Back home from training at Patrik Kittel and Lyndal Oatley’s property in Germany, Australian dressage great Mary Hanna is experiencing both the highs and challenges of her career.

Mary was in full swing training under Patrik to prepare for her Tokyo Olympics campaign when she had to rush home to support her daughter Gitte, who was recovering from a terrible fall.

Since being back in Australia, Mary has put in stunning performances at Boneo Park and set a record score at Willinga Park’s Dressage by the Sea, two of our last competitions allowed to proceed before the gates closed on equestrian gatherings. Here she opens up about the emotional ride and shows what it takes to shine on as she puts her head down for Tokyo 2021. 

At Willinga Park’s Dressage by the Sea, you broke the Australian Grand Prix CDI Freestyle record with 80.145%. It’s been a lifetime of achievement — how did that make you feel?

Well, it was a very sweet moment because I had put in a lot of work to prepare that freestyle, which I did while I was in Europe. Patrik (Kittel) and Lyndal (Oatley) both helped me to develop the freestyle; Patrik with the layout and the choreography and Lyndal with the music. Then I’ve got a very good guy, Markus Hinzke, who puts it all together. He’s a lovely guy, and he’s really experienced. Lyndal suggested the canter music, which I loved because it was a Waltzing Matilda theme from the movie Australia.

The choreography is quite difficult; it was for a 10. The thing is, the danger when you make a difficult choreography, is that you have to pull it off, otherwise you get severely penalised with the current Freestyle system. So the good thing was that we had some very good judges there; we had three Olympic judges. They’re very experienced judges, so they knew how to operate that Degree of Difficulty (DoD) system and the floor plan system.

Did that make you feel more comfortable?

Well, it was a very accurate test of how we are going; that’s not always the case here, because not all the judges are so experienced. It takes a lot of experience from the judges to judge using the system properly. It’s great that they use it here in Australia, because people are becoming better and better at it. So everything was in place for it to work.  

Calanta has always shown huge talent, however Dressage by the Sea was the first time the stars truly aligned; the venue was perfect, the going was good, the judges were good. Everything fell into place.

That was what was so lovely at Willinga; it was such beautiful conditions. It’s just a funny place because it has this wonderful effect on the horses – they all tend to get calmer and calmer each day and more relaxed in the atmosphere there. It has a very nice vibe for the horses. 

Mary Hanna and Calanta on their way to a record-breaking score at Dressage by the Sea. © Stephen Mowbray

“I feel very blessed
and fortunate
to be here.”

“If you are determined enough you can achieve anything.”

It was an absolute thrill for it all to work out and for her to achieve that score. I was so delighted. It was a long road to get there because she had a year off after she hurt herself (while preparing for the 2017/18 World Cup Final in Paris), but eventually we made it, and it was just a fantastic feeling to get that score.

You made it in style! I remember when we first saw her at the masterclass with Charlotte Dujardin at Boneo (2017) — it was at the end of the masterclass and it was getting very dark.

Training with Charlotte was a fabulous experience and watching her ride the horse was fantastic.

However, Calanta was relatively young and inexperienced when we did it; she’d never done anything like that before.

She can get quite hot and upset when things get difficult, and can lose her confidence. The masterclass, while

Mary Hanna and Syriana. © Stephen Mowbray

a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, was perhaps a little much for Calanta at that point in her training in terms of the

atmosphere. All horses handle situations differently and we learn these things as the partnership grows.

Mary and Calanta after they acheived an Australian record score. © Stephen Mowbray

Can you tell us about your two mares, because over your career you haven’t had a lot of mares at such a high level, you’ve had more geldings. Was this a choice to have mares? Or was it just luck? 

Not a conscious choice. I’ve never had anything against mares. Very early on in the piece I had a beautiful mare called Duelway. I used to three-day event and do dressage with her, and I nearly got her up to Grand Prix level and then I sold her to Japan, which in those days if I had good horses going I had to sell them to make ends meet. She was a beautiful mare; I really loved her. I’ve always had a soft spot for mares. 

But nowadays with the way dressage is, where they want this elegant, dancing, light-footed sort of horses, and they have to be able to last often in extremely hot conditions and they have to last three days of competition. The mares are wonderful because they just seem to have that fighting spirit to get through to the end of it.

And I particularly love the bloodlines of Johnson, which is Jazz. If you look back on the horses that I’ve had, I’ve had many, many horses with Jazz bloodlines. I know they’re a bit tricky, but they’ve got that fire to make a top Grand Prix horse. I bought Calanta when she was just rising eight and she was only at Elementary going towards a Medium. But she gave me a beautiful feeling when I rode her, although she didn’t know much at all. She did have a few issues. She had problems with her flying changes one way, she was late behind. And she had no extended trot and there were various things we had to develop. But I love the feeling she gave me when I rode her. And when I took Patrik to have a look, he also recognised that. So we decided to go ahead and buy her. 

So is she your horse that you would have taken to Tokyo this year had you made the team and the Games gone ahead?

I cannot say. I have two beautiful horses. I’m so lucky, and I cannot pick which one would be the most suitable one to take to Tokyo because they are both very good but different types of horses.

