Rowan Crosby is one of the most charming and modest young riders you could possibly meet; she is also a rising star of Para Dressage in Great Britain. I have admired her ability and her ethos for some time. When I decided to create the Featured Riders series, it was very much with riders like Rowan in mind.
I met with Rowan and her family last summer and we got along so well that I stayed hours longer than I’d planned to! Then when I sat down to write I honestly struggled. I’m not usually at a loss for words but there was something about Rowan and her story that I found I could not quite do justice to. It comes down to the fact that when a person impresses you this much it is very difficult to write about them. Para athletes tend to be tenacious and courageous people by definition. The conditions that Rowan overcomes to succeed are very great indeed. Rowan has Dystonia and Paroxysmal Dyskinesia, which are both severe neurological disorders. The practical implications for a rider are not only severe pain but unpredictable muscle spasms. Different muscles every time. For the rider, horse and coach this presents a set of challenges that change from day-to-day.
For me, Rowan’s story is about far more than the obstacles and the struggle; that is not where I wanted my focus as a writer to be. I spent a wonderful afternoon with a wise, funny, clever young woman. Beyond those attributes, I was aware that there was a very unusual quality to Rowan. It took time to work out what it was. Strangely enough realising what it was finally unlocked my ability to write about her.
As a horsewoman, as a rider Rowan is extremely sensitive to her horse and it’s needs. As a competitor she is utterly focused and she has all the determination that marks out an elite athlete. Those factors do tend to combine in the best of the best riders. It is unusual however to meet a person who is as serene as they are powerful.
Rowan has a quiet grace about her and an obvious love for animals. I think that is partly what makes her the rider that she is. Her sense of humour is quick but never unkind, most often it is self-deprecating. She related anecdotes that showed me a whole other side to the Para Dressage circuit. There is a level of camaraderie and pragmatic humour less often found in competitive dressage among able-bodied riders.
Becoming an Olympic athlete was something that Rowan aspired to as a very young child, long before she ever sat on a pony. In fact she first expressed this wish when she less than three years old and it was all the more remarkable because at that point in Rowan’s life she rarely communicated verbally. In spite of speaking very little, Rowan told her parents that she was going to be in the Olympics. This was before Rowan had taken up any sport. When a person says something with that kind of certainty it often does manifest in reality. The earlier in our lives that we articulate such intentions then the more deeply embedded they are in our psyche. I will not be at all surprised to see Rowan Crosby on an Olympic podium. She has absolutely the right spirit and the right attitude.
When I drove down to meet with Rowan she was still in the middle of her GCSE exams. Rowan’s determination to take GCSEs and her plans to go on to take her A levels had necessitated her moving schools. Leaving the peaceful familiar atmosphere of a special school for the bustling environment of a mainstream secondary school has been a big adaptation. It is an added factor in managing Rowan’s energy levels. She is at school for half days, specifically tailored around her GCSE subjects.
Rowan’s Dressage Horses
So many times in the hours we spent talking Rowan spoke of her desire to make her family proud; of her love for her horse, a beautiful young Connemara mare called Tiger Lily. Rowan describes Tiger as her best friend and her ‘peace’ at the end of a long exhausting school day.
Rowan spends a lot of time creating activities to build her partnership with Tiger. Picnics together, wheeling around the arena learning tests with Tiger following behind her, grooming Tiger herself and hacking out with her friends. All of these things are strengthening an already firm bond. What I noticed though was that Rowan didn’t put the emphasis on doing things that she enjoys. Rowan spoke always from the perspective of what Tiger might enjoy and what she thinks might make Tiger happy.
Tiger has carried Rowan to high levels of competitive success in a very short time frame. They qualified for both Winter and Summer Championships and represented both Wales and Great Britain within their first year together.
I asked Rowan what it is about a horse that she likes, what enables her to build the kind of bond that she wants. She told me that what she loves about Tiger is her willingness, her friendly and interactive nature. Tiger is a horse that wants to please and make you proud. Her bond with her first horse Tex, a Welsh x Arabian was different. Tex was rather more aloof in some respects, but loving, willing, cheeky and loyal too. Rowan described his wonderful medium trot as something she really misses. He was a horse that needed a lot of support and input from his rider to do a really good test. A judge once commented that “you get no marks for free from that horse”. It all comes back to finding the perfect balance between brilliance and consistency. Tex was generous and always took care of Rowan, but the sensitivity to his environment made competition more of a challenge. After discovering dressage with a hotter type of horse, Rowan can now enjoy the wonderful pragmatism of a Connemara! As she said, it is wonderful to know that the horse is not going to spook; you can just relax and focus on the riding. Oh how true that is!
