Charlotte Dujardin & Valegro, Their Journey to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro

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Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin acknowledging the applause from supporters at the Hartpury Festival of Dressage in England. © 2016 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin acknowledging the applause from supporters at the Hartpury Festival of Dressage in England. © 2016 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When Charlotte Dujardin rode Valegro into the competition arena for the first time since the European Championships last summer she hoped her 14-year-old partner in holding Olympic and championship titles and every world record would get “fresh and excited.” He did just that at 14 years old but looking way younger and clearly determined to leave the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next month with another world class performance.

For Charlotte the CDI3* Grand Prix at this British college, Hartpury, with a big focus on equine activities, was “to give him an outing, a nice easy ride… not going full power. I’ll save that for Rio.” The mistakes–and there were two big ones: in the two tempi changes and the passage up the final centerline–were because he was what she hoped, “fresh and excited.”

And Charlotte was really happy with that, as was her coach, Carl Hester who has masterfully strategized the careers of what has been for most of the past four years and may be for another month or so the top dressage horse and rider combination in the world.

“I want just a nice schooling round, really,” Charlotte told dressage-news.com before going into the arena where a crowd of several hundred spectators gathered on a grass bank to hold their collective breath for so long you could hear a pin drop, barely even a gasp at the mistakes.

The ride, a video of which is on dressage-news.com, was remarkable for the fact that it was the first since the duo left Aachen, Germany last August with European Championship individual and freestyle gold medals as well as team silver.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro adorned with gold medal, sashes and winner's rug as European individual champions. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro adorned with gold medal, sashes and winner’s rug as European individual champions. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Working the horse under saddle four days a week and then two trips from Carl’s farm to this college for the water treadmill usually with his primary caretaker, Alan Davies, that Valegro seems to have made the most of since then.

“He’s pretty fit,” said Charlotte who turns 31 years old this coming week. “He isn’t at his peak now. The next five weeks after here, that’s when we’ll really pump him up. We did that for Aachen before the Europeans. We kind of know how to deal with his fitness now. This is like a warmup for us.”

It’s only another three weeks before Valegro gets on the plane for the trans-Atlantic flight to Rio–the longest flight he’s ever made. But in two journeys to North America he was perfectly fine, returning home from Las Vegas in 2015 with the second straight World Cup title.

Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro in Las Vegas celebrating their second World Cup title. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro in Las Vegas celebrating their second World Cup title. © 2015 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The Olympics in Rio are in mid-winter where there usually are moderate temperatures and low humidity.

“I’m not worried about the heat,” Charlotte said. “You know what, I’m just going to go there.

“He owes me nothing. What I’ve already achieved on him is unbelievabe. Nobody can take that away from us.

“I just want to go there and enjoy it. I don’t want everybody to put all the pressure on us. I know they have expectations because of what we’ve already fulfilled but for me it’s just enjoying it and having fun.”

Does she feel pressure?

“If I was to really think about it, ‘yes.’ But I don’t.

“You know what it’s just another dressage test in another arena in a different country doing the same thing. At the end of the day I’m not doing anything different than I would do here or any other local show. It’s exactly the same.”

The partnership between Charlotte and Valegro has been so successful and helped raise dressage to heights of popularity in Britain that previously were unimagineable. The pair are among those responsible for creating expectations not only in Britain but around the world where the dressage community tends to embrace talent no matter the nationality of rider or breed of horse.

She actually finds it scary what has been achieved. “If someone had told me that when we were starting out and said, ‘that’s what you’re going to do in four years,’ it would be like, ‘no way. I can’t even believe what we have done, and enjoyed every moment of it.”

History made! Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro in London in 2012 celebrating Great Britain's first Olympic dressage medal in a century of the Games and the first rider and horse to achieve the double gold since Isabell Werth and Gigolo in 1996. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
History made! Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro in London in 2012 celebrating Great Britain’s first Olympic dressage medal in a century of the Games and the first rider and horse to achieve the double gold since Isabell Werth and Gigolo in 1996. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

For starters, two gold medals–team and individual–at the London Games in 2012 were the first dressage medals won by Great Britain in 100 years of Olympic equestrian events. Add to that achievement, World Games team silver, individual and freestyle golds in 2014, World Cup back-to-back winner in 2014 and 2015, European Championships team gold in 2011; team bronze, individual and freestyle golds in 2013, team silver plus individual and freestyle golds in 2015. Ranked No. 1 in the world for 36 months, but now standing 46th because the rankings count only scores for the past 12 months and the pair have barely been in the ring.

