H&H Interview: Charlotte Fry — ‘This is, quite simply, a dream job’

  • The under-25 European dressage champion talks to Selene Scarsi about her early days, moving to the Netherlands for short-term training — and never leaving — and 2019's unexpected fame

    Not many people can boast two gold medals, each a first for Britain in the relative category, in the space of a fortnight. But Yorkshire-born Charlotte Fry can — and at just 22.

    This August, she was crowned world champion for seven-year-old dressage horses on Glamourdale and, days later, under-25 European champion on Dark Legend.

    As she dismounts a young stallion at her mentor and trainer Anne van Olst’s yard in the Netherlands, she glances at the coffee table, where a Dutch magazine is spread open to reveal the latest article about her.

    “Ah, that’s just arrived today,” she smiles. “I’m doing so many interviews all of a sudden. It’s hard to think that before August, I’d never given a press conference in my life.”

    Lottie is one of four riders at the van Olsts’, has a dedicated groom, Greta, and lives in a flat down the road with her “very loud but sweet” dachshund Bami, “Noodles” in Dutch.

    Born to dressage royalty — her mother, Laura, was an Olympian (Barcelona 1992) and a European team silver medallist — Lottie learnt to ride on old, safe Shetlands, or “little grey hairy things” as she warmly remembers them. She focused on dressage aged seven, with her first proper pony, Hot’n’Spicy.

    “We leased him from eventer Harriet Morris-Baumber, as they wanted an easier life for him; I don’t think I ever had him on the bit, but we competed up to novice and had fun.”

    From there she moved on to Haverkamps Jorik, a 14.2hh with horse-like paces, and soon after Andexer, who was originally bought as 
a project but turned out to be the one that put Lottie on the international map.

    “He was very much a stallion — some days were very good, and other days he taught me how to sit a good buck,” reminisces Lottie.

    With him she competed at her first pony Europeans, aged 14, in 2010. Pretty much from the same age, Lottie started riding Ghandi. Not excessively big at 16hh, Laura’s grand prix horse gave the young Lottie an invaluable opportunity to have a feel for the grand prix movements at home, as well as further her competition experience — they competed at advanced medium at the nationals together.

    Her first junior horse, Z Flemmenco (Dinky), was a familiar face. He’d been a livery at the yard since he was four, and when he was put up for sale as a seven-year-old working at elementary, Laura thought he could develop into a perfect junior horse for Lottie.

    “Mum got ill for the second time as we started training Dinky for the juniors, so I took over the ride on [her horse] Remming, who was grand prix-ready,” Lottie says. “Remmy was 15 at this point; he enjoyed stepping back to junior level and was a fantastic schoolmaster to do the internationals on.”

    After Laura’s desperately sad passing in September 2012, Lottie started campaigning both a still-green Dinky and Remming at junior level, the latter picking up a British individual test record of 72.36% at the Compiègne Europeans in 2013, and winning the prix st georges title at the winter championships a year later.

    “When Mum died we had a full yard with 20 horses including several liveries, so there was a great deal of work, and a lot of mucking out to do,” she says. “I was working on the yard all week and competing most weekends, and every month I’d spend a week training at 
Carl’s [Hester].”

    After Dinky’s best-of-Brits finish on his team debut, at Arezzo 2014, it was decided Lottie would go to work full-time for Carl.

    “We were discussing the move when Carl said, ‘Actually, I’ve got a much better opportunity for you, but it’s in Holland.’ He’d arranged a six-month training period at his old trainer, Anne’s, for the step-up to young riders. The six months ended, no one said anything, 
I didn’t say anything, so we just carried on and, four years later, I still haven’t left!”

    “Anne and Carl share the same training philosophy, and it was just so nice to have a constant eye on the ground again, every day, always watching me,” says Lottie, before bursting out in laughter: “Even when she’s not there, you know that she’s watching you.”

    Initially, Lottie was riding four horses daily, plus Dinky — who made a smooth transition to young riders, and finished best of Brits again at the 2015 Europeans in Vidauban — but she started getting more rides, up to the point that she didn’t do anything else but ride.

    Anne also gave Lottie the fabulous opportunity of making her competitive grand prix debut on her own top horse, Exquis Clearwater, team bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympics and, with Anne, a key part of the Danish team for half a decade.

    “I’d started riding him occasionally at home, on and off for about a year, but he had so much power and, being quite small, I just wasn’t strong enough to control it,” Lottie says. “I finally got to grips with him and, at the end of 2015, we went to the Roosendaal indoor Christmas show and won both under-25 classes — this was my first-ever grand prix. He taught me and improved my riding so much.”

    The journey with Dark Legend, whom she now co-owns with Anne, was even trickier.

    “We went to Roosendaal in 2016 but had 
to retire as he was too spooky and sharp,” Lottie explains. “That whole winter I took 
him out to millions of small shows, to prove 
to him there was nothing to be scared of.”

    It paid off; after several international wins and placings, they were selected for the Europeans in Roosendaal.

    “We finished best of the Brits, each score over 70%; only months before we couldn’t even finish a test in that arena,” she says.

    After a winter spent training for the grand prix work, which “Darkie” picked up really quickly, they made their senior grand prix debut earlier this year at Compiègne CDI, before popping back to home soil for Bolesworth, which finished with a 72% grand prix freestyle and third place behind Carl Hester and Richard Davison. A few months later, the combination led Britain to team bronze, in addition to individual silver and freestyle gold, at the under-25 Europeans.

    As a young horse rider, Lottie is enjoying tremendous success showcasing the van Olsts’ youngsters and stallions — possibly the most important part of the Dutch breeding operation — qualifying multiple horses each year for the World Breeding Championships since her debut in 2016 on Graaf Leatherdale, and culminating in the historic gold medal in the seven-year-old class this summer on Glamourdale.

    The tight schedule of a show-filled August didn’t even allow for a proper celebration of this remarkable achievement, with the newly crowned world champion straight back in the saddle to prepare for the under-25 Europeans.

    “I only had one week between the Worlds [in Ermelo] and the Europeans,” she says. “I managed to travel home from Ermelo on one day to train Darkie, but on the other days it was impossible because, in addition to Glamourdale, I had also qualified two 
five-year-olds. So it was straight back to training for the few days left before the next competition, because his ‘preparation’ for a full week had only been hacks and field time.

    “We did have a bit of a party after the second gold, but nothing else’s changed: I still ride 12 horses a day, and that’s anything from just-backed three-year-olds to my grand prix rides,” she says with a smile.

    Continued below…

    Is she ever moving back to England?

    “I’m definitely staying here for the foreseeable future,” she confirms. “In Holland you have all the shows on your doorstep and it’s so much better for the young horses — they can get more experience and better exposure from a young age.

    “Even more importantly, it’s a real honour to work for such amazing, knowledgeable people. I’ll be forever grateful to Anne and Gertjan van Olst for giving me so many golden opportunities, and putting up with me all 
these years. I do miss the hills back home, but 
I have no plans to go back just yet. This is, quite simply, a dream job,” Lottie adds.

    For the sake of the sport, long may the fertile partnership between this extraordinary young rider and the world-class van Olst horses continue.

    This interview first appeared in Horse & Hound magazine on 27 September

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