‘I had to change my dream’: how the red-collared jacket spurred on European medallist

  • As a teenager, Charlotte Cundall was on the cusp of making the youth British teams in eventing, competing up to four-star (formerly three-star) on her advanced horse What If. But after breaking her back for the second time left her with nerve damage, she was forced to rethink her plan. This week she made her debut at the European Para Dressage Championships, and absolutely smashed her personal bests to win team gold on the 17.2hh FJ Veyron.

    Embroidered inside her new British red collar on her jacket are the words, “I had a dream”.

    “It’s been a really long journey to get here,” says the grade V rider. “This red collar is so symbolic in British equestrian and it was always my dream doing ponies and juniors, young riders in eventing, to get the red collar. The turn of events meant I could no longer event, so I had to change my dream, and ended up with the red collar, so embroidered inside are the words, ‘I had a dream’.

    “I never thought that when I had to focus purely on dressage that I’d get the adrenaline rush that I did eventing and point-to-pointing but I absolutely do, and things happen for a reason sometimes, so you change your dream or go down another path.

    “[The two disciplines] are different but for a lot of the fundamentals of being able to prepare and campaign and hopefully ride in an environment, that’s similar. I wish I knew now what I knew in dressage when I was eventing, because I would have got some better marks! But there are similarities in being able to cope and give it your all.”

    And so it showed. Charlotte brought the boldness and bravery of her former career into the dressage arena, flying down the long sides in medium canter to earn a string of eights.

    “Why not!” she smiles.  “You’re in there two movements from the end, the second medium canter and I just thought go for it, try to get as high a mark as possible. It’s one of his strengths and I used to be able to gallop when I was eventing so it’s just the same really!

    “What a horse, he gave me everything and more in there, I am the luckiest girl in the world to be riding him.”

    Surpassing expectations at the European Para Dressage Championships

    Charlotte was ecstatic about her individual test, which put her fifth in a strong grade V field on 72.3%, but surpassed that in the team test to log 73.37%.

    “Today I felt a bit more like I belonged, yesterday in the first championship test you wonder if you should be there, and today I was more confident to go in and leave nothing in there,” the 33-year-old said after her second test. “I had a little private goal beforehand – we always long for 70%, but as it was a championships I wouldn’t have been disappointed with 69. It is a dream to come true just to be in there.”

    Charlotte’s nerve damage means she has a weakness down her left side, and she says it “takes a lot of work from a lot of people” to make it look seamless.

    “Horses are incredible in the way they adjust to you being crooked and having weakness in the aids,” she says. “I work closely with my coach Ian Woodhead and they adjust.”

    What makes the team test particularly tricky is that the rein-back and simple changes are positioned on the centre line, exposing any straightness issues out in the middle of the arena.

    “They are double-mark movements so they are really costly if they don’t go well, so I’ve been focusing on them training,” Charlotte explains. “It’s fundamentally a medium test, but the placement of the movements is so exposing of the training, so it’s working on the basics and having everything really secure so you can deliver when it matters.”

    And deliver she did, on para’s biggest stage.

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