Interview with Tom Dvorak
Known as one of Canada’s top international dressage riders, German-born Tom Dvorak began riding at the age of 12.
After his family moved to Canada in 1982, he became a member of the Canadian Young Riders Team.
In 1990, he represented Canada in the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm.
Tom has developed a number of horses through to the Grand Prix level and represented Canada at Pan American Games (obtaining individual 4th at both the Brazilian and Mexican games), World Cups and World Championships.
As a coach, Tom has assisted many FEI Junior, Young Rider, amateur and professional riders in achieving their training and competitive goals.
Tom tragically lost his top horse Viva’s Salieri W to a colic attack in 2014, shortly after a very successful outing to in the Kentucky CDI3*, where they came second in the Grand Prix Special.
His daughter is currently competing his replacement GP horse ‘Fling’, and Tom is producing several other rides through the ranks, heading towards Grand Prix.
Hi Tom, I’m so excited to have you on this podcast today; thank you very much for joining us. How are you today?
I’m very well thank you, how are you?
Yes, I’m not too bad thanks. I’m really excited to interview you and to hear more about your story.
I’ve heard your name an awful lot in the dressage scene, so this is quite a bit of an honour for me to be able to interview you.
Well, I’m pleased that you are interviewing me and I’m really excited to be able to share some of my way of life here with you.
Fantastic so let’s get going.
First of all, to start things off, I’d like to know something a little bit different about you.
Could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself that most people would not know about you? It doesn’t necessarily have to be horse-related.
Yes, for sure. I think I have a little bit of a passion, besides horses, – and as we all know it’s difficult to have a hobby when you’re with horses because we spend all our time in a barn – but I love big trucks and tractors.
Fortunately, I’m able to play along with some of my equipment that we use here on the farm and I also have a big Freightliner truck that I use for pulling my horse trailer in the summertime, so I can combine this a little bit with my job.
I guess you could say that, but I love big equipment. If it has a big engine and it has wheels, then I love to drive it.
So, you like big boys’ toys?
Yes, that’s exactly correct.
Lovely, let’s have a little bit more of an insight into your personal life at the moment.
What does a typical day look like for you? How many horses have you got? Have you got any other pets? Are you married? Do you have any children?
Let’s start off maybe with my family here. We live here in Hillsburgh, Ontario and we have a 28-stall barn.
We try to keep about 25 horses here in full training at any given time and I run the business together with my wife, Helen and my daughter, Alex.
It’s kind of a family business. My daughter rides competitively and my wife did earlier on. It’s a family business.
A typical day for us really is; I start in the barn at six o’clock in the morning, I feed hay and then prepare my first horse to ride. I try to be on my first horse at seven o’clock and then I spend all my time in the yard or the arena, which I refer to as being my office.
I spend very little time outside of that, so we just basically keep the horses coming.
It’s a mixture of, for me, riding the horses and then teaching lessons in between. Sometimes warming up the horses for clients and so on.
I’m pretty steady in there, most of the time we try to be finished by six o’clock, sometimes I teach until 7:30 because I do teach a lot of people that have jobs.
Then when I’m still in the barn at 7:30 I do night checks so we feed the horses hay again and I try to wrap my day up between eight and 8:30 in the evening.
It kind of makes it a long day for us.
That is a long day. Do you get any days off at all, Tom, or are you at it every day?
No, rarely a day off. It’s a seven-day kind of week.
On weekends I often travel to do clinics, so I leave on a Friday night and come back on Sunday night and then I start up again on Monday.
When I do spend the weekends at home we tend to do stuff on the farm. There’s produce that needs to be cut; I play with my tractor!
We do a lot of stuff because we have a farm.
We have 180 acres here that we maintain, and we do a lot of work outside of the stables as well; cutting grass, cutting the produce, building fences, anything you can imagine that includes maintenance.
I suppose you never run out of things to do.
No, not on a farm. There is always something that needs to be fixed or built or improved.
Let’s have a little bit more of a look into your dressage career.
When did you get into horses? When did you start riding and was it dressage that you went straight into or did you start in a different discipline?
How did it all begin for you?
I actually started in a different discipline altogether.
I grew up in Germany and there was a local riding club like lots of little towns have in Germany, and I actually started off vaulting.
