As well as working towards a degree in International Business, Alina Dibowski is prepping for her first 5* with long-time partner, friend and heart horse, 14-year-old Polish Sport Horse gelding Barbados 26, owned by her mother, Susanna Dibowski.
At 22, Alina comes to Kentucky as the youngest rider in the field, but that didn’t bother her last year at the World Championships in Pratoni — where she made her senior squad debut riding as an individual for Germany — and with her grounded attitude to competing, it’s unlikely to be on her mind as she takes her first trip round a 5* event.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Alina was practically born on horseback, given that her dad, Andreas Dibowski, is who he is, but at first, she wasn’t too sure she’d be following in her dad’s footsteps. “I was scared of jumping higher than 20 cm!” she says.
That all changed when a special little lady came into her life — the perfectly named ‘Enjoy’. “I really started with eventing when I was like 10 or 11, because then I got a pony which was not bucking me off … with her, she showed me how easy it can be”. Enjoy is still very much part of the family today; at 26 she’s the “best buddy” — and “babysitter” — of Kentucky bound Barbados 26, or ‘Baba’ as he’s known to his friends and family.
There is absolutely no doubt that Alina’s dad — as her “biggest mentor” and “biggest asset” — has played a huge part in her riding career. “He was and is always by my side,” she says. “I would call him the main inspiration”. She acknowledges, though, that having a dad for a coach isn’t always easy, “especially when we take, for example, dinner fights to the riding,” but it does mean that she trusts his teaching implicitly — “because he knows me the best and he also knows the horse very well,” (Andreas competed Barbados 26 up to 4* himself).
At the start, Andreas’ coaching focused on Alina creating her own style of riding, in particular “safe riding in cross country”. She describes this as the “foundation” of her training. As well as safety, Alina was taught “that I need to work hard as well”. She says, “It was not like I got a present, a horse who competed in eventing at 3 or 4*. I always had a horse which was young or had some issues, for example one which was not easy in dressage”. That’s not to say that Andreas didn’t cast a dad’s eye over the horses Alina was riding. She says, “It was very important for him that he also had an eye on the personality of the horse, that he knew the horse right from the beginning, that he was not stupid and not against the rider”.
On having chosen Kentucky as her first 5*, Alina’s inspiration is, understandably, her dad. “My dad was in Kentucky in 2010 at the World Games, so when he talks about Kentucky, it’s a memory for him. And that makes me think that I want to make this memory true for myself.” Last year’s World Championships really spurred Alina on to take the step up to 5* this year – “I already competed a 5* dressage test and the jumping was 5* level” — and along with support from National Coach Peter Thomsen and the German Equestrian Federation, Alina says, “Everything came together and made a dream come true”.
Alina’s taken a methodical approach to moving up the levels. She says, “When I was younger, there was no dream of, ‘I want to be a 5* eventer’, because in the beginning, the lowest level here in Germany was still very, very big for me, so it was coming step by step. When I was competing at 2*, the goal was to compete at 3*. Then, when I was at 3*, I wanted to compete at 4*. Now, being in the position of having competed at a few 4* competitions, and in different countries, the idea of 5* is my main goal because I want to be better all the time. I want to push to — hopefully not my limit — but I want to be the best of myself and make personal progress.”
Barbados 26 has played a huge part in Alina’s rise in the sport. She says, “I think I wouldn’t be here without him, but he wouldn’t be there without me”. Together for nine years — Baba was 4 and Alina was 13 when they met — there’s no doubt that the bond between horse and rider is part of the secret to their success. Alina says, “He has a very gentle eye and a very honest and loyal kind of personality. When he’s around his loved ones, he’s very affectionate.” Alina describes Baba as “a family member, more than just my sport partner… My dad, my mom and me are his closest people… and he’s one of our family.”
At home, Alina looks after Baba and her three other horses herself, something she thinks is intrinsic to her relationship with her horse. She says, “I really enjoy spending quality time with him… Don’t see your horse just as your sport partner, but enjoy every minute with him, around the competition, and in training as well. For example, go grazing on your own with him and don’t just look on your phone, but look at your horse.” This ethos is an integral part of the management of the Dibowski horses. Alina says, “We don’t have a walker at home. Our horses get out twice a day, other than on the field — once for training and the other time walking [by hand]. I think this is quality time well spent because, even if we’re just walking, he’s by my side. I’m talking to him and he’s listening to me.”
The depth of Alina’s relationship with Baba is clear; Alina describes it as “unique” and acknowledges that it’ll be hard to recreate with another horse. She says, “I hope I can create something which comes close to this kind of bond I’ve created with Baba… but it will not be easy to step up on this”. As well as having grown up together, moving up from junior and young horse classes to representing Germany at the Senior level, Alina credits the time they’ve spent together competing – “on long tours… on different grounds” – as having strengthened their bond.
Like at Pratoni last year, Baba’s official groom for Kentucky is her dad. Usually her mom grooms for her at competitions, but working as a full-time teacher means she’s unable to make the trip Stateside. About keeping it in the family, Alina says, “Being the groom of Baba means being one of his most trusted people.”
Baba loves to be “number one” and although he has to share the attention with the other horses at home, Alina makes him her only focus at competitions. She says, “I think it is very important that he feels that he has my main attention because he links that with being present and being on point.” Being present whilst at a competition is something she prioritizes for herself too. She always tries to “find my inner centerpiece, or whatever it’s called, and really enjoy everything — getting even closer to my horse and getting to know some of the people who are competing there that I don’t see so often.”
It’s this grounded attitude to competing that informs Alina’s goal for Kentucky. She says, “My main goal is that I enjoy this event… to give my best and learn something and make the best out of this experience… to come back with a healthy horse and a healthy me.” That’s not to say she’s not ambitious — and she admits that ambition is needed for success — but she’s aware that ambition can also get in the way, using Pratoni as an example where she was “almost a little sad” because she knew Baba was capable of a sub-30 dressage (they scored 30.6). She says, “This is what I mean about being in the moment and really appreciating every single step we take. But this is something I’m learning over the years — making progress sometimes means taking a step back, but I think this is the biggest motivation for me as well, to put out my best.”
In terms of the future, Alina’s hoping for another Championships experience, but she knows that the chance of being on the German team doesn’t rest solely in her hands. She says, “I can always try my best at competitions and prove myself over and over again, but in the end, the Championships decision is up to the trainer.” So she focuses on what she can control: “Improving my own riding… this is something I’m constantly working on,” she says.
Right now, she’s got the small matter of her first 5* and her first trip Stateside to look forward to. She says, “It’s more than just a competition, it’s like a huge adventure for me, for the horse, for everyone involved.” “Viel Glück!” for your Bluegrass adventure Alina, “gute Reise” and “viel Spaß!”
Want more LRK3DE info each day during competition? Sign up for the free LRK3DE Daily Digest email, which will be sent each day beginning Tuesday, April 25 through Monday, May 1. Find all of EN’s latest coverage, sponsor promotions and discounts, chances to win daily giveaways, and much more! Click here to sign up.