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Clare Hole swaps stirrups for an oar to trial with Cambridge University Boat Club

Clare Hole is trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Keith Heppell
Clare Hole is trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Keith Heppell

Clare Hole knows only too well what it is like to compete in elite level sport.

She is a trialist with Cambridge University Boat Club women’s openweight squad this academic year, but has already represented Great Britain.

It is just that was in dressage.

“I had spent so many years riding that I always had something that kept me really busy,” says Hole.

“When I came to uni I was riding a lot less because it was just harder to get home to train.

“When in Cambridge… rowing just seemed like a really fun sport to do. It was nice to have another sport like that where I could fill my time and really get into it.

“It became my other passion.”

It is worth picking up Hole on the point about being kept busy.

The 19-year-old is a natural sciences student, now in her second year, and the course entailed lectures six days a week for the first year.

With studies and dressage, it would be easy to imagine that she did not need something else on her plate.

“I think I’m quite a competitive person, I think I’ve realised that coming to university,” says Hole, who became hooked on rowing in her first year at St Catharine’s College.

“It was nice starting a sport from scratch because it’s been so long since I had done something from scratch as I had spent so long doing dressage going up through the levels.

“Being quite tall probably helped for rowing, and I just really got into it and wanted to keep getting better.

“Starting something completely new again was really nice and really interesting seeing the similarities between the sports and also the big differences.

“It is really interesting and I think I have always liked to fill my time with stuff – I’m not very good at sitting still!”

A dressage rider for eight years, she got into the sport as the family is very much animal orientated – her mother is an equine vet and her father a small animal vet. She is also too modest to mention that they are also both Blues – her father Duncan Hole rowed in Goldie in 1988 and the Boat Race in 1990, and her mother, Rachel Murray, competed for Blondie in 1987 and the Boat Race in 1988.

A first international appearance came at the age of 11, and Hole has worked her way through the regional, national and now international squads – she earned a first senior GB call-up this October.

“I was riding when I was very young and I’m not as brave as my sister, who does a bit of eventing, so I went down the dressage route,” Hole explains.

“I’m definitely a bit of a perfectionist. In dressage, it’s chasing that perfection. It’s all about making it look as elegant as possible, looking like you’re doing absolutely nothing – you are just thinking it and the horse is doing it.

“That really appeals to me, that aspect of really wanting it to be perfect and elegant.

“It feels like my personality.”

Clare Hole is trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Keith Heppell
Clare Hole is trialling with Cambridge University Boat Club. Picture: Keith Heppell

It can take years to perfect the art of teaching a horse for dressage – think triple Olympic gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro – and Hole has been working with Chico, as he is affectionately known, for around five years.

“I’ve been really fortunate. They do take a lot of years to train up through. You have to be patient with them – patience is definitely key with the horses,” she explains.

“It really starts out with the small things. Before you even think about the sideways stuff, or any of that, you will spend a long time just doing walk/trot transitions and things like that so they just learn to listen to you, learn to listen to the small aids.

“You might start introducing it on the grounds, you might be just having them when you’re not riding them and have them in hand, just moving them over slightly.

“They get the hang of it, then you get on and ask for a little bit and they might offer a little bit.

“You just really gradually build it up. It’s a very slow process but it’s so satisfying when you get there.

“It’s all about introducing it right with the basics, little by little you do it and when they get it you reward them.

“It’s a bit like coaching in other sports when someone has that lightbulb moment and it clicks, and you’re like ‘yes’.”

There are transferable skills between dressage and rowing.

Core stability is one of the key physical traits, and there are other aspects such as mentality, organisational skills and wanting to improve.

“It’s the competitive mindset I suppose, that’s definitely something that’s been able to transfer over,” adds Hole.

That eagerness was definitely apparent in the way that she threw herself into rowing.

Novices were able to go out in tubs to learn the sport last year, but the lockdowns ended up frustrating the efforts to pick up the sport until after Easter.

“In the summer, as I don’t live too far from Cambridge, I was driving in and started sculling quite a bit with the coach at Catz, Carmen Failla,” says Hole.

“It was so useful, just going through the basics and learning the technique. I’m very grateful that she gave up her time and let me do that over the summer.”

Hole was keen to improve her times and get better, and did so by working on an erg at home, and that led to the temptation to trial for CUBC.

“I spoke to Carmen and she said I should give it a go,” she adds. “I had nothing to lose and it’s just been brilliant.

“I’ve learned so much in such a short space of time and there is such a team atmosphere here that is really lovely.”

If the learning continues at the current rate, then maybe Hole will add another sporting string to the bow with a Blue.

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