My brother and I joined the vaulting because I was always horse crazy, but my parents were not at all involved in horses and knew nothing about horses.
They said the way to get into horses would be maybe to send me to the local riding club and they offered vaulting there so that’s how I started.
I did vaulting for about three or four years competitively with my brother together and then my love for horses just kept increasing and I really wanted to get riding.
As it happened at the local riding club, a pony came up for sale and it came with bridle and saddle and grooming kit, it was like a package deal and I was really excited about this and I kept begging my parents to buy me this pony and they really resisted and then finally my grandmother said, ‘if you guys don’t buy him a pony, I will’.
Finally, they broke down and I got the pony thanks to my grandmother and it kind of went from there.
Then a couple of years later we upgraded it to a horse, but basically, I started doing dressage right away because the riding club that we were at was mostly dressage riders and the barn where I kept my horse they were mostly dressage riders.
I did a little bit of jumping but the horse that I had at the time didn’t want to jump at all and we struggled with the jumping, so it just made sense for me to do dressage and I kind of stuck with that, basically throughout my whole riding career.
Your grandma has a lot to answer for, doesn’t she? She’s basically shaped your whole career and your life really.
She really did. She knew I was crazy about horses.
Any movie that had a horse in it; I was watching, the westerns, anything. I was just crazy about horses.
We were in a very horsey town and I was always at the neighbours watching the girls ride there and I would go over to the riding school and I was always hanging around hoping somebody would let me pull the horse out so I could just walk it around.
Anything to do with horses I was just nuts about them.
When did you start thinking -when you were competing in dressage – that you started thinking, ‘I’m actually really good at this’ and you were going up the levels and you started becoming more and more known and getting more of a name for yourself. When did that start to happen in your life?
It happened shortly after we immigrated to Canada.
My parents decided that we were going to move to Canada and we brought two horses with us.
I started competing more as I came to Canada and then I started competing at the Young Rider level, so that was my first experience to compete internationally for Canada.
I was quite successful at that, I was part of the silver medal team in 1985 and that really sparked my interest in competing internationally for Canada.
That must be the ultimate high of your career!
Being able to go and represent your country, I think is a big dream for a lot of riders.
Yes, I think I always had this dream of competing at the Olympics.
That was something that fuelled me all the time, so of course being on the national Young Riders team was a stepping stone to my dream, but we have this vision of your dream that you’re working towards and, like I said, that was my first introduction to go onto the Olympics later on.
How did that feel when you finally made it on to the Olympic team and when you were representing Canada internationally?
How did it feel when you were cantering down the centre line for the first time for your first test?
It feels amazing.
I think the first time I represented Canada was at the World Championships in Sweden and that was my first experience and it was awesome. That was back in 1990 and then I went to the ‘96 Olympics.
The Olympics are really special.
I must say; any time I represent my country in any competition is special, particularly when you go to a major game like WEG or Olympic games or Pan Am games.
I’ve been fortunate enough and lucky enough that I’ve been able to do this a few times, but every time it’s a special moment and I just love competing for my country.
Now we’ve looked at the high times and how that’s made you feel, were there any times where you were getting up in the morning, you were on the yard and you were just thinking ‘what am I doing this for?’
You may be felt like you weren’t getting anywhere with your horses or things were happening that were always stopping you from making a success of it.
Were there any particular moments like that that stand out for you?
Yes, there have been a few moments I can think of but one in particular, just recently about a year ago, I lost my Grand Prix horse.
He was a very, very talented horse and very special to me and I have to say it really set me back quite a bit in the last year.
I didn’t have another upper-level horse to fill the gap.
I loved that horse. He was very special to me; I had him since he was a three-year-old and we spent a lot of time together and went to a lot of big competitions together.
He was only thirteen years old at the time when he passed away. He was right coming into his game so that was really tough and it’s really hard when that happens because you often ask yourself why you’re doing it.
He was the reason to get out of bed, if you know what I mean, in the morning and work hard.
Yes, I’m guessing you trained him all the way up to Grand Prix level, that’s a lot of time and a lot of effort. You sort of feel, what have you done it for, in a way.
