“Golden Couple” of Dressage Talk About Their Lives One Year on From Great Britain’s Historic Peformance at London Olympics–Part 1

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Great Britain's dressage "golden couple" of Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro and Carl Hester in Uthopia celebrating the nation's first ever Olympic dressage medal at the 2012 London Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Great Britain’s dressage “golden couple” of Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro and Carl Hester on Uthopia celebrating the nation’s first ever Olympic dressage medal at the 2012 London Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin dreamed of helping Great Britain win the nation’s first Olympic dressage medal–any color, team or individual–in a century of horse sports on the globe’s grandest sports stage. When Carl on Uthopia and Charlotte on Valegro, both horses part-owned by Carl, aged 46, who was also Charlotte’s coach and mentor, teamed up with Laura Bechtolsherimer (before she married to becaome Tomlinson) and Mistral Hojris to claim gold on home ground in London the fairytale was complete. That Charlotte and Laura went on the claim individual gold and bronze added another chapter in the history of Britain’s Olympic dressage journey.

Success on the field of play–the 20-meter by 60-meter dressage arena–created hopes of personal rewards in a sport that is typically more expensive than most with two living creatures needing to perform as one in peak physical, mental and emotional condition and whose paltry financial benefits typical in the sport come from long hours teaching and training other humans and horses.

Carl and Charlotte, who will be 28 years old next week, recently competed in Rotterdam–Carl on Dances With Wolves and Fine Time and Charlotte on Valegro and Uthopia–and sat down with dressage-news.com in a lengthy conversation remarkable for the willingness of the two to laugh to and at each other (Charlotte calls Carl “Grandad”) and their candor at what has happened since their glorious week at Greenwich Park in London.

Dressage-News: You are now a year on from the Olympics where your dreams were fulfilled in the dressage arena. Before the Games, you expressed hopes you would reap the rewards of years of hard work and holding on to the horses with all the financial risks entailed that led to the success. What has happened in that time?

Carl: I thought a year on we didn’t expect to be probably still going as we did last year. Uthopia we certainly didn’t expect to be here and Valegro was up for discussion as to what would happen. So we had to change our plans a bit. But of course when you have a horse like Valegro every time you change your plans on something the success he has brought Charlotte, myself and my country it’s just fantastic to be a part of. Although we haven’t campaigned as much as we did last year because we don’t need to, it’s been more enjoyable this year because the pressure is just so different than it was last year. The pressure that you get with the Olympic Games being in your own country can be a real turnoff. You think that once that’s over you would want a long break. But actually we’ve enjoyed so much support at home–it’s been huge and there’s been no stopping on trying to keep the momentum going. Things have been really busy at home which has been nice not to continually do internationals.

Carl Hester and Uthopia at the 2012 Olympic Games. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester and Uthopia at the 2012 Olympic Games. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

DN: You said several times before the Olympics you were holding on to both Uthopia and Valegro for the Olympics but not after the Games. That success happened and you still have both horses…

Carl: Yep! And that wasn’t supposed to happen. I think the Uthopia thing has been the most disappointing because I had to pay myself for that. Inevitably with the dispute over the ownership that the banks are having with the court, although that doesn’t rest on my shoulders,  has left me hugely responsible for an asset that is half mine and half Sasha’s (Stewart) father. Having to look after that asset–I have never been paid to look after the horse, but that was totally my choice because I wanted to keep him to the Olympics–now with the Olympics over its not only the fact of the responsibility to keep him he’s obviously a depreciating asset.

DN: Don’t the lawyers get the fact that not competing the horse who is getting older is depreciating the asset?

Carl: I get it. I’ve put my case forward endlessly. This horse is now depreciating in value because a) he’s getting older, b) it took a while to release him to compete again and c) every day is a risk. My side’s gone forward and there will be some mediation which i’m hoping will be for the last time and they can finally come to an agreement, as I’ve been saying for six months. I think everybody is realizing… you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that it is getting less and less and less. However, as usual we’ve hung on this long AGAIN, I’ve spent another year’s money taking care of the horse. Charlotte’s started riding the horse and I enjoy watching. He’s qualified for the European Championships. I said I would never get back on that horse again–why would I want to ride a horse I didn’t know which day it would be leaving my yard? Whereas, suddenly it’s, “Well, he’s still here…” It could be a possibility I suppose. Charlotte and I have covered our backs. She’s got two horses qualified, I’ve got three horses qualified. We’re covered that we’re going to get there. What we’re going to do horsewise? Obviously Valegro, Charlotte will definitely ride him.

