Laura Tomlinson, MBE

Doctor of Laws Laura Tomlinson

Thursday 18 July 2013 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Professor Julian Rivers

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,

Some years ago, my predecessor as warden of Wills Hall commented to me that if the university were ever short of capital investment projects it could do worse than restore the Hall’s dilapidated Victorian stables. It was perhaps with our honorary graduand in mind that he made that remark. For, in 2004, Laura Bechtolsheimer, as she then was, had applied to join Wills Hall as a resident. After admitting on her application form to playing hockey and tennis, but only to county level, she went on, ‘my main hobby, however, is riding...I have won two silver medals at European championships and my efforts continue!’ Indeed, they certainly did. The following year she became the youngest British national dressage champion ever. And it is to celebrate her achievements and contribution to British equestrianism that she is receiving her second Bristol degree this afternoon.

Like many sports, dressage developed out of ancient military accomplishments. Cavalry riders needed to be able to control their horses to the utmost extent possible – to charge, to swerve, to dodge and reverse at a moment’s notice. During the 18th century this practical training was developed into an art form, the most notable expression of which was the establishment of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna in 1729. By the end of the 19th century it had further developed into a competitive sport, being permanently added along with other equestrian sports to the Summer Olympic Games in 1912. At Grand Prix level, the sport requires horse and rider to execute a set sequence of 30 to 40 moves which are graded by judges for qualities such as regularity, cadence, elasticity, balance, fluency and precision. In the final class, the artistic dimension re-emerges as rider and horse perform their own choice of movements set to music, displaying to best effect the perfect agility and harmony of horse and rider.

It is not unfair to say that for much of the 20th century, dressage was the Cinderella of British equestrianism, beautiful, but neglected. It was the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries and above all Germany which excelled. There are clear historical reasons for this. Britain’s military capability depended on pre-eminently on its navy, not on land-based armies with substantial cavalry units. The dominance of continental Europe could be seen by successive results at the Olympic and World Equestrian Games. Apart from 1972 and the boycotted Moscow Olympics of 1980, German teams had taken the gold medal for dressage at every Summer Olympics from 1964 to 2008. But change was in the air – or, perhaps, change was in the minds of Dr. Wilfried and Mrs. Ursula Bechtolsheimer,  with us here today, who in 1986 moved with one-year old Laura from Mainz to Gloucestershire to set up a breeding and training business. At the age of three, Laura was placed upon her first pony, Peacock, and it is only a small exaggeration to say that she has spent more time in the saddle than out of it ever since.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, the list of her successes is remarkable. In 1997 she won the Pony Club National Championships eventing, age 12. At age 14 she won team silver in the European Championships, after which she started focusing on dressage, resulting in team bronze at the European Young Rider championships in 2004 and 2005. The second of those occasions was the first major win on her horse, ‘Alf’. 2006 saw her first senior team appearance for Great Britain at the World Equestrian Games. She turned down a wild card for the 2007 World Cup, for the laudable reason that she was doing her Philosophy and Politics finals. Philosophy, by the way, was preferred half of her joint honours degree, because you could get away with more thinking and less reading. With her degree secure, she devoted herself full-time to training and things really began to take off. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics and national champion. In 2009, team silver and individual bronze in the European Championships; she also broke the British Freestyle record, gaining a mark over 80% for the first time. In 2010, two individual silvers and team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, setting new personal bests and British records in all three classes of Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Freestyle; national champion again. In 2011: team gold and individual bronze at the European Championships, national champion again. From 2008 to November 2011 and again in Spring 2012 she was the highest ranking British dressage rider in the international standings, ranking 2nd or 3rd in the world. And finally, team gold and individual bronze at the London Olympic Games last year, dislodging the German team from their supreme position, with a record-breaking team score of 79.979%.

The training required to compete at the highest level in any sport is extremely arduous. Throughout her time at university Laura was driving home six days a week to train. In equestrianism, there is the additional challenge of learning teamwork with a particular animal. The skill lies in developing and implementing a training system, which builds a perfect partnership between horse and rider. The horse has to be willing to respond freely and instantly to imperceptible prompts on the part of the rider and to perform to the utmost of its athletic ability in a highly charged competitive atmosphere. The successful partnerships which Laura has developed with Alf and other horses are rare indeed.

Of course, this success is not simply a matter of personal achievement. It is the achievement of a significant team of family, friends and colleagues. One might say that Laura has been lucky; but who is ever entirely self-made? Her contribution has been to grasp the opportunities presented to her, and so to lead the recent revival of British Dressage, which has brought the sport up to the highest international standards. In doing so, she has been a role-model and an inspiration for a whole new generation of young equestrians.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, in 350 BC, or thereabouts, the Greek soldier and historian Xenophon wrote a short treatise on ‘The Art of Horsemanship’. At one point, Xenophon says this:             

…what a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad. The performances of horse or man so treated would seem to be displays of clumsy gestures rather than of grace and beauty. What we need is that the horse should of his own accord exhibit his finest airs and paces at set signals…The majesty of men themselves is best disclosed in the graceful handling of such animals. A horse so prancing is indeed a thing of beauty, a wonder and a marvel; riveting the gaze of all who see him, young alike and graybeards. They will never turn their backs, I venture to predict, or weary of their gazing so long as he continues to display his splendid action.

Many of us here will indeed have gazed at the splendid action of Alf, ridden by Laura at the London Olympic Games last year. Her and her team’s success was a well-earned reward for many years’ hard work in the spirit of Xenophon, the pinnacle of a remarkable contribution to British equestrianism.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Laura Anne Tomlinson, MBE, dressage rider and trainer, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.    


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