Ask any equestrian enthusiast to name a rider they’d like to sit down to chat with for an afternoon and the chances are Charlotte Dujardin would feature highly. And with the world, Olympic and European gold medallist’s new autobiography, you feel as if you are getting the chance to do just that.
It’s a wonderfully chatty, informal account of Charlotte’s life, from growing up in the showing world to dazzling the world with the legendary Valegro.
Charlotte’s showing days have been well documented, but less so the financial struggles her family experienced while she was growing up, and the subsequent ups and downs of her early riding career. She talks openly about having to move from house to house as a child, the heartbreak of selling her champion show pony Ardenhall Royal Secret and the difficulties of moving into the dressage world without the means to buy a really good horse.
One of the most memorable anecdotes is of the day Charlotte was thrown up on Debi Thomas’ grand prix mare while on work experience — her first experience of dressage, and the moment it all began: “All my ponies ever had to do was walk, trot, canter and go in a straight line and suddenly here I was on a great big dressage horse doing tricks… It was amazing: all I could think was, ‘Wow! This is so cool!’”
From here we move through her early dressage years, discovering how Charlotte first met those who became such an integral part of her team later on, such as her good friend Ian Cast. We learn how her partnership with Carl came about almost by accident — “There was no letter, no sit-down formal meeting, no discussion of pay — to this day Carl has never paid me a wage”, and of course, her early days riding Valegro — “everything I’d always wanted in a horse, he was.”
One of the greatest joys of this book is reading about the relationship between Charlotte and Valegro. She describes the harmony between them in great detail, but it’s discovering what was actually going through her head on all those huge occasions — “it felt like Blueberry had taken hold of my hand” — that brings home just what a rare and special partnership this pair really had.
For a rider so in the public eye, and so seemingly at ease in interviews nowadays, it’s fascinating to read about Charlotte’s struggles with facing the media, and similarly with her competition nerves. While she explains how her “same old stuff, just a different arena” attitude helped bypass nerves for the most part, she doesn’t hold back in describing how certain events affected her, such as her shock six-place grand prix finish in Aachen in 2015: “For the first time I felt afraid. I was afraid of getting it wrong, I was afraid of making mistakes and I was afraid of being criticised by people.”
It’s a really fascinating glance behind the scenes of top-level international horse sport. Charlotte provides intriguing details about the sport psychology that helped her, including the Chimp Management system, and the most difficult moments of her career that were so often hidden from public view.
The book also provides plenty of humourous stories and anecdotes, such as her boldness when teaching Mark Todd, being thrown into a swimming pool by Carl Hester after Britain’s team silver in Rio — and certain revelations around ‘tit tape’.
There are heartwarming moments galore, from Carl hiding behind a pillar while Charlotte rode at her first championship — “all I’d ever wanted was to make him proud of me” — to Valegro’s emotional retirement ceremony at Olympia 2016: “The atmosphere, the buzz, the emotion… all of it brought tears to my eyes as I went down the centre line. ‘What an incredible horse’ was all I could think.”
For anyone who has followed Charlotte and Valegro’s journey — and let’s face it, who hasn’t — this refreshingly honest autobiography will prove a highly enjoyable, fascinating read.
Charlotte Dujardin: The Girl on the Dancing Horse, published by Preface, will be available to buy in handback for £20 on 8 March.
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