It’s a beautiful Autumnal morning as I drive to meet International Dressage Rider Amy Stovold at her yard in Horsham. Being a rider myself, I have a basic understanding of the art of dressage, but it is something I have never mastered and therefore am intrigued to learn more.
So, the basic history is this: Dressage dates back to classical Greek horsemanship and the military who trained their horses to perform movements intended to evade or attack the enemy whilst in battle. The earliest work on training horses was written by Xenophon, a Greek Military Commander born around 430 BC but the principles remain the same today. Everyone has probably seen the amazing Charlotte Dujardin at the Olympics and her dancing horse but how do people make their horses move in this way? What are the buttons they need to press and how do they manage it athletically as a rider?
Amy’s yard manager Claire greets me and I am walked through an immaculate yard into Amy’s tack room – the smell of clean leather is the polar opposite of my childhood of ill fitting, unwashed tack and Thelwell ponies and I quickly make a rash assumption that this is a woman born into a world of horses and/or wealth.
The first thing I learn however is that Amy’s history contradicts nearly everything that people assume in the world of horses. She wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth and given her first pony before she could walk – in fact quite the opposite, which makes her story all the more interesting. Amy’s passion for horses began as a child when she worked at Dorte Semler’s yard as a groom. As time progressed, it became the training ground of world-renowned dressage rider Kyra Kyrkland and between the enthusiasm of Dorte and Kyra they cemented a firm passion in Amy for dressage. It became her life from there on in, but it was her initial experiences with these two incredible mentors that encouraged determination and set her on a path to a competitive career. She wanted to be the best and to win – all she needed was the right horse.
So, the interview begins with me having a core belief in the motives that drive this lady. She is not only ambitious, and family orientated but determined within her sport. A role model for the modern woman some might say.
Amy I will start with a little background if I may? Not all Absolute readers will have an understanding of dressage so it would be good if we can begin with your career to date?
I am an international dressage rider and I have competed up to Grand Prix for Great Britain, on a horse called MacBrian, who I also competed at Olympia in 2010 and was 5th.
At this point I was selected as part of the World Class Programme, where I benefitted from enormous help from them from training to sports psychology, nutrition and physiotherapy. From this, I was then selected as part of a group who got to go to the Olympics as an athlete, seeing it backstage. Taking a select few from their team, it was a chance to prepare for quite a daunting experience. It was pretty amazing and something that will never, ever leave my memory. I am forever grateful for everything this incredible organisation helped me with.
So, you are an athlete, but I believe also a Mummy. How have you found this transition?
I think if I am honest, I have found it tough – clearly not nearly as bad as some but I am so used to using my body daily for my work and sport that the pregnancy really threw me out of kilter! I am a slightly older mother as well so the idea of bouncing back and managing of sleepless nights was a little bit trickier.
I didn’t really take a maternity leave as the horses and yard needed me back but bizarrely enough, I found that Covid almost forced me to do this – and I loved it! I found myself not stressing about all that wasn’t being done – quite simply because I couldn’t do it – and so there I was creating beaches in the garden with Florence and spending hours discussing different butterflies on the downs. I felt I really needed this space and so (whilst money was tough) I am grateful for this time.
My husband is an equine vet so this helps not only with my horses on a day to day basis – it does however mean that our conversation round the dinner table can be a little horse heavy!
Tell us more about Covid – how did it affect your business as a whole?
Ah! Covid!! I (like many I am sure) had high hopes for this year. Florence was two at the start of the year and I had various high profile shows that I was booked into. These types of shows are important because they get you in front of international judges at places such as Addington, Keysoe, Bury Farm and Hickstead – all of which cancelled their schedule within a few weeks. But this impact wasn’t just on me – I run a yard of liveries that I also teach and manage their horses and of course Covid meant liveries weren’t able to come and have lessons and clinics and most importantly their horses. From a teaching perspective, I have a lot of clients overseas (especially South Africa) and of course I was unable to travel there as well so everything ground to a halt.
Tell me Amy about your approach to training horses and how it differs from most?
