Interview with Dan Watson & Nicola Naylor
Dan Watson is an international Grand Prix rider and Nicola Naylor is an international para-dressage rider.
Both are based at Fiddlers Green Stud in Kent and work closely together in both training and competition.
From winning Best International Rider at Sydney CDI in 2009, Dan’s career has gone from strength to strength.
He has competed successfully at Grand Prix all over the world regularly breaking the magical 70% barrier.
He was on the winning team at the 2013 Rotterdam Nation’s Cup as well as being Reserve Champion at the World Equestrian Games in 2014.
Nicola Naylor has been blind since her 20s with only some light perception in one eye.
She began competing in grade four Para Dressage in 2011 and in 2014 she competed at Para Freestyle level internationally in Holland and in Belgium.
Despite her international success as a para rider, Nicola took a bit of a knockback when the FEI changed the rules regarding visually impaired riders.
To combat this Nicola has been competing successfully up to Medium level as an able-bodied rider with help from Dan.
I’m super excited to be recording a double podcast interview today. We’ve got Dan and Nicola.
Thank you very much for joining me, how are you guys today?
We are doing really well, thank you.
Hi, all good.
I’m not quite sure how this going to work as a double interview but I’m sure we will get through it.
To start off these interviews we would like to know something, like an interesting weird fact about yourselves.
Maybe something that most people wouldn’t know. It doesn’t have to be horsey related, just something other people may find interesting.
What have you got for me guys?
I haven’t got a clue.
People say I’m weird because they call me the mad cat lady because I’ve got lots of cats as well as lots of horses.
How many cats is a lot of cats?
Five but they’re dog-sized cats. When I gave up my guide dog I wanted a big cat, so I got five enormous cats.
Fabulous. So, nothing weird about you Dan at all?
I’m sure there are a hundred things weird about me but for me to actually say something is quite hard.
That’s okay. We’ll let you off on this one but if anything pops into your head halfway through the interview, just let us know.
Let’s have a little bit of an insight into your personal lives at the moment.
Where do you guys live? How many horses do you each have at the moment? What does a typical day look like?
Are you going first, or should I?
You go first.
Okay, I’ll go first. I run my own training yard with my partner, Alex Wyatt and we have 21 horses on site. Some are eventing horses for Alex and there also my dressage horses and then obviously Nicola’s horses. We ride a lot for owners mainly and then we also have a few of our own. That keeps me really busy.
Is your day mainly just waking up and getting on a horse and riding for most of the day with maybe a bit of teaching?
Yes, I ride between seven and ten a day normally and then I teach Nic with both of hers and then the odd lesson comes in as well of an afternoon.
That’s a full-on day.
Yes, we are pretty busy.
Over to you, Nicola. What does your day look like?
Well, I’m here every day except for Mondays. My problem is that I live in London, so it takes me four hours travelling a day, either end of the day, so that means I’m not here at six o’ clock in the morning but I am here as early as I can get here.
Then I spend most of the day and then travel back to London. The days are long. I tend to be here, I ride mine or we will do something with mine. I’ve got three here, and that’s how the days roll on really.
That is dedication, four hours from London each day, so eight hours a day travelling?
No, it’s four hours a day. It takes me two hours to get here and two hours to get back.
Sorry, I thought you meant four hours one way and four hours the other way. I was thinking that’s a lot.
No, but I assure you four hours in a day is still an awful lot of travelling.
It is tedious sometimes.
I can imagine. I’m not the best traveller. I get very impatient at the fact that I can’t do things and I find it’s almost like wasted time when I could be doing something else.
Yes, you think you could be riding a horse up and I’m sitting on a train but that’s the way it is.
Unfortunately, time travel hasn’t been invented yet, so we can’t just snap our fingers and get somewhere, but one day hopefully.
Give us a little bit of a brief summary into your dressage career at the moment.
How did you guys get into horses in the first place and was it always dressage? Did any of you start in any other type of discipline and let’s talk a little bit about some of the high times and the low times of your career. Times that you thought ‘this is what I do it all for’ and then times when you’ve thought ‘why do I do it?’
We want to almost cover all the spectrum, so who wants to go first?
I’ll go first. I started riding at five years old. I think I sat on a beach donkey and that was that. My background basically is from a non-horsey family. My father was in the car business for years and years and my mum was in the police force. They were great because I was an only child, so we could have a couple of ponies in the back garden when I was a kid and then I went off to college. I show jumped a lot in my teens and then I went on to take up dressage full time in employment when I was eighteen, so I knew I wanted to do dressage right from my early days really.
