Charlotte Dujardin, One Half of Britain’s “Golden Couple,” Tells of Life After Olympics & Having Children–Part 2

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Charlotte Dujardin "wailed like a baby" on winning the Olympic individual  gold medal,  the second gold at the London Games, making history at home. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com 100 years of
Charlotte Dujardin “wailed like a baby” on winning the Olympic individual gold medal, the second gold at the London Games, making history at home. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com 100 years of

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro won the two Olympic gold medals in London in the summer of 2012, she and her team mates created history with the first dressage medal of any color for Great Britain in the history of the Games and the first partnership to take home both top honors since the great Isabell Werth achieved the feat at the same age of 27 in 1996.

The official record for Charlotte and Valegro, a KWPN gelding (Negro x Gerschwin) is remarkable. The horse was nine when Charlotte competed him in their first championship, the Europeans in 2009 where the team won gold, just five months after the pair began their CDI Grand Prix career.

A year later and the Grand Prix Special world record to their credit came the Olympics. By the end of 2012, they had added the Grand Prix world record to the list of achievements. In August this year, Charlotte and Valegro will again be on Great Britain’s team at the Europeans, this time in Herning, Denmark.

Not part of the official record is the remarkable relationship between Charlotte and Carl Hester, an owner of Valegro, Charlotte’s trainer and mentor, that makes it a real joy to be around the pair who poke fun at each other and themselves, drive each other to be better, are refreshingly candid about themselves and their horses and are sought after media darlings, a quality to be prized highly in a sport that struggles too often to attract spectators and sponsors.

Carl Hester on Uthopia and Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro with Olympic team gold medals at London. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Carl Hester on Uthopia and Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro with Olympic team gold medals at London. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Carl and Chalotte talked with dressage-news.com on their experiences of the past year. This is Part 2 of that discussion. Part 1 was posted July 3 and can be accessed here.

Carl, aged 46, is a veteran of the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, Sydney in 2000, Athens 2004 and London as well as the first World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990, WEG in Kentucky in 2010 and European Championships in 1991, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2009, 2011 and named to the 2013 team plus the World Cup Final in Las Vegas in 2005.

To Charlotte, he is “Granddad.” And the back and forth between them during this interview was accompanied by lots of laughter and not a single sharp word.

“I’d gone from being the luckiest girl in the whole world to feeling like I’ve got nothing, everything’s kind of disappearing.”

Charlotte Dujardin on post-Olympic emotions

Dressage-news: I imagine the Olympics were probably the greatest high of your entire life, but things have not always been easy every day since then. How would you characterize it?

Charlotte: I definitely found it really tough after the Olympics. For me it was always an ultimate goal, an ultimate dream to get to the Olympics. Having got there, I’ve got that phone call saying you’ve made the team. As far as i was concerned I had done everything I had wanted to do because I was going to the Olympics.

DN: That was before you saw the color of the medals (laughter)?

Charlotte: I always knew we had high expectations for the gold for the team. When it came to the individual it was just like any medal would be fantastic, and that’s honestly how I thought. I didn’t ever think of going out and getting the gold. I just thought any medal would be fantastic. Coming away with the gold was unbelievable, it was so emotional.

They always said to me, “How would you feel if you won a gold medal? Will you cry?” I was like, “No.”

I wailed like a baby, literally. Knowing that would be my last ride on Valegro also having done what I’d done, it had been just a crazy two years of my life. I had achieved things I didn’t even dream of achieving… and it all kind of ended. It finished. After the Olympics there was a huge demand–press, media, we got asked to do loads of things. For me, I found that really difficult. I wasn’t really used to it, I wasn’t really aware of what I was going to be asked to do. I did find it really, really tough.

DN: In what way?

Charlotte: Doing photo shoots, doing interviews. TV. I found that really tough. To me, we normally do a competition, we go home and life is back to normal. I did the Olympics, and all I wanted to do is get my life back to normal again. We didn’t really get time to appreciate what we did. We literally rode, got dragged off our horses, we had to go to the press, then the media, then TV. We managed to get dinner and a drink. Then we had to get up really early to do more TV. It was literally like we didn’t have time to sit down and have a drink, relax and think, “Wow! This is what we’ve done.” It was actually go, go, go all the time. I found that really hard. Having to deal with the fact Valegro might go, my relationship of six years with my partner it caused a lot of strain on that. I’d gone from being the luckiest girl in the whole world to feeling like I’ve got nothing, everything’s kind of disappearing. It was quite hard.

