Horse & Hound’s 100 Greatest Horses Of All Time: Valegro *H&H Plus*

  • Horse & Hound celebrates the legendary dressage horse with a penchant for eating, who gifted Olympic gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin with ‘all the knowledge in the world’ by speaking to those closest to him...

    Born in 2002, Valegro is the dressage wonderhorse who, with his rider Charlotte Dujardin, wowed the world, winning title after title and setting new records in all three types of grand prix.

    Valegro, who is by Negro and out of Maifleur (by Gershwin), belongs to Carl Hester, Roly Luard and Anne Barrott. He has lived at Carl’s yard in Gloucestershire since he was a two-year-old.

    “I saw this beautiful dished head over the door and this great big arse,” recalls Carl of the day he clapped eyes on the young Valegro. “My mantra is to look for horses with the head of a duchess and bottom of a cook. He certainly matches that.

    “In the early days his movement — even without suspension — had all the right mechanics. He had hock action for the piaffe/passage and high shoulder action in canter, so you could envisage he’d be expressive,” Carl continues. “From being broken, and at every stage, he learnt everything easily.”

    Carl Hester riding Valegro as a young horse showing off his huge canter. Credit: Kevin Sparrow

    Carl’s protégée Charlotte Dujardin was given the ride on Valegro as a young horse to bring him on for Carl to ride, but their partnership proved too strong to dissolve.

    “I clearly remember seeing Valegro for the first time,” Charlotte recalls. “He was in the four-year-old class at Addington Premier League with Carl on him. I saw his canter and my jaw just dropped. It was so powerful. I stared and thought: ‘I’d like a go on that one.’

    “Then Carl asked me to do 10 days’ holiday cover at his yard and I saw Lucy Cartwright on Valegro. He was eating up the long side in about four strides.”

    Carl knew Charlotte was itching to ride Valegro, known at home as “Blueberry”, and when she got the chance she “grinned from ear to ear”.

    “I knew straight away that Valegro was for me. Every question we asked him in training, he already knew the answer. It wasn’t really me teaching him; more the other way round.

    “Sometimes when I finished a test with him I’d feel so emotional because he’d given me everything he had. Riding him is like driving a Ferrari; you have all the power, but with control at the lightest touch, without tension.”

    Carl recalls: “At a young horse demo, Stephen Clarke questioned whether the horse’s huge canter could be collected sufficiently for pirouettes. I thought his canter was outstanding, and he’d already got a 10 in another class for it. Charlotte and I decided right then that we’d start collecting that canter. There’s nothing like a bit of criticism to prove people wrong.”

    Golden glory at London 2012

    The horse’s greatest moment came in London at the 2012 Olympics where he won team and then individual gold.

    “On that day of the individual in London, I had to warm up alone as Carl was busy competing. People asked me if I’d cry if I won, and I always said, ‘No!’ Anyway, I never thought we’d win an individual medal,” Charlotte admits. “We made a little mistake towards the end of the test, so I wasn’t at all sure of the result. But I looked up during our bit check and a lady was hanging over the side of the stands shouting, ‘You’ve done it!’

    “I was an emotional wreck. I cried and cried, and did all the things I’d said I wouldn’t do.”

    Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at London 2012. Credit: Trevor Meeks

    Despite being asked to name their price after the 2012 Olympics, Carl and co-owner Roly Luard ultimately decided they wanted to ensure the horse’s future was secure, and Valegro is to remain at Carl’s for the rest of his days.

    Around London 2012, the media were in overdrive, and offers started flooding in for the horse.

    “Nobody really mentioned figures,” remembers Carl. “It was more like, ‘Whatever you want, you can have; name your price.’ We were dithering about selling, but after the 2013 Euros Judy Harvey and Richard Davison said that he is simply the best horse dressage has ever seen.

    “At that moment I told Roly I didn’t think we should sell him after everything he’d done for us — and for Charlotte, his groom Alan Davis and for the public. She agreed straight away. Knowing he’ll never be sold took a real weight off.”

    Soon afterwards, after reading about it in Horse & Hound, Anne Barrott come on board as a part-owner.

    “She was a godsend,” adds Carl.

    Valegro enjoying his favourite occupation: eating. Credit: Steve Bardens

    Famously, Carl believes that horses should be allowed to be horses, so Valegro has always received regular turnout and enjoyed being hacked out. And while Valegro’s heady career is well documented, less well known is his penchant for eating.

    “Interest in him was insane,” says Carl. “But for Blueberry, life didn’t change; he went to shows, came home and went in the field. Grass is his big love.”

    Although Valegro retired from competition after retaining individual Olympic gold at the Rio 2016 Games, he remains in work and continues to entertain his fans with special appearances.

    Valegro’s official retirement ceremony at Olympia. Credit: Peter Nixon

    His official retirement ceremony took place at Olympia 2016, where he produced an outstanding performance of his London 2012 freestyle to a packed house, proving that he was bowing out at the very top of his game.

    The dark bay, 16.2hh gelding took individual and team gold at the 2012 Olympics; individual gold at the 2016 Olympics; the grand prix and grand prix special gold medals at the 2013 and 2015 European Championships; and individual gold at the World Equestrian Games in 2014. At Olympia 2014, he beat his own world record to achieve the highest-ever recorded grand prix freestyle dressage score: 93.4%.

    “He was at the top of his game for more than six years then, and that’s enough,” says Carl, while Charlotte adds: “I want to thank Blueberry for being such a pro and the best partner I could ever have. He’s gifted me all the confidence and the knowledge in the world.”

    • This article was first published in Horse & Hound’s The 100 Greatest Horses Of All Time magazine

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