Alison Kenward

A big part of my original vision for Dressage Perspectives was to meet and write about interesting people, to share their stories with you. When I started to make that vision a reality I knew that Oxfordshire based dressage rider and coach Alison Kenward was one of the first people I wanted to IMG_1470connect with. I noticed Alison through her Twitter account @solitaireDTM and I really liked her attitude to dressage and to her coaching career. After talking to Alison over the phone I knew that she was one hundred percent the kind of person that I wanted to interview. We met for lunch in Towcester and talked for hours!

I was fascinated to hear about Alison’s experiences out in New Zealand, working cattle in a remote and unforgiving environment. Now, I’ve enjoyed riding cattle working horses. They are agile and lightning quick in their responses, bright and super fun. I have never in my life herded cattle though! Alison has and I was deeply impressed. It is interesting that this work, riding with your body weight, usually one-handed and on the lightest of contacts, translates to our dressage riding very well. There are challenges in it for sure though and we chatted about those. It can take some getting used to riding with divided reins again and having a more defined contact. There is value though, as Alison pointed out, in learning to be resourceful because you are alone with animals in a vast landscape. She often took out young and unknown horses, getting to know them as she and they worked together. In half a day out there, she said, you can get to know a horse pretty well! Remembering those days is the perfect antidote the Alison’s inner control freak! I found myself thinking I could do with a dose of that.

Alison has great clarity of vision, a real ability to see the way forward and develop her skill set accordingly. I quickly discovered that she has a great intellectual curiosity about the whole learning experience. As a coach, as with all the other facets of her life, she is dedicated to becoming the best that she can be. Alison is currently working towards her UKCC Level 3 (Dressage Specific) qualification but her interest in coaching is much broader. It has led her to look beyond equestrian sports for information and inspiration. She is mentored by Sir Clive Woodward, the coach who successfully took the England Rugby team through a period of great transformational change. What really impressed me about this was not only that Alison had the confidence to go right to the top in her selection but she had the foresight to recognise that a person from outside of her own sport would make the ideal choice.

Of course, as trainers it is not just our coaching skills that matter, it is always the content that we have taken onboard from various sources that matters most. That is what we have to pass on to our pupils. Alison has a strong foundation as a rider and as an instructor. Currently Alison is a BHSII and has gained her Stable Manager’s qualification too; we talked about the challenges of the BHSI exam and how it fits within the overall framework of her career plan. We discussed our shared respect for the BHS training system and a belief in its ongoing importance. As the individual competitive disciplines have become increasingly popular with the riding public it is so important to have teachers with a broad skill base. IMG_6681

As a competitive rider Alison has shown the same focused and logical approach to her personal development. There are riders whose coaching choices are based on very flawed logic but wise riders always have a sound rationale behind the decisions they make. James Burtwell is Alison’s primary coach. This is a long-term situation and they have a strong rapport. James had been one of the Central Region coaches whom Alison worked with in the 1990s, before going out to New Zealand. He was the person she chose to work with on her return to the UK and his faith in Alison’s ability was such that he offered her a training bursary.  Thinking with the coach headset and the rider headset simultaneously can be paralysing. Sometimes we need a coach to take control of our own control issues! Working with James helps Alison to focus in the moment, to simply ride without constantly being under the magnifying glass of self-criticism. He is an excellent competition coach with a focused and positive attitude.

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Alison also trains with Emile Faurie from time to time. This is an experience which she described as magical. He also encouraged her to get rid of her fear of making mistakes and to be less apologetic for the mistakes she made. She was impressed not only with Emile’s attitude to her but also with the warmth and affection he shows to horses.

“The training environment is spot on. He’s got the knowledge, the patience, the empathy but he is also incredibly sport driven and competitive. I felt safe and incredibly challenged.”

Both Emile and James are people who Alison can turn to for help and advice. Both encourage Alison to think for herself and will gently remind her that some of the answers to her questions are ones that she is able to figure out for herself. As Alison pointed out, if we become too dependent on our coaches it breaks down our confidence and our ability to problem solve.

Alison has also been visiting Summerhouse Equestrian to work with Sarah Gallop on her Grand Prix schoolmasters. Riding fully trained horses is an essential element in a rider’s personal development. The connection that the coach has with the schoolmaster horse is vitally important. Together they work to help the rider. This requires the coach and horse to have a history, ideally it will be a horse that the coach has trained. The coach is an interpreter to help the rider understand what the trained horse is trying to say. As Alison said, left to her own devices on the fully trained horse she might have resorted to staying in walk and trying to perfect everything. With Sarah to guide her she was able to overcome any misunderstandings with the horse and gain a lot from the sessions.

I asked Alison, aside from her coaches, who had influenced her development. The book that first sparked her interest in dressage was Judith Draper’s “Guide to Show Jumping”. As a twelve-year-old child with a 13.2hh pony Alison had been mad about show jumping. After many struggles and lots of falls she turned to Judith’s book for help. The first few chapters are dedicated to flatwork. Alison was about to skip that part and get to the sections on jumping when she noticed something. At the start of the section on jumping, the book listed a range of basic dressage figures and movements and it said “if you cannot do all of these things with your horse then you need to go back to the beginning of the book and try again.” Alison spent a whole summer working on the flat. When she did go back to jump at a local venue people were amazed. This young girl who had always been falling off not only stayed on but jumped succesful rounds. The appreciation of dressage as a process was for Alison the forerunner to her love of dressage as a sport. In this, I think she was both fortunate and wise; it is far better that way around.

