Riding her nine-year-old Atterupgaards Cassidy, Cathrine Dufour earned two gold medals at the young rider’s European dressage championship this summer and set a world record, the highest ever achieved by a young rider in the Prix St Georges level freestyle.
Photography THOMAS SKOU Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.6
An hour’s drive southwest of Copenhagen, in a lush rolling open landscape at the acclaimed Atterupgaard stud, European champion Cathrine Dufour spends her 12-hour working days dedicated to dressage horses and an equestrian life. Born in January 1992, she still has another year as a young rider ahead of her, and after finishing high school this summer, she has taken a year off to fully commit to her training and teaching – which means she is now riding seven horses and teaching five students every day, besides cleaning stalls and feeding horses. A flawless position on her horse and the effortless smile on her face serve as her signature and a sign of her supreme confidence.
Cathrine chose Atterupgaards as her training base because “here horses come first in an inspirational and professional training environment,” she explains, “and there’s respect for me doing my own thing.”
Nothing is left to chance. Every week her two competition horses get a visit from a masseur, and every month the national team vet Hans Christian Mathiesen comes to check that everything is in perfect order. The two equine athletes have different farriers: One goes to Hørsholm, north of Copenhagen, while the other crosses the Great Belt bridge between Zealand and island of Funen every five to six weeks to make sure they both get the best individual treatment.
With an almost endless list of pony, junior and young rider medals from Danish, Nordic and European championships, Cathrine has accomplished more than most people could ever dream of. She started riding at the age of five and a year later the family bought her a pony from her riding school. But what drove her from there to her current position at the top of her sport?
“My memory of that moment is still crystal clear,” she says. “My father and I alone in the kitchen one evening, him asking me what I really wanted with my riding, and me saying going to the Nordic and European Championships, even though it seemed like an impossible dream at the time. I’m still so very grateful to him for pulling the words out of me. For me, that was the point of no return.”
Fired up by a competitive nature and the challenge of making the horse peak at exactly the right time, Cathrine’s winning combination of results, talent, pretty looks and girl-next-door charm has caught the attention of media outside the equestrian scene. “For the past few months I’ve been filming for a programme for Danish national TV about young talents in sport and their way to the top,” she says. “It was an eye-opener for me when the journalist asked me if I liked being alone. It got me thinking; and yes, actually, I do like being on my own. I’m not a very social person – I would even say antisocial. I don’t have the need to see a lot of people, I prefer spending time with a few, very close friends and when I’m not in the stable I just love being home on the computer; that’s how I relax.”
Cathrine’s younger sister Celine rode at top level between 12 and 15, and then she stopped suddenly to go to boarding school and pursue other interests – a brave decision in a family so focused on the two girls’ riding careers. “Sometimes, it was hard for Celine with all the talk about horses around the dinner table in the evenings, so since I moved out it has become easier for her. ”
There have been times when Cathrine herself has considered leaving the equestrian world behind too: “By now it’s something I’ve learned to live with, but the feeling of being different can be exhausting. Growing up it was hard being the lonely girl with the giant ego who didn’t see people after school. But that’s how much I wanted to ride.”
It’s been a few months since Cathrine flew the nest, leaving the family home to live in an apartment in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen and a 20-minute drive from her horses. She shares the three-room apartment with Louise Zinglersen who also competes on international level as a young rider. “She’s a really good friend of mine and it works really well; we totally agree on sometimes leaving the dishes for later and relaxing and watching TV instead. I don’t think I’m very easy to live with, because I know exactly how I want things.”
Recently, Cathrine got an amazing job offer from a world-renowned trainer including a Grand Prix horse with Olympic potential for 2016. It was a dream-come-true kind of offer, and the kind of offer one can’t refuse – and yet that’s exactly what she did.
