Flying hooves and pirouettes for dressage Olympian

Julie Brougham on Vom Feinsten at Aachen CHIO in July, executing a 'flying change' at canter. (photo credit/Libby Law)

Gracefully controlled flying changes, canter pirouettes and piaffes of Olympic-standard dressage embody the ultimate in inter-species communication. They are among moves Manawatū equestrian champion Julie Brougham and her mount Vom Feinsten have been perfecting for the Rio Olympics.

Brougham and Steiny (his stable name) are the only New Zealand representatives in the Olympic dressage events. It will be Massey University alumni Brougham’s first time competing in the Olympics, the culmination of 20 years of dressage competition, including the past three competing internationally. She is just the third rider to represent New Zealand in Olympic-level dressage.

The French word ‘dressage’ translates as ‘training’, and it is considered the most artistic of the equestrian events. Riders communicate via training “aids”, using contact through legs, seat and hands. A dressage test involves the rider taking the horse through several gaits (walk, trot and canter) and various movements. The balletic precision and beauty of high-level dressage requires not only superb human athleticism, but also the trust, intelligence and physical stamina and agility of a horse.

Brougham has competed and won prizes in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and Austria and has been based in Germany for most of this year to train, prepare and compete on Vom Feinsten. Next month they fly to Rio to join the New Zealand Equestrian team comprised of Mark Todd, Jonathan Paget, Clarke Johnstone and Jonelle Price, all competing in eventing.

This year she also competed in Boneo Park, Victoria, Australia; New Zealand at Manfield Park, Feilding, and Horse of the Year Show, Hastings, as well as offshore in Germany at Mannheim, Munich, Cappeln and Aachen CHIO (Concours Hippique International Officiel), and in Austria. She also holds the Australasian record for Grand Prix Freestyle to Music.

“To compete at Grand Prix dressage, you and your horse have to be proficient at higher level movements such as piaffe, passage, flying changes at canter every second stride and every stride, and canter pirouettes,” says Brougham. “These are in addition to many other dressage movements such as half passes at trot and canter, extended trot and extended canter. The most difficult are piaffe, passage, canter pirouettes and again in canter, one time changes.”

Olympic dressage is organised over three competitions: the first stage is the Grand Prix for over 100 teams or individual entrants. From this, the top 30 compete in the Grand Prix Special, and the final top 15 compete for gold in the Grand Prix Kur, which pivots on the Musical Freestyle Class where horses literally dance to music.

Brougham has great confidence in the 13-year-old, German-bred chestnut gelding she’s owned for eight years, describing him as “a very intelligent horse with great character. He is very energetic and willing to work.”

Flying horses to Rio a logistical challenge

The logistics of transporting horses across the globe add a whole other dimension to the pressures of Olympic sport. Her horse is one of 280 flying out of Liege airport, Belgium, on August 2.  “All equipment, feed, supplements travel with them,” says Brougham. “The logistics are huge.”

She will accompany Steiny and the Rio-bound horses, helping out the groom team on the aircraft along with several vets on board. Quarantine conditions will prevail in Rio right through to where the horses are stabled. “There are big disease problems in Rio, such as the Glanders virus,” says Brougham. “Every precaution is being taken to keep the Olympic horses in a disease-free environment.”

Preparation out of the saddle is also demanding. “There is a massive amount of paper work to do as a competitor. Most nights, and some afternoons as well, I’m busy on the laptop fulfilling Olympic requirements. I think having a horse involved probably quadruples the workload for an equestrian athlete!”

Born to ride

Brougham, aged 62, has already been tagged as New Zealand’s oldest Olympian, two years older than team member and multiple Olympic gold medallist Mark Todd. “My age is not a big deal,” she says. ”I am riding very well and currently at the top of my game,” she says.

She has, after all, been riding for most of her life, starting on a Shetland pony when she was four. At age seven, she rode in her first Pony Club gymkhana at the Feilding show grounds and wanted to compete from then on, preferring eventing and show jumping at first. “I changed to dressage 20 years ago when my children were babies as it fitted in with family life better,” she says.

At her first dressage show at Tielcey Park, Manawatū, she won the first class on a horse called Top Gun. “I had already successfully competed him in eventing and also hunted him. He was a beautiful and talented horse and went on to become my first Grand Prix horse.”

Brougham didn’t compete in the equestrian scene while she studied at Massey for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sociology, and business studies and economics papers. After graduating in 1983 with A-grades, she worked as an extra-mural tutor for sociology 100 level students in Auckland then worked part-time in the social policy department on the Manawatū campus for two years.

Family and horses then became her priorities. She’s served on many equestrian-related committees, including being a delegate for Central Districts to the board of Dressage New Zealand. 

“I’m very proud of my degree. It’s especially been of most value, I believe, in being able to help our children with their education.”

When not competing overseas, she lives in Palmerston North with her husband, David, an orthopaedic surgeon. Their children, Katrina and Nicholas, are also both doctors.

Massey University has a record number of current and former student athletes competing in Rio next month. Of the 199-strong New Zealand team, Massey is connected to 84 athletes. 

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