First published in Horse & Hound in 2018, this exclusive Access All Areas feature with Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin saw H&H’s dressage editor Polly Bryan catch up with pair ahead of the World Equestrian Games in Tryon...
It’s 11am on a drizzly Monday morning in March, and I am in my element. I’m sitting in a cosy corner of Carl Hester’s airy indoor arena, 10 dogs snoozing in their beds at my feet, watching Carl and Charlotte Dujardin schooling two of their star horses.
Outside, the leafy exterior of Carl’s Gloucestershire base is serene, trees dripping gently in the aftermath of the overnight downpours, but inside the yard and indoor school complex, there’s a buzz of organised activity.
Just over the wall of the school behind me, super-groom Alan Davies has the next pair of horses cross-tied in spacious stalls, being efficiently prepared for their session. Groom and rider Sadie Smith is cooling down her own horse, Keystone Dynamite, while Chloe Hunter prepares to warm up Charlotte’s next ride.
For now, the double Olympic champion is aboard Gio, or Pumpkin as he’s known at home, the bouncy chestnut who belies his diminutive size, while Carl is schooling his World Equestrian Games (WEG) hopeful, the Diamond Hit 10-year-old Hawtins Delicato (Del).
It’s easy to think of these stunning horses only as the foot-perfect performers we see at shows, and it’s a rare privilege to witness the work and process behind the wins. Pumpkin looks like a pony as he warms up on a long rein but as Charlotte dials up the power he becomes more and more spectacular, transitioning into the horse who last week won an advanced medium regional title.
Meanwhile Del visibly grows in confidence under Carl’s masterful riding.
Five days after my visit, Del will make his long-awaited grand prix debut — such is the expected hype Carl is forced to keep the venue a secret — as will the prolific Fidermark mare Mount St John Freestyle, Charlotte’s own WEG hope. These are the horses spearheading what Carl refers to as “a new wave” for British dressage, and while the public wait with bated breath to see if we have a new wonder horse to lift Britain back into the medals, he and Charlotte are quietly grinding away at home, turning the cogs of their proven machine to fine-tune every detail.
It’s fascinating to watch Carl work Del quietly through his piaffe and pirouettes. Once in a while, the gelding will get upset and resist, but Carl coaxes him forward into a wondrously soft contact, never getting flustered or cross.
“He’s a magnificent horse, but when it gets difficult you sometimes have to convince him to keep trying,” Carl explains.
Both Carl and Charlotte incorporate plenty of walk breaks, Carl using one of his to help Charlotte develop Pumpkin’s piaffe, which is already hugely impressive for a seven-year-old.
Throughout the session they glance across at one another frequently, throwing out the odd comment and piece of advice, with Charlotte affectionately calling Carl “Grandad” as usual.
“This is how our mornings at home work — both of us riding and helping each other. I love days like this,” Carl tells me, clearly in his happy place.
Such are the continual demands placed on Carl and Charlotte that days at home like this don’t happen as often as they’d like — it has taken two months for this interview to take place, due to the manic nature of their schedules.
But they have a godsend in Alan, the rock who keeps everything running as close to clockwork as possible. He seems unshakeable, the epitome of calm. I ask him if he ever gets stressed with such responsibility for these equine athletes, and he chuckles.
“I guess it’s a little scary that the team pressures are building up again — we’ve had emails from the team vet about flying the horses this year, and that sort of thing can be daunting,” he says. “But I only get upset if the horses aren’t happy and well.”
And happy and well they certainly are. Out on the beautiful stable yard, which is framed by an archway complete with clock and weather vane, I dash, starstruck, from stable to stable to marvel at who is inside. The most exciting of all, Valegro (Blueberry), is tucked away in the
corner of the yard; he allows me a quick cuddle before getting stuck into his lunchtime haynet.
The only star missing is Carl’s 2017 European ride Nip Tuck, who is away on holiday, “being a grandad himself”. Although Del is targeted at WEG, Carl plans to campaign the experienced, though notoriously spooky “Barney” as his back-up horse.
All the girls who work on the yard — Sadie, Chloe and Lucy Scudamore — ride all the horses, and Carl feels strongly about allowing them the opportunity to learn on the best.
“Others may be surprised but the girls are great riders and very capable — I don’t want a yard where I don’t trust the staff, and it’s the ideal education for them. We’re producing people here too.”
Next up for Charlotte is the tall, dark gelding En Vogue. This elegant, athletic nine-year-old was nearly written off as a young horse because he was so hot and tricky, but now is another on the brink of grand prix.
“He was petrified of everything and completely wild. Grandad told me I was wasting my time with him. But last year it all started to click, and I adore riding him.
“He’s such a kind horse,” enthuses Charlotte, before picking up trot and performing a series of beautiful sweeping half-passes across the outdoor arena.
The biggest star of her string, though, is undoubtedly Mount St John Freestyle.
“Most of us are lucky if we get one amazing horse in our life, but it looks as though Charlotte is about to have two,” Carl says as the three of us grab a 10-minute window to sit down with a coffee that afternoon. “Freestyle is simply spine-tingling; she has that quality that makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. She has the same amazing go-get-it attitude as Blueberry and she’s so grown-up — she may be nine in years but she’s 19 in her mentality.”
Does this journey with Freestyle feel reminiscent of their journey with Blueberry?
“From a training point of view, yes, but so much has changed since then,” replies Carl.
Charlotte explains: “When I rode Blueberry at nine years old, I had no pressure; nobody knew who I was. Now everyone is watching us and the expectation to deliver is so high. But then again, when we were training Blueberry I barely knew what I was doing. Now I do and Freestyle at nine is further along in her training than Blueberry was at nine. Because I know so much more, I’m able to develop her training faster.”
Freestyle’s exceptional temperament has allowed her speedy progression, but Carl and Charlotte are careful to tailor training programmes to each horse. Vogue, for example, was barely competed until last year.
“Horses don’t reach grand prix because of pressure and endless riding. We work them four days a week and focus more on fitness and maintaining them,” says Carl.
As well as keeping the horses happy, Carl points out that having each other around boosts their own motivation and enthusiasm, too, especially on the challenging days.
“We’re so lucky that we’re able to ride each other’s horses, as it means we can get to the core of a problem a lot more quickly,” he says, Charlotte nodding in agreement.
Do they ever worry about the other pinching their horse?
“I always want to get off his, but Grandad never wants to get off mine,” Charlotte teases.
“That’s because I always take the underdogs,” Carl quips back. “No, my horses suit me, Charlotte’s suit her. There’s no point riding something you don’t enjoy.
“Competing is not my number one thing any more,” he admits. “I love riding and schooling at home, producing horses to grand prix. I don’t love competing. I’m certainly not giving up, but whatever I’m dealt now is fine with me. I’ve got what I wanted over the past 10 years, so everything else now is a bonus.”
And with that, they head back to the arena. A client has arrived for a lesson with Carl, and Charlotte has another horse to work. And so the wheels of Britain’s greatest dressage machine keep on turning…
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