Legends of the sport: Britain’s first dressage medallist Jennie Loriston-Clarke *H&H Plus*

  • Britain’s first dressage medallist Jennie Loriston-Clarke put the sport well and truly on the map in this country through her extraordinary love of horses and consummate all-round ability, discovers Lucy Higginson

    For years, when young hopefuls at H&H job interviews were asked to prove their knowledge by naming a British dressage rider or two, one name was offered above all others: Jennie Loriston-Clarke.

    Jennie is in some ways the archetypal English horsewoman; riding from an early age, hunting through her childhood and surrounded always by ponies, hunters and foals. Yet in other ways, Jennie has been a pioneer, taking up dressage in its infancy in this country and doing much to put the sport on the British map with her skill, showmanship and generosity over a 35-year riding career.

    One of six siblings raised by Anne and Colonel Jack Bullen at their home, Catherston, Jennie – remarkably – is one of three siblings to have ridden at the Olympics. Her elder brother Michael evented in Rome on Cottage Romance and in Tokyo with Sea Breeze, and her sister Jane (now Holderness-Roddam) won team gold eventing in Mexico on Our Nobby. Meanwhile, the stud named after the Bullen home is still thriving, in its fifth incarnation near Nether Wallop, Hampshire. Anne Bullen supplemented the family’s income by producing, breeding and showing horses often for owners – besides being a tremendously talented artist.

    “We had all sorts of oddments at home, mostly for hunting really,” remembers Jennie. “My parents would go on buying trips to the moors – Dartmoor, Exmoor and Wales – brought home various wild things and tamed them to make riding ponies.”

    Clearly an intuitive and imaginative horsewoman, Anne Bullen influenced Jennie hugely, particularly in the way she trained animals not just for riding, but other things too, like the small circus she ran between the wars.

    “She was a very go-ahead person, vivacious and quick-thinking,” says Jennie of her mother. “And she understood how an animal thinks – she never dominated it, but asked and gave a reason for doing something.”

    Small wonder that people say almost exactly the same thing about Jennie in turn: “She’s a go-getter, a practical person, very down to earth and exceptionally knowledgeable,” says former Olympic dressage rider turned eventer and performance coach Christopher Bartle. “She puts herself into the skin of the horse and thinks like a horse. She was the British rider I looked up to in my early days.”

    Smart show animals

    The Bullens began crossing a small thoroughbred polo pony called Golden Fern with native ponies to produce smart show animals, and Jennie and her siblings competed widely – going to some shows even by train – learning early in life how to present a horse to its best advantage to catch a judge’s eye. Inheriting her mother’s skill in teaching ponies for more than just the show ring, Jennie taught some of them other tricks too, which led to some novel side projects over the years, including training horses for a Lloyds Bank advert.

    It was a demonstration at Horse of the Year Show one year by Danish rider Lis Hartel, however, that helped Jennie to cement her focus on dressage. A polio victim who had to be lifted on to her horse, Lis was an Olympic silver medallist who could do extraordinary things with her horse, Jubilee.

    “She rode a beautiful display to music including piaffe, passage and one-time changes,” remembers Jennie. “I decided I’d love to do that one day.”

    Anne Bullen was able to persuade Lis’s trainer Gunnar Andersen to give some clinics at Catherston, one of several instances when she persuaded leading figures in the horse world to come and teach. Over the years, Jennie was able to learn from many continental experts including General Linkenbach (“He used to say, ‘Do not touch zee mouse!’ – meaning mouth,” says Jennie); Germany’s team trainer Willi Schultheiss and Franz Rochowansky, former chief rider of the Spanish Riding School.

    “You take the best of everyone and they all had good points,” Jennie reflects.

    While numerous riders have come to dressage from a showing background, including Charlotte Dujardin, few can say they have hunted, point-to-pointed, evented and even qualified a horse for Badminton, as Jennie has.

    “I do think it’s helped in many ways, the variety,” reflects Jennie now. “How can you really lengthen a horse’s stride if you’ve never felt a horse gallop properly?”

    Carl Hester also thinks this made Jennie a particularly brilliant demonstrator: “I settled down for what I thought would be a stuffy dressage demo she gave once at the Fortune Centre, I think on Dutch Gold. And she ended it with 15 one-time tempi changes, reins in one hand, into a 3ft 6in parallel,” he laughs. “She’s a complete and utter horsewoman in every respect.”

