Amanda Brewer is a remarkable woman. Forced to abandon three-day eventing after a catalogue of disasters she refused to give up riding and found solace in dressage. Kathryn Roberts talks to the sport's unsung hero.
The expression on Amanda's face is one of sadness: "We had to have him put down. His bones were literally crumbling...nothing could be done." She is of course referring to The Thomas, her three-day eventer who was tragically diagnosed as having severe arthritis six years ago. "It was so hard to take. He had immense talent and was so gentle...caring..."
As Amanda's voice trails off one has to admire her steely resolve and remarkable focus through some truly testing times.
Amanda's career began in her native country, Australia. Here she was a well-known three-day eventer achieving excellent results at leading competitions such as Gawler and Melbourne. With the wealth of eventing knowledge far greater in Europe, however, she travelled to the UK and worked on her yard before training with Captain Mark Phillips for four-and-a-half-years.
Amanda on Barkala Beaver
At her first event with The Thomas in England, Amanda suffered a nasty fall but remounted despite excruciating pain in her lower leg. It wasn't until she completed the course and received medical attention that Amanda learned she had smashed her talus bone and dislocated her ankle.
Amanda tried to get on with her life as best she could but then followed the devastating news that she might not be able to walk properly again, let alone ride.
"Luckily someone told me about this brilliant physiotherapist and I discovered Mary Bromiley. Without her I would never have got back into the saddle, and I could never have imagined a life without riding."
After what can only be described as the most difficult 14 months of her life, Amanda eventually started riding again.
The Thomas was put down soon after, however and Amanda began experiencing problems with another of her horses, Barkala Beaver.
Due to being too short-coupled in the back, he had major problems with drop fences at Advanced level. It was at this point Amanda decided to channel her energies solely into dressage and started training with Mark Philipps's wife, Sandy an American-born top international dressage rider.
Sandy invited Amanda to accompany her to Germany. "Sandy was going over for instruction with Conrad Schumacher and naturally I jumped at it."
Her aim was to receive schooling from Sandy in addition to watching Conrad teach, an extremely exciting prospect! Even more exciting, however, was when Conrad watched the end of Amanda's first lesson with Sandy and then proceeded to teach her himself!
"I couldn't believe it when Conrad started to teach me," Amanda explains excitedly. "He worked with me on canter pirouette, which I hadn't been expecting at all. To my amazement, when we finished he said "We'll carry on tomorrow."
Conrad Schumacher has a wealth of dressage knowledge and extends this only to a select few who he believes have true international potential. He is one of, if not the, main reason behind Germany's outstanding dressage success in recent years. Very much aware of this, Amanda seized the opportunity to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible to take Beaver as far as she could.
Reluctantly she admits he is not the top dressage horse she had hoped he might be. His spooky temperament was never going to be easy, but with a lot of hard work and commitment combined with her obvious talent, Amanda has worked wonders, taking Beaver as far as Prix St George and Intermediare level.
While in Germany, Amanda also watched Conrad work with Ellen Bontje on Gestion Champion and Silvano. "Her horses were so soft and proud and so relaxed. They worked in snaffles and watching Gestion Champion work nearly made me cry, it was so fantastic."
This continued for three more weeks ensuring Amanda was well and truly hooked on the sport. Confidence and enthusiasm boosted to the extreme, she returned to England, and with her good friend Debbie Vine, bought a new six year-old Irish horse, Dreamtime. Predominantly thoroughbred and very green, Amanda had her work cut out. The gelding had endured terrible physical abuse from his previous owners in Ireland and wouldn't even let strangers pat him.
When the opportunity arose to return to Germany to train with Conrad again, Amanda leapt at the chance. Although taking Beaver, the focus was very much on Dreamtime. "Conrad would never push Dream past his tolerance level. Whenever he became apprehensive, he just waited."
At times the lessons were very frustrating but Amanda finally began to see some progress after the first week. Dream's mouth quietened and he allowed himself to be pushed from behind at the trot and canter. By letting Dream come to Amanda and by imagining her arms as a quiet pair of reins, things started to click into place.
In Germany, Amanda met Nicole Uphoff's rider and groom, Lynn, who is also Australian. Lynn was so impressed with the work Amanda had done with Beaver that when she needed to return to Australia for a few weeks, she asked Amanda to run Nicole's yard for her while she was away.
Of course Amanda agreed and set off with Dream in tow. The pair received regular lessons from Nicole at her outstanding stable complex consisting of two enormous indoor schools, a full size dressage arena, an outdoor jumping arena and a small cross country course complete with water complex. Amanda is confident Dream is "now ready both in mind and body to really work forward, round and deep and be shown the way to a contact." He has huge potential but as is often the case, his success depends on money. Amanda teaches whenever she is in England, offering her pupils world-class experience. This then funds her trips to Germany (she has been invited back to train with Conrad and Ellen after the Olympics).
Keen to pass on her top-class training knowledge, Amanda realises that to win a place on the Australian Olympic Team, she needs quality material to work with. Nobody knows how Dreamtime will progress, perhaps he'll be the next Gestion Champion or maybe, God forbid, he'll suffer a similar fate to The Thomas. Whatever the outcome, there is one certainty: Amanda Brewer is one of the most remarkable and talented dressage riders around.
Amanda on Beaver in their 'early days'