When I catch up with Jess Dunn at the NAF Five Star British Dressage Winter Championships, she’s just finished riding in the second round of the Petplan novice open with KD Flying Dream, and is about to ride ‘the big boy’, Cedar Valley, in preparation for his medium open test on Sunday (10 April). On Thursday, Jess piloted MFS French Noir to take the elementary open title, adding to the novice open championship she took home from the 2015 summer national championships with Fyona.
In September, Fyona pipped ‘Felix’ into third, but the mare that drew so much attention in the Shearwater young horse classes is now having a quieter time at home. ‘She felt tired at Stoneleigh, just not like herself – although anyone who saw me working in might say differently! – and she’s one for the future. I’m in no rush; I just want to get her safely to grand prix. She has doubled in size since the summer’.
Fyona was second to Charlotte Dujardin’s Florentina in the five-year-old class at Stoneleigh, where test-rider Eva Möller was gushing with praise for Jess’ ride. Florentina took the win after much deliberating between the three judges, but for Jess, Eva’s praise for Fyona was ‘better than winning’. The 26-year-old trained for three years in Germany with Wolfram Wittig, a good friend of Eva’s. ‘I was terrified she was going to go home and tell him she rode some terrible horses in Britain. I admired her the whole time I was in Germany.’
Moving to a tiny town in Germany was a leap of faith for Jess. She is now ‘fluent but rusty’ in the language – at home she speaks German to the horses without realising. ‘The best part is warming up at international shows, when I can hear what all the other riders are saying’.
Jess is undeniably a stunning rider, with a particular knack for the quirky ones. The biggest take-home lesson from Germany was to believe in her own training methods. ‘When I first arrived, he annihilated me. I wasn’t quick enough, wasn’t strong enough – wasn’t anything enough.’ She learnt to go for it; ‘if I waver, that’s normally when it goes wrong.’
For an aspiring dressage rider, Jess believes that going abroad is ‘the best thing you can ever do’. Three years was the right length of time for her. ‘Some people only stick it for six months – I didn’t feel I really learned until I’d been there 18 months’. Jess cites exhaustion and good timing as the reasons for coming home. ‘You have to put everything into it – be exhausted every day to know you’re learning’.
She doesn’t feel that anywhere in Britain has the same level of discipline found on the continent. ‘It’s the only way to train the next set of riders. I was really shy when I first moved over, and now if someone says something about me I’m like, “whatever”!’