HEIKE HOLSTEIN: Being a woman in sport has its advantages

  • 10 July 2019, 11:29

Horse Sport Ireland High-Performance Dressage athlete, Heike Holstein (right) pictured with members of the Kildare Hunt Pony Club at their summer camp in Punchestown, where Heike was coaching

As part of Horse Sport Ireland’s new blog, STABLE TALK, Horse Sport Ireland Senior Dressage Athlete, Heike Holstein gives readers an insight into the sport of dressage, her career as an international athlete and shares some of the challenges she has faced as a women in sport.

Many readers will be aware of the Federation of Irish Sport campaign titled: 20X20 – If she can’t see it, she can’t be it. The campaign is about creating a cultural shift in our perception of girls and women in sport. This initiative seeks to change the subliminal bias in the Irish psyche that exists around girls and boys, or women and men, when it comes to sport.

Equestrian sport is one of the few sports where women and men compete on a completely equal footing and there are many exceptionally talented female equestrian athletes who have and who are representing Ireland at the highest level across a wide range of equestrian disciplines. Horse Sport Ireland is delighted to support this initiative to increase the visibility of women’s sport in Ireland because – if she can’t see it, she can’t be it.

This week, Horse Sport Ireland caught up with Ireland’s three-time Olympian, 12-time Dressage Ireland national champion, coach to a Paralympic triple medalist, Horse Sport Ireland tutor and Dressage Level 3 coach, Heike Holstein.


Heike Holstein and her 10-year-old mare Sambuca by Samarant (HANN) out of the Irish Sport Horse mare Astoria

For years Heike was Ireland’s torchbearer on the international dressage scene with participation’s at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1997 and 1999 European Championships, 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome and 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez, the 2003 European Championships in Hickstead, the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and finally the 2005 European Championships in Hagen.

In 2018, after a 13-year absence from international competition, Heike burst back onto the international dressage scene with her home-bred Sambuca, together with whom she recently scored podium finishes in the CDI4* Grand Prix Freestyle to Music at Royal Windsor Horse Show and in the CDI3* Grand Prix at Compiègne.

Heike is thrilled to see the phenomenal rise in profile of Irish dressage in recent years and commends fellow high-performance athlete, Judy Reynolds: “Judy [Reynolds] has done huge things for dressage in Ireland in the last few years. She has had some incredible successes and has broken lots of records. She really has raised Ireland’s profile and I think it’s great that this year there are more of us competing internationally – it’s not like Ireland has just produced a couple of one-hit-wonders”.


Judy Reynolds (pictured above) Heike Holstein and Anna Merveldt are gearing up for their first team event of the season at the CDIO 5* show in Aachen later this month. This will be the first time since 2014 that Ireland has fielded a dressage team at senior level

Heike, along with fellow international Irish dressage riders Judy Reynolds and Anna Merveldt, known to her friends as Pietzy, are preparing for their first team event of the season at the CDIO 5* show in Aachen later this month.

Aachen will be the first time since 2014 that Ireland has fielded a dressage team at senior level and although Heike’s horse Sambuca and Anna’s horse Esporim are new to Grand Prix level Heike says: “I think the worst thing we could do at this point is panic and rush our horse’s training – ultimately their learning and experience has to be kept positive so that the horse wants to do it.

We will aim for perfection

“Sambuca’s career has gone fast forward, this time last year she hadn’t done a Grand Prix test and Pietzy’s horse only did it’s first Grand Prix in March! Of course we will aim for perfection, but we can’t expect it. I will be thinking of the Europeans in Rotterdam this August and will be aiming to have my horse in the best shape possible, so that hopefully we can qualify for Tokyo and by the time the Olympics comes around we should have the tests spot on.”


Heike Holstein and Chameur, owned by Christina McCann

During her absence from international competition, Heike started a family and now has two sons, Jake and Archie, aged 12 and nine. Heike admits that the challenge for her as a women in sport was before she started her family: “The challenge I felt as a woman in sport was before I had my children. I felt the clock was ticking and I always wanted to have children and start a family of my own.

“There is time pressure, which I’m sure other women in sport and women in general feel, and so there came a point where I had to choose what was more important. Horses mean a lot to me, but they are not everything and of course I was scared, as I’m sure every new mother is, but it changes your life and it changes your life for the better.

“I was absent from international sport afterward, but that was just because I didn’t have a horse at that level, I was waiting for Sambuca to grow up. After Archie was born I was back in the saddle three weeks later. I qualified for the national championships and won four out of four classes that day and went on to be national champion seven times in the intervening years.”


“Then my children reached an age where I was really able to kick back into the international side of the sport. The time and dedication it takes to compete internationally is a challenge for women – you have to try and not feel guilty, like you’re being a bad mum because you’re working and riding and trying to earn a living to support your career as an athlete.

“But it has its advantages too, I think it actually gives women an advantage as an athlete because you strengthen your concentration, patience and focus and you certainly get better at multi-tasking and it’s wonderful to have my children come to the shows and see me compete.”

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