Louise Robson on a Mission Appointed by Her Majesty

 
Sun, 11/10/2013 - 23:00
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Louise Robson and Queen Elizabeth II's OTTB Quadrille xx
Photo © Silke Rottermann
Interview

The atmosphere was just amazing: thousands at the location and many more in front of the TV screens all over the world when the Queen's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in the way HM Queen Elizabeth II appreciates the most, with horses from all over the world. At her own Windsor Castle during the "All the Queen's Horses" show in May 2012 the stage was set for a leggy, narrow chestnut not only to celebrate his former owner's jubilee, but also himself.

Mr. Glum xx (by Ron's Victory out of Australia Fair xx) may have been just one of about 600 horses taking part that glorious evening in the spotlights, but his return to the Royal Mews at Windsor was the pinnacle of a remarkable road he and his rider had taken over the past ten years. Mr. Glum's biography is a good example of what his rider and devotee has made her life’s mission.

Bred and owned by HM Queen Elizabeth II the chestnut thoroughbred was put with renowned racehorse trainer Ian Balding to learn the job he definitely was bred for judging by his conformation. Unfortunately Mr. Glum did not live up to expectations as he just did not understand the nature of racing. As soon as other horses caught up with him he just slowed down and consequently came last in his only ever race. Failure on the flat meant moving to Henrietta Knight, an equally renowned National Hunt trainer, but again Mr. Glum could not convince her as he seemed unable to combine speed with fences. Probably Mr. Glum was more than lucky to be in the ownership of the Queen because many failed race-horses' destiny is very different from being brought to Windsor Castle to look for anew purpose in life.

Meeting Destinies

Windsor Castle was the place Mr. Glum and Louise Robson's destiny was decided 11 years ago. Louise, then in her teens, had been a passionate rider from the age of five. Having ridden different sorts of horses, from Welsh ponies and heavy cobs to an Arab, Louise had completely lost her confidence with Argent Rival xx, an ex race-horse originally from New Zealand.

"Rival was a classy looking horse, but with a past of his own. He travelled from New Zealand to Hong Kong and then to Singapore before he finally landed in England where he also moved several times. As my parents did not have the assets to buy me a horse, we got Rival on loan. Unfortunately, in hindsight, he was the wrong horse for me. He threw me off very often, he was highly unsafe in traffic and as a result I lost my confidence up to a point I was at the brink giving up riding," Robson reminisced.

But as horses had always been an essential part of Lou's life, she and her parents and set about looking just for a safe hack we could take on loan. What happened next usually only happens in fairytales. In Lou's case it was the beginning of one, though she did not know it back then.

"By pure chance we got to know from a friend of a friend that HM had a thoroughbred stabled at Windsor which was up to permanent loan. A friend of my parents knew a gardener at Windsor and through him we had the incredible luck to be invited and try out Mr. Glum," Lou recalls that special day in 2002 when she was just 15.

Even though the teenager from Oxford might have been impressed with the royal surroundings, the stables full of classy horses, Lou is the first to admit that she had her heart in her mouth "when I saw the dinky little thoroughbred." Whereas her first ex-racer, Ardent Rival, had been a wonderful looking horse, Glum- with or without royal surroundings- looked very different. "He was narrow as a razor-blade, built completely downhill and did not look very bright or happy. He did not look the dream horse of a thoroughbred I had imagined. My mother who had come with me was much more impressed by him than I was at the beginning."

Louise took Mr. Glum for a trial ride and felt she was way too tall for him. He behaved well, but her confidence was still shattered from Rival's dangerous escapades and the thought of taking a thoroughbred again was a difficult one. "Although I only saw a thin long neck at our first ride, Glum behaved really well and so, in the end, we were the lucky ones getting him on permanent loan." Little did all know that one day, a decade later, they would return to Windsor on another occasion.

