’s family completed the purchase. Taylor: “He was a beautiful present. It was a fair price and he was worth every penny”
Having had some disappointments with a number of horses that she had started training and competing, Taylor knew that temperament and soundness were key.
Taylor explains: “I didn’t really want a big horse. I was looking originally for something around 16hh, but Gues’ temperament was incredible. I went to try a couple of horses that I’d spotted on the Oldencraig website and, I think, tried five. Gues was originally Vicki’s. She said to me that she’d got this younger horse, who was going to be quite big and he was green and not on the website.
She said, ‘have a look, have a sit and see what you think’. I did try him and I thought ‘I quite like you’ and it was a done deal there and then. He was a beautiful birthday present. It was a fair price and he was worth every penny.”
Taylor is now based in the Cotswolds with her family and they have a yard on the Duke of Beaufort’s estate. She recently achieved a Masters Degree with Distinction in Equine Sports Science and is now aiming to get a UK CC qualification as a foundation for her career as a professional rider and trainer.
She reports: “Gues is now six and 18hh and his temperament is still just as lovely as when I got him. We didn’t do a lot last year because he developed a throat cyst but he was a treasure to do all the way through the time I was nursing him.
“We have only been out a few times this year at Novice for some show experience because I have been busy studying. Gues’ is a very athletic horse and I hope and believe he will have the ability to go on. Nothing is written in stone but he has the perfect attitude. He’s very clever and is now working at advanced medium at home. He has just started to establish clean changes either way, and I’m also pleased with his lateral work.”
© Celia Cadwallader