The rising star of British dressage talks about competing against the best and having to choose between trampolining and horses
Dannie Morgan is something of an antithesis to the classic dressage rider stereotype. A relaxed, humble guy from a non-horsey background, he only seriously took up dressage in 2016, but in the years since has racked up a set of results that could put the most seasoned dressage rider to shame — and all while continuing an eventing career on the side.
“I’ve had a couple of amazing years,” concedes Dannie, with his trademark grin, as we sit in the kitchen at the yard of Lisa and David Knoxx, owners of one of Dannie’s most exciting current rides, the 10 year-old Jazz son Knoxx’s Figaro.
This is something of an understatement — in 2019 alone, he landed three national titles, bringing his total tally to seven, and made his grand prix debut on a horse he has trained himself from novice, the 10-year-old Southern Cross Braemar, known at home as Barry.
But I quickly realise that Dannie is not one to blow his own trumpet — he prefers to let his riding do the talking. Perhaps it’s to do with his modest beginnings in the sport, growing up attending a riding school in Southampton before working in an event yard for five years, doing whatever it took to earn opportunities to ride.
“I’ve always loved horses, and decided quite early on that I wanted to make them my career. I visited Badminton when I was 14 — the year Andrew Hoy won on Moonfleet,” Dannie, 28, recalls with a smile. “I just remember being there thinking, ‘I want to do this, too.’”
Dannie went on to event at intermediate level, but his sporting career could easily have taken a very different path.
“I started trampolining at the age of six and did quite a few competitions, then more while I was at college,” he reveals, explaining that he took it up along with his identical twin brother, Lewis, who went on to become a professional dancer. “I think I might have been quite good at trampolining actually, but it takes a lot of commitment and training, and although I was doing both sports seriously for a while, in the end I had to choose horses.”
And it was during his eventing years that the opportunity arose to buy a rising five-year-old by Breitling W, who was showing talent for the dressage phase. That horse was Barry, and it was he who turned out to be the driving force behind Dannie’s veer into dressage.
“I had always enjoyed the dressage training and knew that one thing I could do was to give a horse confidence, so dressage felt very natural to me in that respect. I’d had some bad luck at the time with event horses getting injured and wasn’t enjoying it as much because I was so worried about injuries — I felt I’d lost a bit of love for eventing,” Dannie says.
“More dressage opportunities came up, and I’ll always remember winning at my first regional championship with Barry in 2016 — it was the feeling that I could actually do this. We were placed at the nationals that year, and the following year I won two winter national titles on Headmore Davina, and came second on Barry behind Charlotte Dujardin. That opened my eyes to dressage as a career.
“I just loved the atmosphere of riding in the big ring at Hartpury — it gave me the same sort of buzz as eventing. Some people are surprised to hear that, but usually it’s because they don’t understand the development of dressage and the training that goes into it — it produces a different kind of adrenalin.”
A reassuringly calm attitude
It’s a wet, blustery January afternoon when I meet Dannie, but it soon transpires that he is not the sort of person to be fazed by much, happily putting the scopey six-year-old High Hoes Estelle, by Escolar, through her paces in the outdoor arena, and coaxing his whippet, Tucker — who goes everywhere with him — outside to have his own photo taken.
He rates Estelle, whom he part owns with Nicky Callam, very highly, and the lofty mare is already scoring up to 80% at novice. She is one of three six-year-olds Dannie is excited to campaign in 2020 — the other two being Breit Fantastic and Waverley So Cliquot — alongside Figaro and Barry at small tour and grand prix respectively. I can understand why so many owners seem keen for Dannie to ride their horses; aside from his obvious talent, he exudes a reassuringly calm attitude that filters through to even the hottest of horses.
Lisa tells me how she got to know Dannie when he was competing Barry in young horse classes, and why she was immediately impressed by his down-to-earth nature.
“When I came to look for a new rider for Figaro, Dannie was the natural choice — I love his quiet and confident manner,” she tells me, as we watch him ease Estelle through her extended paces.
Prior to taking the reins on Figaro, it was a relationship with the Oppenheimers that led to Dannie landing his first taste of the big time.
“I was at a show, helping Barry’s old owner, and the Oppenheimers saw how I gave the horse confidence,” explains Dannie. “Alice was struggling a little with Davina at that stage, so they asked me to ride her. Since then I’ve gradually built up a bigger string of horses. I also have a foal, who was born last year, out of Barry’s sister and by Franklin.
“Of course, in the long term I’d love to ride at the Olympics one day, but right now I’m plugging away at my shorter-term goals, like establishing Barry at grand prix this year and riding at international shows with Figaro. So many things can go wrong with horses; I’ve become quite a realist over time. But it means I really appreciate the good days.”
Something of a perfectionist
Planning a season around one discipline can be tricky enough, let alone two, but for the first two years of Dannie’s dressage career, he maintained a busy eventing schedule alongside, frequently following up a dressage championship with an event the next day. He has since scaled back the eventing, and this season will campaign just the one horse, Equites Mail, who won her first novice at West Wilts in September. But he has no plans to give it up completely.
“I hope always to produce a few eventers, but to keep it as a hobby,” he explains. “It’s the training I love more than the competing anyway, plus it’s so difficult to juggle the calendars for two sports.”
On the day I meet Dannie, he is preparing for the first major competition of the dressage season — the High Profile show at Addington, where he went on to win the prix st georges with a personal best score on Figaro, as well as bank another good grand prix score with Barry in a class featuring Charlotte Dujardin and Emile Faurie, among other top names.
“Four years ago, it would never have crossed my mind I’d be riding at grand prix in that sort of company,” says Dannie, shaking his head slightly as though he still can’t believe it now.
“At the moment, I try to have the attitude that I’m only competing against myself — I just want to improve on the last time out. All my trainers tell me that I don’t need to try as hard as I do, that I don’t need to be so hard on myself, and I feel I’m doing a better job nowadays because I’m not putting as much pressure on myself as I once did. But I do enjoy the feeling of having to rise to an occasion — I love the big shows.”
He admits to being something of a perfectionist, partly influenced by his training with Erik Theilgaard: “He has such attention to detail and so much discipline as a rider, especially when it comes to influencing the horse with your balance.”
Dannie also works with Paul Fielder and Nicky Barrett, “who are both really generous with their knowledge”, and adds that Anna Ross has been a great support to him.
“I’ll always remember being at competitions when I first started out in dressage, and Anna going out of her way to say, ‘well done’ or ‘good luck’, and that meant a lot to me,” he says. “I’ve found people to be generally supportive in both sports, but I’ve learnt that it never hurts you to say ‘well done’ to a fellow competitor, and now I always try to do the same.”
It’s so refreshing to hear this, and it’s no wonder that Dannie is such a popular rider within the dressage world. How lucky the sport is to have him.
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 January 2020