Finely Groomed

Sarah Peters chats to Hampshire-based horsewoman Tuula Aer about her hopes to take part in the 2012 Olympics

 Tuula Aer is originally from Finland.

Since moving to the county seven years ago, she and her husband have been enoying the country living that Hampshire has in such abundance. Having lived in London for a few years, the peace, the open spaces and the wildlife has now become a vital part of their world.  Tuula has been riding since she was seven. Since then she has had a busy time working to fund her riding. She was 2006 Equine Herbals Elementary Restricted Champion and has her sights set on the 2012 Olympics. As she was born in Finland, it is the Finnish squad that she will be representing if she qualifies during the 2011 season to mark herself as one of the best horsewomen in the international arena. She hopes to compete in the Equestrian Dressage section of the Games: “I think the best way to describe it is figure skating with horses,” she says with a laugh. “The final stages of the grand prix is done to music. The first stages of the competition are freestyle and not to music. Then the best 15 in the group go through to the round that involves moving to music.” 

Music to train toHorses are not necessarily renowned for their musicality; however, Tuula insists this is something you have to consider when choosing which horses to train for dressage. “It does help if the horse likes music.  You often don’t know that when you start training the horses at a young age, but you do have to choose music that the horse is comfortable with.”As you are dealing with a huge animal the sheer size and pace of the horse comes into play.  “You have to choose music that goes with the rhythm of the horse too. You have to find the music not only that the horse likes, but music that suits the horse’s pace. You choose certain music for the walk, the trot and for the canter so you bring out the best in the horse. It is quite scientific to start with.”

Many handsThe horse that Tuula will be riding is a 12 year old Dutch warmblood called Rivaldo II.  He is a big horse standing at 17.3 hands high and he is stunning to watch. Even when he is walking he commands a grace and power that is tangible. When the two take to the arena, it’s like watching a ballet; so controlled, and focused are they when in the spotlight. It’s clear to see why their relationship is so very important.  Her partnership with Rivaldo started seven years ago when they were both beginners and since then they have competed in many competitions. This summer they they took part in the Hartpury and Hickstead International Dressage Competitions representing Finland.“He’s a big horse. He’s beautiful and powerful but he also has a lovely character.  He is very attractive and has a lovely personality.”  Tuula and Rivaldo are lucky enough to be training with two of the best British dressage trainers, namely Nicky Barrett and Gareth Hughes. “He likes big, loud music when we do dressage. Big rock numbers or dramatic pieces of classical music.” Tuula puts in hours and hours each week to groom Rivaldo to perform to his best ability. Dressage demands huge amounts of painstaking practice by the rider and horse. On average, Tuula and Rivaldo ride about an hour a day together. She also rides other younger horses too, so she normally rides for about five hours a day, six days a week. 

A way of lifeAs with any sports person at the peek of their career and determined to make it on the international stage, the sport is a way of life not just a part time activity. “I have to keep fit and eat a healthy diet all the time. I do not take days off. I eat lots of vegetables, fruit and pasta and try to avoid coffee, cheese and cream – it’s a lifestyle decision.“I do quite a lot of pilates which helps me to focus and concentrate, as well as meditation and I see a personal coach once a month. She is not really a sports coach, which is probably a good thing because we can discuss wider issues and that really helps me. When you’re involved in a particular sport, you can become too engrossed in it. It helps to have a trainer who is not part of that world at all in order to focus more clearly.” 

The qualifiersTuula explains that some years ago dressage was not really considered a sport: that the horse alone did all the work: “It was said we just sat on the horse, and that’s it, we had no input at all. That is not really true at all. Now, the sport is getting tougher and tougher and you have to be a real athlete to be able to compete. When you are physically fit you are mentally stronger too so it is important for me to be at my best.”Travelling all over the place to compete is a great logistical operation for Tuula as Rivaldo and all his equipment needs to be transported too. He also needs to arrive in plenty of time before the competition starts so he can settle down and recover from the journey.  So what does 2011 bring for the pair? “Next year I will do even more traveling as from January 1st as all the qualifying events take place to win your place in the Olympic team. So I must get round to some of the international competitions so I can qualify. I really can’t wait.”

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Time outWhen she’s not training the horses in the arena, Tuula enjoys off-road hacking in the beautiful Test Valley. She also likes to go walking in the Hampshire countryside. She has a dog, an English setter, and they like to head off into the wilderness for long, bracing walks: “I like walking around Wherwell where I live; it’s my favourite place to go out. We live about 10 miles from Winchester so there are many lovely places to visit.”Most people like to relax when they have time off. Not Tuula. When she is free from commitments, she likes to keep active. “I do lots of cycling and running when I have spare time. I can go for miles and miles.” So how did she come to live in Hampshire? “We chose to relocate to this area when my office transferred to Southampton. We took the opportunity to move into the countryside and that suited me fine – I’m definitely a country girl. My husband, however, was really a city boy and he needed a bit of persuading. But now, he loves it too. Tuula is a very positive person, but she is also very much a realist: “I’m happiest on a horse and with all my horses. Getting  on to the Olympic team is a great and important goal, but I am also the type of person who lives for today. I will do my best but so many things are out of our hands.”