Behind any famous dressage rider there is an assistant trainer standing in the wings. They help with the daily riding and ensure the horses are being worked when the big name rider is out competing horses, teaching clinics, and making appearances for sponsors. They are an essential chain in the smooth runnings of a professional dressage yard but often get little exposure or credit for their labour.
Time to put the assistant trainer in the spotlight!
Our first in this new Eurodressage series is Sadie Smith, a 30-year old British rider who has worked her way up and is now the main assistant rider for Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin at Carl's yard in Newent, Great Britain.
Work Your Way Up
From the start Smith knew a career in horses were her dream and she has worked her way up to achieve a position in one of the best dressage barns in her country. Her attitude of commitment and perseverance shone through from the start.
"When I was 8 years old, I went to a friend's pony party and became 'hooked' on horses," Smith told Eurodressage. "I started having weekly lessons at my local riding school and helped out there at weekends to get a free ride on one of the ponies, as my parents could not afford a lot of lessons. I rode any pony I was given and fell off a lot! I got to help 'back' various ponies and rode a lot of the younger ones to give them experience."
At age 14 Sadie began competing in show jumping and Hunter Trials, but switched to dressage at age 17. As an 18-year old Sadie went straight from school to work with horses. She learnt and worked hard at various yards before her big break came in 2016, when she replace Amy Woodhead as Carl's new assistant trainer.
"From 2008 till 2013 I worked for Roland Tong and Ben St. John James and from 2013 till 2016 I was a freelance rider for Annie MacDonald-Hall and Sarah Tyler Evans," Smith told Eurodressage. "In 2013 I began training with Carl on Sarah’s young horses and was also helped by Isobel Wessels. In September 2016 he offered me the opportunity to join the team after his former rider Amy woodhead decided to return home to continue her family business."
A work day is action packed with riding Carl's horses as well as her own, the 13-year old British Hanoverian Keystone Dynamite (by Dimaggio x Escudo x Werther) with whom she made her international Grand Prix debut at the CDI Keysoe in October 2019.
"All of the riding is done in the morning and I usually ride around 8 horses. This includes warming up for Carl and schooling the young horses," said Sadie. "I also have training from Carl most days on my own Grand Prix horse who is included in with the other horses."
The assistant trainer is often the hidden hero of the barn, alongside the grooms. They do much of the nitty-gritty work without getting credit for their time, effort, and input into helping shape a top Grand Prix horse. We wondered if it different in Carl's barn?
"I feel without a sponsor or backing of my own I am really lucky that Carl and his owners let me compete their horses," said Sadie. "I have won a National Championship riding Nutbush and had top ten placings on Imhotep to add to the championships I had won previously to working for Carl. I do understand the horses based here are mainly for Carl and Charlotte to ride, but I I love the part I play in producing them. If one day the horses go on to be superstars I would be very proud of the work that we have all put in together. I find the most important thing for me, is to learn the training from young horse to Grand Prix as it will enhance my knowledge for training my own horses."
Previous to working for Carl Hester, Smith had mainly ridden young horses to competition success, but only when she moved to Newent, Great Britain, has her knowledge, experience, and expertise grown exponentially.
"During my time here I have had the amazing opportunity to have training on horses such as Valegro and Uthopia," said SAdie. "This has given me the chance to feel the Grand Prix movements and help me train my own horse. I learn new things every day here, not only in riding. Head groom Alan Davis ensures the care and the management of the horses is second to none. And as a team we all help look after the horses which I really enjoy."
Hester gives Smith ample opportunity to show his or clients' horses at national level in the U.K., while she develops her own Keystone Dynamite for top sport.
"My dream is to one day ride on a British team," Sadie admitted. "However my own horse is the first horse I’ve trained from novice to Grand Prix. Carl thought it was better for me to focus my first season, last year, at national level till I could score over 70%. I was, therefore thrilled to finish 4th at our British national championships with over 71%. I completed my first CDI big tour at Keysoe October 2019 where we were second in both classes. We were hoping this year to compete mainly CDI competitions as well as my first abroad show. However due to the current situation revolving corona virus, this has obviously had to be put on hold."
Money vs Knowledge
Few assistant trainers can afford a luxury lifestyle with the wages they made as a rider. There are only few riders out there who get the big bucks paid for their time. Many up and coming riders wonder how they can have a financially viable life as a professional rider.
Sadie sheds some light on her situation. She is aware that she is more fortunate than most beginning professionals, who get minimum wage and need to live of the "experience" they get in exchange for their sweat.
"Legally now in the UK we have working contracts with our hours and wages properly considered," she explained. "I get a good wage, lovely accommodation for me and my horse with bills paid, as well as training pretty much every time I ride. I can say I’m lucky enough to have ridden several Olympic medalists and to be honest if I didn’t love it I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have!"
Team Dream, Dream Team
Like any ambitious professional, Sadie also has the dream of being a team rider one day.
"My dream goal is to ride on the British team and with the knowledge and experience from working at Carl’s it will help me achieve this," she concluded. "I hope to eventually have a good team of horses and owners to live the dream."
Carl Hester's break through as a professional was thanks to the generosity of his employer Dr. Wilfriend Bechtolsheimer in the early 1990s. Hester has followed this example and instead of craving more glorification of his own ego, has opened all doors for Charlotte Dujardin to become a double Olympic champion.
If Sadie will become the second Charlotte that Carl has nurtured and moulded, only time will tell.
Photos © Private - Kevin Sparrow
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