I think anytime, for various reasons when we lose competition horses – especially when they’re Grand Prix horses and sometimes a terrible thing like this happens when the horse passes away, and other times you lose them through injury or the owners sell the horses, all kinds of things happen – I think anytime you lose a hhigh-levelcompetition horse it really hurts.
It’s difficult because it takes so long to train them; you’re putting six years into a horse to go into Grand Prix and something happens, it’s always a little bit disheartening.
Yes, and I think a lot of the riders that I have interviewed have said the same.
Riders find it quite disappointing when they’ve made it to a certain qualifier or championship and then the horse has an injury and is unable to attend the event. They find that quite frustrating as well because obviously they’ve built up to that event and now they can’t go.
Yes, all the hours and the planning and the money and all these things and all the little sacrifices that you do to get there and then something happens.
It’s the same with people, hockey players or soccer players, they have the same problems with their own bodies, I guess.
They get injured and it’s always a bit of a problem.
We have horses and myself or other riders, that’s two of us that have to stay healthy which ups the ante quite a bit more.
That’s very true.
That’s a very good way of looking at it actually and it’s a very good point.
If we look at your dressage tests, what’s the biggest mistake or the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in a dressage test?
I’m guessing that not every dressage test you’ve ridden has been foot-perfect or you’ve been completely happy with.
What’s the biggest mistake or the worse thing that’s ever happened to you during a test?
Well I will tell you one particular situation that I was in, and it’s a little bit funny after the fact, but anyway, I was competing internationally at a show at a CDI in Ottawa and I was doing an Inter 1 freestyle and I was riding along and it was a beautiful day.
All of a sudden it seemed like it was starting to rain and I could not figure out what was going on, my horse started spooking and running sideways and I realised that the sprinkler systems came on around the dressage ring.
They had an automatic sprinkler system and the timer had messed up and it came right on during the competition and all the judges were jumping out of their booths and it was quite the situation at the time.
I have a very spooky horse and you can imagine how with this water spraying in his face was affecting him quite a bit at that moment.
Luckily, they let me restart the test again at the end of the class, they said ‘go back to the barn, reboot yourself and you can come back and start the test again after the class’ so that was nice.
I still have it on video as Lady Diane Zimber videoed it and she sent it to me and I look at it once in a while.
Now it’s kind of funny I suppose but at the time it was quite the event.
Yes, I think at the time it’s probably quite frustrating, but it gives a nice story to tell us anyway.
Yes, it’s never happen to me again but you can see that even technology can really screw you up in a way.
Yes, we were interviewing another lady before and she was doing a freestyle to music test messed her disc up and she ended up doing a freestyle to some completely different music which was quite interesting.
These technology things; we try to put them into the horse world, but they don’t always tend to work!
When you lost your Grand Prix horse – I’m just trying to think of the biggest temporary setback that you’ve had to face – when you lost your Grand Prix horse, that obviously hit you quite hard; how did you get over that and how did you move on and pick yourself up and continue progressing through with the rest of your career?
Well, that’s a good question and, well, I’m still working on it a year later.
Right at this moment, I’ve got a really lovely six-year-old horse that I’m competing with a really good owner.
We had a really successful show season and he’s a really good quality up and coming horse.
He’s kind of helping me a little bit to get over it, that you have something to work on again and something to focus myself away from that situation.
I think that’s helping me at this point.
It was tough and there aren’t too many days where I don’t think about the horse, so it’s a tough one to get over, no doubt. Especially when you have a really special horse; he was probably the best horse that I’ve ever had in my career.
That doesn’t make it any easier.
No, you have got to just get up and keep progressing on and hoping that things will turn out for the better, really.
Yes, so a big problem that riders tend to face is – especially if they’re working full time and they have their own horse as well – is that they want to make dressage not only their hobby, but they want it to be their profession.
They want to take that step of leaving their normal office job to being a dressage professional.
How did you make that transition?
Were you always into dressage and did you just fall into dressage as a professional or did you have to make that transition at any point?
If you did, what advice would you give to any other riders wanting to do the same?
Yes, personally for me when I was younger at sixteen or seventeen I never really had it as a goal to become a dressage trainer. It just kind of worked out that way in a way.
The barn that I was keeping my horse at, the odd person would say ‘can you help me with the horse?’ and I’d be like okay sure, I’ll help you with it, and there was an opportunity one summer for me to lease three school horses and then I taught lessons on them for a summer and a winter actually.
