Gareth Hughes has overcome challenges and setbacks on his road to becoming an international dressage rider. He spoke recently with REBECCA ASHTON.
There are some riders who get lucky, then there are riders who make their own luck with hard work and taking every opportunity that comes their way. Gareth Hughes would have to be the latter.
Born in Yorkshire, UK, Gareth’s mum had a horse when he was very young, but he didn’t have a lot to do with it: “For some reason, the only thing I remember was that it was a roan.” However, it was in Australia where his journey with horses started. “It’s funny what you remember from when you were young. For instance, the school I went to in England, every Friday morning we used to get a sticker and I had a horse book I put all my stickers in. When we moved to Australia, apparently I was told I had to leave my horse book behind but I cried so I was allowed to take it, so I must have had something there.”
After six months in Queensland, the family bought property in Jimboomba and Jimmy, the first pony arrived. “We got lunged on him, we all fell off. He was one of those really naughty little grey ponies.” As the riding continued, the four Hughes kids had lessons with Trevor Bonning, an Arabian trainer down the road. “He’d play tricks on us. He’d take his Akubra off and hold it up to the sun and say, ‘It’d be about one o’clock’. You’d think wow! But he had a watch sewn in the top of his hat.”
Trevor was a big name in the Arabian world back in the 1980s, and he coached Gareth for a number of years. Gareth recalls him being a true horseman, doing his own farrier work, teeth, breaking, harness, halter, English and Western.
When he was around 12, Gareth received an unbacked three-year-old filly for his birthday, “My birthday was in April so I called her April.” Pony Club ensued but his real love was for Arabians, so for his 14th birthday the Arabian Hamouid arrived. “I even remember his breeding. I can’t even remember my horses’ breeding today!” he laughs.
While living in Jimboomba and riding mostly western with Hamouid, the dressage bug bit thanks mainly to this grandparents who had given him a subscription to British Dressage Magazine for Christmas. “When I was a little kid, we didn’t have an arena but I’d stand in front of the tree and make up a workout and I’d practice. I had no idea what I was doing.” He began buying VHS videos of the World Cup, Europeans, and training videos and eventually did his first Prelim dressage test at an Arabian show.
It was after a dressage competition at Gatton that a lady came up to Gareth asking where his parents were, “I thought I was in trouble! But she told them that she wanted to teach me.” That lady was Ollie Nunn, mother to 5* dressage judge Mary Seefried. The relationship lasted until Gareth was 16 when he went to train with Sandra Pearson-Adams at Pine Lodge. She was BHS trained and dressage came more to the forefront.
After school Gareth decided his life was going to be either with horses or playing the saxophone. “Then I realised I wasn’t very good at the saxophone, so I had to do horses but I didn’t know quite what. I loved my dressage, loved the process of that training, but I wasn’t at a very high level,” he recalls. He did some clinics with Chris Bartle and Nuno Olivera but it wasn’t too long before he wanted more. “Being male, and we often have weird ways of thinking when we’re young, I decided that I was going to go to England for two years, pick up an English accent, come back to Australia and then I’d be able to charge more for lessons because they’d think I had knowledge!”
And with that he set off for the UK, where a job had come up in Horse & Hound for a riding gig at a big breeding stud in Oxfordshire. By the time Gareth inquired, the job had gone but the new rider couldn’t start for a few months so the Aussie went down for an interview in western boots, full length chaps and a baseball cap – and got the interim job! The rider leaving the stud was none other than Peter Weston. “When I lived in Jimboomba, there was a guy down the road who rode dressage. That guy was Peter. It was bizarre!”
After six months, still in western boots and chaps, Gareth applied for two other jobs up north. That was his ‘sliding doors’ moment. One was a reining job and one at a dressage yard. “I had decided that if I was going to go down the western road I’d go back to Australia, but if I went down the dressage route I’d stay in England.” He took the dressage job.
After success at Regionals, Gareth, now 25, decided to go out on his own; teaching, clipping, and showing Arabians. He rang a well-known judge in the area for advice. The judge was Stephen Clarke. A month later Stephen phoned and asked Gareth to come and sit on a couple of stallions that had come over from Germany that none of his girls would ride. Kitted out in his western boots and chaps, he rode for Stephen. “I think these famous people forget what an influence they have on you. I was really nervous. I couldn’t believe I was on his yard! He gave me the two.” Gareth went in four days a week for a couple of months and rode the stallions for no pay before they were sent home.
Gareth competing with the quirky Classic Briolinca at the 2019 FEI European Championships in Rotterdam (Image by Rebecca Ashton).
