Carl Hester & How Gold Has Changed His Life… Or Not

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Carl Hester and Uthopia at the 2011 European Championships. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Great Britain’s historic gold medal at the European Championships has given another big boost to dressage that was already the fastest growing horse sport on Shakespeare’s Sceptered Isle, but for Carl Hester, the star of the team’s performance, life hasn’t changed much after working for almost a quarter-century to get to the top.

He’s more concerned (not really) about his work and team mate, Charlotte Dujardin–“Charlotte. Where does she go from here? At least I started at the bottom and worked my way up. She started at the top so which way can she go?”

These one-liners and the impression that he gives interviewers his undivided attention, media from around the globe love to talk to him.

A month after the European Championships, a once every two-year event that in Rotterdam was an Olympic qualifier for the 40 nations seeking a pass to next year’s Games in London, the 44-year-old rider appears no different than when was playing second fiddle to another team mate, Laura Bechtolsheimer. Carl worked for “Dr. B,” as Laura’s father is known, and credits him with providing opportunities he might not have otherwise had. Britain, as the host, will field a team in London; so, too, will The Netherands and Germany (and the USA, as well) based on their 2010 World Equestrian Games results.

Carl Hester on Liebling II at the 2009 European Championships. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Laura, only 26 years old now, has been the poster child of British dressage for years–an atractive blonde who is smart and has had horses to match her talent. At the European Championships at Windsor in 2009 she led the team on which Carl was a member with Liebling II to an historic silver medal. Then the team won silver at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010 and Laura snagged two individual silver medals, bested only by the superstar partnership of Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas before they went their separate ways.

The London Games provide a chance for Britain to win their first ever Olympic medal of any color. Many are tiing them to achieve the ultimate gold.

With what is happening, one is tempted to say fast forward to 2011, but the fact is that Carl has been slaving in dressage farmyards since he left Sark with no money and no horse to fulfill his dream of becoming a “jockey” 23 years ago.

What he achieved in 2011 is truly amazing, so rare (has it ever happened before?) that it almost defies imagination.

He succeeded with Uthopia, a 10-year-old KWPN black stallion by Metall that he found as a youngster. And his student Charlotte was also on the team with Valegro, a nine-year-old KWPN gelding that he also found as a youngster. He and Uthopia finished first in the Grand Prix that decided the team medals and gave Britain gold for the first time ever, and was reserve champion in the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix Freestyle. Charlotte and Valegro were fourth in the Grand Prix, sixth in the Special and ninth in the Freestyle. Just four years earlier, Charlotte was competing in Young Riders.

For Britsh dressage that has skilfully parlayed success in recent years into prospective gold that is rare for Britain in any Olympic sport. Carl Hester andf Laura Bechtolsheimer are media darlings way beyond what corporate minds could conjure.

An example.

Have you come down to Earth yet? Carl was asked by dressage-new.com.

“I never left,” he said. “After Rotterdam I had four days of teaching. Then I went to Spain to get away from it all. Whle I was there I got the ‘flu. By the time I recovered and got back to England I’d forgotten all about the championships by the time I got around to enjoying it.”

Not really. He has slogged through the circuit of morning televison programs, magazine interviews and personal appearances. And interviews with he and Charlotte were woven into live coverage of the European Jumping Championships in mid-September, further broadening the audience.

There have been other benefits for dressage. He and Lee Pearson, one of the top British paralympic riders, gave exhibition rides at the sold-out appearances by the Spanish Riding School.

The effect has been obvious.

The first day, a Thursday, of the British national dressage championships that like most such shows anywhere in the world is marked by a seemingly unending vista of empty stadium seats, attracted an estimated 12,000 spectators.

“This is catalystic,” he said of the upsurge in interest in dressage.

For Britain, the Rotterdam result provided a “feel good factor. Everyone’s just incredibly proud. They were so willing for us to do well.”

Britons are not the only ones who want them to do well.

There is an almost universal desire for Britain to win their first ever Olympic medal on their home turf next year. No nation or individual combination is any less competitive, but an aura that may be unique surrounds the Brits. No one rules out the powerhouse Germans, a sagging but not-to-be-ruled out Dutch team, the surging Swedes, an American team that is so often a contender for bronze, relative newcomers with pricey horseflesh like Norway.

They all want to be on the medals podium, and they also want the Brits there, too

The British team atop the medals podium at the European Championships. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Carl’s talent as a trainer is recognized around the world. In addition to Britons, he has been a longtime trainer for Katherine Bateson-Chandler who was a member of the USA’s fourth-placed team at the 2010 WEG and was recently asked by Canada’s Shannon Dueck who is based in South Florida to help her.

As to his success, Carl is a realist.

“It doesn’t change that much,” he said of the Rotterdam results. “The rest of the horses have to get on with it.

“I’m probably more relaxed now. But it hasn’t quenched my thirst for wanting to do well.

“I think it’s also proved to me that the few years I have worked with Charlotte how important it is to have two people working together–eyes on the ground, somebody to talk to every day.”

To everyone who has seen Carl and Charlotte together they are opposites, as he notes in the amount of time and effort he has devoted to getting to the top while Charlotte is not only young but  has the fearless attitude that is not tempered by failure.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at the European Championships. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“We are opposites,” Caril said. “That’s why we end up of feeding off different things. I repeat everything, every day, I am methodical. I feed off her enthusiasm. We are two different personalities.

“She went to Europeans thnking she was going to win a gold medal. I didn’t think I was going to win one.

“It’s not that I’m negative. I have an optimistic approach to life. We just think differently, and it’s great.”

Perhaps the most recurring buzz around Uthopia and Valegro is who has offered how much to buy the horses. The intensity increased with the recent sale to Norway of Fernandez, ridden successfuly by Charlotte at Aachen, Germany, and other competitions.

There is no price on either Uthopia or Valegro, Carl said, at least at this time.

“They are not for sale,” he said, through the Olympics next July.

He is well aware that their value is high, But he has taken the position that he cannot go to his owner/partners with every offer and maintain a training and competition schedule leading to the Olympics.

The way he thinks is that the owners and himself want the horses to go to the Olympics although there are financial sacrifices.

An indirect lesson is that if he was able to find young, affordable horses that are competitive with the best in the world, then others can do it “opening doors in the sport” for many people.

The future?

“We suddenly are in a position we have never been able to foresse,” he said of Olympic hopes. “To see that in the disdtance is quite gripping.”