Fiona Bigwood’s Roller Coaster Ride Back to Medals Podium
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Sept. 24, 2015
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
The roller coaster ride that has been the life of Fiona Bigwood for two years may be heading to the pinnacle of sports on Great Britain’s team at the Olympics for the first time on a horse she didn’t want to look at then gave her such joy as to pull her back from quitting dressage.
Atterupgaards Orthilia, an Oldenburg mare by the great Dutch stallion Gribaldi and in her first year at Grand Prix overcame her show nerves to partner Fiona in moving into the top 25 combinations in the world.
On the world’s biggest dressage stage, Aachen’s 40,000-seat Main Stadium at the European Championships in August, the pair posted the highest Grand Prix score for Britain behind world No. 1 Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro to help earn the team the Nations Cup silver medal.
“Tillie,” as the 10-year-old is called, whinnied nervously on the way into the arena as the stadium erupted in deafening cheers for the ride before her by one of the combinations from the Netherlands that went on to win team gold.
Although the stadium had about twice the number of seats as Olympic or World Games arenas, Tillie gave Fiona “the most amazing feeling,” blocking out everything around her for only her sixth ever international Grand Prix.
“Mum,” Fiona recalled Tillie letting her know, “I’m listening to you.”
Now 39 years old and the mother of three pre-teen children with Anders Dahl, the Danish dressage team rider, Fiona has spent her life competing in championship dressage.
Beginning in 1993 on the British team at the European Junior Championships then European Young Rider Championships from 1994 to 1996 then a year later at the age of 21 year becoming youngest British rider ever to be selected for a senior European Championships. Fiona rode on British teams at the 1999, 2005 and 2007 Europeans. She lived in Denmark and Germany for more than 13 years, training and competing.
Those were the years, she recalled in a recent interview with dressage-news.com, when British riders “always hoped” in vain to be on a medals podium after winning silver at the Europeans in 1993.
Until 2009 when Britain made the breakthrough taking team silver medal at the Europeans at home in Windsor that became much more than a one-off occurrence.
The next year, Fiona was on the British team with Wie Atlantico that took silver at the World Games in Kentucky. In the three Europeans, world championships and an Olympics since, Britain has been on every medals podium.
Looking for a Grand Prix horse as a successor to Wie Atlantico in early 2013 she went to try out a mare reluctantly, Fiona admits, as normally”I wouldn’t even look at a mare, I’m not a mare fan.” Another strike against Orthilia was that she did not want to wait a year to 18 months before the horse was ready for Grand Prix.
“Six months later I just couldn’t get her out of my mind,” Fiona said of the Danish-born Orthilia that was successful as a youngster and was being competed at Small Tour by European Young Rider champion Cathrine Dufour of Denmark.
Orthilia, or “Tillie,” as she is nicknamed, moved into the Bourne Hill stables of Fiona and Anders at Horsham, about 40 miles (64km) south of London in October, 2013.
Six months later Fiona fell off a Grand Prix horse in a freak accident at a national competition and sustained a serious concussion. She had double vision in one eye, a condition that persists, similar to that suffered by America’s Silva Martin as a result of a horse accident. She wears a patch over her right eye when competing.
“It was a really low point last year,” she said. “I had this string of horses that I wanted to campaign. I had the kids, I had the break. I had this horse I wanted to campaign. At the beginning of the season, I had to be really careful about what I rode because if you have another concussion in a year… I think they really want you to avoid that.
“I just hit a down point. At that point I thought life is full on with the horses and the kids: ‘You know what, I’m better just being a mum and just do that side and let Anders do the riding’.”
Fiona felt safe on Tillie, though, so she kept riding the mare at the same time as people were coming to buy her.
“But I just kept riding her,” she said. “You get off this horse with the biggest smile on your face.
“To be honest, she just kept me going through it.”
Fiona believes that life “is a bit planned out for you.”
“I think things happen in life for a reason. I had this riding accident last year. I was going to campaign Tillie last year. I think some things do happen for a reason. I think giving her that year has consolidated her work and she’s come out this year and gone from strength to strength from March when we did our first international. Probably last year she would have been a little bit too green at Grand Prix.”
