Life lessons: Dressage rider Alice Oppenheimer *H&H Plus*

  • The international dressage rider talks pre-test rituals, diesel engines, and what she’s learned that’s helped her climb back to the very top of her game

    The warm-up is the most important part of a training session. My trainer, Erik Theilgaard, taught me this. People think you can just slop around on a loose rein but the warm-up prepares the horse for the main session.

    I work hard on stretching and getting the horse on the leg and responding to my aids. The type of warm-up depends on the horse; some need a quick walk, trot and canter while some take a little more to get going — we call these the “diesel engines”.


    I adhere to the odd equestrian world cliché, too, like “no foot, no horse”. It’s funny, all the offspring of our late broodmare Rubinsteena — the 2019 H&H outstanding mare of the year — like to wear pads on their fronts. It took us a while to work out how to shoe them but once we grasped this there was no going back; it’s just what they seem to like.

    We are lucky to have two top-class farriers on the team and each horse gets their own careful shoeing plan.

    I have certain routines for myself, too, some more common than others… On a competition day, I can’t concentrate or go into the ring until I’ve had a wee. It drives my mum, Sarah, mad but I have to do it every single time before I get on at a competition.

    I wish I’d known exactly how hard it is to make a career out of horses when I was starting out. Everyone says that it must be lovely to be able to ride for a living and while it is, the job is all day every day and to get to the top you have to make lots of sacrifices.

    I wish I’d known that it’s not all plain sailing. When you’re young you have an idealistic view, but with horses you don’t know what’s around the corner.

    I remember having such a good year when I was at the Europeans, but then a few years after that I didn’t win anything; it was hard to keep the faith. It means that these days if we win, we have a bottle of champagne to celebrate as a crap time might be on its way.

    I really look up to Isabell Werth as a rider. She produces horse after horse not just to international standard but to achieve plus-80% consistently at grand prix. She seems to get the best out of every horse, improving them as she goes. I’d love to know her secret — all of her horses seem to be able to perform the most unbelievable half-passes.

    My mum always told me that horses learn through repetition. This means ensuring you follow through with simple things, like never finishing a session on a bad transition. It’s quite an obvious principle but it’s so important.

    I’ve learned from experience that sometimes it’s just better not to get on your horse. It took me a long time to be mature enough to realise that if I’m feeling down or not in the right frame of mind that it’s better not to ride. Horses don’t learn bad habits by not being ridden, but they do if you get on in a bad mood, as they consequently go badly.

    I wish I had my second grand prix horse Headmore Delagate (pictured) now. Even though he was a really successful horse for me, I feel that if I started fresh with him now I would be able to get more out of him and we would have an easier ride through it.

    He did teach me so much, but if we could start again together I’m sure things would be even better.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 January 2020