Bill Noble, "Every Man's Story is Important, Unique"

Tue, 03/16/2010 - 22:05
Eurodressage F.O.C.U.S.

Several dressage trainers are known world wide because they were first successful international competitors before they actually took up their current coaching careers. But there are also very good trainers whose fame never reached the big public because they missed a great career on the international stage as a rider.

One of the latter coaches is the remarkable New Zealander William (“Bill”) Noble, a  native Englishman, who was one of Great Britain’s leading dressage trainers before emigrating to New Zealand in the 1990s. Down under he continues to have a meaningful impact on the dressage scene, both as a competitor and skilled trainer. But he is also a forward thinker, something New Zealand still seems to be lacking.

Compared to the way children get in touch with horses nowadays, Bill is a traditional born horseman, as his childhood with horses was nothing special in the rural parts of England where he was born and raised. “Riding was a normal part of life in this country…no educated riding, just normal adolescent misbehaviour on horseback,” confessed Noble.

Getting Started with Pony Club

Originally from Heresfordshire, a beautiful county close to the Welsh border, Bill cannot remember not riding. His mother hunted regularly and her son had several Welsh ponies to ride. Like almost every horsey child in Great Britain Bill soon joined the famous Pony Club, still a popular institution in the Commonwealth countries for the education and promotion of the welfare, care and respect for horses from early on.

There Bill showed in any competition, whether it was jumping, eventing, dressage, polo or the mounted games. It had quite an educational effect as “we learnt how to win, to loose and to have fun doing both.”

At first look Bill’s childhood with horses was typical and one wonders how a young boy became attracted to the less popular discipline dressage which was for most British teenagers nothing more than the necessary part of the popular eventing. But Bill was lucky that his particular branch of the Pony Club was more dressage orientated which sparked his interest in dressage from early on. He came to realise its beauty and challenge.

His stimulus was Lorna Johnstone, an elderly lady who was his mother's friend and who occasionally helped in the Pony Club. Johnstone was also a three times Olympic dressage rider, who impressed everyone by finished 12th at Munich 1972, at age 70.

A Career with Horses

Having horses as a hobby and making it one's profession are two different things and the latter was even more of a gamble decades ago. Bill studied Physics at university and graduated with distinction. He stayed there to do some research, but had a short break before another post in nuclear Physics. This little break turned out to be one from university forever. Bill went to local dressage rider Trish Gardiner and intended to spend a couple of months there to train dressage more seriously. She was an accomplished dressage rider and trainer who represented her country at Olympic Games, World and European championships. During Bill’s first time there in the early 1980s he decided to quit his promising university career “to spend my life doing what I wanted – horses- rather than doing what I should have done in the eyes of sensible logical people.”

The idea to make his passion his profession arose when Bill represented Great Britain at international student competitions in Europe and noticed the other students knew so much more about dressage than he did: “It was quite humbling and embarrassing. If I wanted to bridge that – and I did want to – then I realised that I could only do so, without any finance, if I worked full-time at it.”

Bill was lucky to stay several years at Trish Gardiner’s yard and had the unique opportunity to learn from her brilliant 1980 Olympic horse Manifesto, an impressive bay with characteristic white spots. For Bill training horses up the levels had always been the major goal rather than competing ready-made horses. He admitted that from early on he always had more admiration for riders who trained their own horses.

His first horse was a Swedish bred warmblood which he bought cheaply from a driving yard as the gelding tried to kick the carriages. Castaneda also turned out to be his first horse which reached Grand Prix level. Bill continued to train several more horses, from thoroughbreds to a Cleveland Bay, up to Grand Prix, but did not stay with any of them long enough to achieve international success, because they were either sold or went back to their owners, the rather sad part of being a professional trainer.