What would be the highest time of your career, when you look back and you have a nice smile and you think ‘this is what I did everything for’?
Probably competition-wise, it has to be the past few years. I rode on the young rider team when I was 21, when I worked for Jennie Loriston-Clarke, and then I had a long time of just training horses up quietly and competing on the British circuit but I never really went big time international until five years ago. Then I hit the big time and did well with Fideramber and I was on the Nation’s Cup Teams, so that has to be my high; the past two or three years really.
Have you ever had a moment where maybe things haven’t gone so well and you think ‘I’m not quite sure why I’m doing this work or putting in these long days’. Have you ever just thought ‘I don’t know what I’m doing this for?’
Yes, an awful lot. It’s one of those industries where it is such a hard slog and you have to keep reminding yourself why you do it and why you have a love for it. But when you ride down the centre line and you do a good job and you’re really happy with what you’ve done, that’s why you do it.
Or I ride a young horse that’s coming up a level and he goes out for the first or second time at a new level and it feels great and that’s what puts a smile on my face. Or the same when you are teaching pupils as well; when they progress and learn something new, that’s why I do it. I love it, absolutely love it.
So over to you Nicola. How did you start getting into horses and when did you start riding?
Funnily enough, it was about the age of five as well. My parents were actually quite horsey, although at the time they didn’t have horses. My mother had been a show jumper, my father had ridden polo ponies, I think, in Africa, so they were both very horse-minded and got my brother and I into riding very early.
I had ponies and I show jumped and I did quite a lot with my mum until she died when I was about thirteen or fourteen. After that, I went to a show jumping yard and rode with them until I was about eighteen but when I was younger I was partially sighted, so I had some sight but not a great deal.
Ambitions to go into the horse industry were never going to be realised. I couldn’t have driven a car, I couldn’t have seen a card to score to see somebody to teach so that was clearly something that wasn’t going to happen for me.
I went off to university and gave up the whole idea of horses or doing anything again riding-wise. Then when I was at university I lost the main bit of sight that I had so that definitely, for me, was the end of riding. Actually, it was the end of most things in my life at that time and I lost most of my 20s to being in hospital and not being very well. I only came back to riding because of my daughter and that was probably about five years ago. No, longer than that, maybe seven years ago and I’ve loved the opportunity of coming back and getting back on.
Your daughter has a lot to answer for really, doesn’t she?
I’ve got your record on the computer screen that my VA sent over to me and to ride at the para international abroad just because your daughter decided to get you on a horse, is quite amazing really.
I know, it’s quite an achievement isn’t it? She encouraged me to get back into the saddle and then once I was back in the saddle, for me, there was no going back. It was like I wanted to make up for all those lost years and that is still how I feel today. I sort of gunned for it really and I’ve not regretted a moment. I changed my life, I changed my work, and this is what I do now and, yes, it’s wonderful. I love it.
What is the high time of your career so far? I still think you’ve got loads to go to yet, I think you’ve probably just touched the tip of the iceberg on where you’re going to go with your dressage, but what’s your highest time for the moment?
Well, I think it has to be riding internationally. I think there’s just something so special about the achievement of going and riding aboard for GBR and to do that with the paras and to do that, actually, so quickly in many ways, that was just wonderful. Dan and I had a fantastic time when we were abroad and the whole spirit of it. It’s just such an achievement and you feel so proud. Having said that, actually riding at the nationals in the non-paras was also very special because I enjoyed the non-paras as much as I enjoyed the paras. Just to join in with everybody else and ride at the nationals was a great moment as well, actually.
Let’s, again, flip it on the other side, so what’s the lowest time that you’ve experienced. We all know this job is hard and it’s not something you can pick up and put down, you’ve got to keep going so explain the moments where you’ve just thought ‘why am I doing this?’ Have you had one of them?
I don’t know whether I’ve ever questioned-
-I do get frustrated every day and I can’t help it. I don’t achieve something or something is not quite going right and I can’t quite figure out how to get it right and it’s going to take time to get it right and I’m really bad at dealing with that because I sort of beat myself up. I wish that I could get it right and get really frustrated. So I guess coping with my own frustration is probably my biggest enemy but you just keep going back and you keep doing it and you look back and it comes right, I guess. There are a lot of bad moments though. Mainly to do with Dan and I being in a lot of rain and puddles and mud, those are pretty bad moments.
But you look back on them and smile now really. You love them really.
It’s a love-hate relationship. How did that come about?
Sorry, can you just repeat that?
Yes, how did you guys team up with each other? How did it come about that you guys started working with each other and her horses came to your yard? How did all that start?