DN: What got you out of it? It’s not like you’re slouching around. You’re competing and doing incredibly well.

Charlotte: I’m very lucky to have Carl. I’m very lucky to have a lot of support at home, from friends and family. I knew the thing that would keep me going was riding. I just had to keep riding. We have lots of young horses at home we were focusing on. Then Carl said, “You can have Uthopia.” Then the first two shows were canceled. I came into this year feeling like, “Am I ever going to get to a show?” For the past two years having competed a lot, being out there, doing a lot to being three or four months into this year and I don’t have anything to show. It was great to get to Saumur as it was my first show with Uthopia. That was really good. I really enjoyed it, having a new challenge with Uthopia.

Carl: When you experience for the first time what it was like being at the top then, suddenly, nothing. I’ve been through it five or 10 times in my career. So you know it’s not the end, it is going to go on. With Charlotte I think you suddenly think there is nothing. And when your personal life is  not right either, that’s the worst thing in the world because you feel you haven’t got anyone there. You know what, three months later it all sorted itself out and everything’s back on track.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro Olympic team and individual gold medal winners at the London Olympics. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro Olympic team and individual gold medal winners at the London Olympics. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Charlotte: Yeah. Then we were in Saumur and Carl said, “We’ll keep Valegro and aim for Rotterdam.” That would mean back on form. I felt like everything was going to be alright. I think it’s a very emotional thing having Valegro, especially coming to shows. He has loads of people admiring him. Seeing him in the stables, they want their picture with him, they want to touch him. He tries his hardest. You know when he comes out of that arena he has never let you down. (Speaking of the Nations Cup Grand Prix at Rotterdam) The errors I made were probably more myself than him. Coming into the last centerline I thought, “This feels really good.” He stopped and I’m like, “What are you doing?” We’re done if it’s that good. Just stupid things like that. Not having competed on him for a while you forget those little things. He wasn’t naughty. I just stopped riding.

Carl: She doesn’t move her legs at the best of times because she’s lucky to have the only computer in the world that does her work. She got to X and I thought, “Move your bloody legs.” He came in and was doing a piaffe for a 10, I think, he did four steps and he stood still and she sat still. It drives me mad when she does that.

Charlotte: It was quite emotional coming here. When I first came into this arena to exercise and I saw that pole with Granddad tears coming down his face. We haven’t been back here since the Europeans. For us it’s great memories being here. It was really nice to come here and ride. It gives you a great feeling when you come here.

DN: Would you describe yourself as a tough person, emotionally, mentally? Or do you give the impression you are tough mentally and emotionally?

Charlotte: I am quite an emotional person but I probably don’t show it. I probably keep it in quite a lot, I bottle it up. But I’m very determined. If I set myself a goal I want to achieve that goal.

DN: That requires a lot of mental toughness, not to be distracted.

Carl: Absolutely, there isn’t anybody like you. Let’s say you’re a winner, emotionally you’re a wreck. That’s how I would describe it. So you actually can be two ends of the spectrum and still working together.

DN: Would you agree with that?

Charlotte: No. I wouldn’t say I’m an emotional wreck.

Carl: OK. A wreck is taking it too far. You’re just sinking, not a wreck.

Charlotte: I’m really lucky to have someone like Carl. When I start to worry about something, when I start to panic, when I say something to Granddad, he just blows it over like it’s nothing. That’s so great to have for me, for my confidence. He doesn’t panic so I’ve always got that support and I think that’s definitely helped make me the person I am today. We never scream. We do argue a wee bit. We have a good relationship, a good partnership. We work together and take on what each other says. It’s not constantly in my ear all the time. It’s enough that I know what’s right and what’s wrong. You learn to feel rather than rely on someone to keep telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, and to be so positive.

Carl: I think the advantage shows, even people that are based with trainers aren’t with them all the time. We are together all the time and have been based together for six years and we’re together nearly every week. That’s an incredible amount of information and feedback. I think you can really talk about detail because the detail is all of those little things that make sure you don’t get those low marks. We’re so used to seeing each other every day, the way the horse moves you know where the next problem is. I know what she’s not good at, what I’m not good at, all those things so that detail has finally come together. That’s what helps us.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro celebrating their Grand Prix Special world record at Hagen's Horses & Dreams meets Great Britain CDI4* in 2012. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro celebrating their Grand Prix Special world record at Hagen’s Horses & Dreams meets Great Britain CDI4* in 2012. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

DN: With you two it seems to work incredibly well, but isn’t there the fiip side that sometimes too much familiarity can get on each other’s nerves?