Seeing it All in Germany

After having been with Gardiner for quite some time Bill left the island to broaden his education, working for several employees in Germany, including at Alexander Moksel's stable in Bavaria. “I saw a huge variety of work: some wonderful, some disastrous. Technically I didn't learn a lot, but I learnt in which direction I wanted to go: to train my own horses in a way I considered to be ethically acceptable and to follow that path, though I realised that it would be hard. There are some fantastic people in this sport and there are some who should not be allowed within a mile of a horse.”

Several times Bill went to Germany to train with Herbert Rehbein whom he admired a lot. Bill acknowledged Rehbein’s unique ability as a rider. “ I went to Hamburg with a hot thoroughbred which did piaffe and a few one time changes, but did not passage. On the first day Rehbein rode it, did one or two changes, then came across the diagonal and did 27 one-tempi's and the horse was as calm as could be. I was blown away!” To Bill Rehbein was a genius who never got strong or abusive and never got upset if things did not work. He inspired him “trying to find better and better compromises between effectiveness and quality, which is, for me, the key to beautiful riding.”

The New Zealand Connection: Mark Todd

Coming back to Great Britain Bill joined Gardiner again and set up a training and teaching business with her in Great Somerford, just around the corner from where Mark Todd had his stables then. Todd is the eventing rider of the century, but was then rather at the beginning of his great career, preparing for his first Olympics in 1984 with a small NZ horse called Charisma. Todd intended to train with Trish to prepare for the famous CCI**** Badminton in April, but as she was too busy Bill stepped in. It was the beginning of very successful cooperation which lasted for years. This got Bill in touch with New Zealand for the first time.

Todd’s Charisma became a true legend in that period of time. Though only standing 15,3 hh and looking tiny with his tall rider aboard, he became the only post-war horse to win two individual Olympic gold medals in eventing. Bill traveled to his first Olympics in Los Angeles 1984 to coach Todd in dressage. “Charisma had a great attitude and had been well trained to St. Georges level so there were no major flaws in his work. He was easy to work with and with a rider like Mark Todd on top there was not a lot for me to do,” Bill admitted in his typical moderate manner.

He went on to support Todd and Charisma in every international championship to follow. Bill still regrets he couldn’t convince Todd to start Charisma in dressage at the Seoul Olympics, where the horse won his second eventing gold. “I did suggest to try Charisma for the dressage in Seoul. He was working well towards Grand Prix in 1986-1987 and could have been easily ready for Seoul.”

Wily Imp and Icarus Allsort

In Korea Bill 'moonlit' as the official dressage coach of the New Zealand event team and British dressage team on which Trish Gardiner rode with Bill's very special horse, Wily Imp. He was an English thoroughbred by Impersonator, born 1976. Bill bought him as a f5-year old failed eventer and in a bit of a state. He wanted to give this horse another chance as he liked the leggy bay, but once he arrived it took a long time to form a relationship with him. “But he was basically kind and generous, and once he understood he tried hard.”

Bill started him at novice level, but his increasing traveling to fulfil coaching duties led to the decision to hand Wily Imp over to Gardiner. The share of the horses didn’t suit the highly sensitive Wily Imp at all so Trish took him over completely as she had recently lost her best horse. Bill did, however, take the opportunity to ride Wily Imp in a clinic with Dr. Reiner Klimke in the mid 1980s. Bill loves to look back at this amazing experience: “Klimke was totally in control, totally conscious of every step and had a simplicity of vision that I found fantastic: “This is the problem, here’s the solution; do it!” Wily Imp, this difficult thoroughbred, went on to become a British team horse for many years.

In the 1990s Bill brought up an impressive liver chestnut stallion bred in Denmark called Icarus Allsort. He had scouted and bought him as a “messed up and very tensed 5-year old in Denmark.” Icarus was not easy to train as the tension of his younger years would not completely disappear no matter how hard Bill tried. But the stallion still became a very successful Grand Prix horse in Great Britain, showing fantastic piaffe and passage.

The Move to New Zealand

While competing Icarus Bill made the decision to leave his home country and emigrate to New Zealand, the home country of his wife Felicity. In the 1980s he had already traveled NZ four times a year teaching there so he knew the equestrian community there.

