H&H Interview: Patrik Kittel — ‘When I see Charlotte Dujardin ride I get jealous’

  • The Swedish dressage star tells Polly Bryan about his revolutionary ideas, his thoughts on rollkur 
and why Charlotte Dujardin inspires him

    Patrik Kittel is a busy man. He led Sweden to the nation’s first team dressage medal in a decade last year, and topped the Western European World Cup league. When we meet, the 42-year-old is preparing to compete at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) and has the birth of his and wife, Lyndal Oatley’s, first child, a daughter, neatly scheduled for October.

    He is also currently standing for the position of FEI rider representative for dressage, running various demonstration tours, renovating his new yard, and training several of his fellow Swedish squad members; Sweden’s answer to Carl Hester, some might say.

    “I just hope my daughter will be as good as Charlotte Dujardin one day — I joke with Carl that I’ll send her to him to make her into a new Charlotte,” laughs Patrik, as we settle down in the riders’ bar at Aachen CHIO for a chat.

    The grand prix is due to get under way that day, though sadly Patrik’s Aachen ride, his European bronze medallist and 2017 Olympia winner, Delaunay, has picked up a minor injury. Patrik is rational about the situation, however; after all, he has two other super grand prix horses: Deja, his World Cup finalist, and the younger mare, Well Done De La Roche CMF, whom he describes as “the best horse I’ve ever had” and has opted to ride at WEG.

    It’s all a far cry from the days of cycling home from the riding school to his non-horsey parents and announcing he wanted to ride at the Olympics. Jumping was his first love, until his mother bought a mare that just didn’t want to leave the floor.

    “At every fence I was just stopping and falling off,” recalls Patrik, a German twang filtering through his accent after 24 years living in his adopted country. “We didn’t have the money to buy another horse, so I had no choice — I started schooling her and teaching her changes and that sort of decided my 
career for me. I came to Germany aged 18, 
a kid with no money, just trying to learn as much as I could.”

    There, he trained with Klaus-Martin Rath and then Klaus Balkenhol, before landing his first proper job at none other than Gestüt Eulenhof in Dülmen, the yard he recently bought. He still dabbles in jumping from time to time, including jumping one of Swedish European champion Peder Fredricson’s horses in a demo a few years ago.

    “It’s all about keeping it fun, doing what you enjoy,” Patrik says, and indeed, upping the fun factor of dressage is something he feels passionate about — this is the man who galloped round Olympia’s grand hall holding his hand out to high-five the crowds during his exuberant lap of honour last December.

    “It’s important that people are allowed to enjoy our sport, to clap when people come in and out of the arena, to feel more involved. Public scoring is great for that,” he says. “It’s about making it more accessible; in other sports the stars have higher profiles, do autograph signings, meet the fans. It’s why 
I do a dressage tour in Sweden, and a riding school tour, too, where we meet kids, the younger generation, and hope to inspire them to watch dressage or to ride.”

    For Patrik, the current international competition format is not compatible with increased mainstream attention.

    “The grand prix needs to change somehow, we need to throw around some new ideas, and talk about it. My idea is to have all the same movements in the grand prix, but fewer of 
each — one extension instead of three, for example — and the rider can choose the order of them and ride to music. It would make it shorter, and more interesting — even I don’t want to watch 60 people ride the same grand prix test.”

    Wouldn’t that just make it into another freestyle test, I counter.

    “It would be like a mini freestyle but easier, and it’ll still be in the main freestyle that you have your degree of difficulty marks. The grand prix would just be about the basic movements,” Patrik explains. “The special should stay the same — that is the ultimate test — but with 20 instead of 30 in it. Those watching on TV really just want to see the best. I don’t watch the first rounds of Wimbledon after all; I start watching from the quarter-finals.”

    It’s an intriguing idea, and even if this exact concept doesn’t take off, Patrik’s starting a conversation, getting people talking about what can be done to modernise, but not fundamentally change, the sport. He’s the brains behind last year’s successful inaugural SAAB Top 10 event in Sweden, with a huge, enthusiastic audience, and prize fund of €145,000 (£132,000), plus a car, and he’s one of the most vibrant, forward-thinking riders I’ve met, leaning across the table in his eagerness to discuss the sport he loves.

    I’m reluctant to change the subject and darken the tone with the welfare issues with which, for some, Patrik’s name is tainted. In 2009, Patrik found himself at the centre of controversy following the release of a video appearing to show him using rollkur while warming up Watermill Scandic at an international show in Odense, Denmark. The FEI launched an investigation, but no action was taken against him.

    Almost 10 years on, Patrik rolls his eyes when I mention it, but is more than happy to chat about his feelings on the subject.

    “We ride under rules and regulations in our job and it’s up to the stewards to do their job,” he says, simply. “If they see aggressive riding they should tell the rider, and if it continues, give a yellow card. Aggressive riding shouldn’t be allowed in any shape or form, but actually, when I watch shows, mostly the riding and treatment of horses is very nice. But members of the public filming and photographing can make people feel scared to ride.”

    I ask whether he thinks public viewing of warm-up areas at major shows, such as Aachen, should be restricted and he shakes his head with certainty.

    “No, that’s not a good solution. I remember as a kid I snuck in to watch the top riders train. I loved it and learned a lot. I want the younger generation to be able to do the same now, plus riders shouldn’t have anything to hide.

    “Of course, 99% of the audience come to enjoy it, not trying to take a bad photo, but it’s the other 1% that make a lot of noise. [Bad photos] happen to every rider, but unfortunately it’s a part of being successful,” he says, admitting that he used to Google celebrities to reassure himself that they are also subjected to intense online criticism. “I don’t look at [what’s written online]; I just do my job. I have a clear conscience about myself and my horses; the rest is up to the people who are actually educated to decide.”

    Continued below…

    Whatever your opinions on Patrik, no one could deny that this is a down-to-earth guy investing everything in improving the sport, for riders, horses and fans. He’s excited about the future, about newer star riders such as Denmark’s Cathrine Dufour, the Netherlands’ Emmelie Scholtens, and especially Charlotte.

    “When I see Charlotte ride I get jealous,” he admits. “A really good rider is one who does well, not just with one horse, but several. Success is not about luck or money, but the ability to educate, and the science of keeping horses sound and happy. I’m inspired every day by so many of my fellow competitors.”

    This article first appeared in Horse & Hound magazine on 6 September 2018

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