Charlotte and Valegro have compiled a record of 45 victories in 56 starts in the past five years, creating world record scores that are mind-boggling–Grand Prix at 87.460 per cent that is more than three percentage points higher than when the pair first became the record holder; Grand Special of 88.022 per cent that is 1.564 percentage points higher and Grand Prix Freestyle of 94.300 per cent, two percentage points higher. All the previous records were held by the game-changing pair of Edward Gal and Totilas.

“He’s the horse of a lifetime,” Charlotte said.

“After this he’ll be retiring. I really really want to come away thinking I enjoyed every minute of that.

“When you ride a horse like Valegro how can you not enjoy it? He makes me smile every day I ride him. What a pleasure that is.”

Her only disappointment in Rio is that it is not at home like London where there were friends and family. “They’ll be at home supporting us rather than there. That’s what I’ll miss probably, not having them there to be a part of it.”

The triumvirate around Valegro Alan Davies, Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester. © 2016 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
The triumvirate around Valegro Alan Davies, Charlotte Dujardin and Carl Hester. © 2016 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Life after Valegro?

“I’ve got other horses coming up,” she said, but quickly adds, “I don’t care what anyone says there will never be another Valegro… full brother, full sister, you name it, there will never be another Valegro.

“There will be other special horses, there will be other talented horses that can go on and do things but in my heart and what I’ve done with him…

“He’s my first Grand Prix horse. To achieve what I have on my first Grand Prix horse knowing nothing about the Grand Prix and achieving it all with him.

“We’ve gone through this incredible journey. I couldn’t ever ask for more. It’s not like I had other horses to learn on and then get on Valegro and do it. I’ve done it from scratch, yeah… amazing.”

Other horses she is working with?

Mount St. John Freestyle from the high performance stud in England that she says is “not as powerful as Valegro but when I ride her she gives me the same feeling; she absorbs everything I do, she’s never afraid, she stays with me the whole way through her test. When you have a horse that gives you those feelings she may not be as spectacular or as powerful but as a rider training all these young horses getting that bond and that partnership, getting that connection with my horses, that is what’s all about for me.

“That’s what I love. It is all about having them from young horses. I believe you get such a journey, such a relationship with them up to Grand Prix. You know them inside out. To have that trust and that bond with them is really special.

“For a rider to do it on more than just one horse, to get out there and do it again… the day I get out there and get on a team again with another horse will be a huge achievement. Nobody can say I haven’t worked hard enough to get it.”

How has fame changed Charlotte?

Charlotte Dujardin seems near tears as she and Valegro are honored after their world record Olympic Grand Prix Special. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin seems near tears as she and Valegro are honored after their world record Olympic Grand Prix Special. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I got thrown in the deep end so quickly after London,” she recalled. “I was someone normal then all of a sudden I had scary old press people wanting interviews… thousands of people like ‘can you do this, can you do that, can you be there.’ I was literally petrified. I was so scared of being interviewed, I was scared to death. I had no preparatiion for that. It wasn’t like I had a build up to that.

“It was like, ‘boom. there you go.’ Now it’s like I feel experienced, I don’t worry about it, don’t stress about it. My job is out there when I’m on a horse, whatever horse, I’ve got a job to do. I want to enjoy it. I want to have fun and try. Each horse is different, so I want to try and do the best job I can and give them a nice ride.”

Her personal life, she admits, has not been typical of young couples.

“After Rio I’d like to get married, I’d like to have kids at some point.

“I’m riding 12 horses a day at the moment. I need to find someone to take over all the rides then I can give myself a break to have a child.

“I’ve been with my partner now for nine years. After London we said we’re going to get married… four years later we haven’t got married. One day it will all happen. I always said to him when we first got together, ‘I just want to let you know right now you can walk away but my horses are always going to come first’.

“He’s always known that if you don’t like it you can go. Nine years he’s stuck with me, four years we said we were going to be married and we haven’t. He’s still waiting patiently.”