DN: What has happened in Britain is a very unusual situation compared to other countries. Germany, Holland and the United States, for example, have a national coach and an athletic structure rather than the administrative structure you have.  You to some extent were the national coach, an incredibly unusual situation of a competitor/coach. Is my understanding of the situation correct?

Carl: That’s quite an interesting point. I talked about this to Will Connell, who is our team leader and in charge of the World Class Program. It doesn’t seem unusual to Charlotte and I because we have worked together for so long and it is a team competition we’re thinking about so there is no rivalry in helping each other. Will said that other sports didn’t understand how I could be a competitor and a coach and they have used this situation in discussions in how it works and can work and it obviously does work. We don’t have a team coach and the fact that we don’t have a team coach has really worked for us. There is no animosity or trouble between any of our team members. The interesting thing is here, for example, Gareth (Hughes) I teach anyway so it’s quite normal to help Gareth here. He’s a professional, too, so he doesn’t train with me every day like Charlotte and I do so he does as often as we can. Dan (Watson) we fit in and help as we can. In three days of being here Dan scored the best scores he ever has and Gareth got a personal best. It gels very easily for us to be together and help each other.

DN: Do you get compensated or is this all part of the contribution to the empire? In some countries the national coaches are paid handsomely as well as substantial  bonuses for medals at Olympics and championships.

Carl: Maybe I should change countries. No. It’s not a paid job.

DN: Do you like the role that you have evolved into?

Carl: I love doing it. Yes, it has evolved. Foremost I’m a rider. A coach has to go around and give all these clinics. I’d just rather not do it. I’m just not ready to do that, sit on my backside all day teaching other people. I still want to be a rider, I still want to produce horses. I love teaching so it’s really easy for me to do it. In the case of Charlotte and me we’re just talking to each other because we’re looking at the same thing every day. You know exactly when one little detail is out of place because we’re used to looking at it all the time.

Carl Hester (gold vest) coaching Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro at Hagen, Germany where the pair set a world record Grand Prix Special score. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester (gold vest) coaching Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro at Hagen, Germany where the pair set a world record Grand Prix Special score. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

DN: After the Olympics there was the situation with Uthopia and Valegro. How did that effect your relationship?

Carl (turns to Charlotte): You were a bit tricky for a while.

Charlotte: I hate Grandad.

Carl: It was inevitably going to be difficult. Even though you are prepared for what might happen, I think because Charlotte had no idea how she would feel having won two gold medals suddenly from something that seemed very easy. She didn’t want to sell the double gold medalist. From my situation why should I have to keep paying for the rest of my life. There are two sides to the story. That horse had been in our yard since he was 2 1/2 years old. We care about him, we care about where he would go. There was never going to be a quick decision on how it was going to be done. The ideal solution, the perfect solution, was to offer him to whoever might be available in the U.K. to help fund it. It’s a difficult subject to broach. People said why should they pay off my mortgage. I quite understand that. Why should  they? Why should I then have to keep supporting it…

DN: Isn’t it a simple business decision? You have this incredible asset and if Charlotte were to keep riding the horse for national pride or whatever..

Carl: Yes, of course it is a business decision. Can you imagine that happening in the United States? I’m pretty sure that if a similar situation had arisen in the United States three days after the Olympic Games that horse would have been sorted, sussed and safe in that country. We do fund raising in England and we’re lucky to raise £40,000 to £50,000 (US$61,000-$76,000) a night. You see those foundations in America raising millions. It didn’t happen in England. There was a lot of loud, “Don’t sell.” “We’ll do this.” “We’ll do that.” A lot of people were very generous in making small donations but you can’t run a syndicate like that. It all sounds like a great idea until you sit down and work out legally what that means. In the end there just wasn’t enough input and it was way too difficult to run. People were doing Facebook campaigns and donating £5 (US$7.60). In the end, we had to stop all this. We didn’t want to turn it into a begging situation. The fact is if there had been a big dressage enthusiast out there who had wanted to come in and help save the situation that would have been absolutely ideal. It didn’t happen. We have come so far down the line. I said to Charlotte, “We need to make a decison.” It’s not fair on her, me or the horse or Roly (Luard) to hang in this uncertainty so I said, “Let’s stop doing all of this. Let’s keep him for the Europeans and take it one step at a time.” We got him fit for Rotterdam.

