H&H interview: Top dressage rider Richard Davison *H&H Plus*

  • Sarah Jenkins talks to the four-time Olympian on the importance of goals, his hopes and fears for the Olympics, and what next for dressage and welfare

    There are riders who haven’t had too bad a time of it during lockdown, and Richard Davison is one of them – although also one sensitive enough that he doesn’t want to go on about it, given the uncertainty that Covid-19 and Brexit bring for the global economy. There may be dark clouds coming, but Richard does not want to be pessimistic, speaking from his Staffordshire home. He has just got off a horse he is thrilled with for having completed a lovely line of changes.

    “We’ll leave it there,” he says, and you can hear the pride and joy in his voice. The horse goes for his cool down, on goes the coffee machine and we’re away.

    “I’ve finally got to a place in my life where I have the right balance,” he says, referring to a reduction in the number of pupils he teaches to about 15 – for whom he enjoys giving complete management and mentoring, rather than just lessons – and having a yard of 12 “quality, not quantity” dressage horses and showjumpers. “What we have, all of us as a family enjoy training,” he explains.

    Richard’s wife Gill also trains and competes the dressage horses, and son Joe the showjumpers. Their other son Tom is in the Netherlands, based in “proper” showjumping country “near, not at, Jan Tops’ yard”, working as an agent and manager on the selling side, and spending part of the year in Florida.

    One reason lockdown was not as hard on Richard as on some was his approach to competition: “I didn’t really understand when riders said they had nothing to aim for when competition was cancelled – there are so many training goals you could have,” he says.

    Similarly, when people come to Richard asking how much they should invest in a horse, he talks about the risk of not achieving competitive goals, and the greater importance of the horse being one you will enjoy training and get satisfaction from that way.

    Wearing many hats

    Richard has often been referred to as “Mr Dressage” as he wears so many hats: on committees, as part of the organising team for shows like Bolesworth and Olympia, as one pushing for changes to the grand prix test to make it more compelling to the World Cup circuit audience, and so on.

    “With all these hats I’m lucky to wear – which I love because I get to use my brain in different ways – sometimes I have to remind people I ride horses,” he says. “I only have so much time for everything else, and am learning to say ‘no’ a bit, which is particularly hard on the teaching side because I enjoy it, but I was charging around getting exhausted.”

    His love for training is evident in his competition record. “With showjumpers, you only know the challenges the horse is going to face when you’re standing by the gate watching the course-builder finish. But we know the grand prix test and how big the arena is, so we can train at home. If the horse is a nervous type they need to go and see things, but a horse like Askari [Richard’s 1996 and 2000 Olympic ride] wasn’t scared of the environment, so learned what he needed to at home. I remember getting a letter congratulating him on moving up to elementary as we were heading off to Atlanta.”

    When at shows, Richard is still training, and less concerned about the result than the measure of where the horse is in training.

    “We judge the horses on the things they have been working on, not whether or not they have a fence down or win. People often ask me what my favourite competition memories are, and I don’t remember the prizes I’ve won, I remember the day the horse did his one-times really cleanly for the first time in a show environment. That gives me most satisfaction.”

    Richard has a championship contender in Bubblingh, son of Edward Gal’s formidable World Cup campaigner Lingh.

    “He has Olympic potential, but indoor World Cup shows are his worst nightmare – he’s never going to get optimum marks at those. We will go though to get him used to the lights and the camera and VIP hospitality and plates being dropped. You can’t blame horses for having that flight instinct; it’s what makes them good as well.”

    That said, Richard is not keen on – nor can he see – an Olympics happening for the foreseeable future.

    “As the most global and responsible sporting event, I can’t see it happening until there is a safe and proven vaccine available to every participant, official and member of support staff,” he admits. “It’s no good having a safe vaccine that is available to eight nations. The point of the Olympics is that it’s a fair and equal playing field. The people I know who are involved in clinical trials say there won’t be a safe and available vaccine in time for the Olympics. Obviously I want them to happen, but safely and upholding the principles of fairness and responsible conduct. That’s the Olympic ideal.