    An elegant show hack

    The first horse Jennie taught proper dressage was an elegant show hack, Desert Storm. The mare’s paces equipped her well for dressage, but her temperament less so – she was prone to tying up and hated standing still. Although they were shortlisted for the Mexico Olympics, Jennie accepted she didn’t really have the temperament to go, but Jennie still made a great contribution to Team GBR there by grooming for her sister Jane and Our Nobby, members of Britain’s triumphant eventing team.

    “I was totally reliant on her help and expertise at the Olympics,” says Jane. “I mentally wasn’t interested in dressage and nor was little Our Nobby, but Jennie had amazing patience and got the best from both of us. He probably did his best test ever in Mexico.”

    The quest to find a horse capable of making British teams led eventually to the purchase of Kadett, a sharp Trakehner/thoroughbred gelding from Germany. Although the horse took her to both the Munich and Montreal Olympics, it became apparent that he did not have sufficient talent to win medals. That honour fell to her next championship horse, the stallion Dutch Courage, who also became a sire of huge importance for the Catherston Stud.

    Bought as a three-year old in the Netherlands, Dutch Courage was not an overnight sensation, but by the time he was six Jennie knew he was the best horse she’d yet had – supple, athletic and eager to learn. By the age of eight, he was finishing in the top 10 at the European Championships.

    Dutch Courage gave Jennie one of the best moments of her career and a milestone for dressage in Britain, by winning bronze in the grand prix special at the 1978 World Championships at Goodwood – “on home ground too, at a wonderful place. It was very exciting,” says Jennie. But he was also desperately unlucky never to get to an Olympics. In 1980, the British boycotted the Moscow Games and the horse contracted a virus shortly before Los Angeles four years later.

    “That was very tough because he was going so well,” says her sister, Jane. “She was really at her best then and felt that if he’d been on the team, they’d have been in the running for team bronze.”

    It was some redemption perhaps to be riding at the next Olympics, in Seoul, on Dutch Courage’s son Dutch Gold, where they finished 14th individually. With a light, elegant frame, Dutch Gold evented alongside his dressage for some time, even winning the Midland Championships at Locko Park.

    “I loved riding horses which were children of horses I’d ridden before – you almost knew the personality before you got on them,” says Jennie fondly. “The public loved Dutch Gold because he was so elegant and light.”

    And Jennie, at the peak of her powers, really knew how to show him off. Although sadly dressage to music did not join the Olympic programme until later, the pair found an outlet for their natural aptitude for it on the World Cup circuit, winning six qualifiers and attending the finals in Gothenburg one year in company with the great showjumper Milton.

    One qualifier in Paris ranks among Jennie’s most treasured memories: “The Parisians loved Dutch Gold and began clapping as soon as we halted at X,” she says.

    A young Carl Hester remembers it too: “Her degree of difficulty would be right up there today… she went down the centre line doing one-handed zig-zags and the crowd went mad.”

    “I was always competitive”

    Since retiring from competitive riding, Jennie’s life has been predictably full, running a stud, teaching, judging and more.

    But as with so many top riders, it’s the competing she loved best: “I was always competitive – I had to be with three brothers. I loved the Olympics when it’s just you and one horse, no other worries, and you just have to do your best.”

    She cheerfully admits she’d kill to be 50 years younger and be able to do it all again, especially with her stallion Timolin, by Totilas, now competing at small tour in dressage and eventing to intermediate level.

    “He’s so stunning and talented, another Dutch Gold in my opinion, only better. I’d love to be doing it again now,” she says.

    “I can’t imagine many people know as much as she does; eventing, breeding, long-reining, you name it…” says Carl, who also loves that this comes with generosity and emotion.

    Although public recognition for her sport did not come until later, the role Jennie played in helping British dressage to the  top of the podium will never be forgotten. As Carl says: “It makes it very special that when we did finally start winning gold medals, she was there, crying her eyes out.”

    Jennie on two special ponies…

    Mossy: the Bullen family’s grey 13.2hh was thought to be by a pure-bred Arab. He made his way to the Bullens having originally been found pulling a knacker’s cart in Ireland, and was in poor condition initially. “Dad fed him up, gave him eggs and whisky and God knows what,” says Jennie.

    Having lovely movement, he did well showing and went hunting and so on with Jennie, and was eventually ridden by her daughter Anne in turn.

    “You could teach him anything,” recalls Jennie. “I rode him without a bridle, jumped through fire, all sorts of things. My parents nearly sold him once and I was devastated. I nearly died! I loved him.”

