Access all areas: H&H visits dressage rider Laura Tomlinson’s new base *H&H Plus*

  • German efficiency and Cotswold charm characterise Laura Tomlinson’s new base; Martha Terry spends a morning at home with the Olympian

    If she weren’t so warm and smiley, it would be hard not to feel just a teensy bit jealous of Laura Tomlinson. Aside from bagging Olympic gold and bronze medals aged just 27, she has a state-of-the-art new yard, complete with a clutch of classy horses and the requisite gaggle of delightful dogs. Not to mention the fact she snapped back into shape, à la Kate Middleton, seemingly straight after having her third child.

    When H&H visits, Laura’s three-year-old son Wilfred is out on the digger with the groundsman, while a brilliant nanny, Jane, wheels baby Hanni around near the stables, enabling Laura to concentrate on her job.

    “We hope Jane never leaves, even when the children grow up,” laughs Laura.

    The new yard, in Shipton Moyne, is half an hour away from the Bechtolsheimers’ family stables, where she was previously based. Both British style and her German roots are at the fore. “It’s a mix of German efficiency with Cotswold design,” says Laura, 35.

    She cherry-picked “the bits I like from lots of yards”, and the resulting set-up is exactly as she wants it – “I’m very particular about everything,” she admits.

    The first impression is how peaceful and spacious the main barn is. A cat sits watchfully on a haystack, while two grooms play with a friendly Rhodesian ridgeback/dogue de Bordeaux. There are many more stables than residents – there’s space for youngstock, home-breds, and clients’ horses to move in later. The stables have windows facing outside, with doors opening on to a large central area, which has two solariums. There’s a further line of stables in a quieter spot, plus a separate barn rented by event rider Sofia Sjoborg.

    Laura’s tack room, wash room and feed room are all in situ (and spotless), and there’s a vast arena just off the main stable block.

    “The arena is 20x60m but looks much bigger because it’s so tall and light – I had to remeasure it as I was sure they’d made it too big,” says Laura, who also has an outdoor arena, both watered from underneath by harvested rainwater, which also supplies the loos and hosepipes.

    Laura designed the yard herself. “I wanted it light, airy and functional,” she says. “I had local architects do the cladding to look in keeping with this area, in Cotswold stone.”

    An inauspicious start

    On the morning we visit, Laura is giving her horses a gentle workout. It’s a few days before the coronavirus lockdown began, shows have just been cancelled for the foreseeable future, and Laura will soon start working on some choreography for Rose Of Bavaria’s (Betty) first freestyle, “while I have the time”.

    She brings Betty out first, an 18hh black mare by Bordeaux x Florestan I, who won her first international grand prix special at Le Mans in February. Laura touts the 10-year-old as being “the only horse I’ve had as talented as Alf [Mistral Højris, her Olympic medallist] that isn’t crazy with it – he was a fruit loop at her age”. However, it was an inauspicious start for the partnership. Laura bought Betty 18 months ago from Bavaria, where she was competing at small tour.

    “She had learnt a lot of movements, but she was a rough-cut diamond,” Laura says. “At first I couldn’t get her on the bit! I thought I was being weak, as I was pregnant at the time, but she was so sharp. It took so long for her to trust me, but she has an engine like you wouldn’t believe and an amazing hindleg.”

    Laura starts the session with 10 minutes’ walking. Just as she picks up the reins, Betty stops to poo.

    “She has this strange thing where she has to poo before she starts to work,” Laura explains. “It used to be a real problem, possibly stress-related; it could last a whole session, but nowadays she does it within a few minutes.”

    The droppings are whisked away from the immaculately harrowed Andrews Bowen surface, which is another example of Laura’s attention to detail.

    “Surfaces are so underestimated in horses’ soundness when you’re schooling most days,” she says. “My vet advised me to have no wax and I’ve added a few more centimetres of sand so I get that drag through and no friction – I want the foot to slide a bit.”

    Laura picks up canter on a long rein and does a few gentle flying changes across the diagonal. “I usually start in canter because my vet says it’s more natural,” she says. “In the wild they barely trot.

    “With Betty, I spend a lot of time stretching and doing transitions, to help her build up suppleness and strength in the back. If the horse goes round like a steam train, always relying on the rider to hold them together, their brain gets fried and they break more quickly – and it’s not a pretty picture. It has to be done from my seat, with little pull.”

    She spends 25 minutes or so in this longer frame – “Betty wasn’t able to do this, but now she realises it’s good for her, and comfortable, rather than going like a juggernaut”.

    They move on to some lateral work, and start to string a few movements together. The passage is so soft, the canter pirouettes and two-time changes both rhythmic and effortless.

    “She’s so athletic and able to bend, I can ask anything I want,” says Laura. “I don’t need to wind her up, she’s just ‘on’, ready to perform, without being silly. It’s really important that she can go from competition style outline to relaxed whenever I ask, so I can always release her in a test if there’s too much tension. That’s why I mix and match from competition style back to her happy place.”

