Written by: Kim King
An exclusive chat with esteemed dressage judge Stephen Clarke.
Canada has been fortunate to have Great Britain’s esteemed FEI 5* Judge General Stephen Clarke impart his wisdom as a clinician in 2017 and 2018 through clinics organized by CADORA. We caught up with him at his “Build a Better Dressage Horse” clinic in Brandon, Manitoba, in October of last year.
Stephen’s illustrious career with horses began as a boy at the age of eight, when he recalls being fascinated by the horses and ponies across the fence from his own Welsh farm. He discovered that by proving to his neighbour he could stay on the unbroken ponies, he was allowed to ride them.
From that point on, Stephen’s riding career spanned the world of eventing and show jumping before eventually coming around to the world of dressage. He does admit that even during his jumping days “it was always about the dressage.” Stephen identifies his personal career highlights aboard a lovely Thoroughbred named Beckett; they were the reserve combination for the British Dressage Team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and placed in the top three at Rotterdam in the mid-’80s among some other world-class riders.
In the UK, Stephen is based out of Cotton Equestrian Centre, located about 50 km southeast of Liverpool. “I’ve owned the place for years. I used to run a sort of working pupils scheme for up-and-coming trainers, all of whom have gone on to make a living in their careers. I am very proud of them.”
Stephen has worked co-operatively with Carl Hester and many of his students have gone on to Carl’s yard as his judging commitments have increased over the years. Stephen commented affectionately, “Most of my riders, once they reach a certain level, dear Carl gets them all. Carl and I have a great relationship.” His respect for the Olympic gold medalist is apparent in that they share the same horse-friendly approach to training.
When he is teaching, Stephen doesn’t focus on what level people are riding at; he is more interested in working with people who want to learn something and train horses in the correct way. His own reward is working with people that have a “horse-friendly attitude”– specifically, they do not use the horses for their own ambition as a rider and they do not train with force. A favourite maxim is “What you make by force, you keep by force.”
When asked what Canada needs to do to get back to the podium in dressage, Stephen referred to some key factors which played a role in the re-emergence of Great Britain at the forefront of the sport “There are good riders in Canada and some very nice horses, but its also a little bit of luck to have all the riders and horses peaking at the same moment – and that’s what happened in the UK.” Regarding attracting youth involvement, he added, “In England, we are very lucky to have a world-class program that is lottery-funded. It is specifically designed to help up-and-coming riders and offers a lot of programs including sports psychology on so on. But it’s easy for us, because we are the size of a postage stamp.”
He conceded that the size of Canada makes it considerably more difficult, citing the proximity of good shows and training opportunities in Europe as a major influence in developing the dressage community and identifying athletes. “[In Canada] it’s so much travelling to go to competitions, whereas in Europe you can drive through four countries in one afternoon.”
To be successful in a country of this size, Stephen suggested that a high degree of co-operation among organizations, trainers and riders would be required to successfully support further development of competitive dressage athletes. And he reiterated: “It has a lot to do with luck, but the harder you work, the luckier you get!”
Stephen currently judges at least two national or international shows a month and is otherwise a very busy clinician, both at home and abroad. He admits the amount of travelling required to all parts of the globe is “crazy. Since joining the British Airways Club many years ago, I have, according to their flight plan, travelled to the moon and back at least twice.”
So what does this busy world traveller do for a holiday? “Well, my job and hobby are rolled into one, so life is a vacation as far as I am concerned!” he said, laughing. Stephen often finds himself in locales where he can stop along the way to enjoy a brief break. “If I am in an interesting place, I will take a few days and have a look around. I’ve got friends all over the world.” He loves musicals and admits to seeing Les Miserables twelve times and knowing all of the words well enough to sing along.
Looking to the future, Stephen expressed continuing interest in the development of young horses, as this is where the sport begins. He has a personal ambition to focus on the future of dressage and to encourage young riders to excel. “I like the pressure of judging the really top shows; however, I also enjoy some of the regular CDIs. It just brings you closer to the real grass roots.”
With Stephen’s experience, his kind and effective teaching methods, and through his expert judging, there is no doubt that he will continue to have a positive impact on the dressage world in every community he visits and every life he touches.