For Carl Hester, winning silver at the European Dressage Championships at Windsor in 2009 is a memory that will never fade. It was his first championship medal, after almost 20 years of riding for Britain, and heralded the arrival of Britain as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
Twelve years on, Carl hopes Britain will be able to field a medal-winning team at both the postponed Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and the next Europeans, which are set to go ahead at Hagen, Germany, in September 2021, as he explains to Polly Bryan on episode 24 of the Horse & Hound Podcast.
“From what I’ve seen this year we have nearly 10 combinations, plus two others we haven’t seen out this year, who can score 72% [at grand prix] and well above that. So we should definitely be able to field two good teams for next year, which is so exciting,” says Carl, who admits that Britain being in this enviable position would have been almost unimaginable earlier in his career.
“We have had moments of glory, going right back to Jennie Loriston-Clarke, who won Britain’s first senior medal [individual bronze in 1978], and Emile Faurie, who won bronze in 1993, along with our first team medal. But nothing stayed as glue, then of course in 2009 we had a super group of horses starting to come through,” he continues. “The trouble had been that we had had one brilliant rider at a time, or one brilliant horse at a time. But we knew that we needed better horses and training, and now we have a much larger group in this country who are well trained and ready to be in the medal zones.
“Windsor Europeans — what a competition that was, and what a night that was: under the floodlights, with Windsor Castle all lit up and a sold-out, packed stadium,” remembers Carl, who rode Liebling II on the British team at that Europeans, alongside Laura Tomlinson (née Bechtolsheimer) on Mistral Hojris, Emma Hindle on Lancet 2 and Maria Eilberg with Two Sox.
“I had been riding on teams for 20 years at that point, but I just couldn’t get over what it felt like there, in a home situation,” he says. “It was a great time too — Totilas appeared there, dressage was booming in popularity, and we were right there in the middle of it, taking our first silver medal. It was an incredible feeling.
“It’s one of my best memories, that night. I think we drank until 4 o’clock in the morning; we just celebrated and celebrated, it was blissful. It just meant so much. I hadn’t won a medal before, and I thought, ‘If it never happens again, who cares. This is it!’”
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But of course, that silver medal at the Windsor Europeans was just the start of Britain’s achievements over the next decade, with another silver medal at the World Equestrian Games the following year, team gold at the Rotterdam Europeans in 2011 and, of course, becoming Olympic champions at the London Olympics in 2012.
“Kentucky was the following year and Mistral Hojris was the leader of the team then, in 2011 Uthopia led the team and in 2012 Valegro led the team,” says Carl. “It swapped around, and we mustn’t forget these other great horses. We always think of Valegro being the best horse in the world, which he was, but there were other great horses at the time, supporting him.
“It started to feel normal for us to do well, but of course we mustn’t rest now – we have to keep going.”
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