Through sheer hard work and often riding and competing horses for free, things started to pick up. People noticed his work and better horses headed his way. He began having regular lessons with Stephen, who had a client that needed a horse ridden to sell. “After it was sold, they bought a four-year-old in Holland. They were so happy with the job I had done on the other one that they asked me to ride it the following year for the summer season.” Gareth agreed and won his first national title. The horse was Nurejev and although that first title was at Novice, Nurejev became the first horse he took to Grand Prix.
After basing himself at Stephen’s for a few years, Gareth started his own yard. Things slowly built up and he eventually had horses with international potential at Small Tour level. Yorkshire born Gareth had never taken out full Australian citizenship, and ten years later was still in England. “I still felt very Australian but I was unable to ride under that flag unless I went back to Australia for a couple of years. I couldn’t do that so I rode for GB and that was the start of my international career.”
It was during this time that Gareth met his wife Rebecca and it was with one of her horses that he had his first Big Tour international success. “Rebecca lived down south and I lived up north. She had a crazy four-year-old called Sandman. He was nuts. He was a Jazz. She was the only one who could ride him because he would rear until you fell off. You couldn’t lunge him because he would just run away. Even today at the age of 20 you have to lead him with a chifney.”
When Rebecca came to visit she brought Sandman, who couldn’t be left at home in the stable for five days. Although Gareth had previously refused to ride the horse, on this occasion he did, and Rebecca left Sandman with him when she returned home.
With Sintano Van Hof Olympia, at the National Dressage Championships (Image courtesy Hughes Dressage).
Sandman was a possibility for the fourth spot at the London Olympics, but sustained an injury beforehand. “I’ve had terrible luck with the Olympics,” bemoans Gareth. His current star Classic Briolinca also sustained a suspensory injury just before Tokyo, leaving him as the traveling reserve rider on his second string horse Sintano Van Hof Olympia.
Classic Briolinca is still the current star though. Before Tokyo, the combination had a successful 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam for a team bronze and last year helped Team GB to second spot on the podium at the World Dressage
Championships in Herning where the pair scored a PB in the freestyle, which was the first time Gareth had ridden through the whole floor plan. “Rebecca found Briolinca when she was about four. She moved funny. It was either a small trot or she trotted like a Grand Prix horse. We slowly developed her,” Gareth says of the mare he calls quirky. “She’s probably kicked everyone on the yard. If she gets excited going out you can’t catch her in the stable, but she’d lay down her life for me.” Although sometimes aloof, the mare is sweet, full of heart and amazing to train.
At the 2019 Longines FEI Dressage European Championships in Rotterdam with Classic Briolinca (Image © FEI / Liz Gregg).
Classic Briolinca is still the current star though. Before Tokyo, the combination had a successful 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam for a team bronze and last year helped Team GB to second spot on the podium at the World Dressage Championships in Herning where they scored a PB in the freestyle, which was the first time Gareth had ridden through the whole floor plan.
The pair’s most recent success was at last month’s London International Horse Show, where their superb performance secured them second place behind Charlotte Fry and Glamourdale in the 2022/23 FEI Dressage World Cup.
It was Rebecca who found Briolinca when she was about four. “She moved funny,” Gareth says of the mare he calls quirky. “It was either a small trot or she trotted like a Grand Prix horse. We slowly developed her. She’s probably kicked everyone on the yard. If she gets excited going out you can’t catch her in the stable, but she’d lay down her life for me.” Although sometimes aloof, the mare is sweet, full of heart and amazing to train.
Sintano Van Hof Olympia helped Team GB to a team silver at the Europeans in 2021 and Stenkjers Nadonna was on the team at WEG in Normandy in 2014 where the Brits won silver, Gareth’s first international championship medal. The previous year Gareth had competed in his first Big Tour international championship on Nadonna, when he was called up just 20 hours before he had to depart. Don Carrisimo was also on a championship team. “Each horse has had an impact, from Hamouid to Golly Gosh, my first international horse, all the way to Briolinca”.
Gareth considers himself lucky to have had four Grand Prix horses in competition over the last four years. “I’ve had to make a little change with them to have time to be able to start another one which might be my last. I don’t want to do it forever. I’ve looked as far forward as Brisbane but that might be a push mentally because I’m older, but if you have a horse that can do it, you don’t not do it. If I finished riding tomorrow, I’d be really happy with my career. But I’ll never retire; it’ll just evolve into something else.”
Gareth sees himself continuing to develop horses with Rebecca, help daughter Ruby who has just started on her own dressage path, and continue to expand his coaching of riders to Grand Prix.
Feature Image: Gareth and Sintano van Hof Olympia competing in the Team Grand Prix at the 2021 FEI Dressage European Championships in Hagen (Image Copyright ©FEI).