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Carl Hester: ‘We must step out of our bubble and see how dressage looks from outside’

Top dressage rider and trainer Carl Hester on the latest buzz phrase and the return of a much-loved venue

Carl Hester and Uthopia competing at Addington in 2012
Addington Manor British Dressage Premier League Dressage Wednesday 2nd May 2012 Carl Hester and Uthopia Score 83.29% in the Gran Prix British record performance

I was delighted to learn that Addington Equestrian is back and not just for dressage, but across multiple disciplines. Addington holds so many memories for me, from winning the selection trials on Giorgione before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics to setting a (then) grand prix record on a fire-breathing Uthopia 20 years later.

I first met Addington director of sport Alan Beaumont at Bolesworth. He may be a jumping man, but he has lashings of experience in organising international shows. That the stops were pulled out to ready the venue six months ahead of schedule to take on a British Dressage Premier League as well as the CDI and para international, originally to be held at Keysoe next year, is nothing short of amazing.

It’s not just for top-level competition, however. The grassroots will be catered for, too. The aim is inclusivity and, as a free-to-spectate venue in a great catchment area, there will be plenty of opportunity for people to come and see what horse sport is about.

Addington has been part of the fabric of dressage’s development in this country, thanks to founders Lady Inchcape and her late husband. So I was thrilled to learn from Alan that preserving and building on that history and “the glory days” is very much part of the long-term plan. The offices are now located in Lady Inchcape’s former stables, with the bridle hooks still in place. It’s fitting and rather touching.

Why perception matters

Social licence. You’re bound to have heard this term, as it’s the latest buzz phrase being bandied around the equestrian community. While academics expound on the theme with authority, surely I can’t be the only one secretly trying to figure out its true meaning? But that doesn’t stop me throwing it into grown-up conversations on the future of our sport.

Google reveals that the original term was born in the business world and referred to a level of acceptance or approval by communities and stakeholders of organisations and their operations. It seems to have evolved to being regarded as “social acceptability”. In our case, it’s all about how we go about using our horses for dressage competitions.

For greater insight, I chatted about this with my good friend Richard Davison. We both reflected on how the public’s close interaction with horses has significantly declined since our grandparents’ time, when horses were still part of their everyday lives. That said, for me, growing up on Sark where there are no cars, I know well how the horse-human relationship of yesteryear still exists. In the more modern world, though, a daily and widespread connection with horses has all but disappeared, and horse populations have been distilled down to those being kept for leisure or sport.

Richard, who is also a trustee of World Horse Welfare, sees the big picture and said that public perceptions of our rapidly changing world mean
all animal practices are constantly being re-evaluated.

“As far as equestrian sport is concerned,” he said, “we need to be proactive and scrutinise our rules and protocols, since the optics of what we do will shape public opinion. We are not the sole arbiters when it comes to how we manage and use our horses.”

Richard and I both agree that we need to step out of the bubble and see how it looks from the other side if we wish to remain ethically legitimate.

There is a huge swathe of fair-minded population who are yet undecided in their opinion of horses being used for sport. They are representative of the crowds who, having never attended an equestrian event, loved the dancing horses at London 2012.

With respect to Pammy Hutton (opinion, 27 October), I do not agree that this is a “fight”. Our way forward is through engagement, acknowledging the range of emerging perceptions and proactively shaping public opinion.

● Do you have fond memories of Addington? Share them with us at including your full name, nearest town and county for the chance to have your memories published in the letters page in the magazine.

  • This exclusive column will also be available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 17 November

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