Before Lou met Mr. Glum her riding had included a bit of everything, even showing which is a specialty in Great Britain and quite unknown on the continent. Dressage seemed the last option with a horse built like her new acquisition and so both tried jumping and polo, but none suited Mr. Glum. "I still never considered parting with Glum. My trainer at the time, who is a dressage rider, encouraged me to try this discipline. In her opinion Glum, despite his downhill conformation, had natural swing in his trot and very active hind-legs. Apart from these advantages he also has great shoulder freedom," she said.  And as a matter-of-fact the narrow chestnut finally had found his true purpose for him and for Louise.

A New Path in Dressage

While both worked themselves through the levels, Louise's school education was not neglected. Always knowing she wanted a life with horses, she was also aware that she needed something to fall back on should things not work out or should injury force her to stop riding. So after her A-levels Louise moved to London to get a degree in architecture. Glum, meanwhile, stayed at home with Lou's mum Lynn who took care of his everyday needs.

Glum's high intelligence made him highly trainable and helped him to overcome the apparent disadvantages of his downhill build. "It is entirely to him, to his work ethic and complete dedication that I got hooked on dressage. More, that I slowly but surely got a vision of what I wanted to do with horses: retrain ex- racers. I had a vision, but I knew I had to learn more about dressage, so after I got my degree at the university I applied to different renowned dressage stables on the continent so I could come with Mr Glum as a working student," said Robson.

Lou was aware that if she wanted to get to know more about dressage, she had to leave home and go to the continent. As much as she longed for doing it and as big as her hunger to learn and progress was, she feared her thoroughbred would be laughed at as Mr. Glum was so different to all the fancy warmbloods usual in high- level dressage.

"I was very very lucky that Monica Theodorescu agreed to take Glum and me under her wing, but I was nervous whether she would accept Glum and I was prepared to defend him fiercely during my stay," said Lou about that day in 2009 when she loaded her horse for the 11-hour-journey to Northrhine-Westfalia in Germany.

Ten Months in Germany

She needn't have worried. If there is one international trainer with an understanding and sympathy of the thoroughbred, it is Monica Theodorescu who is one of very few riders of our times who trained an OTTB to international Grand Prix-level. She even rode Arak xx in the World Cup finals in the 1990s.

Lou's time at Lindenhof Stud was decisive for many reasons. "While I have had competed against warmbloods in Britain, already with some success, it was only here at Monica's that I really gained confidence and also pride in riding a thoroughbred. It was Monica who encouraged me to be proud of what my horse has achieved through training and to build further on his wonderful character and see what he still could do."

The attitude that dressage can improve all type of horses was something Lou completely took in at her time in Germany and which was demonstrated to the very best by the Orlov trotter Balagur whom she was honoured to ride in Grand Prix-movements during her stay. "Also lacking a good conformation for dressage, Bala had been able to come 5th at the Olympics and he was a crowd favourite wherever he went," she stated.

Louise and Glum not only improved tremendously during their 10-month-stay at Theodorescu's barn with the horse chipping away at S-level, but Lou also got the unique opportunity to work as Monica's travelling groom. "From 2010 to her retirement as a show rider due to her engagement as German national coach I was given the opportunity to travel with Monica and Whisper to the biggest dressage shows in Germany and abroad," she said. "I saw lots of interesting places, made many friends and enjoyed these visits to the international dressage scene tremendously as those were also inspiration. I am very grateful to Monica for having entrusted me with her best horses on these occasions for three seasons running."

Thoroughbred Dressage

After her return from Germany in the winter of 2010 Louise was completely sure that she wanted to make a living from horses and that she wanted to give more ex-racers the opportunity to come into dressage.

"I am aware that not every thoroughbred is able to reach heights Glum did, but the same is valid for warmbloods. Thoroughbreds are so intelligent and most of them are so trainable that they deserve every chance," she said.  Louise founded a stable called Thoroughbred Dressage which since 2010 has been dedicated to the re-training of OTTB.

Mr. Glum, meanwhile had become on of the highest scoring thoroughbreds in Great Britain and won or consistently placed at M-level before even going on competing at PSG-level in his last season as an 18-year-old. His efforts had not gone unnoticed. He was invited to parade at Ascot Racing Week in 2011. Neither Glum nor Lou knew by then that at the very same event a future stable-mate was celebrating success at the race-track there. Meanwhile Glum also took Louise to the Young Professional's Day, held at Carl Hester's yard where both rode under the watchful eye of the Olympic champion.