I use a Positive Reinforcement Method with all my horses, especially the young ones. I’ve been clicker training for about 7 years now which includes food. With each click the horse learns the movements from the ground initially – this can be anything from hock flexions to actually dressage moves but it is easier on the horse without the riders load initially and this also builds confidence between horse and rider.
We start using this technique on the ground with clients and it begins with mounting. So, with all our horses, and I encourage all my clients, to ensure their horse stands by the mounting block, we get on the horse and wait there until they receive a click and then a treat. Then we get on, click reward, and they take a treat from our hand. It’s not until we ask them to go, that they are allowed to move off. This is a very basic initial example but quite quickly horses learn and usually clients get on without a contact. This then builds up to more strategic dressage moves in hand.
When I ride, I also use a voice command like the click (a ‘t-s-k’ sound) and then reward. So, when (for example) I get a clean movement of both hind and front moving at the same time I reward.
I find this method works from the very basic movements to the very technical, such as piaffe and passage. It definitely reinforces positive behaviours in horses, instead of negative and it also gives horses a way to relax. I always say that a happy horse is one that will embrace competition with swagger and confidence.
Do you then blend your incentive-based training into your teaching?
From the ground to riding, what I love to see is people training their horses in a compassionate way. People tend to think horses think like humans (i.e. – “he’s in a bad mood today”) but more often than not this is probably because he’s’ in pain, or some other reason. Riders need help to read the signs and the positive reinforcement groundwork allows us to do this.
From a riding perspective, I concentrate on classical dressage training and encourage people to be body aware whilst riding – you have to be able to use different parts of the body independently.
Many non-riders assume that riding just includes sitting on a horse – it is very, very different! Having said that I will often go back to the basics with riders and start from the beginning with the main end goal to allow riders to be more independent.
Much of your socials and website mentions TEAM STOVOLD. How important are the people and sponsors around you?
They are crucial and this is why our brand is Team Stovold as opposed to just me. For example, my yard manager has been with me for 15 years and knows me and my hoses inside out. She is a friend and is the person I want to be by my side in the next chapter and as I rise again in the sport.
Similarly, the equipment I use is massively important – for my saddles I use Bates which are an Australian based company that I feel is the most flexible and understanding in their approach. Again, many people assume you just choose a saddle but in actual fact each horse is different, and you need a different saddle for each horse which has to be fitted. The difference between a badly fitted saddle is night and day. For example, if your saddle isn’t level – making you tip forward or back – you will never be in the centre of the horse – which is crucial.
In terms of feed, I have been using balanced horse feeds for 20 years and I love how simple and easy their feeding system is. They are a small company, but they make all the feeds on site and believe passionately that the grass roots of efficient nutrition mean no extra additives and no compromise with the composition.
From my perspective I like to look smart at work. Sure, we get mucky day to day but riding I like to look good and also am in breeches all day so need to have something comfortable. EqueTech ticks all these boxes.
Finally tell us about the future Amy.
Well I hope it is going to be extremely bright post-covid! I have a new horse that I have just bought that I am very excited about. He is young but incredibly powerful and forward thinking. His stable name is Kenzo, although you will see him in competitions as Kenjiro. Reactive. This is the first time in a long time that I have been this excited about a horse, and I have been looking for over three years – it can be a long game this horse world!
People tend to go for breeding, but for me it’s the eyes, a kind eye says it all to me. Also of course his confirmation and ride ability/willingness to work.
As mentioned earlier, I tend to work young horses slowly so I won’t compete with him this year, but we will do lots of groundwork, building up from here and take him to different venues to experience somewhere else. Next season I will begin to take him out in Spring and build up – my ultimate goal is Grand Prix but it’s important to take it slow as sometimes you can scare a horse if you too much pressure with a high-level test too quickly.
Of course, all of this comes at a cost. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have some amazing owners and investors that have come to support me and watch at every level. Like racing, the owners and investors can enjoy the luxury of attending the shows in the comfort of boxes and seeing their horses perform – I am always open to support from people interested in investing in a horse with me, or even those that would like to see their horse do well.
For more information on supporting Amy in her next steps or simply finding out more about her sport you can follow her