H&H Hero to Hero: Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester *H&H Plus*

  • Charlotte Dujardin shot to Olympic glory in 2012 with Carl Hester’s Valegro, and the pair, who still work together at Carl’s Gloucestershire base, have transformed the face of British dressage. In this article, first published in Horse & Hound‘s 135th anniversary issue, we listen in as the pair share some of their favourite memories — and a laugh...

    Charlotte: Carl, you’ve inspired me so much with your riding and your mentality, but who was your biggest inspiration when you were growing up?

    Carl: Well, because I grew up on Sark, I didn’t know a single rider until I was 16 and moved to England. But back then, I was more into eventing than dressage so it was riders like Lucinda Green and Ginny Holgate, who were amazing.

    When it comes to dressage riders, one of the first I met was Jennie Loriston-Clarke, who was lovely to me. I was third in the British Dressage talent-spotting final and I won the grand sum of £25 and had three lessons with Jennie, which were amazing.

    What about you — who are the other inspirational people in your life?

    Charlotte: I love Isabell Werth — her grit and determination. When things go wrong, she never gives up but comes back fighting and that’s something you don’t see in a lot of people. She can get to rock bottom, then she will come back up, time and time again. I’m so inspired by her, but outside dressage I’m also a massive fan of Serena Williams — she’s just such a go-getter, and there’s no stopping her, like Isabell. I think you are born like that and I really enjoy watching people with that hunger and fight, and watching how they cope with the pressure, the media, the ups and downs.

    Carl: How does it feel to think that you are such an inspiration to other riders out there?

    Charlotte: I feel very honoured and humbled, but it’s surreal because I’m just me and I don’t see myself as an inspiration. I’m so grateful for all my fans and followers but when people want to hug me and touch me, or they cry because they’ve met me, it feels very strange — as lovely as it is. It’s something I’ve had to get better with, but it all started so quickly.

    So when did you know that you had made it? Was there a particular moment?

    Carl: It was probably when we won European Championship silver at Windsor in 2009. I felt quite emotional watching Piggy French win Badminton this year because she said, “I just presumed I was going to congratulate everybody and then go home,” and that’s what my life used to be like. For years I went to shows, did my test and went home — I never even took prize-givings into consideration. It wasn’t terribly depressing, it was just the way it was.

    But then in 2009 I couldn’t believe that I was finally holding a bit of metal in my hand, that a medal had finally come back to Britain. It made me think that if nothing else happened after 2009, that would be fine.

    Charlotte: But little did you know…

    Carl: Little did I know that I would be pushed on for another 10 years!

    Charlotte: So what are the most noticeable differences you’ve seen in British dressage since you started out in the sport? You’re going to show your age now…

    Carl: There aren’t too many grey hairs to be seen… although I did ride at Windsor when the dressage was on grass and we used to warm up in and out of the carriage-driving obstacles, literally doing figures of eight around them.

    I look back really fondly — lots of fun things happened back then — but the standard is vastly different now, with wonderful horses and much better riding and training.

    Charlotte: And much better outfits! We look 10 times better nowadays.

    Carl: Oh yes, the bling. You girls like bling…

    Charlotte: Hey, you wear more bling than me!

    Charlotte: Who would you say was your first really top horse, as Valegro was for me, and did you ever feel as though you would never find another as good afterwards?

    Carl: Good question. Looking back, if I had known what I know now…

    Charlotte: You would have never let me ride Valegro?

    Carl: No — that is one thing I can safely say, even though people ask me all the time whether I wish it had been me riding Valegro. But it’s in my personality to enjoy watching you ride him.

    For me, the first top horse was Escapado, back in 2004. If only I had been a better rider and trainer then… But I never felt that I wouldn’t find another good horse, because I always knew that the more you know, the more horses you can train.

    Look at poor Nip Tuck — he had to compete with Valegro, who kept winning. But Nip Tuck tried just as hard as Valegro, he just wasn’t as talented; he didn’t have that hindleg. I don’t need a top horse that always wins — I get satisfaction from having a horse who always tried his absolute best.