What a horse! Isn’t he the perfect candidate. We don’t need to show a lot. We know it’s stressful traveling backwards and forwards across the Channel all the time. The horse can be what he is–a fantastic medalist. He can come out and it’s been, what? six months, he can come out bang out 82, a couple of errors, Charlotte hasn’t ridden the test in a while. Just such a great way to be. I appreciate the judging. Twenty years ago you were told you had to keep showing them until they recognized him to get the points. You can come out and do that and get the reward for it then surely it’s healthier for the horse in that situation.

DN: Are you looking to the Europeans only now, or beyond that?

Carl: No, no. Just the Europeans.

DN: For everything, not just Valegro?

Carl: No, that’s our aim for this year, the Europeans. Get that out of the way. Charlotte and I have invested in lots of young horses. We have loads coming along at home. British dressage could disappear off the face of the earth next year. Let’s face it. Hojris will be retiring, he’s 18. Uthopia, surely this won’t be dragging on until next year. Things are going to change a lot. We’re looking forward to producing more horses.

DN: How would you describe where you are in your life right now? Before the Olympics you had dreams and you fulfilled your dreams. Now you’re a year later. You had hoped to pay off your mortgage, retire to Spain, I hear rumors about you being hired by Spain as a consultant…

Carl: I got spotted down there, that was the problem. I went down for one weekend and was having a coffee in a beach bar in Sotto Grande and someone went by in a car and wound down the window and said, ‘Carl what are you doing here?’ I said, “I’m looking at houses,” and the rumor got started.

I’m content now. I think last year really was what my whole career had been about. I can say if I just keep working, that’s what everyone else does. Just keep going. I’m very content with what happened, I’m very relaxed about it now. It’s not the end of the word. I don’t have to make any sudden decisions. I don’t have to plan anything now. I can just enjoy it.

DN: You have students around the world like Katherine Bateson, the American who is at your farm in summers. Are you thinking you might travel more, teach more internationally? Or keep your same lifestyle?

Carl: I made this home since I started working like we all do from teenage years. This was always my dream to have my own house and my own place and if there’s one thing I love in my life it’s my property and I like spending time at it. I don’t intend to become an international trainer. You know, you’re slightly ruled by having a horse like Dances With Wolves. I think he’s a big talent but he’s also a big bunch of temperament. It’s not a horse I can just pop out and show and expect him to be relaxed and go well. This year was going to be my year off  but that horse has changed my life again. I’ve got to keep going, go to shows, get him ready for the big time. That’s a fulltime job in itself.

Carl Hester and Dances With Wolves at Rotterdam. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester and Dances With Wolves at Rotterdam. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

DN: Europeans are only two months away. You’re not thinking beyond that?

Carl: God, no. Only because I think this whole interview started with” this was what was going to happen”. This is not what happened. I think now I don’t need to keep planning ahead all the time. I still feel the end of the story will be Uthopia will find a great home. It would be ideal if Valegro could stay with us for the rest of his life but I doubt that will happen, either. I’ve got to think about getting to a stage where I can just keep training horses. I also support Charlotte financially in this sort of situation with the horses. We’re the owners. We pay all the costs…

DN: That’s quite a burden, at least a financial burden.

Carl: It’s a not a burden, we’re the owners. That’s why you think the end reward will be the claim that will come back when the horse is sold. Until then… that’s why I can’t stop.

The World Class funding has made a tremendous difference to our lives. For Charlotte and I there aren’t the backers or the wealthy background to support us. Charlotte has to do what I do. We can only ride four mornings a week, the rest of the time we have to go make a living. But the way it’s been put upon us it suits the lifestyle of the horses.

DN: Are you a happy person, you always strike me that you are?

Carl: Yes. I’m very happy.

Charlotte: He’s always entertaining, that’s for sure. You can never be depressed around granddad. He has us in stitches all the time every day, every night.

Carl: Not all repeatable things, though.

Part 2: Charlotte Dujardin on life as a celebrity.