Cathrine Dufour & Cassidy, The Horse That Wasn’t Going to Get to Grand Prix But Made It to Olympics, No. 5 In World and… Part 1 of 2

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Cathrine Dufour and Cassidy competing at the 2016 Olympics where they were the top placing combination for Denmark and 13th overall. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Nov. 9, 2017

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When Cathrine Dufour at five years of age accepted an invitation by a school friend to go to a stable she had no interest in riding but just wanted to take care of and spend “cozy time” with the horses. That soon changed with lessons and two years later her own pony that was “horrible at shows and always coming last.”

She liked the “horsey thing” so much, though, that she stuck with it, trading up to a better pony that put her on national teams.

Then seven years ago she paired with a horse named Cassidy, a Danish Warmblood gelding she admits she wasn’t much into at the time, She didn’t care he was not going to make it to Grand Prix as juniors and young riders were all she was thinking about.

Cathrine now is 25 years old and Cassidy is 14.

The horse that wouldn’t make it to Big Tour was ridden by Cathrine to team silver and individual and freestyle bronze medals at the European Championships in September after placing 13th overall at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the highest ranked Danish combination. The pair are ranked fifth in the world, the highest standing for a Danish duo in more than three years with scores that research by dressage-news.com shows are the highest ever for a Danish combination.

Cathrine, refreshingly down to earth and able to laugh easily at her beginning in the sport, spoke candidly to dressage-news.com about life with Cassidy that grew to become “the apple of my eye” while experiencing the most stressful time of her life in the meteoric rise to the level that sent the pair to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Cathrine was first invited to see horses at the age of five by a good friend at school.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it’,” she recalls, “but we were good friends so I joined her and  within two minutes I was totally hooked on that horsey thing. In the beginning I was not that into riding—I just wanted to brush the horse, feed it; that cozy time in the stable meant something to me in the beginning.

“Quite soon after that I went to a riding school and learned how to do stuff. I was really hooked on it quite fast.”

Cathrine laughs that her trainer, Rune Willum, deserves the credit for “an amazing job schooling my parents, schooling me and doing everything to build the right team.”

Two years later her parents bought her a riding school pony, Sunny Boy, that was “horrible at shows, always coming last but it didn’t matter.” At age 10 her parents bought Cathrine a schoolmaster pony that could do more–“it went quite fast when we found out how to do stuff.”

She moved up to horses as a junior rider at 15 years of age and when she was 17 she tried the seven-year-old Cassidy as a prospect that could take her to championships.

Andreas Helgstrand, a successful competitor for Denmark–perhaps most famously for the spectacular Blue Hors Matine, the gray mare that he rode to freestyle bronze at the 2006 World Equestrian Games– called her trainer and told him, Cathrine recalls: “I have this horse and it would suit Cathrine perfectly.

“He knew Cassidy because he had seen the horse at the Danish Warmblood testing at age four and although he ran off with the rider, he really liked him.”

Cathrine was interested but trips to Germany and delays in getting a video resulted in Andreas selling the horse to another rider. After a week, Cassidy was returned to Andreas.

“So we went and tried him out and the owner was totally game on,” she said. ”I wasn’t into him that much. I thought he was a bit tight in the body. It didn’t click. But then I went back to the car and I remember my father asking Rune, ‘Well, what do you think about this horse?’ He replied, ‘This horse can get European medals’.”

He was right. After one national show and the Northern Baltic Games 10 days later that they won. Cathrine took Cassidy to the European Junior Rider Championships a month after the purchase and won silver.

At the 2011 European Championships, Young Rider individual medallists (L to R) Cathrine Dufour DEN (silver), Sanneke Rothenberger GER (gold) and Carina Nevermann Torup DEN (bronze). © FEI/Ridehesten

Andreas had said Cassidy would never make Grand Prix but could be super at small tour.

“OK,” Cathrine said, “but I can’t use a Grand Prix horse so I don’t care.”

The pair moved to the next level in 2011 taking two silver and one bronze medals.

In 2012, Cathrine and Cassidy were dominant at the European Young Rider Championships, finishing atop the team standings to lead Denmark to Nations Cup silver and taking individual and freestyle gold. In 2013, the pair again captured individual and freestyle golds.

