Equestrian interview: Desi Dillingham MBE

PUBLISHED: 10:06 08 July 2015 | UPDATED: 17:29 20 July 2015

The crowds watching the thrills and spills of the cross country phase at the Festival of British Eventing © Kit Houghton

The crowds watching the thrills and spills of the cross country phase at the Festival of British Eventing © Kit Houghton

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Cotswold Life equestrian writer Debbie Graham speaks to businesswoman and former chairman of British Dressage Desi Dillingham MBE about her love of horses and The Festival of British Eventing

Desi Dillingham MBE with The Corinthian CupDesi Dillingham MBE with The Corinthian Cup

A previously inauspicious moment can prove instrumental in turning fortunes. For British Dressage (the sport’s governing body) that moment came 40 years ago when a young Canadian businesswoman called Desi Dillingham began a year’s stint as head of the London office of an international recruitment company. Although from a prominent Canadian horsey family, the trip was pure business; or so she thought.

“My family were one of the leading riding families in Canada and we were involved at every level,” she says. “I was born with a pony waiting for me - I had no choice! So when I came to London I thought ‘great, I will get away from horses and do my own thing’.”

However, her love of horses ran deep and within two weeks she was teaching riding at the Knightsbridge Barracks in her spare time. That fateful year led to 40 more, and as well as becoming head of 18 offices across Europe, she gained an MBE for services to equestrianism, was Chairman of British Dressage (1998-2007), and President of the British Horse Society (2007-11). Not bad for a woman who was only due to stay in the country for a year.

“The MBE was the highlight. What an honour,” she says. “I was completely overwhelmed.”

For her interest in dressage she blames the doyenne of British dressage Jennie Loriston-Clarke, who she met in 1983 and sponsored with her company Masterlock Recruitment for 18 years. Jennie has competed in four Olympic Games and breeds top performance horses at Catherston Stud in Hampshire.

“It was meeting Jennie that started it; she’s very passionate about the sport, and I started sponsoring her in a small way and then it built up,” she says. “I then started to help British Dressage because they needed a bit of help. I loved it all. My strength is building a team and encouraging them.” In the late 1990s the sport was dominated by German and Dutch riders, and Britain always came near the bottom. British Dressage needed financial help and people on board who both believed in the British riders, and would speak their minds. With her horsey background, vivacious personality, business acumen and talent for bringing people together, Desi was the perfect person.

“During those early years we were always last but we were there with real honour. Dr Bechtolsheimer once ran up to me and said: ‘Quick, get your camera, Britain are top on the scoreboard,’ we were the only team to have gone,” she laughs. “We had wonderful fun times. None of us dreamed of what could happen.”

Under Desi’s leadership the sport began to flourish and now has a membership of 40,000, compared to just 5,000 when Desi took over the helm.

Today the British team are the reigning Olympic champions and the members of the golden team Carl Hester (captain), Charlotte Dujardin and Laura Bechtolsheimer are fantastic ambassadors for not only dressage, but sport in general. Public support is at an all time high and Carl Hester has said that builders have stopped him in the pub to ask him about the ‘dancing horses’.

Olivia Oakeley ridiing Donna Summer in the Dressage to Music Demonstration at the Festival of British Eventing  © Kit HoughtonOlivia Oakeley ridiing Donna Summer in the Dressage to Music Demonstration at the Festival of British Eventing © Kit Houghton

In 2015 Desi is as busy as ever as she has just taken up the reins as Special Advisor for Dressage Canada, which sees her return to Canada several times a year. However her home is firmly near Tetbury in the Cotswolds, and in August there is one event she never misses; The Festival of British Eventing. This event is organised by Captain Mark Phillips and his son Peter on the Gatcombe estate by invitation of HRH The Princess Royal. Eventing tests the horse and rider across three disciplines; dressage, the exciting cross country and the showjumping. The Festival is one of the sport’s most prestigious events and attracts the biggest names, like Andrew Nicholson and Mary King.

