Nobody was more surprised than Abbie Deken herself when the Taranaki rider and her 13-year-old KH Ambrose waltzed away with the Dressage Horse of the Year title after a near-flawless freestyle.
“I’m a little bit shocked, because it’s been a dream and so for it to actually come true is a surreal feeling,” she says. “Everyone else was saying ‘you can do it’, but I’ve never had much self-belief. I definitely had some tears in my eyes when the result came out.”
Abbie and Ambrose were underdogs going into the competition, after a distinctly average performance at the National Dressage Champs. Yet Abbie’s growing experience at Grand Prix level was clearly evident at this show. Although she placed second to John Thompson and JHT Antonello in the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special, Abbie remained composed to pull off a personal best of 72.9% in her musical for the win.
“It’s not common for me to actually enjoy the moment, but I had a big smile on my face. Before I went in I had decided I just wanted to have fun with it, which I think took a bit of pressure off,” says Abbie.
In the past, Horse of the Year hasn’t been Abbie and Ambrose’s show, with the at-times volatile chestnut reacting wildly to the atmosphere and doing random bolts across the oval. And while Ambrose was much softer and more rideable than ever before this year, he can still be a devil to handle at a show, as those who witnessed his airs above the ground at the trot-up can attest!
Surprisingly, Ambrose has never won a HOY title before and neither has Abbie, but now she has two of the black sashes under her belt, after also winning the Level 3 title with her youngster Giuliani.
Abbie (33) works a couple of afternoons as a vet nurse for New Plymouth Vet Group, but is increasingly finding herself in demand as a trainer, giving lessons and taking horses for schooling. Typically humble after her win, she stressed her gratitude to her trainer Vanessa Way, and her sponsors: NSC, Virbac, New Plymouth Vet Group and Hareb Deken Motors.
Abbie bought 13-year-old Ambrose as a three-year-old from Karaka Hills Stud and broke him in herself with the help of Vanessa’s husband, Brooke Hughes. As a young horse, he was far from easy and occasionally reduced Abbie to tears, but with Vanessa ‘s help she persevered.
“We did him together, all those years ago, so it’s been quite a journey. You can ask anyone – he is my life,” she sums up.
The FEI Grand Prix freestyle was an exciting competition, despite fielding just seven starters. For the first time ever, every competitor qualified for the international class, and besides Abbie there were two other 70%+ scores: John Thompson on JHT Antonello (71.82%) and Penny Castle on Magnus Spero (70.95%).
It was impossible not to feel sorry for Reserve Champion John, who looked set for victory after his earlier two wins, but described his freestyle as ‘a disaster’. In fact, it was far from it, despite Antonello falling out of one canter pirouette during a prolonged sneezing fit at the start of his test, requiring John to quickly improvise. Antonello was the favourite with four judges, but with little between John and Abbie’s scores for the most part, one low mark of 65% relegated him to second place. However, in a gesture of true sportsmanship, John was the first to run over and give Abbie a congratulatory hug when the results were announced.
Dancing to victory
Palmerston North vet Susan Tomlin and her elegant brown gelding Dancealong made a clean sweep of their classes to be crowned Level 8 Dressage Horse of the Year. Susan and the 17.1hh nine-year-old by Dream Boy particularly impressed the judges with their James Bond-themed freestyle, scoring 68.12% for the win.
Dancealong was bred by dressage stalwart Pat Dalrymple, who gifted the horse to Susan when he was a two-year-old. Dancealong was the last foal she ever bred and sadly Pat died last year at the age of 95.
Former top event rider Susan has trained several horses to Advanced, including Domino MH and Giusto MH, but this is the highest level she has ever ridden to and she hopes to tackle Grand Prix next season. Her eventing roots showed through in her victory lap, when she really let Dancealong fly, although appeared to have a little trouble pulling him up at the end!
“He has the gentlest temperament, but he’s very sensitive and a real chicken,” she says. “He’s quite a good jumper but he’d never make an eventer because he’s not brave enough.”
Paula Stewart and Aztec Lad were Reserve Champions at Level 8.
Young Dressage Rider of the Year: Caitlin Benzie
Caitlin Benzie made her final young rider appearance a winning one, taking out Young Rider of the Year with Rosari Royal Gem. Sadly, Caitlin was the only one to make it through to the final day, after last year’s winner Lucarne Dolley was forced to scratch an injured Devils Chocolate and Hannah Van der Horst and Moby’ll Do narrowly missed qualifying.
Still, it was a super performance from Caitlin and ‘Jason’, the gorgeous grey who is owned by Caitlin’s mum Jeanette in partnership with Bill and Felicity Noble. They scored 66.21% in the individual test during Saturday’s challenging rain and 68.27% for their freestyle.
Caitlin (21) has actually been competing at Grand Prix level, but had a slow start to the season after fracturing two vertebrae falling off a young horse over winter. Her back took months to stop hurting and still isn’t fully healed, so she has only had three starts all season.
Although Jason was produced to Grand Prix level by Bill, Caitlin says you can’t really describe him as a schoolmaster. “He is quirky to say the least. He is not very polite on the ground – last year at HOY he left twice while we were trying to get him on the truck and went straight back to his yard! But as soon as you get on his back, he’s lazy.”