Laura Tomlinson tells YH Ally about being back in the hunt for medals after having two children
The Olympic dressage rider talks to Allison Lowther about becoming a mum, overcoming an excruciating injury and her plans to climb back on to the championship podium
YOU COULD BE forgiven for saying you’ve forgotten about Laura Tomlinson. But cast your mind back to London 2012 and the mighty Mistral Hojris (‘Alf’), when Laura was unmarried and riding as Bechtolsheimer, and you’ll recall the original girl on a dancing horse. For a time, it was Alf whom small children wanted a poster of for their bedroom wall; Alf who was credited for putting the British dressage team back on the map — he won nine championship medals in all (see p25); and Laura was the only rider with a Union Jack on her jacket stepping on to a podium. Those were the days of Edward Gal and Totilas’ gold-medal run and Parzival II, ridden by Adelinde Cornelissen’s strong grip on the silver. Until, of course, Valegro burst on to the scene and began his reign with Charlotte Dujardin. A lot has happened since Alf retired in 2013 at the age of 18. Laura has got married, bore two children and quietly built a solid string of horses to catapult her back into the limelight. In fact one, she says, may be good enough for this year’s World Equestrian Games (WEG) in America (see p24). Laura’s father, the great Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer, is also her trainer. An experienced horse trainer and coach, he was the first to notice the talent of a certain Carl Hester as a young rider. Carl joined the Bechtolsheimer yard and the rest, as they say, is history. Like many working mothers, Laura’s days are filled to the final second. She has to manage her diary with military precision to combine taking care of her two young children and focus on her dressage career. “Being organised is key to getting the most into your day,” says Laura. “Most mornings are spent riding at the yard and then in the afternoon I’m in meetings, or spending time with my children.” Having a picture-perfect yard in the Cotswolds must help. A large stone barn houses the main yard and indoor school. This is a busy competition yard, yet the atmosphere is calm. Horses doze peacefully in roomy stables, each with their own window overlooking the outdoor arena. Every single equine is happy and content, donning identical green rugs with red binding – the colour scheme matching Laura’s horsebox.
Laura married polo player Mark Tomlinson, who’s England’s captain and six-goaler (in polo, every player is awarded an individual handicap depending on performance, with the highest being 10) in Switzerland in 2013. They are now a family of four, with three-and-a-half-year-old Annalisa and Wilfred, just over 12 months. Wilfred, fresh from an afternoon nap, is already a natural in front of the camera – he never stops smiling. Annalisa has just returned from a morning at preschool, leaving Laura a small window of time to talk to Your Horse before whisking her away to a ballet class. “That’s where I wear skirts,” whispers Annalisa, who’s a little shy, but with her mother’s relaxed manner – and a love for ponies has already passed on. Her favourite thing is Bibib. The 24-yearold miniature Shetland lives in the outdoor stable block. “Annalisa loves riding,” smiles Laura. “She took Bibib to Pony Club camp last year and took part in a fancy dress competition. They went as a unicorn and princess.” We can only imagine how cute the pair must have looked. Laura, who has been quietly competing — and winning — at Inter II level on top of having children and recovering from injury, has a strong support network around her. “It’s thanks to my parents and team on the yard that I can continue riding at the level I am,” she admits. “They ensure the time I have with my horses runs like clockwork so I can really make the most of the time I’m riding each horse.”
During both of her pregnancies Laura stayed fit and active, and continued to ride some of her older horses for as long as she could before she gave birth. “I didn’t gain much weight either time, so I was quite quickly back in shape,” she says. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Shortly after having Wilfred in March 2017, Laura began suffering from excruciating pain in her left leg and numbness in her calf and foot. An MRI scan revealed a slipped disc was pressing on a nerve. Intense treatment, plus the added challenge of a newborn baby, meant Laura’s return to the saddle was short-lived. “Out of all the equestrian disciplines it is dressage that causes the highest amount of concussion on your spine, because you spend all your time sitting down in the saddle,” she explains. “Over time this impacts on your back. I still have to be careful and take care of my body. Fitting in a warm-up before I ride, regularly going to the gym and doing Pilates are all a must if I want to be able to keep riding successfully. “When I first got back in the saddle, my left leg and gluteal muscles were quite weak and my horses took full advantage of that, pushing through my left leg aids. Asking them for flying changes was particularly difficult for me to do.” It took months to recover, but it paid off. Laura says she feels a much stronger rider following all that rehab. Her horses are going better than ever, too. All in all, motherhood clearly agrees with Laura. She talks openly and honestly about managing the work-life balance, and she hasn’t lost any of her desire to win.
My left leg and glutes were weak, and my horses took advantage of that
Alf still lives with Laura. He’s 24 years old now and living like a king in his retirement. Although Laura is still best known for that partnership with Alf, two potential medal contenders – Fallatijn Van Kairos (Finn) and Duval’s Capri Sonne JR (Cass) – are waiting in the wings. “I’ve been off the scene for a while, but I’m very excited about these horses. Both could be on GB dressage teams in the future,” says Laura, with a hopeful glint in her eye. At first glance, Finn could be mistaken for Alf as he’s almost a mirror image, being chestnut with four white socks and a blaze. “His nickname is Alf Junior,” laughs Laura. Finn is eight and, looks aside, also has very similar movement to Alf. “He’s talented with a great temperament, too. He’s a prospect for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.” Four stables along is Cass. This handsome black stallion is further on in his training. “He’s the one I’m hoping could catch the eye of the selectors for WEG,” states Laura. If either make it, Laura confesses that she’s relieved neither horse shares Alf’s quirky nature. It was well documented that he wasn’t an easy ride, and being sensitive to noise made riding him in front of a large crowd tricky. “Both Cass and Finn are uncomplicated, which is exactly what I need now I have two children to worry about. There’s no way I could have an Alf now,” she laughs. As we prepare to say our goodbyes, I ask what Laura she does in her downtime. “Downtime?” she asks with the bemused look only a mother of two would have. “It’s a little different now,” she muses. “We went skiing in February, so spending time with my family is downtime from the horses. But riding is downtime from being a mum. “Having two children has had such a hugely levelling effect on my life. “Annalisa and Wilfred bring so much joy and happiness and when perhaps a competition hasn’t gone as well as I’d like, coming home to my children makes it all OK.”
Laura’s two children have inherited her love of horses
Laura and her father, Wilfried Bechtolsheimer, work together to train the horses
Annalisa loves helping her mum with yard duties