The upcoming grand prix rider tells Polly Bryan about riding Valegro while working for Carl Hester, and how she’s developed her own dressage career
When Katie Bailey went on holiday to the south of France in 2009, she never expected to receive a message that would transform her dressage career.
“My mum texted me to say she’d just seen an advert in Horse & Hound for a job at Carl Hester’s yard, and had applied on my behalf,” says Katie, now 32 and one of Britain’s most exciting up-and-coming dressage riders.
“At the time I was doing a six-month scholarship at Talland, and I had a very intense lesson without stirrups the night before the interview, to help prepare,” remembers Katie. “Carl put me on Super Nova II [Neville, who went on to be Spencer Wilton’s Olympic horse]. I trotted around his beautiful arena on Neville, sat up tall and tried to smile, and just did the best I could.”
Carl spotted Katie’s potential, and so it was that she found herself living every dressage lover’s dream, riding and caring for some of the most famous horses in the world.
“Sometimes I can’t believe that I got to hack out Valegro!” laughs Katie. “He really is as amazing as everyone says; such a genuine horse and so powerful. I only had to think of the aid for something and he would do it.
“Carl’s Nip Tuck [Barney] was also one of my favourites,” adds Katie, who competed the Olympic silver medallist during the early stages of his career up to prix st georges, finishing advanced medium reserve winter champion in 2013. “I hadn’t ridden a horse like Barney before – very big and sharp – and he taught me a lot.
“I feel privileged to have ridden horses like these. During the Rio Olympics, where Valegro, Nip Tuck and Super Nova were on the team together, I remember thinking how cool it was that I had ridden them all.
“It was great to be such a part of the build-up to London 2012, too. We all went to London for the freestyle day, and the other days we would get up extra early, do the horses then go down to the house and watch it on telly – and hold off all the press arriving at the gate!”
A whirlwind dressage career
Landing that coveted job at Carl’s, where she stayed for six years, thrust Katie into her whirlwind dressage career. It almost got cut off before it started, though, after Katie fell off her pony aged nine and fractured her back.
“I got left behind at a jump at a show,” explains Katie. “I was catapulted forward and fell off onto my head – I fractured my spine just 2mm away from my spinal cord. Luckily I wasn’t fully aware at the time of how serious it could have been and it never put me off.”
She went on to compete successfully in youth ranks, representing Britain at the junior Europeans in 2005 and 2006 on Adrian Alfarvad, and credits Jill Doonan for being the major influence during those early days. Katie has since landed 17 regional titles and three national ones, but always had her eye firmly fixed on the international scene, and this proved the catalyst for braving the leap from Carl’s yard to her own set-up in 2014.
“I loved being a part of everything at Carl’s, but having been on the junior teams, I knew I really wanted to get back to the international scene,” explains Katie. “I’ve always been ambitious, and I woke up one day and thought, ‘I want to do this for myself; I want to train my own horses and see where I can go.’
“It was tough to build up the horsepower, money and support team. But I’ve had so much backing from my parents, and Alan Davies put me in touch with Tom Hobday, a freelance groom, who is now my yard manager.”
The risk paid off and in 2019 Katie made a successful international small tour debut with her current top horses, the 13-year-old Belissimo M gelding Boccelli 6 and the 11-year-old Singapore son Eagle Nouvelle (Eddie). Everything was in place to make the step up to grand prix in 2020 – and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
However, Katie is the pragmatic type, and she’s remained relatively unfazed by this year’s strange events.
“The situation has been beneficial in a way – I’ve been able to crack on with training. I just try to go with the flow. It does make you appreciate all the things we usually take for granted though. I love competing, and this has given me the hunger to get back to it.
“I’m just so grateful I was able to get out to internationals last year,” she adds. “I was very nervous on the first day at Compiègne last May, my first foreign show. I went up the centre line on Boccelli and turned the wrong way.”
Luckily the nerves were a one-off – Katie is impressively cool-headed, even during such occasions as competing at Liverpool International in 2018, where she and Boccelli finished second to Charlotte Dujardin.
“I hadn’t seen the arena and when I rode in and saw how massive it was, with people packed from the ground to the roof, my heart stopped for a moment,” she says. “But I’m quite good at regaining my focus and I thrive in those environments – I love the buzz.”
A relaxed atmosphere
Despite the pandemic, Katie hit a milestone this summer when she and Eddie had the chance to ride the grand prix in a competitive setting, as part of the Hickstead Rotterdam Grand Prix Challenge.
“It went better than I expected, although he went very green in the piaffe,” says Katie. “It was only three years ago that Eddie was at elementary, but he’s been so trainable.”
Eddie might have been the first of her rides to reach grand prix, but Katie has several exciting horses coming up, with Boccelli and the nine year-old Hillgrounds Wolkenhall doing well at small tour level, and the likes of Djoe Dimaggio and Elinda just behind them.
They all live in a relaxed atmosphere at Katie’s quiet Tewkesbury yard, complete with 17 stables, and indoor and outdoor arenas, and Katie has carried several of Carl’s philosophies through to her own horse management.
“Carl taught me to treat a horse as a horse, and I have adopted that. They all go in the field, do lots of hacking and have plenty of downtime. I have an awful lot to thank Carl for – I hope he knows how grateful I am for giving me all those opportunities.”
Katie couldn’t have hoped for a better springboard into international dressage, but it’s her unwavering drive to get to the top that has helped her build on those foundations to carve out her own successful career.
“When I was younger I would never have dreamed I would end up working for Carl and be where I am today,” reflects Katie. “Now I’m just really excited to see what will happen next – there’s a lot more to come.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 6 August 2020