I am proud to admit that I have a “The Great British Baking Show” habit. It began several years ago during a seemingly endless Florida winter season, in which CDIs blended together in a haze of inadequacy and exhaustion. I knew I was extremely fortunate to even be in Florida with a sound, athletic horse capable of competing at the international level, but I also knew I needed better distraction than keeping up with my grading for my “real job” and re-reading Terry Pratchett novels. Enter the “GBBS,” which provided something I never imagined it would: a more functional framework for competing and a better appreciation for being part of a “team” in an individual sport.
The parallels between dressage competition and the “GBBS” are easy to spot. Every baker who enters the TV competition is highly accomplished already, having been chosen for the show through an application, interview and audition process that puts the graduate-school admissions process to shame. They are asked to perform three challenges each show:
A “signature bake,” which is most like a dressage test because you know what it will be in advance and can practice it.
A “technical challenge,” in which the judges choose something for everyone to bake, unveiled only that day. This is the one I liken most to the reality of life with horses: Oh, you thought you could piaffe yesterday, but today piaffe is a whole new ball game involving haunches spinning out to the left and a general aversion to the contact. Figure it out, make it look great, because you have one warmup to get this done before your six minutes of pain and suffering—I mean showing. Your inherent knowledge of riding and piaffe itself, just like the bakers’ knowledge of kitchen basics, will carry you through.
And then there is the “showstopper challenge,” which is much like our freestyle: it demands genius levels of creativity while insisting on technical perfection in every element. You can practice it in advance, but it never goes the same way at home—in your arena or your kitchen—as it does on the big day.
Paul and Pru, the “GBBS” judges, are technically demanding, and their standards get higher every week. They tolerate little and are perfectly happy to eviscerate the clearly terrified individuals standing before them to be evaluated. In their next lives, they will be sitting in tiny boxes at C.
Their comments are very similar to the ones we receive: “The taste was good but it looked awful” can be considered equivalent to “Shoulder-in maintained angle but lacked impulsion.” And when Paul Hollywood gives one of his rare handshakes in recognition of a truly excellent bake, the competitor receiving it is as thrilled as any of us are when we receive an 8 or higher in a test. And when something goes badly, the competitors are as devastated as any of us have been when we asked for passage at M and got a “nah, girl” in response. An unfinished crème patisserie is as clearly known to the competitors as our missed transitions are to us: We all know it is coming, and it will not be pretty.
So now that you see the parallels, let me tell you what I learned: These bakers are genuinely lovely people who help each other. When one baker has a disaster, like a dropped tart or a dangerously underset jelly, the others step in to help. If someone has a tough bake or an overall awful day, they encourage each other. They congratulate each other when something goes well, and they sit shoulder-to-shoulder—sometimes holding hands—waiting for the final results every week. When a baker is sent home, especially once they get to know each other, they are genuinely sad. This is not just for television—they stay in touch after the season’s end. Because no one knows what each baker—or each rider—is experiencing better than another baker.
I realized I was missing out on something meaningful and important by isolating myself at shows. I do not have a “team” of grooms or support people the way many riders do; I usually am by myself with my horses, especially in Florida. And while I had friends at shows, I did not do much to build those relationships.
Now I do.
I will never be described as gregarious, but the riders with whom I have developed friendships are part of my inner circle now. Because they get the pressure, the stupid anxiety, the need to be better, the crazy hours, and the panic when your horse rolls in her saddle when you bring her back to her stall after a test. They know how much went into that six minutes, and they will stand there and say good luck and mean it when I leave the warm up. They will dance to my freestyle music when it is good. They know exactly how it feels to fail, and when to buy the drinks or just check in after a tough day. And they know just how great it feels to get better! Dressage is not a team sport, and neither is competitive baking. But it takes some good people to survive this long haul, and I am very grateful I finally learned they were right there in the aisle all along.
Allison Kavey, Ph.D, is a Grand Prix rider who enjoys bringing horses along from the breed shows through the FEI levels. She works with riders from dressage, hunter/jumpers, and eventing who love their horses and want to improve their foundation. She is a professor in the History Department and director of the Humanities and Justice Program at City University of New York’s John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of five books and many articles on topics ranging from books of secrets to viral pandemics.