There were sad scenes at Hickstead this week as the footings at the UK’s premier dressage venue were dug up and taken away for good.
Financial constraints have forced Dane Rawlins to close Dressage at Hickstead after 27 years. It is an open secret that Rawlins and his wife Maureen underpinned Britain’s CDIO and other major shows with their own money in recent times. Rawlins said that while Covid-19 was not the main factor in his decision, the pandemic brought the economics into focus.
Dressage at Hickstead was pivotal in the development of Britain as a global force in dressage. Highlights included the 2003 European dressage championships, where Britain won its first team medal, a bronze, and the first and record score-breaking appearance of Edward Gal and Totilas outside the Netherlands at the World Dressage Masters in 2009. Hickstead has hosted the final leg of the FEI Nations Cup for dressage since 2013.
For decades, the historic Goodwood estate in Sussex was Britain’s showcase dressage venue, hosting the world championships in 1978. But when the Duke of Richmond’s son took over running the property’s more lucrative horseracing and motorsport interests, he dispensed with the dressage.
So Rawlins approached Douglas Bunn of the All England Jumping Course, also in Sussex, about leasing some land to create a new facility, which continued to run independently while sharing the Hickstead name and FEI calendar dates. Loyal financial backers included Laura Tomlinson’s parents Ursula and the late Wilfried Bechstolsheimer.
Rawlins – who competed for Britain until switching to Irish nationality in 2011- is a forthright personality, often at odds with the equestrian authorities in his determination to make things happen. Even during lockdown, Hickstead was at the forefront of the European sport’s online activity. Rawlins staged a “challenge” match with Rotterdam CDIO and says that while the Dutch embraced the idea, their British equivalents were “less than enthusiastic.”
He remains frustrated at the lack of lead body commitment to the UK’s permanent venues.
Carl Hester is among the many paying tribute to Rawlins and the opportunities he provided across the spectrum – Hickstead was the first dressage show to introduce prizes for grooms.
“I can still recall my first experience in England of standing ovations and crowds raising the roof – had there been one,” said Hester. “We both agree on the benefits for the whole sport that investment in show venues would bring. It may be too late for Hickstead, but Dane’s work in promoting inclusivity in our sport should not be allowed to lie dormant.”
Rawlins said, “I’m feeling positive; the past 27 years have been fantastic, and the situation right now is still fluid – we may be able to organise something with the All England Jumping Course. I’m not retiring!”