Do you think your preference changes, on a daily basis?

I think it’ll become clearer as we get closer. I know Calanta a lot better. Syriana is a more recent partnership. I’m having lessons with Patrik at least a couple of times a week at the moment. This has been one small light for me in this Covid disaster, because Patrik’s been locked up at home and not been able to run round to competitions and go out to teach, so he’s found the time to teach me (via online video), which has been wonderful.

And Syriana is developing in a very good way. But she is a completely different kind of horse; she’s by Sir Donnerhall, who is by Sandro Hit, out of a Donnerhall mare. Her mother is by Bormio, who is a thoroughbred. She is really talented, but she’s quirky and special, and you can’t force her to do things. You have to find a way with her that works. She doesn’t like to be squeezed or kicked too much; so you have to find a way to get her to go a little bit under her own steam… it’s very important. 

Have you found the readjustment being back in Australia without Patrik physically on the ground somewhat challenging? 

Well, at first I was quite worried about it. But look, he’s just such a talented trainer and even just over a live video lesson, he’s such a talented trainer that I can still get his magic from all this way, which is amazing. I mean, I had to come home of course — you know about Gitte, and that terrible accident. As it turned out, thank God that I’m here. I wouldn’t like to be locked down in Germany away from my family in a moment like this.

Thank God I got my horses home! Sadly I don’t have my other horse Ferrero here. But, you know, the two main Grand Prix horses are here, and my young horses that are growing up.

So I feel very blessed and fortunate to be here and to be able to have the best of both worlds – to be able to be at home safely during this crisis, and still have the wonderful lessons from Patrik. I feel very, very blessed to be able to do that and to be able to be in contact with all my family members during this time. That’s important.

Yes, I think it is something that we all miss, not being able to touch and see our family as much as we would like to. So Tokyo 2021: How do you keep yourself motivated and managing your horses between now and hopefully next year? 

Well, I’ve been doing lots of projects, and one of those projects is of course making a new freestyle for Syriana. So I’m using this quiet time to perfect things; to not overdo things with the horses but to keep up the training and pay attention to the details. I’m trying to make it a time to consolidate everything. It’s great when you don’t have a whole lot of other distractions because you can really concentrate on the horses. My horses had competed very hard last year and the beginning of this year. They’d done quite a lot of competitions – maybe more than I should have done. So I think a little bit of a break now just to consolidate everything is probably a good thing. Of course, I’m terribly disappointed because I do feel that they would have been both at their peak at Tokyo this year — we’re all a year older next year.

But hopefully the arthritis will stay at bay (laughs) and my back won’t play up … and I’ll still be alive and the coronavirus won’t have got me by next year hopefully!

Coming back to Australia, have you seen a bit of a change in the sport here from when you left?

I did see some positive changes, particularly in the professionalism of running the events, and the surfaces. I only got to go to Boneo and Willinga, but I must say that both events are very professionally run. The surfaces have improved 100%.

It was incredibly encouraging to see the standard of good judging and good surfaces. They were well-run shows and the officials well educated and quite friendly and helpful, which is very important. The standard of the shows, I think, has gone up considerably.

What I do feel is unfortunate is that we’re still very isolated here so far as professional instruction goes. We’re still far away from the centre of that. I’m just so blessed to be able to have these lessons with Patrik, because if I couldn’t have that then I would feel very, very alone. 

Five Olympics, hopefully six next year… what words of wisdom do you have for young dressage riders? 

I guess I would say never give up on your dreams. And I always advise people it is a step by step process and about making realistic goals, surrounding yourself with very positive people, and being very honest with yourself.

I use videos a lot where I look at how I’m going and self-analyse a lot. Sometimes I’m probably my biggest critic. I think that you have to be realistic and honest with yourself. But at the same time, you have to have an incredible determination. It is not just talent that gets people there, it’s the determination, planning and making realistic goals; sticking to your goals and having good people around you, they’re the things that get you there. You’ve got to dream big — without being ridiculous – because anyone can get there if they make the step-by-step process and they’re very determined and focused.

You need to be realistic about where they’re at, but you can never let somebody put you down and tell you something is unachievable — if you are determined enough you can achieve anything.

I’m 65… you have in your mind when you’re younger that 65 is old, but when you get there it’s not old. You realise no one really knows what is ‘old’, because it’s all in your mind and body — if your mind and your body are willing, then you just keep going. 

What we also have available to us now, is the ability to watch all the top riders on YouTube or through Clip My Horse. I think one of the most valuable things you can do is to really, really look at a lot of the videos of the top riders riding in top competition, and really look with open eyes and see the difference. That’s something you can do that’s very helpful — I do often. I think everybody that I watch, you can learn something. Sometimes it’s what not to do, but you can learn from younger riders. I often watch younger riders, even here, and find some very admirable qualities. You have to open your mind to learn from everybody, everywhere you go. 

The learning journey is never over!

Never. I learn from my horses and my students. You can learn from your own students by watching when you tell somebody to do something or they do something, and then you watch the result. You can learn from your horses, your students and everything around you. It’s just a matter of having an open mind. EQ

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