Best of the Week
Teen helping mum realise Olympic riding dream
Geologist and equestrian Wendi Williamson is making significant strides in the world of dressage, helped by a close-knit support team including her young daughter, Becki.
As Wendi Williamson puts her horse through his paces in the dressage arena, her teenage “coach” stands in the wings, watching their every trot and canter intently.
Right now, Williamson is New Zealand’s top dressage rider, with an incredible year ahead of her – the World Cup Final in Las Vegas, a string of shows in Europe, and possibly, the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Her 17-year-old daughter, Becki, is an aspiring rider and a budding artist - her school art boards are entirely portraits of horses.
Becki also has what her mother calls “a very good eye”.
“I get her to critique my position, particularly, or the horse’s shape; things she sees from the ground,” Williamson says. “She’s seen enough grand prix competition and top riders on video to know what to look for.”
The teenager takes her role seriously, especially if it means helping Mum lift her performance on the world dressage stage.
“I’m the sideline yelling person,” Becki says. “The stand-in coach and photographer. I’m yelling ‘Not on the bit! More forward! Get that hind leg going! What the hell are you doing with your hands?’”
Mother and daughter break into laughter at the thought of it.
Becki has decided to do her Year 13 school year by correspondence this year, to spend more time working with the 18 horses on the family’s Waitekauri Farm northwest of Auckland, and so she can accompany her mum to a few events around the world.
The event the teenager really wants to watch firsthand is the FEI Dressage World Cup in Las Vegas in April, where Williamson will be competing for a second time.
Williamson qualified for the pinnacle event last month, winning the grand prix freestyle at the Pacific League final in Australia on her top horse Don Amour MH (also known as Donny).
It was the highlight in a breakthrough year for 48-year-old Williamson, after a “disastrous 2018” - a year in which she was injured in accidents twice and lost her much-loved champion mount, Dejavu MH.
The stunning 12-year-old gelding, nicknamed “DJ”, died suddenly from colic - shortly before the World Equestrian Games. He was the first horse that Williamson had trained through to grand prix level, and they competed together at the 2017 World Cup Final in Omaha, Nebraska.
That year, Williamson was also kicked by a horse at a show, which led to a large, troublesome haematoma on her hip. Then a horse jumped on her foot, breaking a toe: “It took a long time to put a riding boot back on again.”
Last year saw a turnaround in fortune for Williamson, who balances her international riding with raising a family and a fulltime job as a contaminated land advisor.
On board her 11-year-old gelding Donny, Williamson won the New Zealand grand prix Horse of the Year title for the first time, the Australian nationals and the Pacific League Final. Those performances led to Williamson qualifying New Zealand for an individual dressage spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“Of course, it’s every athlete’s dream to compete at an Olympics,” Williamson says. “I don’t make any grand plans, or have any expectations, but I will always strive to be at the pinnacle.”
There’s no guarantee that Williamson – or any rider from New Zealand – will get to ride in Tokyo in August.
“It’s tough and a bit of a bone of contention,” explains Equestrian Sports NZ high performance operations manager, Warrick Allan.
“Wendi finished as the top rider in Oceania, qualifying New Zealand for the individual quota spot. But it’s now back to zero – any rider is eligible to go.”
But that rider must first meet the selection criteria set down by the New Zealand OIympic Committee, based around a rider being capable of a top 16 finish.
New Zealand has sent dressage riders to the last two Olympics – Louisa Hill in London 2012, and Julie Brougham in Rio 2016. Brougham and Vom Feinsten set New Zealand's highest Olympic score, 68.543 percent, and finished 44th.
“It would be exciting to get someone there,” Allan says. “Eventing is the game we’ve traditionally done well in, but it isn’t as difficult technically as pure show jumping or pure dressage.
“That’s not to say we can’t foot it with the best in dressage. Especially Wendi, who’s a very dedicated rider.”
Williamson reckons there’s “a very slim chance” New Zealand will have a rider-horse pairing in Tokyo. But she still believes it’s important that someone is there.
“For us to medal at the Olympics would be pretty far-fetched. But, there’s a lot of people committed and dedicated to the sport of dressage in New Zealand,” she says. “The feedback I get is that they are so grateful to me - and others before me like Julie and Louisa - putting ourselves out there.
“We make it seem possible. I think that’s where we can argue with the NZOC. For the sake of the sport we feel it’s a little bit bigger than just a medal.”
Seeing a New Zealand rider at the Olympics inspires young riders, like Williamson’s daughter, to aim for the top of the sport.
Williamson, who didn’t start dressage until after her two children were born, is the front-runner for an Olympic spot. But she’s well aware there are other riders with young horses rising through the ranks.
“It might be a little too early for them, but they’re certainly good horses that the riders have trained themselves, which is something I pride myself on too,” she says.
“We have New Zealand riders training their own horses to grand prix level. We haven’t bought ready-made horses from Europe; we’re doing it on our own, with mostly New Zealand bred horses too. I think that’s something we can be very proud of."
All of the Williamsons' horses are from Matthews Hanoverians, who breed the warmblood horses in Northland especially for dressage.
Williamson and Donny are heading to Australian next month to compete in back-to-back CDI four-star competitions to “keep the Olympic pathway open”.
Both events are at Willinga Park, a multimillion-dollar equestrian centre at Bawley Point, on the south coast of New South Wales. Fire crews defended it from a bush-fire blaze in December.
Strong international competition will also help Williamson prepare for the World Cup Final, where she has unfinished business.
In 2017, she and Dejavu MH performed a creditable grand prix test on the first day, but were eliminated after stewards noticed blood on the horse’s lip. A highly-strung horse, DJ’s sharp teeth had pierced his cheek. Any fresh blood on a horse during a test means immediate elimination.
“Indoor venues are frightening places for horses who aren’t used to them. It was pretty devastating,” Williamson says.
Determined to return to the World Cup, Williamson is confident Don Amour will be better suited to the indoor arena and the crowds. “Even though they are half-brothers, they are chalk and cheese,” she says of the two horses. “This one needs a lot of motivation, a bit like a labrador.”
The pair will return to Europe after the final to compete in shows there.
When LockerRoom visits Waitekauri Farm in Waimauku, Becki has been out hacking Donny – walking him to improve his fitness for the campaign.
The Williamsons also have a full-time groom – 21-year-old Steph Baker – who will fly with the horse to Amsterdam, then California. Baker is also a promising young rider who is “fabulous with the horses", Williamson says. “We have a great team; we all help each other.”
Having Baker means Williamson can also work full-time, even when she’s competing on the other side of the world.
A “scientist/geologist”, Williamson is a specialist in the field of contaminated land and environmental management. She spent six years working on land in inner-city Christchurch after the earthquakes.
She now works with her husband, Jonnie, in their business, Williamson Water & Land Advisory. She can take her work with her when she travels to shows.
“I love the work – it’s really varied. It’s not just science… you need an analytical, inquiring mind, which you also have to have when you ride, to work out how to be better,” she says.
Jonnie Williamson also helps out with the horses; their son, Benji, mucks out the stables. Becki, who started riding at six, is about to sell her jumping horse so she can focus on dressage. Like her mother, she’s training her horses from scratch.
“In Europe, young riders have horses trained for them – beautifully moving, expensive horses," Wendi Williamson says. "It’s just a different world down here, but we do a pretty good job.”
Mother and daughter are already competing against each other on their young mounts.
“I remember the day Becki came running up from prizegiving yelling ‘I beat her, I beat Mum’, in a very loud voice,” Williamson says with a laugh.
“I was only doing Level 1, but I was very proud,” Becki admits.
If all goes well, she should have many more reasons to be proud of her mother this year, too.