    Bubbly: a 13.2hh pony stallion, who was palomino champion for a decade and very influential in Catherston breeding, his progeny including Second Thoughts, Catherston Moonstone, Catherston Moon Fairy, Catherston Double Bubble and Baby Sham. Competed mostly by Jane Bullen, he also produced some good jumping ponies.

    Jennie on four favourite horses…

    Desert Storm: an Anglo-Arab mare, found in a Newmarket stud as a three-year-old. Anne Bullen fell for her movement straight away. She became a very successful show hack and ladies’ hack and was the first horse Jennie trained properly for dressage, yet she hated standing still.

    “She was a spectacular mover; spectators would gasp as she floated across the arena in an elegant, powerful trot,” said Jack Hance in H&H at the time.

    When someone from Germany expressed interest in buying her for dressage, her owner, Miss Stubbings, kindly gave the horse to Jennie instead.

    After starting dressage at advanced medium, the pair soon found themselves on a British team for some German internationals alongside Lorna Johnstone and Brenda Williams (Mrs V D S Williams).

    Xenocles: this handsome thoroughbred stallion was “bred to win the Derby, but never made it”, says Jennie. “He was a lovely horse.”

    He (and his progeny) proved versatile and kind, and would allow small children to pick out his feet. In Jennie’s hands, he rose to prix st georges in dressage and went advanced eventing.

    Jennie says: “He was never top-class in dressage as he was quite difficult in the mouth and sensitive. You could never wear spurs.”

    Dutch Courage: the horse people will forever associate with Jennie. “Bill” was bought as a colt from the Netherlands after he’d failed his gradings and been earmarked for castration. But Jennie liked his head, attitude and the way he moved. He was bought for £750 and arrived in a steaming temper on a lorry. Jennie thought: “I’ll need some Dutch courage to ride this one!” and thus found his name.

    A clever and brilliant horse – he picked up piaffe in just three days – the Germans tried to buy him after Jennie took him training there once on a scholarship. The highlight of his career was probably winning individual bronze with Jennie at the 1978 World Championships at Goodwood.

    His offspring included many great names such as Dutch Gold, Dutch Auction, Catherston Dazzler and Catherston Dutch Bid.

    Dutch Gold: the son of Dutch Courage, “Willow”, became Jennie’s last international ride. An immensely versatile stallion, he won the Midland Bank eventing championships at Locko Park in 1984 and was doing grand prix dressage by the following year. Jennie once warmed him up for his dressage in Aachen by popping fences in the showjumping warm-up.

    The pair became real specialists – honed on the indoor world cup circuit – at dressage to music. The pair were 14th at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

    Carl Hester on Jennie…

    “I came third in a talent-spotting final when I was 17 and part of my prize was £20.

    “I was based in the New Forest then and Jennie was not far away in Brockenhurst. Realising I was desperately keen, Jennie very kindly said she would give me three lessons for £20 – obviously not her going rate!

    “I’d hack about 12 miles to Brockenhurst for my lessons and hack back. It took me all day. But she’s just so normal and generous. She’s willing to help anybody who asks.”

    Career milestones

    1972: Jennie rides in her first Olympics in Munich, on Kadett. They finish 19th individually.

    1976: a second Olympic appearance in Montreal (along with team-mates Diana Mason and Special Edition and Sarah Whitmore on Junker), but Kadett is largely unsettled.

    1977: European Championships in St Galen on Dutch Courage, aged just eight. He and Jennie finish ninth individually.

    1978: World Championships at Goodwood. Despite being first to go, Jennie and Dutch Courage win individual bronze in the Special, a milestone for British dressage.

    1980: Alternative Olympics for dressage are held at Goodwood. Dutch Courage is sixth individually.

    1984: Jennie is devastated when Dutch Courage develops a virus shortly before the Los Angeles Games. Diana Mason (team chef d’équipe) offers her the ride on her own Prince Consort instead. Christopher Bartle finishes sixth on Wily Trout and Jennie still believes they might have claimed team bronze had Dutch Courage been able to go.

    1985: The European Championships in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Jennie competes on the British team with Dutch Gold, although he was only nine at the time.

    1988: Jennie’s final Olympic appearance in Seoul on Dutch Gold, finishing 14th individually.

    Between 1988 and 1990: The combination also won six World Cup qualifiers and took two fourth and two fifth places in the World Cup finals.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 11 June 2020