In this exclusive interview, double Olympic champion Charlotte Dujardin also chats to Polly Bryan about the highs and lows of 2020, and how her training methods have developed...
For Charlotte Dujardin, 2020 was supposed to be a huge year. She and Mount St John Freestyle were gearing up for the World Cup Final and then the Olympic Games, Charlotte’s first appearance at each since the heady days of Valegro. She entered the year on a high, riding the wave of a euphoric Olympia triumph and keen to put a tough 2019 behind her – her much-publicised elimination under blood rules that lost Britain the silver medal at the European Championships in August 2019 came, somewhat cruelly, at the same time as her 13-year relationship with fiancé Dean Golding was ending.
“It really wasn’t the greatest year in 2019; I found the Euros very tough and going through personal issues at the same time, in splitting up with Dean, felt like a double whammy,” Charlotte says candidly. “I was trying very hard not to allow my personal life to affect my profession and let it show, but it was hard. I felt horrendous about what happened at the Europeans – for Freestyle, for the whole team, for everybody – but I always think that if you don’t win, you learn, and I hope it has made me stronger and a better person.
“Olympia was a really good finish to the year and I remember leaving there with my head held high again, thinking that 2020 was going to be really good.”
But like so many, Charlotte was to find her dreams tumbling off a cliff; the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was tough to take. However, the strange year ended up being positive for her in a whole host of ways.
“It was an awful year in so many respects, but I haven’t been completely devastated, because a year of training has actually done my horses so much good,” explains Charlotte, adding that the grand prix training shows organised by Carl Hester in the summer proved invaluable.
“Freestyle had a lot of pressure on her early in her career, and she was going in the arena and not quite giving me what she did at home. People couldn’t see it but she got nervous inwardly; I had to give her confidence, but I was probably suffocating her in trying to go for a 10 every time,” Charlotte says of Emma Blundell’s Fidermark mare, who won team and individual bronze at the World Equestrian Games in 2018, aged just nine.
“If I make a mistake at a competition, people watching think, ‘Oh my God,’ but at the training shows I didn’t have to be afraid to make mistakes, and it meant I was then able to create more power and expression without putting pressure on Freestyle.”
It’s paid off – a few days after our interview, Charlotte and Freestyle were crowned national champions, with a whopping 90.2%. It was the first time Charlotte has broken into the 90s without Valegro – the last occasion being the Rio Olympics – and it means Charlotte can finally shake off those who doubted she could replicate her achievements with “Blueberry”.
“It’s been great to be able to prove to myself and others that, while of course Blueberry was phenomenal, it does take two. I achieved what I have because of him, but I still had to train him.
“I never doubted myself – I knew the quality of horses I had coming up – but it’s hard when you hear people saying things. I think it’s important for people to see you competing horses up through the levels, creating the next amazing partnership.”
That is something Charlotte has done plenty of over the past four years. Since the Rio Olympics, she has won no fewer than 33 national titles with 12 different horses, at every level from novice to grand prix. While she no longer competes all of these horses, the yard she shares with Carl Hester is brimming with future medallists to follow Valegro and Freestyle.
Heading up this chasing pack is Gio, known as Pumpkin, whom Charlotte spotted while teaching a clinic in the USA in 2016. Standing barely 16hh, Pumpkin leapt into the hearts of British dressage fans last year, as he followed up a stunning grand prix debut in January with more plus-79% performances at the level in the autumn. With a European Dressage Championships set to run this year as well as the Olympics, Charlotte hopes to field Freestyle on one team and Pumpkin on the other.
Then comes the likes of Florentina, Hawtins San Floriana, River Rise Isabella and Imhotep, and Charlotte’s voice is full of enthusiasm when discussing every single one. At present, she is riding 11 horses every day and “it’s hard to choose which one to ride first as they are all so exciting”. What a problem to have.
One of the newer names is rising six-year-old Ampere mare Kismet, whom Charlotte rides, among others, for Peter Belshaw.
“She is going to be another Freestyle – she’s just phenomenal, and I can’t wait to compete her this year and let everyone see her,” gushes Charlotte.
While Charlotte appears to have perfected the art of honing grand prix superstars, she assures me she is still learning with every horse she trains.
“Over the years I have become more patient in my training,” she says. “Some horses can answer a question straight away, but others can’t. I used to think immediately, ‘Why not?’ but horses like Freestyle and Florentina have taught me that sometimes you really just have to give them time.
“With Flora in particular, it has taken so much time to get her physically strong enough to do grand prix,” she says of the 11-year-old Vivaldi mare, who won everything she entered in 2018, but hasn’t competed since.
“Her passage was ginormous, and she was so nervous going into piaffe. She’s not naughty, but I couldn’t work out why sometimes she had it and sometimes she didn’t. I kid you not, I got to a point with her where I thought I might have to give up,” Charlotte admits. “But this year has allowed me to realise that my expectation is sometimes too great, that sometimes I have to ride for a six or a seven and know that’s good enough, then develop it from there. I always want to get it right all the time, but I’ve had to go right back to basics and learn that sometimes less is more.”
Does Charlotte think her “type” has changed when it comes to horses?
“I don’t have a type that I go for, although I like horses with a lot of power,” she says. “I have a selection of very different horses, but I always used to expect the same of all of them. Now I don’t – I do things differently with each. I absolutely love working out new things, and adding tools to my training toolkit. However good you think you are, you never stop learning and finding new techniques.”
While 2020 undoubtedly proved beneficial for her horses, Charlotte admits that she has struggled with the lack of competitive focus, especially during the early months of the pandemic.
“Usually I am always on the go, always travelling, whether it’s for shows, demos, teaching, and I love that, especially competing. At the start [of lockdown], I thought I couldn’t cope. I’m not very good at staying at home, and I feel guilty if I’m not working,” she says.
“But looking back now, lockdown taught me how to switch off. My work is my passion, and I’m so lucky, but I have to be careful that it doesn’t take over my life. I realised I was constantly trying to make other people happy, but I need to make time to do things for me, things that make me feel happy.”
I’m slightly taken aback at her honesty – it can be hard to imagine the double Olympic champion’s life as anything other than idyllic. But of course, one of Charlotte’s strengths as an elite sportswoman is that she has the same weaknesses, same struggles and fears as anyone else, and she isn’t afraid to acknowledge them. And in 2020, that involved a holiday to Cornwall with friends in October.
“I’d never been to Cornwall, and we had such an amazing time. I made myself do things I’ve never done before, like bodyboarding,” she tells me. “At first I said, ‘No way, I don’t like waves,’ but everyone told me I’d love it, and I did. I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. I realised that you have to go on these adventures, break out of your bubble. If you don’t make these things happen, then they never will.”
Family is another thing that has been at the forefront of Charlotte’s mind recently.
“I’ve never been good at being at home, but now I love spending more time with family. I’ve realised how important family is, and how easily we can take it for granted,” she says.
“I know a lot of people who have died this year and it has been horrendous, but it’s opened my eyes, too. We never know what’s around the corner, and we have to embrace life with open arms and go out and live it.”
Ref: 14 January 2021
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