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‘I was torn between riding for Australia or Britain’: Gareth Hughes on his unusual route into international dressage

He’s one of the most familiar names on the British dressage circuit, and a major contender for the Tokyo Olympics, but did you know that Gareth Hughes very nearly ended up riding for Australia, instead of Britain? On episode 16 of the Horse & Hound Podcast, dressage editor Polly Bryan chats to Gareth about his unlikely journey to the top of the dressage world

“I grew up in Jimboomba, Australia, and not many kids from Jimboomba end up on the European circuit doing dressage,” laughs Gareth.

“We moved out there when I was six, and my mum decided that it would be nice for the kids to learn to ride. The local trainer I was working with was an all-round Aussie performance trainer, and over there you have an awful lot of competitions for Western riding, reining and Australian stock horse classes. That’s what I got going with.

“But I was always slightly obsessed with dressage, and even though I was doing no real dressage in Australia, I would follow what was going on over here. I used to get the European Championships and World Cup finals on video tape. Then I did an inter-high school competition, and won the dressage, and I started developing connections through various trainers that brought me closer to dressage, and connected me back to England, without really realising it.”

When Gareth’s parents moved back to the UK when he was in his early 20s, he decided to come back himself for 18 months — in order to pick up a British accent.

“Then I planned to go back to Australia and thought I’d be able to earn more money because I’ll sound British and they’ll think I’m better,” he says. “That was my plan – but 20 odd years later, I’m still here!”

So, how seriously did Gareth consider riding for Australia, rather than Britain?

“Very seriously,” he says. “I grew up an Australian. When I came to England I was still very much an Aussie at heart, and after being in the UK for about 10 years I thought about moving back there. But then I opened up my mail one day and I had been picked for the British Dressage pathway programme, and even though it was only with a young horse, that felt like my opening into a dressage career, and I stayed.”

“So I started riding for Britain, and got on some teams, and then Australia must have noticed me because they came to me just before the London Olympics in 2012 and asked if I would be interested in riding for Australia. I really thought about it, and which way I would go forward. I was still pulled between growing up there and now living in Britain. But I had already started riding for Britain, and I felt extremely proud to wear that flag on my jacket. That meant a lot. And I thought that if I was good enough to get on the British team, that would mean more. So I decided that it was Team GB, and there hasn’t been a day that I have regretted that decision.”

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Gareth may be a fully fledged British dressage rider nowadays, but does he still harbour a love for Western riding?

“I’ve still got the boots and the chaps, and there’s a Western hat hanging on the back of the bedroom door. I would love to do it again one day, but I don’t think you’ll see me competing on the reining circuit – not yet anyway!”

To hear more about Gareth’s early life in Australia, and his enviable string of grand prix horses, listen to episode 16 of The Horse & Hound podcast or search “The Horse & Hound Podcast” in your favourite podcast app

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