It is clear that at the heart of Rowan and Tiger’s relationship is mutual love and trust. As Rowan repeatedly said throughout our chat “the horse comes first”. When she and Tiger were representing Great Britain Rowan described hearing the applause and saying to Tiger “that is for you. That is because of you” whilst hugging her neck all of the way out of the arena. Some dressage combinations are horse centric and others are rider centric, where horses are the means to an end. Rowan is 100% horse centric in her approach to the sport and I just love that.
The bond which a Para rider shares with their horse and the challenges of being a Para rider’s horse were subjects that we kept coming back to. There are times when the horse must simply step into the breach and take charge, because in that moment his rider cannot. A Para rider’s horse can never be afraid of its rider, never be trained by force or fear. That would be far too dangerous. It is a strong, trust based, relationship that is required. In certain moments a Para rider can become extremely vulnerable and the horse has to be a true friend and partner. It must never, as Rowan’s mum put it, have been pushed to the point where it says no to the rider and learns that this is an option. The coaches who ride that horse and who work with that combination absolutely have to be on the right page in terms of training methods and personality.
Rowan’s highest priority in planning her coaching is to work only with people who have the horse’s best interest as their first priority. Rowan has worked with her coach Claire Cooper -Wyatt for eight years now. They have a very strong bond. According to Rowan’s mother they have very similar brains, with a shared love of analysis. This is something which struck a real chord with me too; analytical minds lend themselves well to understanding dressage. When Claire trains the horse that Rowan is riding she rides as Rowan would, one-handed, without using her legs. Coaching a Para rider is something that takes a strong nerve at times. I was once told that the first thing for a coach new to working with Para riders was not the be over protective. Rowan spoke of the courage that Claire has to coach her on the very bad days in terms of her health and her pain levels. I can really relate to how that would challenge me as a trainer. Getting to know the individual rider and their horse is part of the process, but getting to know the medical condition that the rider has and how it can vary from day-to-day is at least as important. As Rowan said, a Para rider’s horse may well have a subtly different rider to adapt to every single day and so in effect can their coach. When she began coaching Rowan, Claire was new to working with Para riders. It is a relationship based on openness, on a shared work ethic and a fair amount of humour too; every day is ‘pick on a Para’ day!
Claire is also there to support Rowan in competition, helping Tiger to adapt to the environment and helping Rowan to find the right state of mind in which to compete. This is something that she is very good at, having a strong understanding of the psychological approach to competition herself. Claire’s commitment to Rowan is incredible, using her holiday days up to ensure that she is able to give the level of support needed. Rowan is also unswervingly loyal to Claire.
Claire has been enjoying a lot of success with her beautiful AES Licensed Oldenburg stallion Devivo. Devivo (known as Albi) is by Desperado (Vivaldi) . His Dam by the legendary Rohdiamont. You can connect with Claire by following So Very Sportshorses on Facebook.
In addition to working with Claire as her primary coach, Rowan also goes to Sarah Rogers and Tracy Ormrod, both of whom are coaches that Rowan trusts implicitly to put the horse first. When it came time to find Rowan’s first dressage partner Tex a new home, it was Tracy Ormrod that they asked to help them. After meeting several prospective buyers, she instinctively recognised when Tex had chosen the right young human to be his next partner. Horses make clear choices if we give them the chance to, but it takes a true horse person to recognise and interpret the behaviours and body language of the horse at a time like that.
Influences and Inspiration
It is not just the choice of coaches that makes us successful as riders. We talked a lot about what it means to be a good pupil. Rowan’s work ethic, her manners, her attitude to her coaches are clearly a reflection of the values she has been brought up with as well as her own personality. The way a rider handles their growing fame and the ups and downs of their career matters as much as any other aspect of the sport. In fact I think it matters more than many of them.
As riders we all have influences who are not necessarily coaches or even people in the horse world. I believe that sharing who and what these are is a way in which we can offer great insights to one another. Sophie Chrisitiansen CBE is the rider who Rowan most admires, particularly for her elegance and accuracy. She produces the most beautiful, fluent tests; as Rowan said “if she can do it, I can do it”. A rider with a first class degree Masters in Mathematics, who has combined winning multiple gold medals in two Paralympic games with a career as a statistical analysis for Goldman Sachs is a fitting role model for Rowan and indeed for me too. A theme emerges here I think; dressage and quants!
Rowan cites Black Beauty as a book which influenced her. It was reflecting on the many changes of home that a horse can go through that made her determined to find the best possible home for Tex when the time came.
We spoke of fellow competitors who have impressed Rowan greatly over the years. Fellow Welsh team rider Lorna Lee for her kindness and for the gentleness she shows to her horses and Emma Douglas for her amazing test riding.
