H&H interview: Irish dressage rider Kate Dwyer *H&H Plus*

  • Ireland’s dressage star tells Polly Bryan about her love for the part-bred Shire who’s winning at CDI5* and excitement at Ireland “joining the Olympic party”

    Kate Dwyer may be one of the few dressage riders in the world who can say that 2020 has yielded great things. At one of the last international shows to take place before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the Al Shaqab CHI5* in Doha, Qatar, Kate and her remarkable partner, the 14-year-old Snowdon Faberge, scored their first ever international win. They also made history for Ireland by becoming the first Irish combination ever to win a CDI5* grand prix special.

    It wasn’t Kate’s first history-making moment, either. In 2019, she and “Fabio” were part of the Irish quartet dubbed “the girls in green”, who memorably secured their country’s first ever dressage team place at the Olympics. It’s not bad going, especially for a horse that Kate has recently learned is part-bred Shire.

    “We always thought he was part-bred Welsh cob, but his breeder, Lorraine Hughes, got in touch with me after the Euros and it turns out one of his dam’s parents is a Shire horse. I’m not sure why we were surprised though – his head is as big as my torso and his feet are like dinner plates. I always used to joke that he could go off and plough a field after our test!”

    Kate tells me, as we chat overlooking the magnificent Al Shaqab stadium back in early spring.

    It’s the day before her win in the grand prix special and Kate recalls the excitement of the Irish team’s result at the Europeans, and her hopes of Olympic selection. Just over three weeks later, the Tokyo Games would be officially postponed to 2021, but Kate is not letting it deter her from her goal of competing at the Olympics with her beloved Fabio.

    “We will target the Games next year in the exact same way as we would have done this year. I’m just so happy we decided to make the trip to Doha – I’m lucky I managed to get in such a high before the lockdown, and it’s helping me keep morale up,” she tells me a few weeks later, after the world has been turned upside down.

    Kate’s positive attitude surrounding the effects of the pandemic doesn’t come as a surprise to me – I had already found that it only takes five minutes in her company to warm to her good humour and cheery personality. Perhaps it goes some way to explaining how she has been able to achieve such success with a horse that many might have disregarded at an early age.

    “When we bought him aged four he cost less than the saddle he now wears. He belonged to a German girl who had to go back to Germany – she brought him for a lesson with my mum [grand prix rider Maureen Dwyer] and said we could keep him,” Kate says. “We just thought he might make a nice all-round amateur’s horse and planned to sell him on a few months later.

    “Mum rode him at his first show, and in the warm-up everyone was thinking, ‘Yeah yeah, good luck Maureen,’ but then he went in and scored about 75%,” laughs Kate. “Fabio was a bit horizontal and babyish in the early days, but he is the most trainable horse I’ve ever known. He learned flying changes in about two days, and they’re now his party piece.

    “Because he is big and heavy-set people think I have to kick him along, but he’s actually hypersensitive. Right from the start of his career, his work has always been rhythmical, harmonious and sweet, and he scores good marks because of the regularity and activity in the hocks, which isn’t easy to maintain in some of the more flamboyant movers. Judges actually used to laugh at him during trot-ups because his trot is so plain.

    “We call Fabio the chameleon as he will be whatever we want him to be – I can make him super-hot and do great piaffe passage, but he would also join the riding school tomorrow and do exactly what was asked of him.”

    ‘I was a bit nervous’

    Horses have always been in Kate’s blood, and she tells me there was no question of which equestrian discipline she would choose to pursue – “I was never into jumping as I was a bit nervous, and I just loved dressage,” she says. She and Maureen – her main trainer – run a training and livery facility together in Dunboyne, Co. Meath, although Kate spent several months based in Somerset last year, racking up good results on the British circuit as she set her sights on team selection.

    In 2003, she was a member of the first Irish young rider team, competing at the Europeans that year in Saumur, France, and the following year in Aarhus, Denmark. Nine years later she made the step up to senior grand prix with her mother’s former ride, the Flemmingh stallion Reve D’Or, before teaming up with Fabio in 2016.

    “I’m not so experienced at this level myself – I only had one other grand prix horse before Fabio, and the Europeans in 2019 were my first senior championship,” says Kate. “Fabio never wants to do anything wrong, but I have to tell myself not to back off in the arena, as otherwise he would become rather introverted. He’s a bit of male chauvinist at home and always wants me to do his bidding, but at a show where he’s not feeling so confident, he needs me.”

    Kate’s intense love for her horse is what comes across most strongly during our interview, and her affectionate deprecation of him, in her softly lilting accent, makes me chuckle: “No one else’s grand prix horse could pull a lorry if it got stuck,” she jokes. “Fabio has lots of benefits.”

    She admits she could talk about him for hours on end. “He’s a superstar; I love him so much that sometimes I can’t even contain myself,” she says. “The emoji with the heart eyes sums up how I feel whenever I look at him.”

    Her trust in Fabio was put to the test in late 2017, as he was the first horse she sat on after breaking her back falling from another horse.

    Kate recalls the accident: “I had just got on from the mounting block when his head suddenly plunged down and he did about six bucks with a 180-degree twist. I threw myself off, but the injury was actually a back compression from being thrown around in the saddle – I was coming down as his back was coming up. I called my mum then and there to say that my back had gone into spasm. I didn’t realise how bad it was until I found I couldn’t get up, and we called an ambulance.

    “At the hospital, when I was told my back was broken I started crying about missing the national championships, which were in 10 days. The doctor thought I was mad. It was actually quite embarrassing!”

    Kate admits that she was back on a horse sooner than her doctor would have liked: “He said to me, ‘You horse people are all the same.’”

    However, she managed to reach a compromise with her doctor and physio that allowed her to sit on Fabio seven weeks after the accident.

    “It took a long time to regain my fitness, and I wasn’t really strict enough at the time, so I still feel it, and need physio now,” she says. “But I know just how lucky I was.”

    Bred for dressage

    In addition to Fabio, Kate, 36, has two young horses she is excited about bringing up the ranks: an eight-year-old gelding called Vaalserberg, whom she describes as a “slow burner”, and six-year-old mare Harmony – her first “proper” dressage horse.

    “She’s Blue Hors Hotline x Florestan – the first one I’ve had who was bred for dressage. I just can’t believe her trot, and the way she naturally comes up to me – with Fabio I have had to somewhat ‘manufacture’ his trot.”

    Kate admits she always has a “wandering eye” when it comes to looking at horses, and that of today’s current top horses, Germany’s TSF Dalera BB, the individual bronze medal-winning ride of Jessica Von Bredow-Werndl, would be her first choice to take home, given the chance. But in reality, Kate is firmly focused on her dear “plough horse” Fabio and making their Olympic dream a reality, not just for herself but her country.

    “I’m just so excited that Ireland has a team spot at the Olympics, even if it ends up not being me riding there. This has opened up so many opportunities and given the younger generation new aspirations. The membership of Dressage Ireland has grown hugely – qualifying for the Olympics has really helped promote our sport.

    “Ireland is a country of horse people – we’re well known for it – but this has traditionally been focused around racing, eventing and showjumping. But now, finally, dressage is joining the party!”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 25 June 2020

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