She explained: “Dressage is tough. We have the biggest bounce. All of us can be on the floor yet the highs are beyond what the average person will ever experience. Sometimes you want to get off that roller coaster a bit because it is hard both ways.
“But every time you say you want to stop riding you have a day like (the Europeans Grand Prix). It is an addiction.The accident did test it.”
Despite Tillie’s nervousness at competitions it’s more than matched by her being “incredibly loyal” and taking care of Fiona in the competition arena such as the Europeans where the stadium was a size the pair have not seen before and may never see again,
And this is reflected in the rapid escalation of results from the first CDI Grand Prix score of 69.357 per cent at Barcelona in March to 76.800 per cent at Hartpury just four months later. Tillie and Fiona were awarded 75.800 per cent for eighth place individually out of 72 starting combinations in the Grand Prix.
“You can feel her in the warmup,” Fiona said, “she gets nervous. You come into the arena and she blocks everything out and it’s, ‘Mum, I’m listening to you. It’s almost like she deals with me. She blocks everything out around and focuses on you. It’s the most amazing feeling. Usually a hot horse will look at something or react to noise. She just doesn’t do it. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never had a horse like that.”
Then, at the final salute, “you drop the reins and after all that she walks out on a long rein. It’s fantastic, she’s really special.
“We are really connected. I’ve had many horses and I’ve had a couple of others but there are not many where you really feel that bond with them, your minds think together a bit… I can read her so well.”
With a barn full of horses and three children–Mette, Morten and Lars, the names what Fiona describes as a Danish connection for Anders–life at Bourne Hill is “manic,” but it’s also obvious from watching the family together “manic” is a great state to be.
“We don’t have anyone to help us with the children because I have these kids and and I want to spend time with them,” Fiona said. “So we have to have everything done by one or two o’clock. We take the kids to school, ride straight through, pick the kids up and then it’s full on until they go to bed at 9:30. We go to bed at 10 or 11 o’clock absolutely tattered.
“But I love it and I wouldn’t change it. It’s getting the two lifestyles to work.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way but it is a balancing act. We’ve got three dogs and a hamster and all of that. All the little things…. you have to call a fiend and ask them to pick up the hamster because you’re going to Germany for a week.
“We really have full lives.”
The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro is the goal, the only major she has never competed in.
While Fiona is confident Tillie can take her there, she points out the mare “is still young and has so much potential” she will to be careful not to push too hard.
“I don’t want to do too much and put too much pressure on her,” Fiona said. “She showed what she can do in a championship environment. We just need to keep improving.”
Since January, she has been driving more than four hours with Orthilia each way to train with Carl Hester, who seems to coach three of the four combinations on championship teams–Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro and himself on whatever one of several Grand Prix horses he trains and usually another pair.
“I get up there once every two or three weeks,” she said. “Carl is such a good competition rider; he knows all the tricks… a little bit more here, a little less there. It’s the tiny details that count. He doesn’t try to change my style–it’s those details that we want to get right.”
While Fiona is riding Orthilia, she laughs at the prospect that the time may not be far off when she competes against Anders riding for Denmark on Selten HW, the talented Hanoverian gelding now 11 years old that was originally bought from Californian Elizabeth Ball for her.
Fiona and Anders tend to ride the horses each gets on best. The American-bred Selten, a young horse superstar, was a better fit with Anders.
Just before going to Aachen, Anders walked into the house with the biggest grin and Fiona recalled him saying, “If I could ride that horse every day for the rest of my life.”
“He absolutely adores him. I’m a great believer you have to get on with your horse, there has to be mental compatibility there. I’ve got that with Tillie and he has that with Selten.”
Meantime, it’s a “totally different dimension” being on a medal-winning team.
“You talk about Rio, it’s not just about getting a medal it’s about what color medal you can get,” she said. “That’s exciting, that’s what it’s all about. When you were 12 years old that was always our goal, to have three or four horses in the country that can produce. That’s brilliant.”