Life as a Para Equestrian Athlete
Riding competitively has been a part of Rowan’s life with horses from a very early age. I could see that it is a source of motivation and strength for her. Rowan has a wonderfully supportive family. This is always something that makes competitive dressage far more enjoyable and more successful. Whilst it is possible to go out there against all of the odds and succeed, it is far more likely to happen if the people you are surrounded by are on your side. We talked about the fun of putting together freestyle tests. Rowan and her mother Elizabeth collaborate to create her freestyle tests. They share a love of creating the floor plans and finding the perfect music. Fortunately Rowan’s grandfather is a sound technician and he helps ensure that her music is professionally put together. This highly creative aspect of competitive dressage is something that I love too. Music generally and specific songs also help Rowan to keep herself in the right zone during competitions.
Although Rowan grooms Tiger at home, she has help with this at competitions. In order to avoid the risk of her body going into spasm during the test, her entire day at a competition is geared around avoiding any unnecessary exertion. Rowan’s primary focus is her state of mind and riding the test itself. Her coach Claire is allowed to warm Tiger up and then Rowan takes over at a just the right moment. The game plan for each competition depends on variables like how Rowan is feeling, her energy levels, how much work Tiger has been in during the run up to the competition. Adaptability is very important. It is challenging to get on a horse that is already warmed up and ride well when you are not. Finding the ideal balance and judging the right moment is a real skill.
We talked about the experience of progressing from early competitive experiences to the full on formality that Rowan encountered for the first time at Bishop Burton CPDI. No matter how kind or well disposed officials may be at such competitions they are more aloof, more formal and quite rightly more focused on ensuring that rules are adhered to. They are under a level of scrutiny themselves that cannot be particularly comfortable. Her first International was a steep learning curve in itself but Rowan was genuinely able to enjoy her first opportunity to represent Great Britain, winning the Jane Goldsmith Award for the young person with the highest score. The most meaningful accolade of all to Rowan though was that Tiger was named ‘the pony that everyone most wanted to take home’!
Managing mindset & using pain for a purpose.
It is difficult to say sometimes why a particular rider ends up on my radar. In Rowan’s case I can pin point the very moment I realised that she was a particularly interesting young rider. She posted a photo to her Facebook page of her sitting in the car before a competition. She was taking time out to get into her ‘zone’. I commented that it was so good to see a young rider focused on optimising their mind-set.
As we talked I realised that Rowan has a wonderfully mature and professional attitude to managing her mind-set. I really believe in riders at all levels learning how to do this. Finding the optimal mental approach to what we do is important for all riders but for Rowan, who lives with a level of pain that I cannot even imagine, it is vital. She has times when her condition and the pain it brings can induce a state that her mother described as ‘dormant’. Rowan described how this closed down state of mind feels, how it feeds upon itself in a vicious cycle when she is too ill to ride.
It is at those times that the people around her need to let her know that she is not being the version of herself that she really wants to be. At just the right time they can help her come back to herself and start fulfilling her potential and her choices again. I have never known that level of pain but, like many of us, I can relate to experiencing a state of mind which in which we become a different version of ourselves. Getting out of that without external help is next to impossible. For Rowan what helps is to re-visit her short, medium, and long-term goals. There is one key question that she comes back to
“What are you going to do today, to change tomorrow?”
That is a question I realise I ought to ask myself on a regular basis. In good times and bad it has a beneficial effect on the mind. There have been occasions that Rowan’s mum has booked her in to competitions in order to give her a focal point in time to work towards. Riding clearly plays a huge part in bringing Rowan back from dormancy to the positive state of mind she wants to exist in. Once she is riding again, she is happy.
“I would rather be outside, riding a horse whilst being sore than inside being sore and doing nothing”
Hearing Rowan say that she actively uses pain to help her focus as a competitor surprised me at first, but on reflection it made perfect sense. It is a spur, something that brings out an even greater level of determination. In this respect Rowan acknowledges that she has found possibly the only positive use for her pain. We talked about mental health issues too, including my own, and how any pain could take us into upward spirals as well as downward ones. As Kenji Miyazawa said “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey”
Working with Jennie Killilea, World Class Programme Sports Psychologist, has been a massive help. With maturity and a growing awareness of psychology Rowan is increasingly able to lift herself out of negative states, with less and less assistance. Rowan’s mother put it this way. “It is never that she has fallen out of love with the riding; it is just that other things have muddled the way.” I think that is something that a lot of us can relate to.
Rowan and I have both worked with visualisations to help our riding. She pointed out that it is a very tiring thing to do if you do it right. I would totally agree with that. Your mind has had the experience, it is very real and you will feel a sense of expending energy even though it looks like you are doing nothing. We also agreed that getting the technique right is more difficult than it sounds. The need to make it multi sensory and keep it in real-time are two important factors.
Physiotherapy and body work for horse and rider.
