Five years ago Alice Hurley arrived at Horsehay Farm to start work for Karen Bourdon at her Equine Therapy and Rehabilitation Centre. 11 days previous to this, Karen had imported 3 PRE Stallions from Spain. Little did Alice know that this would be the day she would meet her horse of a lifetime.
Alice comes from a background in dressage having worked at the Woodlander stud gaining invaluable experience with young warmbloods. She previously competed several of her own horses including Woodlander Frangelica and studied at Hartpury College. We were privileged enough to head over to Oxfordshire to meet Alice and her Iberian boys and find out about their journey.
This year has been a fantastic one for the whole team at Premier PRE Dressage where Alice is based. Their highs have gone from being crowned Irish Advanced National Champions to completing their first Prix St-Georges test - and that is just for Alice and Des (Deseado CCV). Nika Vorster who is the other rider at Premier PRE has had her own success with Karen Bourdon’s talented 5 year old Chulo Msuay, qualifying for the MCI European Finals in Belgium and Regionals here in the UK.
Des came over from Spain in 2011 after Karen undertook a meticulous selection process to find elite PRE performance horses. She came home with three stunning PRE stallions, Deseado CCV, Marques and Resuelto XX. Marques and Resuelto had been backed in Spain but Des was untouched. Des is now 8 years old and having worked with him since he was an unbroken 3 year old, he and Alice have a special bond ‘He wasn’t the easiest 3 year old he spent most of his time flinging himself through the air but he isn’t like that at all now. No atmosphere phases him and he has calmed down a lot’ Alice tells us. Alice had no previous experience with Iberian horses before coming to Premier PRE, and admits she was a little sceptical ‘I didn’t know why Karen had bought Iberian horses to do dressage. In the beginning we had a lot of thoroughbreds in for rehab and training, ones who had injuries from racing whereas now over half our horses are Iberian. My previous experience was with warmbloods and I was sceptical about the Iberian horses for the first 6 months or so of working with them. I discovered that they are very quick to learn but they don’t have the natural rhythm of a warmblood. You have to find the right balance with them and channel the energy out and forwards rather than up at you. I found that when you give them that bit longer to mature and learn to take the rein out and down it works well. We have worked on rhythm and straightness and they pick up lateral work very easily, much quicker than a warmblood’. It’s safe to say that after the past 5 years Alice has been converted! She is currently only competing on Iberian horses but does not rule out warmbloods for the future.
Alice has worked hard with the three original PRE horses that came in 2011, Marques has since been sold to a dressage home but Des and Resuelto remain at Premier PRE. Des and Resuelto are both competing at Advanced Medium. Whilst Des tries his heart out and is fairly straightforward it seems that Resuelto is a typical Spanish hot head ‘Resuelto isn’t like Des, he is a bit of a hot head. He is technically tricky to ride and has small man syndrome! He has a bit of an ego and we always wonder how much more incredible he would be if he worked with me like Des does’. Although they are both competing internationally at high levels now she admits it wasn’t all plain sailing ‘When they were 4 year olds we would take them out to unaffiliated dressage and be coming home with 6th place and 61% it was quite demoralising. Karen stayed positive throughout and I was determined not to give in’. A good job Alice didn’t as the past two years have really been a highlight for the team ‘The past 2 years have been amazing, it’s like all the hard work has finally paid off and we are finally getting our break’ Alice tells us. In this season alone Alice has made the break back into PSG tests, claimed the title as Irish Advanced National Champion and came 9th in the Advanced Medium Open at the British Dressage National Championship. So what has been the highlight amongst this fantastic year for Alice? ‘The highlight has got to be coming 9th in the Advanced Medium Open at the National Champs. I got a wildcard and I thought I was just there to make up numbers, but after coming 9th against some established partnerships I realised that we belonged there’.
Next for Des is working towards International PSG next year and also being a key part of Team Ireland after Alice recently got her Irish passport. Alice is aiming for Grand Prix with Des in the longer term. But reaching these highs is not something you can do alone Alice tells us ‘Without Karen none of this would have happened. Karen is the owner of most of the horses and she has funded everything, we work well as a team and I suggest which competitions we take them to and which direction to take their training and we plan things accordingly. She is always very positive and supportive. Nika has also made a huge difference to the team as she is riding Chulo and some of the other horses. It takes the pressure off me a little and she is also giving him a great season out competing at Prelim level. We work in a similar way and she will ask my advice if she gets stuck. We also work closely with our farrier, vets and physio to keep the horses in the best condition it’s a real team effort’.
Despite their hectic competition schedule and travelling all over Europe to compete, the boys do have down time. As well as schooling they are hacked out several times per week and turned out in the paddocks. They also do a spot of jumping at home just to keep them fresh in their training. Alice and Nika take them galloping frequently which keeps their fitness up. They have regular breaks where they will take time to relax in the field and go on the walker. Their training is carefully planned and after a week off they will be hacked for the first couple of days doing lots of stretching. Alice also takes her own fitness seriously and when things aren’t too hectic on the yard she takes weekly pilates classes ‘I think rider fitness is really important. We spend all this time training the horse but if a rider weakness lets the horse down then what is the point. I like to make sure I am straight and correct and pilates helps with this’ Alice explains.
The future for the Iberian boys at Premier PRE certainly looks nothing but positive. Des’ first foal was born this year and is with his mum in the paddock - Desperado or Dennis to his friends! There are two more foals on the way by Des. At Premier PRE they are hoping to breed PRE horses which are more athletic looking and hopefully just as successful as their dad! But does the future for the Iberian horse look as promising elsewhere? ‘There will always be controversial judging and although the horses breed shouldn’t influence the judge you can never guarantee it. As long as the horse is trained correctly and the test is accurate then the breed shouldn’t make a difference. All the Iberian horses we have sold have gone to dressage homes and to owners who have not had Iberian horses before which is great.’ Alice tells us.
So what is Alice’s secret? She trains all levels of horses and all breeds and types - some are in for training and rehab after injury, some are youngsters being backed and broken and others are working towards International PSG - they all have one thing in common, they look happy, content, fit and well. The yard is peaceful and an extremely pleasant place to be. With a yard full of stallions and some mares and foals thrown into the mix this isn’t an easy thing to achieve! ‘I don’t really have a secret weapon, we work hard and as a team. The thing I wouldn’t be without both at home and at competitions is my neck strap! We use a neck strap on the babies, but also when Des has been travelling for a day and we get to a big competition he can be fresh, it’s nice to have it just in case!’ so you heard it here first - use your neckstraps!