Carl: Yes, but your personal life has also got to be alright. We don’t live together. Charlotte’s got her own house–she used to live on the property but she’s moved out. She can’t cook so we don’t go around for dinner, that’s something we’re never going to do. I go to the gym, she doesn’t, so we’re not going to share any evenings there.

Charlotte: I’ll call him and ask,” Where are you?” And he’ll say he’s at the gym on the treadmill. But I can hear him having a glass of wine and dragging on his fag. He thnks I’m so stupid but I know him so well… seven years of being around him I know him inside out. It’s good. We are honest with each other and that also works. But although we train together we always ride one after the other at shows so sometimes we don’t have each other on the ground. It’s probably made me a stronger person. Before it used to freak me out that I wouldn’t have Carl there to help me. I would say, “My God, what am I going to do?” Now I feel a lot stronger as a person and a rider. I know he’s still there and he’ll look across and say something if I need it. Generally, I feel much more confident in myself just to be able to deal with that. I don’t think there are many riders like that. Every rider you look at has someone in their ear. I think I’ve warmed up routinely on my own because Granddad wasn’t able to be there to help me. If you’d asked me to do that two years ago I think I would have had heart failure, I would have died. I would have said, “I can’t do that.” Whereas now I’m more confident in what I do and how I deal with it.

DN: Where do you see yourself in the future. You two are a generation apart. You’ve had this incredible success at a young age, where do you see yourself after the Europeans?

Charlotte: I don’t ever really think about that. I’m definitely going to be with Granddad, probably for the rest of my life when he’s an old man and I’ve got to look after him. Someone’s got to keep an eye on him.

Carl: Making sure there’s more water than wine…

Charlotte: Wiping the dribble away from his mouth, pushing him around.

We’ve got lots of young horses up and coming. I’d hope another Valegro. I don’tthink there’ll be another Valegro but hopefully one day I can train another, have a few more up and coming Grand Prix horses. Who knows. I love that. I really, really, really enjoy having young horses and training them. I’d never want to buy a trained horse. That’s what’s so special is that partnership, that bond that I had with Fernandez and Valegro. When you train them from such a young age and get them to the top you have a partnership that nobody can break. You know that horse inside out. It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to have that with a horse. They become your best friends. As a rider you ride so many different horses and so many are so great at some things and not at others, so you’re always learning. You put those things on to different horses. I really enjoy that.

DN: Is there enough business that you can make a good living at what you do? Obviously, one of the problems with dressage is that there is never enough prize money.

Carl: No, there isn’t, you’re absolutely right. The business we want is that we get to a point where we each have a good lifestyle and not have to sell horses. It’s not a business for us to keep making horses and selling them. It’s just the way it has to be to get to this stage. It can be so heart-wrenching to have two great horses in your life at the same time. You feel if they came along in the next group we wouldn’t even be thinking of selling them. So hopefully, that will happen; we won’t have to do that, we’ll have horses that we can produce and keep if we can be in that financial situation. Meanwhile, we have to keep training, selling some. There’s always a market for well trained horses. Like Charlotte said, to become a horseman you need to train horses. There’s also an art in getting on a trained horse and learning to ride it. The biggest miss there is just that relationship of not growing up with the horse. There are always going to be people who are good at that, want to do that and hopefully we can produce enough well trained horses that people can do that.

Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro after leading Great Britain to victory in the 2013 Nations Cup at the same arena where she rode Valegro in their first championship two years earlier. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro after leading Great Britain to victory in the 2013 Nations Cup at the same arena where she rode Valegro in their first championship two years earlier. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“Yeah, I will have kids. After Rio I think I may want to have a baby”

DN:  You are a woman. Do you think about children?

Carl: She’s had her boyfriend sterilized. That’s the end of the interview.

Charlotte: Yeah, I will have kids. After Rio I think I may want to have a baby. I’ve always been like, “I don’t want a kid, I don’t want a kid.” But as I’m getting older I think I’m definitely getting more on that way of starting a family.

Carl: There’ll be women around the world saying, “That’s me, that’s me.”

Charlotte: Granddad’s going to have a baby around him all the time, Granddad will be the babysitter. He can’t wait. He loves babies.

Q: Do you?

Carl: No. I have five god children.