Bill Askins Interview
Bill Askins has served as an officer and aviator in the US Marine Corps, then as a diplomat in several Latin American countries. Since his retirement from diplomatic service he has been the President of Bejar Trading company, building infrastructure projects in Latin America.
Bill has been riding for 60 years, having started as a “kiddy cowboy”, then show-jumped, had a stint on the US Modern Pentathlon team, played polo for 20 years, fox-hunted in Virginia and finally became interested in dressage in the early 1990s.
“I am certainly more interested in horses than anything else, and they have been an abiding passion all of my life”, says Bill, who has trained and competed the Akhal-Teke stallion Helm (Melesur-???) to Intermediare I level, making them one of the very few advanced Akhal-Teke dressage combinations since Absent.
Bill trains with the classical German rider Reinhard Dorsch. Bill’s riding style is characterised by subtle elegance, fluid changes, un-self-conscious precision and harmony.
MM: What is your equestrian background? Have you always ridden? Has dressage always been your discipline?
BA: I have ridden all of my life; my first memory is falling off a pony into a sticker burr patch at the age of three. My grandfathers were both horsemen, my mother was an avid horsewoman who continued to ride into her seventies. I focused on dressage after twenty years of playing polo, a lengthy career of show ring jumping, fox hunting, and cross country preceded by working cattle on my godfather’s ranch in Arizona’s southern mountains.
MM: When did you first hear of this unusual breed?
BA: I have always known about Akhal Tekes, don’t remember where I first heard about them. My first involvement with the breed was a visit with Elena Petushkova to Tito Pontecorvo’s amazing stud farm in Dubna. I had been in Moscow in 1997 on business and had supper with Elena who had been a houseguest of my wife prior to the 1980 Olympics. She suggested that I spend a few extra days in Russia, which I did. Very pleasant weekend at Tito’s place resulted in my involvement with Akhal Tekes from then on.
MM: Please describe the occasion when you first met Helm. What was your first impression? How has this impression changed over time?
BA: I probably first saw Helm in Dubna but with 400 horses present it is hard to be sure! I first took note of him when he came back to Tito’s place in Texas and Tito suggested that I take him as a dressage horse. I had some reservations since he did not fit the current template of the proper dressage horse! He was long backed, swan necked, slight as a deer, and rather small. But I agreed since he had good gaits, a very good mind, and was very light to ride.
MM: You have owned Helm for three years. What was his level of training when you first started working with him? What had he done before?
BA: Helm had been first ridden by a Texas professional who competed him successfully at the lower levels. He then was sent to a famous rider in California, but the training was not entirely successful, and Tito returned him to Texas where he spent perhaps two or three years in the stud. I inherited the stallion nearly four years ago when Tito asked me to compete him. After a few months of getting acquainted I bought him since I found him to be most pleasant to ride, and easily trained.
MM: Where do you keep Helm? What is his daily routine? Is he a happy-go-lucky chap? Does he have any special needs?
BA: Helm is kept a friend’s large stable near my home. He is the only stallion among some 150 horses. He has a double sized stall, spends most of the day turned out in his own pen. He is fed pellets and grain three times a day; alfalfa twice a day, free feed of hay all day, and requires no particular or special care. He is a very slow eater, stays relaxed in the stall, and has impeccable barn manners. He is a favorite among the boarders and is much remarked upon for his good looks and elegant carriage.
MM: Please describe the “learning curve” with Helm? What are his strong points? What are the weaknesses? What has come easy and what’s been a challenge?
BA: Helm is easily trained, docile and willing. However I have always ridden him with great care as he has a very delicate sensibility, and requires minimum aids. Any excessive aids, or undue driving or forcing of the issue, are counterproductive. I do carry a whip and do wear spurs, but they are rarely used, and then only to reinforce my seat aids. He is a pleasant horse to ride. The “learning curve” with Helm has been better than average on most exercises for dressage. Fortunately I have the benefit of an excellent German Bereiter FN Reinhard Dorsch who carried the horse from a low level to Intermediare 1 in three years, and produced a horse that is supple, sane, sound, and happy in the process. I am only the amateur that rides the stallion; credit for the training must go to this accomplished and kindly man.
MM: What is your daily training routine with Helm?