I just kind of worked my way into it and realised, ‘I think I can do a good job with this’ and I really enjoyed working with the horses.
It was more so that it just kind of worked out that way and after two or three years I realised that this was my calling and I really enjoyed working with the horses, so why not do something that your passionate about and that you love doing?
Was that a scary transition at any point or did you just know that this is what you wanted to do it and you just went for it?
It was not so scary.
The transition seemed to be slow for me because I had other jobs at the time. I was also working as a landscaper while I was teaching lessons to sort of supplement my teaching a little bit.
At that point, I hadn’t really one hundred percent decided that that’s what I’m doing and but I think once I did, we just went for it.
I got married to my wife Helen and we both started running a stable and then we really became serious about it.
I don’t regret it for one moment.
I think it’s very good that you’ve got her because I think you two spur each other on and I think you both understand what’s going on.
I know there are a lot of people that have partners that aren’t in the equestrian world and they don’t understand what this dressage thing is all about. Whereas you both get it and you can both support each other and help each other and pick up on each other’s fault and rewards and everything that’s going on.
One hundred percent.
I couldn’t imagine doing this without my wife and without my daughter, because we all work long hours and we all have a common goal in mind, but having a non-horsey person, they would not understand the passion and why we work twelve to fourteen hours a day.
I’ve seen many marriages or partnerships break up because of that, because they just don’t understand that we spend every waking minute with the horses.
Yes, it’s definitely a way of life. Definitely a way of life.
It’s a lifestyle for sure.
For those people out there who are wanting to get to Grand Prix; what would be your top training tip that you would give to them?
Imagine that you have a client or any rider, no matter what level they’re at, if you could give them one tip to help them get to Grand Prix, what would that be?
I think it would be -it’s so hard to make one tip – but I think as a whole there are two tips that maybe I can give.
One is I think you have to have the right attitude.
I think you have to be really patient with the horses and you have to be realistic with the expectations from every horse that you ride, because not every horse is going to get to Grand Prix, but I think you can learn from every horse.
Every horse can teach you something, I think.
I think putting in enough time to build a little bit of a toolbox for yourself to learn how to ride certain horses and certain movements and the many more horses you ride I think you learn something.
You have to learn; you have to look at it as learning something from every horse. I think that’s the attitude that you have to have and then you will learn.
The learning never stops.
I’m still learning and I think a lifetime isn’t long enough to really learn everything that we need to know about horses and the world of dressage.
Any trainer will tell you that and the minute you think you know everything, I think you’re sort of done with it.
That is, I think, the general attitude you should have.
From the practical point, I love the exercise of leg yield. I think leg yield in trots, canter, walk; for me it’s my favourite exercise and with the advanced horses; the St George and the Grand Prix horses I do it a lot in canter.
It promotes balance, it promotes self-carriage, it promotes the yielding aid, it helps to get the horses to the outside rein and it’s also a nice exercise to prepare for flying changes if you teach flying changes.
For me that’s an exercise that I go to a lot with my horses at any level.
For the last question, what I would like you to do is to sum up for me; what does it take to get to Grand Prix and to become a Grand Prix rider?
If there was someone stood in front of you and they just got their first horse, they were starting off completely from scratch and they said to you; what does it take to be a Grand Prix dressage rider, what would you say?
I think a lot of dedication.
For me also I think what’s important is the love of the horse.
I think you really have to love horses to be able to understand them and train them.
To become a Grand Prix rider, it may not be with the first horse that you have that takes you there. I think it takes many horses to get to Grand Prix, like I said, it’s not necessarily that every horse is going to get to Grand Prix.
I don’t know if that answered your question.
That’s fine, that’s absolutely fine.
Thank you very much for jumping on this interview with me today, Tom.
I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this for us and I’m sure that all of our listeners have really enjoyed listening to you and listening to your story.
What’s the best way for people to find out more about you, or to maybe connect with you? I understand you have a website where people can see what’s going on with you and your family, is that right?
Once again, Tom, thank you very much for allowing us to interview you today and I wish you all the success for the future.
No, thank you very much for interviewing me, I really enjoyed it.
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