“It’s the best event in the world,” says Desi. “The Festival has a very special quality, for as well as the biggest names in the sport, they also have something for everyone. It’s a true family day out – bring a picnic, bring the kids and the dogs, sit ring side and watch the displays or walk around the cross country. It is entertainment at its best and I am very honoured to be part of the team.”

For the last two decades Desi has been introducing the ‘dressage to music’ display, which for the last four years has included star of the future, 22-year-old Olivia Oakeley from Stroud, as well as other up-coming riders.

“Mark [Captain Mark Phillips] asked me to give a dressage demonstration at The Festival 20 years ago and it has become rather popular,” says Desi. “I love to show off our best.”

This demonstration has always attracted crowds, but today, thanks in part to the publicity the dancing horses got at the 2012 Olympics, hundreds of people turn up to watch. It is a chance for Desi to entertain and educate the crowd in her unique, vibrant style.

“We demonstrate both the tricks [piaffe, passage and one-time changes] and the basic paces we are looking for in young horses. I try to keep it very simple because The Festival pulls people in from all walks of life and I want to give them enough of a picture to understand, and become an armchair expert.”

“Desi is awesome,” says Olivia. “I am so lucky she has given me the opportunity to take part in these demonstrations. The Festival is amazing and being able to showcase our sport to people who maybe don’t know much about it is fantastic.”

“I am so thankful to The Festival for giving us this platform to show our wares,” adds Desi. “They have allowed me to do this before dressage was on the map and I am very grateful.”

This year Desi has also donated a family trophy for the TopSpec Challenge for ‘The Corinthian Cup’, a National Restricted Novice Championship just open to amateurs. This will run alongside the Festival’s other three championships; The British Eventing Open Championship CIC***, The Smith & Williamson Intermediate Championship and Dodson & Horrell Novice Championship.

The late, and great, Richard Meade  ©  Kit HoughtonThe late, and great, Richard Meade © Kit Houghton

This new class is in memory of one of the world’s greatest three-day-eventers ever Richard Meade, who sadly passed away in January from cancer. The new cross country course will run in the park’s iconic bowl, a grassy bank that allows spectators a clear view of all the thrills and spills that are an integral part of eventing. And when looking for a trophy for this new competition Captain Mark Phillips headed straight for Desi’s.

“That’s the trophy I want,” he said to Desi, pointing to a beautiful cup, engraved with hunting figures, which dates back to 1885 and has been in Desi’s family for decades.

Desi didn’t hesitate. For her the championship was perfect, as the cup had been left to her by her aunt Barbara Kemp, who designed the cross country course at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; the first woman ever to design an Olympic course.

It is in Barbara’s memory Desi has given this trophy; a decision even more poignant given Richard regarded his performance at the 1976 Olympics as one of his best, despite finishing out of the medals. HRH The Princess Royal was also part of the British team so it is as though all three of them are uniting to give something back to the sport they loved.

“I am delighted,” says Desi. “Can you imagine what it would be like for a young rider getting to compete at The Festival, getting to ride beside Andrew Nicholson and William Fox-Pitt? My aunt would be thrilled that it’s been given to eventing.” So now this precious cup has a new life to lead, helping to inspire the next generation of Richard Meades and Barbara Kemps. Called The Corinthian Cup it will become an iconic part of eventing silverware that every amateur will covet.

It is her love of horses that drives Desi, and she remains as devoted to horses as she always has been. “I have such a passion for the horse and what I feel so honoured about, is that I can give back to the horse that has given so much pleasure to me,” she says.

If Carl Hester is the hero of British equestrianism, Desi has to be its heroine; and Canada, if you are reading this, we are only loaning her to you on the proviso she is to be returned to us.

The Festival of British Eventing, presented by the British Equestrian Trade Association, takes place at Gatcombe Park, August 7-9. 
Visit www.gatcombe-horse.co.uk

The beautiful Corinthian CupThe beautiful Corinthian Cup

Read our interview with Captain Mark and Peter Phillips regarding the 2014 Festival of British Eventing HERE

You can follow Cotswold Life equestrian writer Debbie Graham on Twitter @debsgraham

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