    “I think the FEI would be unwise not to have a contingency championships in a Europeans in dressage next year, but one thing I’ve learned wearing my different hats is that we don’t know what’s happening the other side of the fence, and the financial and other challenges organising committees face.”

    Richard, like many, would be delighted for everything to come together in some dream world and there to be two championships next year. “It would be great for more riders to have the chance to contest a championship,” he says. “It’s not easy to break in to and it encourages owners and sponsors as well.”

    An exciting proposition

    On leaving school, Richard worked for his father in marketing and advertising. He hated it, he just wanted to ride horses, but watching the rider deliver for commercial partners now you can see he took it all in. He is on the same page as the likes of Olympia organiser Simon Brooks-Ward, and Frank Kemperman who organises Aachen, in wanting to make dressage an exciting proposition for large live audiences.

    “Virtual audiences are great, but we’ve established that most events need a live audience to be viable. As a rider and trainer immersed in the sport, I understand we have to ensure anything we do is horse-friendly, not a showcase at the horse’s expense, but we need to try new things,” Richard says.

    The characteristic discipline and routine that makes riders successful in dressage is at odds with trialling innovation.

    “In showjumping people are far more relaxed about experimental classes, or ones that are a bit of fun, like the mini-major,” he points out. “Nobody is pretending that is the serious end of the sport, but it is important to prop up the serious end. It’s no good focusing solely on the narrow, elitist bit. Dressage needs to take the shackles off. It’s not going to ruin the training or their horse to try new things.”

    Richard spearheaded a shorter version of the grand prix test for the FEI World Cup series, which has taken a massive amount of work.

    “Now it’s done, everyone’s agreed on a test and moved on, but that took a bit of doing. The next time we go down this path I’ll remind riders of that. I know why many are reluctant – if you have a formula that works for you, why would you want to change it?” he says.

    Horse welfare

    Richard’s interest in welfare extends beyond his consideration for the horse when trialling new event formats, and he is a trustee of World Horse Welfare.

    “Welfare must always be under the spotlight, always questioned and reviewed,” he says. “As with everything in life, there is a percentage of people in the horse world whose welfare standards are not acceptable. It isn’t always intentional cruelty – it could be ignorance, or misunderstanding what a horse needs mentally and physically, or a result of the carer’s own mental health issue.

    “There might always be a very small percentage of people who we do not want in equestrian sport, who need to be banished because they are not good for horses or sport. Others might momentarily get their priorities wrong, putting their needs ahead of the horse. I’m OK with top riders who say, ‘I got that wrong and I regret it.’ I can’t be doing with human beings who think they never make mistakes. If it was a momentary and genuine misjudgement, that’s one thing. But the ones who have blatantly got it wrong, we don’t want them in the sport.”

    Richard does worry about a lack of knowledge in those caring for horses.

    “I once watched a groom during the hour she had the opportunity to walk and hand-graze a horse outside at a show instead choose to decorate the horse’s stable with teddy bears. She had missed that the horse couldn’t care less what the teddy bear is, it would rather go out and get some grass. It was a misjudgement,” Richard recalls.

    He feels this represents a wider issue. Do all the lovely brass balls on the stables need to be polished daily when they don’t help the horse’s mental or physical health?

    “They need to go out and get plastered in mud along with their friends,” says Richard. “In the UK we’ve always had a tradition of turning horses out in the field, but when I started internationally people thought we were crazy risking turning horses out. They’d got the rationale wrong, and people still do get it wrong. I visited an amazing facility overseas where the horses were all turned out in stable-sized paddocks in a row on sand, with grazing muzzles on to stop them nuzzling each other – I thought OK, this is a step in the right direction, but let them roll in some mud!”

    Amen to that.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 3 September 2020

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