Carl Hester, His Horses & the Price of Popularity – Part 2 of 2

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Carl Hester and Uthopia. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Carl Hester is known as a top competition rider and trainer and with an eye for young horses so sharp two of his finds could end up on the same British team that could win their nation’s first ever Olympic dressage medal.

Add in that he’s a seriously nice guy, articulate and humorous to the point that many foreign reporters at horse shows say they prefer talking to Carl than riders from their own nations. To top it off he didn’t come from a horse family and definitely not one with money. As so many horse lovers understand, he frets over how to pay his mortgage or whether he can come up with enough cash to keep a horse he’s attached to.

In 25 years of training, competing, buying and selling horses and simply helping out when people need it he’s made a lot of friends.

And therein lies the problem for the 44-year-old Briton who in 2011 on Uthopia and his protégé Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro were two of only six riders in the world to break the 80 per cent barrier at Grand Prix. Another was Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris. So at the London Olympics this summer, Great Britain could be the only team to have three combinations all with 80+ per cent on their résumés

Not to say there aren’t many wonderful trainers and riders involved in all aspets of the horse business because there are. And Isabell Werth and Anky van Grunsven have lived in a fishbowl for years.

But for Britain, the limelight for Laura, first, and now Carl, is still a relatively new experience.

“I don’t like it much,” Carl told dressage-news.com. “I’ll tell you what’s changed. I’m being used in a way to help promote the sport, which I don’t mind. I think that becomes your job if someone considers you a huge star. Over here, obviously, dressage does not make me a huge star. No. It is becoming that way.”

Although he has been in the sport for many years, “to see what’s happened in the media over three years has been pretty incredible.

“I do feel it is bit of a duty to give back. So being a star in your own country means getting out there, opening your mouth, telling everyone about what you’re doing. If you’re not used to it, if you’re not trained for that sort of thing, I think you could find it quite difficult.

“You’ve got to be able to talk on camera, on radio, come up with answers even when your head is turned upside down. It’s something you have to learn pretty quick. I feel that’s what I have to do.”

Did he ever dream of such success growing up on the English Channel Isle of Sark just three miles long and a mile and a half wide (4.8 x 2.4km) with a population of 600?

No,” he said, “I didn’t. I was so naive. Olympics, world championships, Europeans… I wasn’t brought up reading horse magazines. There was nobody around that had horses. There wasn’t a Horse and Hound on our coffee table; there was my dad’s hammer and a couple of nails.”

It was not until he was well into his teens did he even know who were horse world superstars. Then at age 21 after he moved to England he started riding for Dr. Wilfried Bechtosheimer, Laura’s father, and he was getting clued in.

“But it wasn’t a childhood dream because I didn’t know what they were–simple.”

That he would become a much sought after trainer also did not look to be in the cards.

Now, the demands are substantial. Out of 20 starters at London’s Olympia World Cup event in December–his last show in 2011–he worked with Charlotte and Valegro, Canada’s Shannon Dueck on Ayscha and providing some help to two or three other combinations as well as competing himself on Uthopia.

And when he is in Florida, several riders will be competing for his training time–U.S. team World Equestrian Games rider Katherine  Bateson-Chandler; the Dominican Republic’s Pan American Games double bronze medalist Yvonne Losos de Muñiz as well as Canadian Olympian Shannon Dueck among others and, of course, Charlotte. Carl himself will ride Wie Atlantico that was a team mate with Fiona Bigwood on the silver medal 2010 WEG squad.

Wie Atlantico with Fiona Bigwood aboard at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“I’ve always been this way,” he said. “I stay at home and I train. You do what you do, say what you say, and people come and see what you do. I feel that my confidence is better at helping other people now. It didn’t used to be and I was unconfident; it used to be if people competing at this level would ask me a question I would feel very uncomfortable.”

His confidence has grown and he looks at the people he trains as “my friends.”

“It’s not a business for me to be helping them,” he said. “All of the people I’m helping are my mates that I would have to dinner.

“So I find that very refreshing that I have that relationship with them and I would be able to rely on them. Inevitably, its not going to go well for me at some point, and I would be able to rely on those people who are fellow competitors to help me out.”

He laughs at a suggestion that British Dressage might say something about helping riders from nations that could challenge Britain at a championship.

“There’s no point in saying anything to me because I would just wag a finger at them and say, ‘just leave it alone.’

“I think everybody still sees me as the child I’ve always been. They don’t think I have that sort of mentality. I quietly work away in the background. They don’t even know. They don’t tell me what to do.”

Carl admits to a lapse of concentration at Olympia, which he laughed about afterward as the result of not having time to focus.

More seriously, “That potentially could cost us a medal. I’ve got to be realistic about it and get myself on form.”

Even at an Olympics, he said, “I will help those odd friends. If they get there I’ll be there for them.”

A very happy Charlotte Dujardin riding Valegro out of the arena after her championship debut at the Europeans in Rotterdam. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

But not at the expense of Charlotte and himself.

“I’ve said that to everybody,” he said. “Two years ago I realized that these two horses are going to be great Grand Prix horses and I realized I had a great rider in Charlotte. Charlotte made the same commitment I made.

“We’ll give up everything for the next three years to get this ride. We will ride together every day. We will go to the shows. I will plan it for you. That is our focus. It’s hard.

“I know this is wearing. I love it, but obviously it’s wearing to run all of these things.

“I’m trying to make a living. I am paying off a mortgage. I am keeping these horse on the road. It’s worth everything. It’s got to be that first.”

What he also has to factor in for travel and planning is the age of the horses, 10 and 11 years old, still young for the Grand Prix.

He has not competed Uthopia since Olympia and Valegro will get a break after Florida at the end of January. They will be back in the show ring in April or May.

Carl is doing everything he can to find a British buyer for Uthopia, a 10-year-old KWPN gelding, of which he shares ownership with Sasha Stewart, whose business in Ireland has been severely affected by the economic climate but agreed to defer a sale until after the Olympics.

“I aways thought, to be honest,” he said, “that the horse would release me from a lifetime of slavery to work. I always thought, ‘you will be the one that pays off my mortgage and that finally frees me from those shackles.”

But then the emotions that have kept him in those shackles come to the fore, as they almost did when Escapado, his 2004 Athens Olympic mount, was sold to Hans Peter Minderhoud of The Netherlands and he thought, “Stuff the money. I should have just mortgaged the place up again.” Escapado was retired to Carl’s farm.

Of Uthopia, he said: “Of course watching him and knowing the life that we give him I’m worried about giving something so precious to someone else. I worry about that. I’ve said to Sasha this horse could win a medal for Britain every year. She said she wants to sell.”

Charlotte has been made aware of the fact Valegro will be for sale after the Olympics.

“We’ve got our next pair we’re getting ready,” he said, two seven-year-olds that will start in 2013.

“It’s not like we’re disappearing or anything like that.”

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Carl Hester riding Liebling II. © 2010 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

When Carl comes to Florida, it will be a family reunion for the horse he brings as well as a horse he rode in two championships for Britain.

He is bringing Wie Atlantico, ridden for Britain by Fiona Bigwood who is pregnant and offered the mount to Carl. Fiona and the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding were team mates with Carl at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010.

Spain’s three-time Olympian Juan Matute, who with his family has made his home in Wellington, Florida, and built a thriving training business, trained Wie Atlantico from a youngster to the Grand Prix before selling him in 2009.

Carl will also be reunited with Liebling II, the horse he rode on the British team that won silver at the 2009 European Championships and the 2010 WEG. He is now ridden by by Yvonne Losos de Muñiz of the Dominican Republic who has also become an owner in her quest for an individual start in the Olympics.