“When I got the call, my first instinct – and even my second and third – was to say yes; I was over the moon that someone like that could see enough potential to want to make such an offer, and such a commitment. It was crazy to get such a vote of confidence and acknowledgement from someone I truly admire and consider the very best in his field. It sparked a lot of thoughts and I found myself in a dilemma. I was just about to sign a two-year training contract with Atterupgaard, regarding the brilliant mare Orthilia, and I had to postpone that to have time and room to think.”
Rune Willum, Cathrine’s trainer for the past eight years, has been coming up a lot in our conversation. He’s the one Cathrine credits for her success and a significant factor in why she refused to live the dream abroad – but he is far from being the only reason. “I feel I’m on the right path, I’m developing and improving my own style, and I have confidence in Rune and I can go even further than what we have reached and achieved so far. We have a lot of mutual trust: I know he performs one hundred per cent for me and vice versa. I’m an adult, I know what I want and I can decide for myself, and it was my decision to stay, to have confidence in continuing the road less travelled, against what others may think would be the better choice. I still have plenty to learn and I still feel that he’s the very best trainer for me. My dream – not my goal, but my dream – is to go to the Olympics, and I don’t feel that dream leaves me time to try it my way. Instead it takes careful planning and further development of my own style.”
Cathrine received the prestigious Classic Style Award at the European Championships in 2010 in Germany, but how would she describe her own style? “Graceful, and English, rather than German,” she answers. “I believe that dressage should appear effortless. Too often one sees a gorgeous horse where the rider is a distraction and disturbance rather than part of a unity. I love when dressage is turned into art; a beautiful display of elegance.”
At the moment, Cathrine is looking for the perfect buyer for her oldest horse Aithon. “He’s not going to be a Grand Prix mount for me, but he loves going to shows, so he’s going to be the perfect match for a junior rider. As a replacement, Rune and I are looking for a schoolmaster, not an impressive mover nor an eye-catcher, but someone solid, on whom I can learn piaffe and passage, and who can carry me over the threshold to Grand Prix. I need a horse I can allow myself to make mistakes with: It’s so important to me to shield Cassidy as much as I can. For me, being just a step further ahead than him is ideal, instead of us learning simultaneously.”
Asked what makes Cassidy special, Cathrine answers: “I have great difficulties finding horses. I want them so sensitive and ready to fly to the moon, and Cassidy possesses those qualities in full; he has amazing movements and is super sensitive, so we bring him along very slowly. In our normal training, I’ve done the exercises several hundred or even thousands of times and I’m used to being very sure and confident in what I’m doing. But when it comes to teaching and training, the piaffe and passage required for Grand Prix, I’m not nearly as sure of myself.”
Athletes from all sports tend to count on superstitions or rituals for luck, and Cathrine is no different. “Yes, I am still quite obsessive before and during the big shows. If my steps match so I can kick a stone with my right leg, it’s a really good thing. But if a pea drops from my fork, that’s really bad… The list is almost endless, it’s sick. However, the craziness has its purpose. When out of my comfort zone, it makes me feel safe because it’s something I’m so very familiar with, and it usually prevents me from getting nervous.“
Asked about her plans and thoughts for the future, Cathrine says: “My parents are self-made. They build their business from scratch, with no further education than public school. They are and have always been very supportive, and being the good parents they are, they want me have something to fall back on, if some day for whatever reason I will not be able to ride any more.”
Cathrine could be described as a perfect student: She graduated from high school with flying colours. However, “I’m not crazy about school,” she confesses. “Honestly, I don’t appreciate the distraction, since school prevents me from giving my full attention to my riding. I don’t have the ability to do anything half-heartedly, and that’s a real nuisance: I could never slack and finish an education with a mediocre average. Receiving the job offer that I did made me think again, about whether I should ride for a living. That door was closed until recently, and I was convinced that education was the way to go, but now the door suddenly appears open again. I’ve proved that I can make a living as a rider and instructor, and more importantly it’s something I have worked so hard for, I’m so committed to and passionate about. Who’s to say it’s not the right thing to do and the right road to travel?” •