PUBLISHED: 15:29 17 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:51 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann talks to Hannah Biggs, a dressage rider with her sights set on gaining a place in Britain's dressage team for the 2012 Olympics
I have come to the northernmost edge of Dorset to see Hannah Biggs, an international dressage rider with her sights set firmly on gaining a place in the British Olympic Team for 2012. Hannah lives at Brook Farm, north of Gillingham, where she runs a livery and training business. I am greeted on arrival at the beautifully appointed stables, not just by Hannah but by various dogs and cats - the horses, it appears, are safely tucked up in the warm. I say safely because, as I explain to Hannah, horses and me don't seem to get on - I was once bitten by a racehorse and since then I have always ensured that there was a strong barrier between me and any equine.
I begin by asking Hannah to explain just what dressage is. She smiles and pauses before answering. "In simple terms, and very briefly, it is training a horse to be in perfect harmony with its rider," says Hannah. "There are various things the horse has to do. It has to trot and canter sideways; it has to trot on the spot (known as 'piaffe trotting'), and it has to perform a highly collected suspended trot known as 'passage trotting'. If the rider and the horse are really good it should look as if the rider just thinks it and the horse does it," she explains. "The best riders have an almost intuitive connection with the horse, a sympathy, if you like. Dressage should be a sort of ballet, an effortless harmony between horse and rider. As for the horse, it can take 10 years to train a dressage horse to the highest level."
Hannah was born in Hong Kong in 1979 and lived there until 1997. Her father was a solicitor in Hong Kong, and indeed is still a solicitor although he now works in London. Her mother is an interior designer. Life for Hannah in Hong Kong meant riding. "I got my first horse when I was six. I've always been very competitive - in the Pony Club I did jumping and cross-country competitions and from an early age that need to win was there."
On coming to live in England, Hannah got involved in eventing at Junior level and it soon became clear that she had a real talent for the dressage side if things. She gained a place in the British Junior and Young Rider Team and took part in the European Championships aged just 18. She followed this up by becoming British Junior National Dressage Champion. Since then she has never looked back, notching up successes and making steady progress over the intervening years to 2008 when she gained seventh and eighth places at the National Championships at Intermediate 1 Level.
I ask about the Olympics. "It's been a lifelong dream to get to the Olympics," Hannah answers. "I want to be the best in the world and I believe I can be. It's all about hard work and keeping both yourself and the horse fit. Sponsorship is vital. I have one sponsor and I am looking for more. Please, if anyone out there reading this feels they would like to sponsor me, get in touch! At a guess I would say that I am amongst the top 20 best dressage riders in the country at the moment and I am still relatively young.
"Dressage is all about establishing a partnership with your horse. My horse is called Weltzin, I bought him as a 31/2-year-old in Germany. Over the next three years I will strive to become established at Premier League level and to take part in Grand Prix events. There are only three in the Olympic team and selection is not made until two months before the event. You can be on the very point of selection and your horse becomes unfit and that is the end of it - until the next time."
It is time to meet Weltzin. I follow Hannah into a covered area. Inside there are half a dozen or so stalls, each one containing a horse. Hannah enters a stall and greets the equine occupant by planting a big kiss on its muzzle. "Meet Weltzin," she says, "my best mate." Gingerly I pat said horse on the side of his face. "He's a poppet, isn't he?" she says, smiling. As for me, I am not so sure. This Weltzin is a very big stallion indeed and I get the feeling that he knows a wimp when he meets one.
Hannah leads him out into the yard and I take a few pictures. Watching them together it is difficult not to see them as a kind of single entity, so in tune with each other's ways do they seem. "He's not a pet," says Hannah. "He has to know his place, and knowing his place he is happy. He has to be a happy athlete. Having said that, there is a very real bond between us."
Listening to Hannah talk of Weltzin as an athlete strikes me as somewhat strange. If the horse is an athlete, what does it make Hannah? She holds out an arm. "See that wrist?" she asks. I do. It's bandaged up and is twice the size of the other. "That was caused by repetitive strain. Being able to control a horse means being fit, really fit. I train like any other athlete."
Watching Hannah as she leads Weltzin back to his stall, a tiny figure beside the horse on which her hopes of Olympic glory are pinned, I cannot help but think that for Hannah Biggs the next three years will be years of success. As to whether that final goal will come her way, only time will tell. For now she and Weltzin will train and train and train...
"It's been a lifelong dream to get to the Olympics. I want to be the best in the world and I believe I can be"