Both finished 2011 with another highlight as they were asked to return to Windsor to meet the Queen. HM was interested in seeing her thoroughbred again. "I was so proud to return to Windsor. I rode Mr. Glum in all the dressage movements, flying changes are his forté, in the wonderful indoor arena of Windsor under the eyes of HM. It felt surreal and I was really nervous at the beginning, but all went so well. In the end we were asked to return to take part in the Royal Jubilee celebrations the follwoing May and I was proud as can be!" The Jubilee event meant a week in the Royal Stables and also another private visit from the Queen to say hello to her boys and give them a pat and some much appreciated carrots.

Quadrille xx, A New Member to the Family

At the end of 2011 Lou was approached by Windsor and asked if she would like to take another of HM's thoroughbreds into dressage training. "I felt very honoured and was very much looking forward to this new boy when he joined my stables at the beginning of 2012." In comparison to Mr. Glum the next royal member of the four-legged Thoroughbred Dressage family is a different type of this breed. Even smaller, but more compact, Quadrille xx was clearly bred to race on the flat. The petite bay is bred by Queen Elizabeth II herself who had chosen the very successful Irish thoroughbred Danehill Dancer xx to be the father. This strong boned stallion goes back to the legendary Northern Dancer xx and his popularity is also shown in the fact that his stud fee currently is 40,000 euro.

Quadrille xx did not disappoint his breeder and owner by winning 3 out of his 7 races and coming a remarkable 2nd at the Royal Ascot in 2011, one of the most important racing events in the world. „Quad is with me on permanent loan with the aim of producing him in dressage. He has all the possibilities to follow in Glum's footsteps, whom I retired to the field about a year ago," Louise reported.

In his first year at Thoroughbred Dressage the bright bay with the big dark eyes (in contrast to Glum rather excitable) not only had to learn a lot, but actually progressed beyond all expectations. „Re-training OTTBs means that you encounter all the hurdles you would with any other breed plus the problem that raced thoroughbreds are used to a different position of the leg, different rider balance and bit contact all of which are the opposite of what a dressage rider aims to have. Quad really made a rapid progression because he, like Glum before, is so intelligent and tries so hard all the time. Even when he gets distracted by outside influences, he tries his hardest to focus again and do what he is asked for.“

First wins at elementary and novice level in 2012 and 2013 with percentages up to almost 68 show that Quadrille is following in Glum’s hoofprints while Glum enjoys his well-deserved retirement at age 19 in the field. Quad was honoured for his great progress by parading at Royal Ascot in 2013, exactly two years after having raced there.

Louise's efforts to do the thoroughbred justice and let them shine on the dressage stage—she sold an OTTB she got in training as a 5-year-old (So Ecstatic xx) as a successful M-level horse in 2013—did not go unnoticed. One of Britain's leading horse sales sites offered to sponsor her stable in spring 2012 and a U.S. dressage publication asked Louise to participate in a series of training articles on the re-training of OTTB. To realise the project Lou loaded Quadrille xx and took him to Germany to her former employer Monica Theodorescu for a few days’ training and get the necessary photo shoot done there.

Dressage for All Breeds

Though Lou's heart belongs to the thoroughbred, she trains and competes warmbloods as well. During the course of the past year she has very successfully shown Ruby Rose, a magnificent dapple grey mare by Royal Diamond. "Rosie was one of my all-time favourites. She was extremely willing and very talented. I enjoyed working with her every day. Rosie won at M-level this year and was working well towards S-level. But as I have to make a living and keep the yard running, she was always on the market. I can’t afford to keep such highly talented horses for me to compete on, as hard as it sometimes is, that's part of the business. So Rosie left me in autumn 2013 when I sold her to an international Para-dressage rider who aims to compete on her in the Rio 2016 Paralympics."

