Gemma riding high for dressage dream

Balletic, athletic, disciplined. Even seasoned riders admit to being baffled by the ability of a horse and rider to perform dressage.

This makes Gemma Maddocks’ story that much more remarkable. For here was a good, all-round rider who stumbled upon the discipline and has so taken it to heart that she is now a contender to represent Great Britain at dressage.

When we last met Gemma (Island Life Issue 18, Oct/Nov ’08), she was 17, living with her parents, Michael and Denise at their home in Apse Heath and had specialised in dressage for about two years. Under her trainer, Daryl Smith, she was already cutting a dash in the sport, having joined the British Young Riders Dressage Scheme, an organisation which encourages no-holds-barred ambition. “Our ultimate goal is to see you riding for your country,” says the organisation’s website.

Gemma’s own ambition chimes perfectly with that goal. She is now in a second year of her professional dressage apprenticeship under top international rider, trainer and judge Judy Harvey, at Judy’s yard in Milton Keynes, Bucks. With two other girls she is given up to five lessons a week, spending the rest of her time exercising and caring for Judy’s horses, and preparing for the all-important competitions.

“At the moment I’m trying to get on the Young Riders Team for Great Britain,” Gemma explains. “I’m now on the Progress Squad, and competed internationally this year in France against riders from Italy, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain and France.”

The squads are the pool from which the teams are picked. The Prime Squad currently consists of five combinations of riders and horses, with four in the Progress Squad. Over the next six months monthly training sessions will be held, during which competitors ride the Prix St George Test (Young Rider Team Test) and are judged by an international judge who works with them to improve their weaker points.

Gemma is feeling particularly buoyed up, having just achieved a personal best at Squad training. “It’s important to be spotted doing well consistently,” she says. “Judges aren’t looking for fluke results.”

To put her aims and ambitions into context, the British team she hopes one day to be part of consists of four riders. Just four. When she describes her love of what she does and the mechanics of achieving it, the goal seems not unrealistic, however. “With dressage you have to do so much and make it look like you’re doing so little. The horse feels every muscle you move. There has to be such a good partnership – you have to understand each other enough to be able to work together to get the end result.”

It was her pony, Ryan, who opened up that world for her. “He could do everything,” says Gemma. “He was mainly an eventer, but I did dressage with him and that’s when I fell in love with it.” At 18, Gemma could no longer compete at pony level and needed a horse to move up to Junior and Young riders, which is when they bought Sandy (Wustensand).

“I was told he was too big for me,” grins the diminutive Gemma, who at 5’2″ and a half is dwarfed by Sandy’s 17 hands. “I didn’t tell my trainer how big he was at first!” Sandy’s size could, she says, be a problem, were it not for his wonderfully generous nature. She admits he is a little big for her, “but he’s so good natured, and would never take advantage of his size over mine.”

The peculiarity of dressage as a discipline requires the horse to be athletic as well as strong and powerful from behind, she explains. “He’s long in the body as well as being tall. Whereas if he was a smaller horse it would be easier to get the back connected to the front! But we’ve really got to grips with getting him sitting round through the body, he’s going really well.”

The buzz of the competition is everything, says Gemma, and as she talks about that fine line between adrenalin and stress you sense why she is so adept at such a demanding sport. “I get butterflies, but in a good way. If you control the adrenalin, channel it, the horse feels the buzz and it can really liven things up and add more expression and power to everything. But if it’s more like stress he also picks up on that. He’s thinking ‘what’s going on? Something’s about to happen that isn’t good!’”

Compared to his competitors, Sandy is relatively inexperienced. Denise, Gemma’s mum, explains that most are older than his youthful 11 years and have probably already been to Grand Prix level. “So they’ve been through it all before, they know everything. But our horse is new to it all, he’s still learning. But he’s doing really well, and we’re pleased with him.”

Gemma may have left home, but Denise still plays an essential role in her equestrian life. Every competition they participate in, Denise drives up to Milton Keynes and takes the pair to wherever they are competing. “Once Gemma passes her HGV test she’ll be able to drive herself,” she says, though you don’t have any sense that she resents the three-or-so days each competition takes out of her life.

Being on the Progress Squad means more competitions abroad which need to be funded, and Gemma is always on the look-out for sponsorship. “Wightlink sponsored me while I was on the Island, which was great. Trouble is there isn’t a lot of money out there.” She adds, cheekily: “I find Dad is usually a good sponsor!”

Later, when her mum is out of earshot, Gemma pours out how much her parents’ support means to her. “They do so much for me, and I’m so aware that if it weren’t for them I’d never have been able to do this.”

Denise, of course, supports her daughter without question. “It hasn’t been easy for Gemma, leaving behind her family and friends. She works long hard hours and it can sometimes be very lonely. You have more bad days than good in this sport. Gemma is so determined and she and Sandy are really starting to gel now.  We are so very proud of her.”

Between now and the summer, months of training and competitions stretch before her. All the hours of hard work don’t stop her missing her family and her home. “I really want this, I love being here, it’s my dream job. But I do get homesick, I miss my friends and family, that’s the only downside to this. If I could move them up here I’d have the perfect life.”