EQUESTRIANISM: Sleaford rider transforms winning racehorse into para-dressage prodigy

Julie Frizzell and Namibian. Photo: George Frizzell
Julie Frizzell and Namibian. Photo: George Frizzell

In a stunning example of the adaptability of racehorses, a former Royal Ascot winner has been transformed into a successful para-dressage horse.

Namibian won the 2011 running of the Queen’s Vase at the Royal meeting, now, barely a year after starting a new career, the eight-year-old gelding has qualified for the Para Dressage Winter Championships in March 2017.

Namibian has been re-trained by Sleaford-based para-dressage rider, Julie Frizzell, who served for 20 years in the RAF, rising to the rank of Wing Commander, before her retirement in 2008 on medical grounds.

It was while riding a horse on an Army course at the Defence Animal Centre that her wrist was crushed in a fall. Subsequent surgery failed to repair the damage and in 2012 her main forearm bone, the ulna, was removed altogether. She now rides with a thermoplastic cast to keep her hand in place.

In 2015, when her long-standing dressage mount, Crazy Diamond, was approaching retirement, Julie sought a replacement and was recommended to try the Godolphin Rehoming centre at Badlingham, near Newmarket, and it was there she found Namibian.

Namibian shares both the same sire and place of birth as the Derby and Arc winner Golden Horn, being a son of Cape Cross and having been born and raised at Hascombe and Valiant Stud. A progressive three-year-old in 2011 when trained in Middleham by Mark Johnston, Namibian followed up his victory at Royal Ascot with defeat of the subsequent Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente at Goodwood.

However, a bout of colic and a subsequent setback led to two years off the track and then an unsuccessful spell hurdling, after which he was moved to Badlingham to begin his retraining.

Julie Frizzell explained: “A client on the south coast had a beautiful horse, who it turned out had come from the Godolphin Rehoming Programme. I had just started looking for a new competition partner and so I went on the website and the following morning I had a call from the Programme manager, Jo Brisland.

“We arranged to go the stud and I was introduced to Namibian. One of the Programme riders rode him first and then I got on. He felt green, wobbly and young. And when I asked for canter he had a right royal buck and squeal. But, importantly, I never felt unsafe and it soon became clear he loves his work.”

The ability and potential he showed as three-year-old on the track is now being fulfilled in the dressage arena. An experienced rider, Julie has nurtured Namibian and during their relatively short time together the pair have developed an exceptional bond.

Julie said: “At the outset I can only liken it to trying to get the QEII yacht to waltz! However, his ability and trainability are superb. He is the most intelligent horse I have ever sat on. I’d call him an impatient learner. He does occasionally lose the plot if he doesn’t understand something immediately.

“It’s like he wants to be at the top of his game, irrespective of what the game is. He is a proper diva, loves attention and is truly happy when he is working. I swear this horse smiles.”

Namibian only started competing on the para-dressage circuit in March this year, but by July he had already been selected for the Concours Para-équestre de Dressage International (CPEDI) 1*, where horse and rider are required to have averages of 64 per cent and above in specific tests to even be considered by the selectors.

The next target Julie set for herself and Namibian was to qualify for the Winter Championships next March, which she achieved when finishing fourth at Myerscough College last month. To date, Namibian has finished in the top four in every test he has done.

Julie said: “In terms of preparation for the Winter Championships, with qualifiers few and far between, my aim was to try and get him qualified as early as possible. But to have achieved that by November from just three shows was, to be honest, a bit of a pleasant surprise!”

Julie splits her time between leadership and management consultancy work and running Dressage Coaching UK, which specialises in providing a professional level of coaching to those who ride for pleasure.

Namibian faces stiff competition for Julie’s attention, vying with two other horses, three Springer spaniels, 16 rare breed sheep, 20-odd chickens and ducks and her husband, George. He also has big shoes to fill, as he seeks to follow in the steps of Crazy Diamond, upon whom Julie twice won the Para Winter Dressage Championship and was in the top three of the CPEDI 2* in 2014, 2015 and 2016, as well as being placed in a number of able-bodied competitions.

Julie said: “To come from racing and turn to dressage is one thing, to turn to para-dressage at international level is another and it will take time. My initial aim with him is to contest the national titles that I won on Crazy Diamond and to be selected to represent Great Britain at 1* and 2* level.

“Developing him up to advanced dressage level is ambitious but I am in no doubt he has the brain and athleticism to do it.

“Whether today or 10 years from now, my goal is ‘that feeling’. That feeling of sitting on a horse who is happy to work and happy in his work, the friendship and partnership is the priority. To then be able to show that in a competitive arena is just a bonus.”

Di Arbuthnot, chief executive of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), said: “Julie is an inspiration to us all. What she has achieved with Namibian is wonderful, although as she says herself, thoroughbreds are very intelligent and adaptable animals and so in that respect I am not surprised that a former racehorse is excelling at para-dressage.

“RoR is delighted to be in a position to celebrate and promote the success of Julie and Namibian and we very much hope they will feature in one our future racecourse parades.”