These elements are increasingly recognised as beneficial for all dressage riders but they have of necessity been a bigger than average part of Rowan’s life. Para Equestrian athletes are accostomed to taking thier bodies towards limits which might seem downright alarming to some people, less alarming perhaps to the able bodied equestrian than to the non rider though. All riders share a common determination to let nothing stand between us and our particular goals. Within the equestrian community those of us who are able bodied tend to be quite in awe of our Para equestrian colleagues.
With this in mind I was dismayed, though perhaps not surprised, to hear, about the attitudes which some Physiotherapists have taken to Rowan, an already established Para Equestrian athlete. A non rider might look at Rowan and form the opinion that she ought not to engage in so physical and potentially dangerous a sport. That would be a failure on their part to understand the importance of riding and competing to Rowan. A failure also to estimate the impact of suggesting that she remove from her life the greatest achievement and motivation of all. Rowan knows that certain activities, like cooking for example, are difficult and even too dangerous for her. The fact that she is independent on the back of a horse, that she is doing something that she does well, is very important to her. It is where she feels free. It is her element.
Some therapists have even suggested that she should stop doing whatever she is doing if she feels pain. As she said, the pain is a constant regardless of what she does. Like her RDA first teacher, Anne, I am of the opinion that Rowan can do whatever she sets her mind to. She and her family know best of all how to decide what she should be doing and what risks she should be taking. The role of a physical therapist is to support her in her choice. I can see how that takes courage, but if anyone deserves the people around them to keep their nerve it is Rowan.
Rowan has Hydrotherapy twice each week, she sees a Neurophysiotherapist through Alder Hay hospital occasionally, and she sees a functional physiotherapist on a regular basis. Finding the right people, with the right attitudes has been a key to successful treatment. Alongside the professional skills there has to be a belief in Rowan and what she is achieving.
One of the most surprising things Rowan told me was that she has taken up Boxing. It was initially a response to being told that her physical strength would only deteriorate. Not only does it help to counteract this loss of strength, it is also, according to Rowan, a great way to use your pain and work through it. Inspired by Rowan, her boxing coach has set up his gym as a fully accessible facility for disabled people. He found that Rowan’s ability to lift weight and to punch is way beyond what her appearance led him to expect. He likens her to Yoda and I think this comparison works on a number of levels! Together they work on a customised blend of Boxing, Strength and Conditioning and on Kick Boxing.
Rowan has used her competition winnings to invest in gym equipment for her to use at home. There is an exercise bike in the barn so that Rowan can cycle on it and chat to Tiger at the same time! The riding itself is part of her physical therapy and she finds that lots of hacking helps to keep her strength up. There is a fine line between exercise helping Rowan’s body and sending it into spasm. This has a direct bearing on her training schedule with Tiger and the decisions she makes around warming up at competitions. Warm ups are limited strictly to a maximum of twenty minutes. Training sessions can last up to twice as long but Rowan can do nothing the day before.
Tiger, of course, sees a physio regularly – Laura Clinton helps to Tiger comfortable and thus working optimally. Laura is a wonderful physio and although at the time of writing this she is away on maternity leave, you can find out more about her work at http://www.equiflexion.co.uk
Rowan’s Advice to Other Riders –
I asked Rowan what advice she would most like to pass on to other riders, as a result of her own career experiences. This is what she said:
To Para and Able Bodied riders – that you can do whatever you put your mind to, to enjoy what you do, and that in training or competition there is always something good to take away from the session. Sometimes, when a competition goes badly, all you can take away from the experience is that you get to take your pony home safe and well. Then you realise that this is everything that matters.
Another maxim that Rowan lives by is
“Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail”.
Expanding on that point we talked about the importance of preparation at all levels of competition, from local unaffiliated to Internationals. There is no competition that is unimportant when you are representing yourself, your horse, your coach and the people who love and support you. It always matters. You don’t need permission from anybody to take yourself seriously as a competitor.
Having started her journey with horses through the RDA, Rowan is keen to make her contribution and qualify as a coach. Clwyd Special Riding Centre sounds like an idyllic place, which Rowan describes as being more like a social club. She has grown up there with a group of young riders who still spend a lot of their free time there together, this long after she moved through from RDA to Para Dressage. The volunteers and coaches at the centre have been a constant source of support for Rowan and I think she, in turn, will make an excellent teacher.
I am so pleased that I contacted Rowan and that she agreed to be interviewed. There were so many instances, during the time I spent with her, that I felt my gut instinct about her was utterly vindicated. To me, the most important quality of a horsewoman is love for the horse and seeing Rowan interacting with Tiger made it clear that this is a quality she has in abundance. I wish her the very best of everything for her future and I am looking forward to staying in touch and keeping you all up to date with her news and achievements.