    Falling in love

    As Betty warms down, Laura’s head groom Bea Snudden hand-walks a chestnut, Fallatijn Van Kairos (Finn), round the arena. All the horses start with 10 minutes in walk, and Laura rides each one for 45 minutes to an hour.

    “I like to ride them throughout, so I know how the horse feels from start to finish,” she says, swapping on to Finn, who is rising 10 and competing at inter II. “I don’t work them intensely but I am on them for a good amount of time. If they’ve done everything I want of them in 25 minutes, we’ll do a different exercise, like bowling along in canter.

    “Every day, including their two non-schooling days, they come out of their stables twice – they might do pole work or be lunged, go for a hack or on the water treadmill. It’s especially important in winter when turnout is so restricted.”

    Laura “fell in love” with Finn when she spotted him as a five-year-old in Germany, but he was “silly money” – and a tearaway.

    “I told my parents they had to see him do a test, and they said he didn’t show a single walk step and shouted the whole way through,” Laura smiles.

    A year later, the Vivaldi x Cabochon stallion still hadn’t sold, and Laura took her chance.

    “He was fine when I tried him, but when we arrived home he was wild – and I was pregnant – so I got him castrated and sent him to Matt Frost,” she says. “Now you can switch him on and off, and my five-year old daughter Annalisa can groom him with a broom. You used to have to wear a hat to go into his stable!”

    Seeing Laura on a strapping chestnut with a white blaze and socks is a familiar sight, reminiscent of the great Alf, but it has taken time to build up his lookalike’s strength. And while Laura starts teaching most horses piaffe and passage at six or seven, Finn was “so hot, you couldn’t carry a whip on him”, so she waited until he was ready to learn it properly and “he would think, ‘I am awesome’”.

    “He has the power but not always the technique, so I have to teach him without him feeling trapped,” Laura explains. “At the very top level, you can tell the horses who are performing for their riders and those who are submitting. Dad and Klaus [Balkenhol] have instilled this philosophy in me – to encourage horses they can do something rather than forcing them.”

    And so, after the initial walk and then canter on a long, low contact, Laura dips in and out of collected work with Finn.

    “Betty can do four canter pirouettes in a row, whereas with Finn I’ll do a few steps and then come back to it rather than all at once,” she says.

    Finn has an outgoing personality; he squeals and grunts to let you know how he’s feeling. As Laura puts him through his one-time changes across the diagonal, his ears are pricked and he genuinely looks like he’s loving it.

    “He does create his own sparkle,” says Laura. “He has some showmanship and that’s great in the ring when you can see their character.”

    Laura’s third horse currently in work is the black Rhodium stallion Duvals Capri Sonne Jr (Cas), who is competing at grand prix.

    “He’s still a work in progress,” says Laura as we watch him on the water treadmill. “He’s a super-easy stallion – the kids can sit on him – but he’s still inconsistent in the ring.”

    Cas used to suffer from allergies, giving him hives. He had to come off his medication for shows, and the resulting discomfort caused his confidence to plummet. Laura’s hoping that the allergy vaccines he’s now had have worked.

    Combining tradition and science

    Back at the barn, groom Tom Gawler is strapping Finn. This old-fashioned technique is rarely seen even on top yards nowadays, but Laura incorporates a mix of traditional and modern techniques.

    “They also have magnetic rugs on most days, but they are always groomed and strapped daily,” Laura says. “They have 20 straps each side on the neck, shoulder and quarters. My dad worked for Sheila Willcox and learnt it there. Finn loves it – he loves any pampering and bashing about!”

    Another example of Laura combining tradition and science in tandem is her approach to feeding.

    She feeds German muesli mixes made by Pro Natural, together with oats, for “fibre, energy and oil”, plus appropriate supplements.

    “Oats sometimes get bad press, but my horses look and feel well on them,” she says. “I took Betty off oats when I was trying to get to the bottom of her gut problems, but she’s improved back on them.”

    The horses all get three feeds a day, each with three carrots in, plus a bran mash at 9.30pm every night.

    “It’s bran with ground linseed, vitamins and minerals – it’s good for their gut and they all love it,” Laura says. “It’s really handy if you have one off their feed at shows, because you can put all their supplements in the mash and know they’ll eat it.

    “Some of my feeds, like the oats and mash, are quite old-fashioned,” she adds, “but I’m always asking if I’m feeding for tradition’s sake or the right reasons. I back up tradition with science. If you look at the other sports, marginal gains like this are so important, and I think equestrianism is behind.”

    Talking of feed, there’s something else on the menu in the Tomlinson household – it’s Wilf’s birthday the following day, and a chocolate tractor cake with green icing is on his wish-list. Her riding done, Laura heads back to her farmhouse to bake and decorate. Now we really are all jealous…

    Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020

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