‘She’s made all my dreams come true’: dressage partnerships who’ve overcome the odds to qualify for winter championships

  • The upcoming 2024 NAF Five Star Winter Dressage Championships and Petplan Area Festival Winter Championships (10–14 April) represent a culmination of months or even years of hard work, training and dedication.

    For some, the journey to the championships has been bumpier than others, and riding down the centre line at Addington Equestrian will hold extra significance. We’ve rounded up some of our favourite stories from combinations who’ve battled against the odds to earn their well-deserved qualification.

    Winter Dressage Championships 2024 against the odds: Amy Wray and Miners Gold

    Amy Wray and the 11-year-old gelding Miners Gold – known as “Alfie” at home – took second in the Baileys Novice Freestyle Silver at Bishop Burton College Winter Regionals (13–17 February 2024) on 70.09% to qualify for the winter championships. The pair also secured a wildcard for the Prestige Novice Silver.

    However, as Amy tells Horse & Hound, it’s been a long journey to get to this point. In early 2021, she broke both her collarbone and her pelvis in the space of three weeks after serious falls.

    “I spent most of the summer recovering until I was fit to be able to ride again to find a new horse,” she says. “Except when it came to just being able to get on, I was absolutely terrified.

    “I hadn’t just lost some confidence, I wondered if I’d ever dare to get on another horse again, let alone buy a new warmblood and go out and compete. I’d ridden for 20 years and I honestly thought it might have been time to call it a day – I was out and out petrified.”

    Through a friend, Amy was able to find a new partner with a fantastic temperament. “I spent at least 10 months standing on the mounting block physically shaking before I got on,” Amy adds. “I’ve even been sick in the back of the lorry at a show just at the thought of getting on.

    “But I finally started to regain some confidence and actually began to like riding again after about 12 months.”

    However, misfortune was to strike once more as her new horse sustained a career-ending injury in the field, a month before the 2023 summer regionals.

    “I was then faced with having to find another horse, one that would be good enough to put up with me still being frightened – I felt like it was an almost impossible task and I wasn’t sure whether I could get on an ‘unknown’ horse from a stranger.”

    But then Amy met Alfie, and was taken by his easy going personality.

    “He had only ever been ridden by his breeder all his life, it was pouring down rain and so windy when we went to see him and their arena didn’t even have a fence around it, and he’d just had a week off with a missing shoe.

    “But he never put a hoof out of place the entire viewing. He wasn’t sharp or fresh, he didn’t spook, he didn’t try and take advantage of me being nervous – so he ended up coming home with us in August.

    “However, any confidence I’d gained back had gone. I felt like I was back at square one and by now I’d missed two competition seasons so the race was on to qualify for the winter regionals, while being completely petrified every time I got on.”

    Amy recalls Alfie throwing a “couple of tense personalities into the mix” at regionals which heightened her nerves.

    “At one point I think I said ‘I can’t get on’,” she recalls. “But it had taken too long to get back to this point after so much fear and disappointment that I didn’t want to let this illogical panic that was always going on in my head ruin the chance we had.

    “In the end, I don’t know what I was worried about as we came away with a direct qualification.

    “I am still a bit frightened every time I get on –I probably always will be – but qualifying makes it all seem like it’s worth it, even on the darkest days.”

    Against the odds: Bex Woolf and Hillgrounds Woleena

    Bex Woolf and her 12-year-old mare Hillgrounds Woleena – known as “Spice” – are experienced campaigners having competed together at four Area Festival championships in the past few years.

    “I have owned Spice since she was an unbacked three-year-old,” says Bex. “I bought her from Clare Skinner, who is a lovely British breeder based in Devon.

    “The past few years have been a bit stop-start for us while I had my two children, now four and two, but Spice has come back stronger after each break.”

    However, in 2023 Spice suffered a series of significant setbacks, that looked to stop her record of coming back stronger in its tracks.

    “We’ve had a stressful year with her,” explains Bex. “She had a serious stomach impaction last May and we came quite close to losing her. Then the week before the summer Area Festival championships she came down with a virus and had to spend a week in the vets.

    “She has also been diagnosed with EMS [Equine Metabolic Syndrome] so we were also battling that with a combination of diet changes and increased exercise.”

    Bex credits the “amazing” B&W Equine Vets for helping get Spice back into health.

    “After all that stress, I wanted to have some fun with the music classes over the winter and entered Onley Winter Regionals in the medium straight and music. We’ve always said her happy place is between the white boards

    “She’s an absolute sweetheart in every way and she’s been that way since the day we got her. My daughter has developed a real love for her, and now says Spice every time she sees a horse anywhere.”

    The combination came eighth in the HorseLight Medium Silver but managed to take second in the Spillers Medium Freestyle Silver on 69.91% – earning “that wonderful golden ticket” to the winter national championships.

    “I’d practised riding our final centre line in extended trot one-handed and I hadn’t decided until I turned down in the test whether I would or not, but I figured go hard or go home right? And it certainly paid off –the judges seemed to love it!

    “She seems to be going better than ever and I’m so excited to attend our first winter championships and just enjoy every second dancing with her while I can.

    “She means the absolute world to me – she’s the definition of a heart horse and she’s made all my dreams come true.”

    Against the odds: Emma Preston and Without A License 

    Emma Preston and Without A License – known as “Harvey” – have qualified for the Petplan Area Festival Winter Championships after coming second in the novice silver at the rescheduled Highfield at Howe Equestrian Winter Area Festival on 66.46%.

    And it wasn’t just the unrelenting Scottish winter that made their qualification unlikely.

    Dressage is just the latest in a long line of careers the now 24-year-old Harvey has turned his hooves to.

    “He was a successful eventer and showjumper, he also showed on the flat and was a country-level working hunter,” Emma tells Horse & Hound.

    “He was diagnosed with arthritis back in 2020 which meant he had to drop down from the county level for a quieter life. He continued to jump as a lower-level working hunter, until a check ligament injury in 2022.”

    Sensing that Harvey wasn’t quite ready to retire though, the combination resumed their dressage training after a lengthy recovery process.

    “I’m a firm believer in the horse coming first, sport second,” Emma said, “so if the vet had said he had to retire then I’d have been happy for him to be a field ornament. But the vets said there was no reason why he should stop so we picked the dressage back up, which has helped keep him active.

    “We’ve been a team for the past 15 years. I bought him from a riding school where he was deemed a head shaker and unsuitable. But that riding school was due to close so they had to make do with the horses they had.

    “Harvey had to work for another six months until he came up for sale. He’s been an incredible horse and teammate and I can’t think of another horse I’d rather take to the championships and continue to make dreams a reality – even in his golden years.

    “I’m so proud of him – we call him the comeback king.”

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