His journey and career in the world of dressage has been nothing short of remarkable, but Carl Hester’s childhood and somewhat unconventional upbringing makes his achievements all the more extraordinary.
It’s well known that Carl was brought up on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, riding donkeys bareback on the cliffs, and taking tourists for drives in a horse and carriage, but he was actually born in Cambridge, after his mother Brenda was sent away to live with a social worker after falling pregnant while still at school.
“My grandmother was someone who’d be described as, ‘What would the neighbours think’, and when my mum became pregnant she was taken back to the school and asked to announce it in assembly, which must have been pretty difficult for her at the time,” revealed Carl on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
“She was then sent to live with a social worker to have me in Cambridge, and so that’s where life started. She then came back home to London and my grandfather was a big part of making sure I wasn’t put up for adoption.”
Carl and his mother moved from London to Sark when he was four, on the advice of doctors who suggested they leave the city after Carl had suffered with pneumonia as a small child.
“My grandparents had visited Sark and made friends with a wonderfully named lady called Winnie Tosh. She left a one bedroom wooden chalet to my mother and her two brothers.
“I remember going up to touch my first horse in those days; it took a mouthful of my hair and I cried and ran back to my mother,” he laughed. “But I still loved horses right from the word go.”
Brenda later married Carl’s stepfather, Jess Hester, and Carl reports that he enjoyed a “nice, cosy home life” as he grew up on Sark.
“I was brought up with my half brother and sister and we all got on as a family. The older I got, the more I appreciated what had been done for me by my stepfather.”
One of Carl’s chosen songs on Desert Island Discs was Melanie – Brand New Key – the first song he ever remembers.
“I remember sitting on the floor at a very young age and Melanie got played again and again. I especially loved the bit about roller skates – I always wanted to roller skate,” he said.
It wasn’t until Carl was 19 and had just moved to England to kickstart his equestrian career at the Fortune Centre in Hampshire, that he met his biological father, the actor Tony Smee, for the first time. Until that point he had only ever seen him on television.
“My father starred in a lot of mainstream TV at the time – Coronation Street, Morse, Tales of the Unexpected – some of those greats that we all used to watch all the time.”
Carl explained that when he and his mother arrived at his father’s flat in Chiswick, he was “very very nervous”. He remembers asking what to call his father, whether he should call him Dad or Tony, and that when his father walked into the room, he said, “Good afternoon Tony”.
“It’s all good now,” he said of his relationship with his biological father. “Looking back now at how it all started, everybody in my situation, or particularly their situation, did the best they could.”
Carl spent his early days riding Jacko the donkey on Sark – and credits riding bareback along the cliff paths with helping him develop the balance and core strength that has benefited him throughout his subsequent career.
“I wonder now how we ever got away without having an accident, galloping on the cliff paths, but you don’t have that sort of fear when you’re young,” said Carl.
Despite having initially wanted to be a jockey – “I didn’t really grow until I was 17” – his first recognition in the equine world came when he won the 1985 young dressage rider championship on the Fortune Centre’s skewbald mare Jolly Dolly after moving to the mainland. But it was landing a job with the Bechtolsheimer family that really set his career along the path to success.
In 1990, he rode at his first championships, the world championships on Rubelit von Unkenriff, and just two years later he became the youngest British rider ever to compete in an Olympic Games, partnering Giorgione at the 1992 Barcelona Games, his first of six Olympics.
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