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As so often happens when you get along well with someone, you find out that you share common ground in terms of tastes and influences. As Alison ran through a list of the books and training DVDs that she loves I was smiling because her list is more or less my list too! Podhajsky, of course, Mark Todd on everything but especially show jumping and the value of grid work, Kyra Kyrklund for the sheer logic of her training system, Paul Belasik on energy states of the rider, and of course Charles de Kunffy! The list went on and my smile got wider!

“Who has influenced you” is perhaps the most important question to ask a prospective coach. The teachers they have chosen will define the quality of information they will transmit to you, the books they have read, the clinicians they have spent hours watching will be a big part of that as well. I know that Alison’s pupils find working with her hugely beneficial and her reputation as an intelligent and effective teacher is growing.

Tamasine Thompson, one of Alison’s students recently tweeted this

“I can testify that a good coach is 100% the difference between improving or stagnating – thanks @Solitaire DTM”

I should probably add that the tweet began with “MY BRAIN” and a ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ symbol! Now that, to me speaks a volume of positive things.

Alison blogs at http://alisonkenward.blogspot.co.uk and I am delighted to announce that she will also be joining Dressage Perspectives as a guest contributor!

Next time I will be writing about the horses in Alison’s life, their day-to-day training, the products that support their care and how she has found the ideal approach to competition for each of them!

Christine xx

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Dressage Perspectives Featured Riders

I was told once that the horse world polarises people; that I would see the best and the worst of humanity within it. That has been so true. On the whole I have seen far more good than bad. I have been lucky and, where necessary, I have been ruthlessly selective. My advice to people entering the industry – find the good people, walk away from the wrong ones quickly and keep putting the horses first.

The creation of Dressage Perspectives arose from a conversation with a group of friends. One of the issues we discussed was the trend towards celebrity riders and the need for riders to represent themselves, or be represented professionally, in a more aggressive way than ever before. To consumers of publicity it is easy to imagine that it just happens, as a natural consequence of having talent or being in some way interesting. Of course this is not so. How does an article usually end up on the pages of a magazine, digital or otherwise? For that you must explore the synergy between Public Relations and Journalism. The mechanics of that process might shock some people; for me it just invokes a wary cynicism. Too much hinges on what riders win, which studs they ride for and the market value of the bloodstock that carries them to victory. The commercial wheels of the industry have to turn, I guess, but there is far more to the horse world than that. There are so many really wonderful people out there. My mission is to discover the inspiring teachers, the small-scale horse breeders so passionate about what they do that they operate for decades at break-even point, and the riders who, win or lose, plainly adore their horses. Those are the kind of people I want to write about.

There are those who would have us believe that media will only appeal if it is seamlessly slick and relentlessly aspirational, that the attention span of our audience is currently around a nanosecond, and that all we merit is the victory of style over substance. I disagree and this is why. Equestrians might enjoy escapism as much as anyone but the reality we inhabit is bounded by mud, love, discomfort and joy. Our best friends tread on our feet and sneeze all over our clean clothes. We struggle to forge careers that make no sense to our friends, families and bank managers. We have to be tenacious if we are in it for the long haul. Our stock can rise and drop with the state of an animal’s health. Oblivion is always beckoning. There are those around us who only love a rising star, those who want your style to cover for their lack of substance. Those people will be gone quicker than a rat up a drain if your luck turns for the worse. Knowing this, it is vital to identify and cherish the people who will still be around, those sponsors who will stick with you through a dry spell, owners who will say no to those who covet your rides, pupils who are there for what you know and not who you know. One of the more valid measures of success in our careers is the relationships we build and sustain.

A lady I know once said to me ‘it is all about bred by, ridden by, trained by and owned by’. Initially I shrugged off her cynical take on an industry I thought I knew better than she did. But, in a way, I must admit she was bang on the money, she identified exactly where the money is to be found. She was very wide of the mark when it comes to finding happiness, friendship, decency and humour though. I suppose that in life you find what you go looking for. I have found kindred spirits, equine and human, in the most wonderful and unlikely places. For me this world (not just the horse world) is all about the connections we make with other creatures. The connections between teachers, pupils, friends, mentors, grooms, owners, sponsors and above all that between the horse and its rider; these are the fabric of our world. It is those strands of connection I want to explore.

This Featured Riders series is an opportunity for me to talk to those riders who I think deserve to be talked about for all the right reasons. So far this year I have had the absolute pleasure to meet with Rowan Crosby and Alison Kenward, both of whom are true horsewomen with fascinating stories to tell. I am currently trying to do those stories justice as I write about them. We never know who will turn out to have a positive influence in our lives, however great or small. The more we connect with others and find common ground, the better our own lives and our horses’ lives will be. Sharing our stories and finding inspiration in one another is something I really believe is important. I hope that this new dimension to Dressage Perspectives is something that proves insightful and enriching!