The step up to the Under-25 level produced some good results but Cathrine described the performances in the Intermediate II as “really, really bad quality.”

Teaching him piaffe and passage was “quite a struggle,” as predicted by Andreas.

“Cassidy was like, ‘What? Trot on the spot?’ He didn’t get it at all,” Cathrine said. He was so easy to teach other movements that the lack of piaffe and passage begged the question, “What should we do?” Cassidy’s hind quarters weren’t well suited for those movements.

“It took a lot of time to teach him,” she said. “I almost gave up, I must say. Should we give up and sell him and try to buy another one… a year before the Olympics. But he was the apple of my eye.”

Enter Kyra Kyrklund in September, 2015–the Finland phenom long based in England with six Olympics, multiple world and European championships as well as winner of the 1991 World Cup.

“She came to the barn and had a few tricks,” Cathrine said, “and I think something really happened there.”

The “tricks” from Kyra whom she calls “amazing” weren’t actually tricks, but ways to “simply  think different”–such as using a different length whip to touch other parts of Cassidy’s body, altering how Cathrine sat on the horse.

“There were a lot of small things which were only details but they just worked,” she said.

Not immediately, though. The Big Tour debut at Odense in their homeland in October, 2015 “ended up totally bad,” or as Cathrine puts it while laughing, “I ended up super last.”

So back home and another visit from Kyra to try to make it work.

Cathrine and Cassidy were back in competition in the Netherlands in December and posted a pair of victories, their first at Big Tour and just eight months before the Olympics.

Cathrine Dufour on Cassidy competing four months before the 2016 Olympics.

For Cathrine that was really the start of the road to Rio, a journey of just a few months that was fraught with demands and pressure for which the 24-year-old who had never competed outside Europe and with no Big Tour experience was totally unprepared.

“It was one big mess for me because I came from the youth teams feeling very secure, always the anchor,” she said. “I knew the system, I knew the trainers and all that so I was super, super safe in what we did.

“And then coming into this new team, new trainer it was one big mess for me. actually. Trying to get these qualifications and … it was really stressful. I was never this stressed during the training or anything. The Olympics were totally amazing but the year, half year before was so stressful.”

She became the center of a Danish media controversy as she did not want to go to Aachen, Germany, the final team qualifier, because she was concerned it might be too much for Cassidy. He had already been ridden in three major competitions that year. She gave in to the pressure and competed there, with performances that Cathrine describes as “awful” in a starting lineup that included the complete German team that ended up with team gold in Rio as well as many other top combinations from around the world. The results weren’t that bad–they placed eighth in the CDIO5* Grand Prix Special.

Preoccupation with the Rio Games was, however, unrelenting.

“When my parents invited friends back home I really didn’t want them to come because I didn’t want to talk about the Olympics.

“I think we talked about the Olympics every day for maybe a year. I was totally fed up with it. I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it’; so I was quite isolated.”

She never considered pulling out, though, and an observer can see as she talks the character that helped her deal with her first forays into the senior ranks at the same time as being thrust into the spotlight that comes with being at the pinnacle of the sport.

“When I want to do something I do it. I’ve always dreamed about the Olympics so I was really focused.

“I remember that half year as very stressful but not that fun.

“When I got back home after the Olympics I hit a black hole. I didn’t want to ride.

“I had some good younger horses in the stable and I sold them immediately to get them away from me. I really needed a break. It was really a tough year.

“The Olympics were super, super, super fun but it’s much more fun now.

“I’m much more relaxed in the competitions, I’m more secure and I know what I’m doing because I know the system. I know the teams and I know how to do the Grand Prix, so-so.

“When I did the Olympics it was my fifth Grand Prix, I was still learning. I still am but I know much more about what it means to do the Grand Prix.”

Part 2–With success at the European Championships and a big deal homeland show, Cathrine aims Cassidy for Tryon World Equestrian Games

Correction: Cathrine and Cassidy won 2017 European Championships team silver and individual and freestyle bronze medals, not team bronze as reported in an earlier version