“Felicity and I had lived for ten years in England, but my parents were dead and hers alive. Moreover I was disenchanted with the politics of Britain and I did not really want our daughter to be brought up there, so in fact it was a fairly easy decision to leave.”

But Bill, who has dual citizenship and considers NZ his home today, admits it was hard to leave good friends and nice horses behind. He and his family took their two dogs, a Jack Russell and a Belgian shepard, and Icarus Allsort with them to their new home near Auckland. A year after leaving Great Britain Bill won one of NZ’s most renowned Grand Prix shows, the Horse of the Year Show, with Icarus in 1999.

His teaching business grew in a similar successful way. Dressage trainers with Bill’s experience and quality are still rare on the Southern hemisphere, let alone in NZ. Not only does he own a remarkable knowledge of training horses, but he is also a kind of forward thinker and a strong supporter of training horses himself from novice to Grand Prix rather than buying ready made ones.

Although importing successful Grand Prix horses from Europe or Australia has raised NZ’s level of competition, Noble believes the country needs to establish a tradition of training horses to create a permanent spot on the international dressage scene. “We have several good coaches, but only very few trainers with the experience of producing good Grand Prix horses which I think is our weakness. We have some good stallions and some good breeding programs; horse power is not the weak link. But we need a stronger trainer base, professional riders producing Grand Prix horses. Just to import trained horses, which is good for the level of competition, can also have a harmful effect—it can produce an apathy, a feeling that ‘unless I’ve got the money to import something flash, it’s not worth trying.’”

Bill is aware that as more and more horses of exceptional quality join the sport it is becoming harder to be competitive with a horse of a more ordinary quality, though it may be trained and ridden better. “As the competition standard gets higher and as we have more ‘professional’ judges lacking training experience it’s becoming harder for them to distinguish between the quality of the horse and the quality of the training. Sadly it is becoming increasingly like that: a top quality horse ridden moderately will beat a moderate horse ridden well.”

Bill lives up to his words and earned respect in NZ when he trained an ordinary station bred horse to Grand Prix and became NZ’s dressage champion, beating imported horses of better quality.

Vincent St James

Vincent St. James (“Vinnie”) was bred at the St. James station for cattle and sheep mustering. Bill scouted him as a 5 year old because Vinnie reminded him a lot of Wily Imp.
“The main reasons for starting with him were his physical ability, he had a good work ethic and he was fun to work with.”

Vinnie didn't have the greatest paces or a natural balance, but Bill stressed that the horse tried so hard to compensate. His sensitivity made the piaffe and passage quite easy.
After only a few M- and S-level tests the bay did his first Grand Prix in 2003 and Bill competed Vincent St. James with great success until 2008.

The horse became a very good example of what can still be done with a not so talented horse, just with very good training and being ridden well. Vincent St. James won the National Championships (“Bürkner medal”) twice and the renowned Horse of the Year Show three times. He competed in Australian CDI's, always against exceptional warmblood horses, of which some had trained and competed in Europe before.

Though Bill demonstrated the New Zealanders one doesn’t necessarily need a lot of money to be competitive, he unfortunately did not qualify for the 2008 Olympics. In the selection trials the NZ team had to compete against Japan to earn the qualification for Hong Kong, but did not to succeed. Vinnie of all horses scored disastrously after putting his tongue over the bit right at the beginning of their test.

"We could have succeeded, none of us went at our best. Vinnie was very unhappy with the venue; he had suffered a colic there a year earlier and I think he remembered. I failed to manage his emotions. I felt that I let the horse as well as the country down,” as Bill recalled this sad day.

Life in New Zealand

Bill, who owns a small yard with 5 stables on the North Island, travels the country teaching, giving clinics and demonstrations. Recently he has been over to Australia teaching in Melbourne. His influence on dressage in NZ is not limited to these activities as he is also a competitor and a judge. Bill’s thoughts on the development of his sport in his new home country are published regularly on Horsetalk and he gives the dressage community there something to think about.