    Charlotte: So what would you say was the highlight of your career if you had to pick one?

    Carl: Personally, it was the European Championships in 2011, when Uthopia set it all off by winning the grand prix. I just couldn’t believe it, and I remember you — at your first championship — standing there with your gob open saying, “You did it Grandad!”, and me saying, “I did what?”.

    Charlotte: I’ll never forget the gasps from the crowd when you got straight 10s for your extended trot.

    Carl: I could hear everyone gasping and I was looking around during the extended trot thinking, “What’s all the noise about?”, then seven 10s appeared on the board.

    But what about you — what’s your most memorable moment?

    Charlotte: Well, there’s London 2012 of course, but also Rio 2016. I never got nervous competing but when I was in the 10-minute box with you before my freestyle, my legs were like jelly and my heart was pounding through my coat. I knew it was my last ride on Valegro and I didn’t think I could do it — I couldn’t feel my legs. But as I rode around the outside of the arena, that horse just knew, and he took hold and gave me so much confidence. From start to finish it was one of the most faultless tests I’ve ever done, and under so much pressure.

    Carl: People forget about the pressure, and it got to the stage of being quite horrific when it was another Olympics and everyone was expecting you to win. You can’t bear to make a mistake and I couldn’t bear you to make one. It reached breaking point in Rio, but Valegro is the most phenomenal horse in the world, and what he did that day was just the best.

    Charlotte: So we’ve talked about the highlights of your career, but what has been your most embarrassing moment?

    Carl: Well, over the years I’ve said lots of the wrong things at the wrong times…

    Charlotte: You mean like the time when Isabell Werth told you off?

    Carl: Gosh yes, that was embarrassing, although we’re still friends somehow. We were at a show and Isabell made a comment about the result. I stupidly mentioned it to another rider who told Isabell, and she came storming into the breakfast bar and roared at me. I was like, “Forgive me, forgive me.” She did, thank goodness.

    Charlotte: The funniest thing that you do is your accents.

    Carl: Oh yes, well when I’m in Scotland, I teach in Scottish; when I’m in New Zealand, I speak in Kiwi and when I’m in America, I go American… I don’t do it on purpose, the accent just comes out.

    Charlotte: But you do it while I’m warming up, even at championships. People always ask me what you say to me in the earpiece outside the ring, but you’re just doing funny accents in my ear.

    Carl: So what about your embarrassing moments? There was the Christmas video we tried to make where you fell off, and no one has been allowed to see it!

    Charlotte: Oh yes, it was really funny for you. You were on Hawtins Delicato, the advanced eight-year-old in a double bridle; I was on Hawtins San Floriana, who was only five then and in a snaffle. And we were galloping across the field side by side for this video and I ended up having a flying lesson.

    Carl: Honestly, I have never seen anything buck so high in my life. She just got excited, but she put her head right between her legs and skybucked. You went straight up in the air and came down vertically. What was even funnier was you being dressed as Father Christmas!

    Charlotte: An elf, actually.

    Carl: Anyway, that aside, is there anything you would regret at the end of your career?

    Charlotte: I don’t think you can ever have regret in what you do. Whatever goes wrong, you have to learn from it, not regret it. And I haven’t finished yet — I have a long way to go.

    Carl: Yes, you have a lot more to do. Not like me — I could get on that plane tomorrow and fly off into the sunset.

    Charlotte: No you couldn’t. You always say you’re going to go to live in Spain, but you’re only ever gone for about four days before you call and say, “I can’t wait to get home.” Actually, the first thing you always say when you go away is, “Are my chickens still alive?”

    Carl: Well, they’re very important in my life. My chickens, my peacocks and my guinea fowl.

    Charlotte: So, there’s nothing else you want to achieve in your career?

    Carl: No, there really isn’t. That’s the great thing now — if it all stopped tomorrow, for whatever reason, I have achieved my dreams. H&H

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