Behind the Scenes with Alice Collins - Part Two
As part of a series of exclusive interviews with equestrian professionals, Dengie catchs up with Alice Collins, Dressage, Products and Breeding Editor at Horse & Hound. Over the past five years she has reported from Olympics, Paralympics and travelled the world, covering World Equestrian Games, Europeans and national championships. Previously, she worked for the Sky TV channel Horse & Country TV, and she is a keen amateur rider, competing her home-produced mare Fab at prix st georges level. Surprisingly, she is also a Londoner.
What has been the most memorable or inspirational experience with your career?
Three moments really stand out over the past six years at H&H.
The first was watching Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro win gold in London. When tickets went on sale I wasn’t yet working for H&H, although I was by the time the Games came. Watching from the stands, I was convinced the judges would penalise Charlotte for the blip on the final centre line, when Valegro popped back into canter accidentally. The rush of elation when her score went up on the board and she’d beaten Adelinde and Parzival to become the Olympic champion, coupled with the noise from the crowd and my unexpected joy tears was awesome.
The London Paralympics soon followed, and I was on the other side of the fence, reporting. Over those humbling days, I spoke to some absolutely incredible human beings, who had overcome challenges in life I could barely imagine.It opened my eyes about disability and the role of determination and mental strength required in para sport. I also had the pleasure of educating The Daily Telegraph’s Marcus Armytage all about dressage, as he was covering it for the paper, and — as a former Grand National winner — knows much more about going fast than going bouncy.
The third is another epic Olympic memory: I was feet away from Nick Skelton when he pulled off the mother of all showjumping rounds to win gold in Rio on Big Star. I was shaking like a leaf (and can’t really read any of my notes from the jump-off as a result) when he had secured a bronze, but when he carried on climbing up the ranks by heart went into over-drive and my colleague Pippa and I squealed and hugged like nine-year-olds. I think you can see from my ‘Skelfie’, taken just minutes later, how I felt about this legendary rider winning gold.
Do you have any funny/embarrassing incidents (horses or humans) that you can share with us?
At the Rio Olympics I interviewed the Swedish showjumper Peder Fredricson and wrote a piece about him. I thought it was so endearing that he called his horse Alan at home and we had a laugh during the interview about how it wasn’t the sexiest name for a horse. I published the piece and it wasn’t until a colleague asked me a few days later whether I was sure Peder had said his same was Alan. Yes, I said, I was. “You do realise the horse’s proper name is All In and it was probably just his accent that made you think he was saying Alan?” she asked. I wanted to die and hope I never see the lovely Peder again as I’m sure he thinks I’m a moron.
What is the most valuable thing that working with horses and the media has taught you?
Don’t get cocky or lazy.
Social media makes things much more immediate – how do you see the future of the printed magazine?
There’s still huge appetite among the Horse & Hound audience for the print product. The horse world is an outdoorsy one; smart phones and tablets often don’t fare well in a damp tack room or shared area, but the magazine is passed around at yards and over coffee tables. It’s a proven medium that works and it’s not going anywhere fast. That’s not to say that H&H can’t also provide what people want through social media; they look for a different type of reading experience depending on the platform.
You were lucky enough to be in Rio give us an idea of what it was like behind the scenes.
Aside from the moment a bullet landed while we were working in the press office — which was a bit sketchy — it was a marvellous experience. I’ve lived in South America for a couple of years in the past so I’m familiar and comfortable with the different pace of attitudes there. We were mostly in the Olympic bubble (staying in Olympic accommodation, using Olympic media buses) and so busy we barely had time to eat let alone anything else, but we did have a rest day where we got drunk, watched some hockey and visited Jesus and Copacabana.
For the equestrian media, it was the best set-up I’ve ever seen. So often, the press office and the mix zone, where we interview riders after their tests, are miles apart. It means that at some major events, like the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, we have to choose between watching the action live, or talking to riders in the mix zone. Sometimes there’s a screen in the mix zone, sometimes there isn’t. In Rio, everything was super close together: we could see the arena from the mix zone and there was a screen, plus the whole shebang was only paces from the press office. It meant we could turn out so much content from the Olympics and my Rio stories generated 1.3m hits on the website.
Most riders are good at riding and perhaps don’t interview like a film star/celebrity. How do you manage to get the best out of them and who stands out in your memory as being the nicest rider to interview?
This is a really easy one. Carl Hester is a journalist’s gift. He knows exactly what you need from him in terms of quotes and colour, and he never fails to deliver. He’s such a magnetic character and has a wicked sense of humour coupled with a laugh like a drain. The sport is incredibly lucky to have such a big character.
Some riders are tough to interview — especially up and coming ones — as they’re so conscious of upsetting people. They don’t want to tell you about any bumps in the road in training for fear of losing the ride, or choose not to share their own battles because they don’t want to scare off owners. We have to balance those sensitivities with providing interesting, engaging content that our readers want.
There was only one insurmountable interview. A few years back, I tried to interview a rider who had won a title at the British Dressage winter championships. She kept just saying, “No comment”, so we left her out of the report and just listed her in the results. It was odd.
Do you own a horse and ride/compete? If so how do you manage to juggle the day job and riding?
Yes, I own four horses; two youngsters, a broodmare and my dressage competition horse. The first three are in Devon, but my riding horse, Fab, lives in Hertfordshire and I ride her four times a week. I’ve owned her since she was a foal and produced her myself with a lot of help from the yard owner Keith Robertson. She’s only 15.1hh and much to both mine and Keith’s amazement this season, age nine, she has won her first two prix st georges classes.
Do you aspire to be an elite level rider and does working with the cream of top riders frustrate or inspire you in your own riding career?
I’m very aware of my own limitations as a rider and have no expectations of major success at top level, but I would so love to have a go at big tour with Fab. I’ve also got a very smart three-year-old coming up, who I did the Oldenburg mare performance test with this summer and I’m super excited about her future and next year’s four-year-old classes.
It’s certainly not frustrating working with elite level riders and I’m lucky that while at work I can often take away tips to improve mine and Fab’s performances — especially when we visit riders at home and they talk through trouble-shooting certain problems when we are writing features.
Do you have any tips for budding journalists or bloggers?
Don’t be shy. Have a good CV and get in touch with the people who interest you. If jumping is your sport, get in touch with the showjumping editor of H&H, for example. I’ve heard people complain in the past that there is no way in to equestrian journalism, but then find out that they never contacted anyone about it, even though staff contacts are all in the front of the magazine. And check your grammar before getting in touch! You should also look into becoming a member of the British Equestrian Writers’ Association.