Reigning queen of dressage, Charlotte Dujardin has taken the equestrian world by storm. This is the story of a beautiful friendship between a girl, her once-in-a-lifetime horse Valegro, and her mentor Carl Hester.
Text Maria Graae Photography Daniel Stjerne / The Horse Riders Journal No. 14
Charlotte’s story is the kind that dreams are made of. Within five years, she went from working as a groom to becoming an Olympic gold medallist. Only three years after her debut in international Grand Prix, she has claimed 46 Grand Prix wins, holds all three dressage world records and is the first ever dressage rider to concurrently hold double Olympic, European, and World titles. Not bad for someone who started out as a pony-show rider in a world of jodhpur boots and tweed, switching career to dressage only to end up as world number one.
Do you ever pinch yourself?
“Yeah, all the time. It’s scary, because when you do show after show, you don’t get the time to appreciate it. You don’t really have time to stop and think about what you’ve actually done.”
When did you first feel that you had arrived at top level?
“When I did my first ever Grand Prix in 2011 and got 74 per cent – that was crazy. Then a few months later I went to Vidauban in the south of France for my first international show, and I didn’t get anything less than 73 per cent – in my two weeks there I won everything. Literally from there on, I just climbed and climbed. It has been the longest rollercoaster, because it’s still going. It’s been unbelievable.”
Previously in Charlotte’s career, she found dealing with press and media quite difficult. With time and experience she has overcome that fear and speaks openly as we share a cup of coffee at Blue Hors Stud in Denmark during this year’s Global Dressage Forum. Born in Enfield on the outskirts of London and raised in Gloucestershire, Charlotte started riding at the age of two. “My mum says I was a nightmare. I was always trying to find a way to climb on a horse, and she would find me with crates in the stable. So it grew from there, really.”
Charlotte’s mother, Jane Dujardin did showjumping, but didn’t come from an equestrian home. Later on, being the mum of three young children meant she had to give up riding. However, when the children started to take an interest in horses, she felt it was very important to support them. “She felt she never had support as a child, so she wanted to give us every opportunity. So I was very lucky to have that.”
Charlotte can still recall her first show. “I was probably six, doing lead rein. I can remember doing First Ridden and Lead Rope with my mum, so I started from a very young age. We didn’t have lots of money, and all the ponies that we bought were naughty ones that nobody else would ride, so we had to make them good ponies. I had all my sister’s hand-me-downs, because when she grew out of a pony, it was passed on to me.”
Charlotte showed horses and ponies, winning titles at both the Horse of the Year Show and the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead in England. She says she learned a lot from those showing classes, especially from riding in front of big crowds so early on. She left comprehensive school at 16 to focus on riding, but challenging times came in 2002: Her grandmother died, and then Charlotte lost her cherished show pony. Had Charlotte not discovered dressage and her mother not used her inheritance to buy the three-year-old horse Fernandez, who in time would become her first Grand Prix horse, Charlotte may never have arrived on the international dressage stage. “I think I must have been 16 or 17 when I decided to make a career out of dressage. I actually bought a DVD of Carl [Hester], watched it, and was mesmerised by what he did. This was when I started teaching my horse piaffe and passage and got into dressage.”
Charlotte went to work for dressage trainer Judy Harvey for four years. However, Charlotte’s path to Olympic gold really began in February 2007 when she went for lessons with Carl Hester – her future mentor, Olympic teammate, and friend – and started to work for him as a groom. She later teamed up with Dutch Warmblood gelding Valegro, whom Hester co-owns with Roly Luard.
How was Valegro when he was young?
“He was a bit of a head-shaker, so Carl tried to sell him a couple of times. When I started working there, I pleaded with Carl not to sell him. I started competing Valegro, and that was that.”
What is the feeling you get riding him?
“It’s like driving a Ferrari, the fastest car in the world: I just sort of put my foot down and he just goes. The power he has is phenomenal. But it’s not only that, it’s his mind and mentality, his will and his determination, and the way he loves to work. As a rider when you are able to bring that into the arena, that means everything. He’s my best friend in the world and has a heart of gold.”
Charlotte and Valegro competed at their first Grand Prix event in 2011, and in the same year became part of the team that won gold in a European dressage championship event in Rotterdam. The following year at the 2012 London Olympics, trainer and protégée brought home Britain’s first ever gold in team dressage: Charlotte riding Valegro, setting an Olympic record in the process.