Go on, you answer.
Well, that was really thanks to Alex, Dan’s partner. When I got going with the dressage, of course, the first thing I needed was a dressage trainer and the only one that was really prepared to take this mad blind woman on was Alex. Not only did he do that, but he then sort of suggested that maybe I wanted to intensify the training and I should come and join him and Dan. So, Dan got talked into it, I’m not quite sure how he let that happen and so I turned up and that was the start of it.
And he’s not been able to get rid of you ever since, really.
Yes, he’s tried.
One thing I do need to ask- it’s only because I’m quite curious- when you ride your dressage test, how do you know where the letters are? Do you have any sight? I don’t quite know how that works.
No, I have no sight, but I have Dan. Basically, I’m allowed to have somebody call the letters who can stand in the arena at X. So, Dan stands at X and every time I am a metre away from a letter Dan will call that letter. So, it’s teamwork really; that’s how I ride a dressage test.
Dan, have you ever thought of shouting out the wrong letter every now and again?
I do all sorts. When I pick her up from the station I let her jump in the car and then I put some old man’s voice on and she panics thinking she’s got into somebody else’s car.
He’s really mean, but I tell you something, if he calls the letter and I don’t respond absolutely spot on he really throws his toys out the pram.
It sounds like a really fun relationship. It sounds like most days you actually have quite a lot of fun doing what you guys do.
We do, we have a lot of fun, yes.
A question for both of you is; what’s the biggest mistake or the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in a dressage test?
How can you even ask us that? I think I block things out like that. Just so I don’t need to think about it.
I can think of one of the worst things that ever happened. We went to Hickstead for the para championships about a year ago, or two years ago, and it was one of those days where it was completely and utterly torrential; the whole place turned into a lake. Dan was sat in the lorry and he was seriously considering sending me out there on my own, but he did come out with me and we ended up going into this arena literally splashing and Dan must have been knee deep in mud.
It was hideous, wasn’t it?
It was absolutely horrendous, the pony was dancing about the arena, skidding everywhere, Dan was shrieking letters that I couldn’t hear because the wind was so bad. I was transparent with the rain and my clothes were plastered and it was just-I think back to that and that was one of those moments where you think ‘why do you do it?’
Mine has to be going back probably about eight years ago, I used to ride a horse called Dunny Ollo and it was one of his first internationals. I rode the intermediary 1 test and he had a wobbly going into the left pirouette, so I had to deal with it, move on from it and carried on doing the test. As I did the last extended trot I thought to myself ‘I know I’m going to be right down on the line’ and I didn’t want to get a crappy mark, so I trotted down the centre line and at the end and I put my hand up and retired. As I was walking out the arena the judge at C, who was Steven Clarke, got out of his box and came and gave me the biggest telling off saying it was unsportsmanlike that I’m at an international show and I’ve just gone and retired and I should never do it again. After that, that always just really stuck in my mind. That has to be my worst moment, I think.
If I ever interview Steven Clarke I will ask him about that.
Yes, he probably won’t even remember but I remember it, definitely.
It scarred Dan for life.
I know Steve quite well though. He is great, and he is super, and we can have a coffee about other things absolutely fine, but he definitely put something in my brain that day.
Put you on the naughty step that day.
What has been a temporary setback? Maybe in the early days of getting going or maybe funding the competition career, or any time that a horse has been injured at a really inconvenient time, or personal injuries, or issues with staff or team or anything like that?
A temporary setback which has really knocked back your progress and how have you managed to face that and get over that and move on from that?
I’ve had quite a few setbacks. Everybody that knows me knows that I don’t come from a money background at all. I’ve hard-grafted it to get where I want to be in my career. I suppose in the early days I used to train a lot of horses up that weren’t that talented and I suppose setbacks for me would be – which used to happen quite a lot – I’d get a horse up to Small Tour or even up to Big Tour and I’d be like, ‘yes I’m ready to go to CDI’s and I want to go internationals’ and then the owner would turn round and say, ‘we’re not doing it, we can’t afford it’ or I’d lose the ride for some reason or whatever it might be. That happened quite a lot in my early career and yes it took me a long time to be able to progress with the quality of horses that you need but also to have a strong team around you so that you can push forward when it really does matter I think. It’s not easy.
Especially when you’ve put so much time and training into a horse and get him working up the levels. To have that taken away from you must be quite hard?
Yes, and that happened quite a lot to me early on in my career.
Quite frustrating. What about you Nicola? Any time that you feel that you had this temporary setback that is just not allowing you to progress how you want it to?