BA: The daily training routine consists of (typically) two lessons by the trainer each week, consisting of 45-55 minutes, to master some particular dressage exercise. I will ride him another three times a week for about the same period of time. The routine varies. If we are going to a show I will run through the particular test a couple of times a week or two ahead of time. If there are exercises that need to be polished, we work on them a little. Generally there is no endless repetition of exercises. I lose my concentration and the horse his willingness if we do the same thing too often. I take a long warm-up at the walk; I bring him to collection through movement rather than forcing it. The principal preoccupation is getting the hindquarters under him before I really start anything serious. We then progress to a forward working trot to get the blood moving. From there into lateral work, trot extensions, and finally canter work. We are presently learning one-time changes, and he is up to six in a row with the trainer. Piaffe and passage are on the training schedule as well, but it appears that this will take some time to achieve.
MM: Do you have other horses and what is it like working with them compared to Helm?
BA: I have had four dressage horses before Helm, each has been different, and each has been a learning experience, particularly since I am a relatively novice dressage rider when compared to the lifetime of experience in dressage that many Grand Prix riders have. Helm is the most pleasant of the horses to ride, it takes less effort. He gives me just what I ask for, nothing more, and nothing less. The warmbloods take more encouragement; the thoroughbreds are, perhaps, a bit too forward for dressage, so the Akhal Teke is a nice compromise.
MM: Where are you with his training at the moment? Has he reached the upper limit of his potential or do you feel there is still some way to go?
BA: My intention is try to get him to GP if I can. We have dealt with the conformational issues that limit Akhal Tekes in dressage by strengthening his long back and building a top line. The typical “swan neck” has been replaced by a noticeably better neck conformation through a lot of correct work. The issues now are the 15 one-time changes and we are up to six in a row, and the piaffe-passage. The changes are coming along okay, the piaffe & passage are a work in progress. He is much stronger, more muscled up, than when we started, so it makes this advanced work easier.
MM: What is he like in competition? Does noise and other external factors bother him? How does he compare with other horses you have ridden?
BA: Helm is the easiest horse I have competed in dressage. He never misbehaves in the show ring, does not spook, and simply does his duty. Noise does not bother him, the show atmosphere is not a problem, and he is relaxed in his show ground stall.
MM: In training, does he have good and bad days, or is he fairly even? Are there any behaviour issues or is he, like so many Melesur children, a very amenable character?
BA: The stallion has good days and bad days, just as I do! When he is a little tired, we go easy that day. When I am not concentrating very well, I accept the fact, and we do something simple. Rome was not built in a day nor are horses trained overnight. Horse training is a progressive art involving a living creature and we must be sensitive to our pupil. Finesse is more successful with this horse rather than crass demanding. I am very careful not to stress the horse as he has a very long memory, and trust once lost is very hard to regain. However I do insist that he do what I want, but in a gentle, patient way, and he always yields. He is a very agreeable Akhal Teke, and I have been told, as you mention, that this is a dominant characteristic inherited from his father Melesur. I have seen other Akhal Teke stallions that were much more difficult to deal with, either by inherited characteristics, or poor handling, so I count my blessings with this one. The fine character was one of the reasons that I chose to work with this horse.
MM: What does your trainer think of Helm? And what do the judges say?
BA: My trainer, Reinhard Dorsch, likes the horse a lot. He enjoys riding him because he is light on the aids, forward, and easily trained. The judges give him mixed reviews, some like him a lot, calling him “elegant”, “pure gaits”, “great mind”, while others question him, with “looks weak”, “poor conformation”, and the like. He does not fit the warmblood mold that is the current standard of competitive dressage horseflesh and it is reflected from time to time in the judges’ comments. I am happy to say that the judges’ remarks have grown more favorable as we have moved up the levels and the training has progressed.
MM: Would you recommend an Akhal-Teke to a fellow dressage rider?
BA: Akhal Tekes are recommendable for dressage so long as the rider goes into the experience with eyes open. These horses are not going to be champions in the international show ring. They will give you a very excellent ride at local, state, and regional levels. They have been bred as all-around riding horses, an amiable disposition, a comfortable gallop, an iron constitution, easy to keep, and, if you are fortunate, good gaits. Most Akhal Tekes are suitable for endurance riding, some cross country jumping, and eventing. It takes an exceptional one to display the gaits needed for dressage at the upper levels. Fortunately there are a few out there; it’s just a matter of finding them!
In closing I must explain that bringing Helm to the FEI levels in dressage competition was possible because the horse had the gaits and the disposition for this accomplishment, and that a very competent trainer was available, and that I had the time and money to devote to the project, as well as the experience to recognize the horse’s potential, and ride the finished product well enough to demonstrate his achievement. If the Akhal Teke enthusiasts and riders do not have all of the elements of this equation at hand, it will be very tough to duplicate Helm’s performance. But, of course, it will be a lot of fun to try, and that is the bottom line of our involvement with our lovely Akhal Tekes.