Where did this determination to get to the top level come from?
“When I went to Carl, he told me that Fernandez and I had potential for London 2012, and I thought, ‘Yeah, right – there’s no way!’ I had no belief that I was any good, because it was so different from the showing. He kept telling me that I could do it, and then I got the confidence. He was so sure that I could be a national team member that it ended up becoming my own goal. And that’s what happened.”
What are your strengths as a rider?
“It’s my determination, my passion, my fight – I’m not a person who gives up. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll make sure to find a way of doing it. I’ve always had that. When I was a kid, I always wanted to beat my sister, who also did shows. I’ve always had that competitive spirit.”
Charlotte and Carl’s popularity is not only due to their victories and training philosophy; it’s also a result of the unassuming and humorous style and the chemistry they share. “I say it all the time: We’re like a married couple, but without the extra bits. We have a really good relationship. I’m very honest with him, and he was not used to that, because people like to tell him that everything he does is just wonderful all the time, whereas I like to tell him the opposite. Obviously, he’s very good, he trains me, he helps me – and I help him. He sometimes rides my horses, and I ride his horses, so between the two of us we’re a real team.”
What makes the two of you laugh?
“Carl is such a funny person. If only you could hear the things he says in my earpiece when I ride. I always tell him he’s wasting his talent and should be on TV. We’re always crying with laughter, and to work with someone like that every day is such a joy.”
When was Carl last able to surprise you?
“At my first Europeans in 2011; I came out of the arena and he was crying his eyes out. I was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ It was really nice that it meant so much to him to watch me ride. As a rider he knows the pressure, he knows what it’s like to go into the arena and perform, so coming from him it meant a lot.”
What has been Carl’s best advice to you?
“He always says, ‘Go in and enjoy it.’ It’s good advice, because so many people get so afraid, nervous, and worried that it ruins their performance. So to enjoy it and have fun makes all the difference.”
At this year’s CHIO Aachen, Charlotte and Valegro, who hadn’t lost since January 2012, suffered uncharacteristic errors in the Grand Prix. Which meant they finished down the leaderboard in sixth place, defeated by Germany’s Totilas and Matthias Alexander Rath in both the Grand Prix and the Special. The baking-hot conditions in Germany had made Charlotte change her spurs at Carl’s request, and Valegro was not in top form as he was only meant to peak at the World Championships in Normandy. However reasonable the explanation was, the press and social media still responded with colourful headlines, and for Charlotte the Grand Prix ride felt like a disaster from start to finish. At the second test in Aachen, going into the Special, she was shaking.
How did Aachen affect you?
“Aachen was really tough for me, obviously, because I had never had to deal with that kind of situation before, and then it went really wrong and I felt very lost. I didn’t know how to deal with everything and it was really hard. I went home and I had some help from a sport psychologist. She said, ‘I don’t need to help you in the arena with your horse, I need to help you with managing people.’ And that’s what she did. It made me go to the World Equestrian Games a lot stronger. Whereas before a big part of me had always been afraid of what would happen if it went wrong, now I wasn’t afraid any more.”
That must be an amazing place to be.
“Yes, because it’s so easy to be defeated and I didn’t want it to defeat me. I wanted to fight and to turn it from a negative to a positive.”
When does Valegro make you happiest and most proud?
“All the time, even with Aachen. I knew why it went wrong; I knew why it happened, so for me I can honestly say that he has never let me down. To be able to ride a horse that is so consistent is unbelievable. He’s been going four years now in Grand Prix – that’s amazing.”
How does it feel suddenly to be an idol?
“It’s crazy. The nice thing is that people can see I come from a normal background. I haven’t had lots of money and I haven’t done it by buying an expensive horse. I’ve worked up from the bottom; I’ve done all the years of mucking out and tacking up. If you want something, work hard and be dedicated. I wanted it, so I wasn’t going to let it go until I got it.”
Do you feel the success has changed you in any way?
I never wanted the success to change me as a person, or to change my life. I wanted to stay me. I love the fact that I ride and teach and I have a normal day to day. There isn’t a single thing in my life I would change. So many people work to earn money while hating their jobs. I do something I love; I have a great family and friends. I wouldn’t change anything. My job is my passion. How lucky am I to be able to do that every day?”•