Before Charlotte Dujardin’s name became synonymous with record-breaking and dressage medals, she worked for the international grand prix rider Judy Harvey for four years.
Initially, she just mucked out, but her aspiration was always to ride.
“Judy was amazing,” recalls Charlotte. “I learnt so much from her. She was strict, but very black and white. She could make you feel tiny — but my god you learned not to make mistakes.
“I didn’t ride for the first year, just mucked out, cobwebbed and tidied the muck heap.”
At the time, Charlotte owned an Irish/thoroughbred gelding. She had single-handedly taught the horse to piaffe and passage, mostly from watching DVDs of Carl Hester on Maxwell.
She recalls clearly the day that Judy put her on Richard Heley’s horse Wow Voyager so she could have the feel of an experienced horse underneath her. Impressed with Charlotte’s ability to teach horses to collect in the trot, Judy then put her on Lucaro, with whom she was having some difficulty with the piaffe.
“She said I had talent for the piaffe as I’d made the Irish/thoroughbred do fancy trot,” says Charlotte. “So I told her Lucaro could piaffe. She bet me £5 that I couldn’t make it piaffe. Within a week it piaffed,” remembers Charlotte with a proud grin.
‘I said I’d never clean the saddle again!’
The first time Charlotte met Carl in person was on a World Class viewing day. She took the then seven-year-old Fernandez (pictured), who would become her first grand prix horse.
“I’d taught ‘Dez’ piaffe and passage — but really he was just throwing his legs about,” she recalls. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
“When I found out that Carl was the rider at the World Class day, I was so nervous. Ferdi [Eilberg] was there too, and I’d idolized them, and watched Carl at so many shows.
“When Carl got off Dez, he said he was lovely and sensitive, and a fun and talented horse. At the time I said I’d never clean the saddle again. That seems a bit gross now! I was so in awe of him; I was blown away.”
Charlotte’s mother Jane coaxed her shy daughter into asking Carl if she could come for a lesson.
“We killed our lorry in a flood on the way to the first lesson,” remembers Charlotte with embarrassment. “Then we had to leave Dez there and get the lorry towed.”
It was an inauspicious start to Carl and Charlotte’s relationship.
She asked about job vacancies on his yard and, sure enough, he needed cover for 10 days while his head girl was on holiday.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It was so cool. I’d never stayed away from home before and I thought I’d just be mucking out. But that’s Carl through and through and he gave me amazing opportunities: every day I’d ring my mum and tell her who I’d ridden. I lived with Lucy [Cartwright] and we had a blast. She made it easy not to panic about feeling homesick.”
The drive that Charlotte demonstrated in those crucial 10 days — which morphed into years — was also evident in her early days of ponies.
“We’d do them before and after school,” says Charlotte, who rode at the Horse of the Year Show as a tot. “I’d be out there ages and mum would drag me in.
“My sister Emma Jane would ride hers and if she’d had a problem, I’d get it back in from the field and school it, which would wind her up a treat.
“We were competitive, too, but she really suffered from nerves. She now produces show ponies, and she’s brilliant at it.”
Charlotte’s come a million miles since those days of ponies. Now, people line up in their droves just to get her signature.
“It’s incredible,” she says. “There have been people crying and shaking at signings. I tell them not to and I find it a bit strange, because I’m just me, but they see me as some sort of superhero.”
For the full, exclusive interview with Charlotte, pick up a copy of Horse & Hound magazine, out 8 December