He always sees both sides of the medal. The increasing number of NZ Grand Prix riders, which Bill estimates at about twenty, and of quality dressage horses are a great thing at first sight. However, Bill points out: “We have more advanced riders, but a smaller membership, it has fallen by 25% which is extremely worrying. We don’t really know why. I believe we have a failure of vision and forward planning.”

Moreover quantity does not automatically means quality and Bill is convinced NZ still needs some time to be competitive outside Australasia: “Going over to Europe at our current levels would be a waste of money.” Yet he is confident NZ dressage riders can score 70% at GP level in near future and only then he thinks NZ needs to come to Europe to compete.

Bill has many talented pupils up to Grand Prix level, but avoids mentioning them since he thinks it would be unfair to those not mentioned, referring to the great Hermann Hesse “Every man’s story is important, unique…”

Definitely unique is Bill’s current collection of S-level horses he has at home. Breed is not the decisive factor. Primarily he is looking for a horse prepared to try, with a good work ethic and some natural athleticism.

Bill’s three upcoming horses, all S-level and working towards Grand Prix, are very different. He owns a gelding by Royal Diamond which is the only conventional dressage horse. The other two are “two unconventional horses, a station-bred cruelty-case with a fantastic canter and close to GP and a wonderful Clydesdale-crossbred stallion, owned by a friend, hopefully will be Grand Prix ready by the end of the year.”

Training Horses

So Bill obviously continues to practice what he preaches: Using dressage to improve horses and thereby developing the special talents every horse has hidden somewhere.

Bill explains how a typical training session with one of his advanced horses looks like: “I spend a fair amount of time re-establishing the contact of rein and leg each day, particularly with the rein. I encourage each horse to take that forward contact, and the easiest for most horses is to ask them to take it forwards and downwards; not much energy, taking the hand forwards, in front of the vertical. Then the horse is asked to energise, to work with some flamboyance; then to become more collected. Then the works alternates between flamboyance and easy stuff.”

Bill stresses the importance of getting horses athletic and reactive at a young age by jumping and galloping them regularly. He teaches his horses the piaffe from the saddle and fairly early in their training life. If this doesn’t work Bill will work the horse in hand at a short lunge line. The passage comes quite a bit later once an energetic collected trot is established.

Asked on the current discussion about hyperflexion Bill states: “Hyperflexion is nothing new. If we think of how we want to present the horse – to ride them forward from the leg with a soft and beautiful rein contact- then, if the horse tries to hollow away from the leg, to put it deeper for a few seconds it can be very useful, even essential. But to keep a horse there for extended periods seems to me just crazy. I’m certain that the majority of horses do not have the strength, the power or athleticism to be kept in this position for more than a few seconds with any benefit. But there may well be a few freakishly talented horses for whom longer periods would benefit—I have no first-hand experience with this. But I am a bit concerned about the witch hunt over the whole issue: I’ve seen some crude hyperflexion riding, but I’ve also seen plenty of crude “conventional” riding over the years…”

Concerning the development of international dressage Bill often wonders “what the dressage world would be like today had these two giants, Rehbein and Klimke, lived longer…”

A question which can never be answered, but undoubtedly the NZ dressage world would have looked differently without having an outstanding trainer such as Bill there for more than a decade now.

What it takes to become such a successful and effective trainer? Bill does not know yet: “I am still working at it…”.

By Silke Rottermann ©
Photos © Private - Barbara Thompson

Related Links
Bill Noble, 2007 New Zealand Dressage Champion
Vincent St James and Monique III, NZ Horses of the Year
Hartstone and Whisper, 2010 New Zealand Dressage Champions
Georgia Worth, 2010 New Zealand Young Rider Champion
Young Guns in Dressage: Jody Hartstone, Grand Prix Dressage Rider and Stallion Owner
New Zealand Haydee Wells-Parmenter's European Stint 
Hartstone, 2006 New Zealand Dressage Champion on her “Professor”