I think the biggest setback for me, of course, was in my early days when I lost my sight and couldn’t ride at all, but more recently probably the biggest setback for me was actually a rule change that meant when I was riding in the paras I had to ride in Grade III – which is a more disabled grade. The blind riders in the Grade III are blindfolded. I have a bit of remaining light in my left eye, you put a blindfold on me and it completely throws me and suddenly to be enveloped in blackness and told to ride a horse seemed pretty tough. That was a rule that came in at the beginning of this year, so it’s made this last year very hard for me. Prior to that, we were going great guns, we were riding in a less disabled grade which was Grade IV but nevertheless, I was actually having a huge amount of success and really going great guns. So, getting used to that and having to accept that that’s actually made me take a step back in order to go forward again; that’s been a hard year. I think I’ve mainly coped with it by doing it partly and also enjoying riding in the non-paras and progressing my riding and my training despite that.
A problem that most riders face is taking a step from dressage being a hobby into it being their profession. Have you got any tips or advice for aspiring dressage riders that want to make that transition?
It’s a bit of fine line really between professional and amateur when you think about it. Pro riders obviously they make their living from it, but to actually make a living from this sport is not easy by any means. That’s a really tricky one, it really is. I’m not quite sure how to answer it. I think if you’ve really got that grit and that dedication that you really want to do it, then yes, go for it. Absolutely go for it but you’ve got to be prepared for a lot of lows. In my early days, I didn’t have that many owners or that many good horses to ride. You get given a horse and you do the best you can with every horse you get on, but it doesn’t mean to say that horse is going to go Grand Prix because not every horse can go Grand Prix. You just literally have to use the horses as stepping stones in a way to progress your own riding and your own feeling to training horses up the level. That teaches you so much anyway that when you do get one that can go Grand Prix then hopefully that one then makes your break. But getting that break is hard, really.
How did you go from riding for somebody else and being a dressage rider for somebody else, how did you make that decision one day that you were going to go it alone?
I did a year with Jennie Loriston-Clarke when I was 21 and I went to the Europeans with one of her stallions there, in that year, then at the end of that year, I went on my own. I moved to Kent and I was living with my mum and rented a little indoor yard half a mile down the road and set up on my own and that’s just how it happened, but I didn’t have good horses to ride. I had everybody’s cast-offs in a way and you just physically have to do the best by every horse. Then one leaves and another turns up and that is just how you do it. I was working in the pub in the evenings, I was doing what I could literally just to keep my head above water and I think for all of the time when I was in my twenties if I’m being really honest, I went severely in debt over it. You just have to do what you can do to keep your head above water. It wasn’t until I went into my thirties that I actually got rid of all the debt and started to come out the other end. It’s not easy.
What would be – sorry carry on.
I just said you’ve got to be quite tough and quite resilient to the world I think.
I think it’s such a hard sport. I’ve spoken to a lot of people recently through this podcast and I don’t think anybody has had a smooth journey getting to the high levels or getting the good horses or getting their career off the ground. I think it’s always been such a struggle because it’s such an expensive sport and they’re such expensive animals to keep.
What would be your top training tip that you would give riders listening? They obviously want to move up the dressage levels, they want to progress with their careers. What would be the top tip that you would give to anybody who wants to get into dressage or who is already riding dressage and just wants to improve?
I think to make sure that you ride from leg to hand and you’ve got to take into consideration all the time that you’re teaching your horse, really, how to dance. You want that softness to allow the horse to be able to use himself or use herself. I think the best thing I could ever say is don’t ever restrict them or try not to restrict them in any way, you’re trying to enhance their pace not smother it.
Fantastic, so what about you Nicola? What would be your top training tip you could give to anybody?
Having just listened to Dan, my top training tip is that you need to go and get a trainer. I don’t think this is a sport that you can do without – I think everybody needs the advice of eyes on the ground. They’re invaluable. So, if you can get a partnership with a good trainer and work with that person I think that’s invaluable and I think no man is an island. You need that help and support and so go and find a really good trainer.
Thank you both so much for doing this interview today. What’s the best way for people to connect with you? Have you got Facebook pages, Twitter pages, websites etc that you can let us know about?
We’ve both got Facebook pages, Dan over to you.
Yes, and I’m on Nicola Naylor Dressage on Facebook.
Again, thank you so much for allowing me to interview you guys and I’m sorry for some of the strange questions that you’ve probably not got asked before, but I really want to thank you for your honest answers and for taking the time to talk to me today.
Thank you for your time, it’s great.
Thank you very much.