Alice Oppenheimer shares her thoughts on the hot topic of professionals competing at lower levels
THE recent column from Pammy Hutton (16 December), discussing whether or not top professional riders should be allowed to compete at the lower levels, certainly caused quite a lot of debate among the dressage community. Nobody can please all people all the time, so really there is no right or wrong answer to this controversial topic, but I felt compelled to share my views.
For me it is very important as a rider in this sport to be able to create a real partnership with each individual horse. Dressage is all about ease and harmony after all, so being able to start with them from the lower levels is a huge advantage when it comes to achieving that.
Top international grand prix horses are not born, they are produced, so that the top riders can get the best out of their talent. This takes years of training and nurturing.
During the early years of Charlotte Dujardin’s partnership with Valegro she won a championship at every level from novice upwards. We all know what they went on to achieve but at the time people didn’t mind Charlotte competing at novice as, after all, she didn’t have any medals back then.
In the other Olympic disciplines, top professionals have options to compete on novice horses, for example eventers doing BE90open or showjumpers competing at British novice. There are limitations on what championships they can qualify for at those levels, but we also have those in dressage: the more experienced riders cannot enter the Area Festivals or ride in silver or bronze sections.
In British Dressage (BD), there are championship opportunities available for everyone and, as a gold rider, I need to keep training to try to improve enough to beat Charlotte – at any level. That is what pushes the sport to improve and will keep Britain winning medals in the future.
Second riders deserve opportunities
I’D also like to address the subject of “under riders”. Our second rider here at Headmore Stud, Georgie Nicholls, had a fabulous year in 2021 competing in the silver sections, winning several titles at novice and elementary. She works incredibly hard and is willing to learn, so she deserves the opportunity to grow as a rider and competitor.
When Georgie first arrived at Headmore she was eligible to compete at prelim silver, which means she had relatively little competition experience. So we started her off in the silver sections so she could gain experience and learn ringcraft. After all, I started going up through the levels in the restricted section, prior to the gold, silver and bronze format coming in, and I think everyone should be allowed that chance.
When Georgie won at the national championships in September, riding Katie Haigh’s Woodcroft Kika Quina, their combined age as a partnership was 25. They were in their second season at novice and first season at elementary.
I don’t think it would be fair for me to force her into the gold section with that little experience, purely because she rides for Headmore – a position she only gained by pestering us for six months before Mum finally let her have a trial. If that’s not commitment I don’t know what is!
Having said that, we wouldn’t be happy letting Georgie compete in the Area Festivals. They are intended to be an amateur championship and I think are one of the best series BD has to offer. I always recommend them to my clients who don’t ride for a living, but I don’t for Georgie.
Sadly though, there are a small number of gold riders who do allow their protégés to have a go at the Area Festivals on professionally owned horses, which I feel is not in the spirit in which they were intended.
We are very fortunate in this sport to have so many championship opportunities, and there is something for everyone if you know where to look – the BD website is a good starting point. And for those of us in gold who have Charlotte in our classes, we just need to keep on training!
• Do you agree with Alice’s views? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
- This exclusive column is also available to read in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 20 January
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