Other warmbloods Lou has shown at M- and S-level include Kasca, an Andalusian she got on sales livery and Tusse, the late Swedish gelding of a Swedish friend Lou got to know while grooming on the international circuit.

Currently Lou and her horses reside at Padbury Hill Farm in Buckinghamshire in England. As this part of the UK is the unofficial heart of British Dressage the opportunities to take her horses to lots of different shows are perfect.

"With the young thoroughbreds even more than with most other inexperienced horses it is of paramount importance to take them regularly to shows and to lots of different places. Even if this means „disaster“ now and then it is a very important part of their education as they gradually learn to deal with outside influences which can easily disturb their concentration. I know that for quite a few riders prefer to practise at home until they think the horse is ready to show a perfect ride at a show. They fear having a bad ride which might be etched on the judges' memory for future shows. I am not sure at all this really works as a show atmosphere is always something special, even for calm horses which face it for the first times. I am a believer in giving horses lots of show experience and I haven’t experienced bias form the judges. My success with Quadrille this season prove that judges honour a good ride even if the horse has had a complete off-day not long before."

At the beginning some judges did not always judge her thoroughbreds very fairly and Mr. Glum xx had to be doublly as faultless and impressive as his warmblood colleagues to get the marks he deserved. "I think, even though here in the UK a few more thoroughbreds are competing in dressage than in Germany, for example, the judges are not that used to this breed. Their eyes are schooled for warmbloods and the thoroughbreds just move a bit differently and sometimes also are presented in a different outline due to their individual conformation. Mr. Glum was the best example. Due to his extremely long and flat topline I only got true connection when he appeared to be behind the vertical. If I presented him in the outline required and wanted by the judges, he got higher marks, but in fact wasn't honestly on the bit and through. However, I am a firm believer—otherwise I couldn't do what I do—that hard work after the classical dressage principle gets honoured, one day or the other, no matter if you ride a fancy warmblood, a narrow thoroughbred or a massive Iberian horse just to name a few! Mr. Glum's and So Ecastatic's successes showed that it works and that thoroughbreds can take their place in a strong field of warmbloods. Quad is even a better example as he is not as far far in his training like the two mentioned earlier had been and as a consequence isn't that muscled yet. Still he is very competitive against his warmblood rivals. I think the reasons are firstly, honest, serious dressage work will improve a horse no matter their level of talent, but also because the thoroughbred is able to create a „dance-flair“ no warmblood is ever able to produce. Their extreme nobility and light-footedness comes closest to the picture of the dancing horse in the dressage-ring."

Louise frankly admits that apart from the facts mentioned above she and her thoroughbred partners got more notice as soon as she was given a few saddle pads with Queen Elizabeth's emblem and initials ER stitched on.

Lou is not setting big future goals with her second Royal thoroughbred who of course is somebody very special among her equine partners. According to her motto "Hard works pays off one day" she takes everything into her stride. Of course Lou secretly hopes Quad might be able to join Mr. Glum xx and competes at S-level one day. Not to win rosettes or to foster her ego, but to show to a wider public that thoroughbreds are horses that can excel in dressage and may give their riders a feeling the best warmblood might never be able to deliver.

A dreamed of acknowlegment of the thoroughbred in the dressage rectangle would be nothing more or less than just a renaissance of this breed in this Olympic discipline. The most famous riding masters—Lörke, Schultheis, Podhajsky, Klimke—all rode thoroughbreds very successfully on the international stage. Henri Saint Cyr from Sweden and Xavier Lesage from France even made thoroughbreds double Olympic dressage champions, though a long time ago.
Times have changed, warmblood breeding has improved, training techniques became popular that a thoroughbred would hardly accept—but to win against all odds is always the sweetest form of success. Why shouldn't Louise enjoy it one day?

Text and Photos by Silke Rottermann

Related Links
Greatest Oldies: Taine, a Thoroughbred on Mount Olymp
Do We Still Need Thoroughbred Blood to Breed Performance Horses?
Monica Theodorescu: Backed by History, Facing the Present on Home Bred Horses
Georg Theodorescu: Civilized Riding

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