Carl Hester–Coach of Entire British Olympic Dressage Team, Rider, 3 Horses Through His Program–Does He Muck Stalls, Too?
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
HARTPURY, England, July 12, 2016–When Carl Hester goes to his fifth Olympics it will be unprecedented in a century of equestrian sports at the Games as he is the coach of his three team mates and three of the four horses came from his barn.
But instead of feeling the burden of expectations, he’s looking forward to Rio de Janeiro as a break from the demands of an over-full schedule of taking care of students at a regular show. In Rio, he’ll be dealing with just the four team combinations, enough to keep him busy and to prevent him becoming obsessed with his own performance on Nip Tuck.
The entire British team of Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro, Spencer Wilton on Super Nova II, Fiona Bigwood on Orthilia as well as Carl and Nip Tuck competed at the Hartpury Festival of Dressage, a CDI3* staged at the sports and agriculture-centered college in the English countryside near Carl’s Gloucestershire home.
The team doesn’t have an official coach as such–Carl is the individual coach of the combinations.
“I think the Olympics will be the easiest place for me to get stuck in,” Carl told dressage-news.com after the show that was a send-off for the team defending the gold medal Britain won at home in London in 2012, the first award of any color for British dressage in 100 years of Olympic equestrian sport.
“The pressure I find is actually here or at a show like this. This is my local show so I’ve got a lot of other students here who equally feel they need my time. I’m trying to gently explain this is my last ride and I’d like to have a bit of time for myself but that goes in one ear and out the other and… ‘well I’m riding at three will you be there?’ I’m like, ‘er, yes I suppose I will’.
“The Olympics will be the perfect place for me to sit down. We’ve got plenty of time, we’ve just to do four horses a day. I think that’s going to be the least amount of pressure there.
“Actually, it’s a relief almost. I can give them the time they want and it will give me something to think about instead of my performance.”
Carl describes his unique situation as just having “evolved.”
Charlotte and the KWPN gelding Valegro with so much success over the past four years are recognizable the world over. Valegro is part owned by Carl who also oversees the training of the pair, the defending team and individual gold medalist. The duo last week returned to the show arena for the first time in almost a year with a Grand Prix that showed a Valegro fresh spirited and looking much younger than his 14 years. The music for a new Freestyle specially created by Tom Hunt responsible for the stirring British-themed 2012 ride was delivered just hours before the performance. Charlotte’s love of the music and her ability had to overcome a sound system of such poor quality as to not do the performance or the composition justice.
Spencer Wilton rode with Carl for 13 years before buying Super Nova, 13-year-old British-bred Hanoverian gelding that the rider now 43 years old owns with Jen Goodman. Spencer’s previous team experience for Great Britain was on a couple of Nations Cups last year.
Carl calls Spencer a “great rider” who has done “a great job” bringing out the best of Super Nova that “has the talent to be one of the top five horses.”
“That’s another one that people say, ‘that’s one you should have kept’,” he said. “But you’ve got to spread these horses about.”
Fiona Bigwood, 40 years old and the mother of three young children, has a great deal of experience, as a Junior and Young Rider in the European Championships more than two decades ago and five senior European Championships including the silver medal team last year with Orthilia, the 11-year-old Oldenburg mare she will take to Rio. She was also on the British team that made a breakthrough by taking silver at the 2010 World Games in Kentucky
Fiona is married to the Danish team rider Anders Dahl, himself a prospect for his nation’s Olympic squad with the American-bred Selten HW. Fiona has been making the four-hour drive with Orthilia to Carl’s farm for coaching.
At 49 years of age, Carl is philosophical that so many people think he arrived on the scene seven years ago as a member of the British team that won team silver at the European Championships at home in Windsor, England in 2009 to begin a record of being on the medals podiums for all championships, plus the 2012 Olympics, since then.
His first Olympics was 1992 in Barcelona, 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens then 2012 where Britain struck gold in London. His first World Games was even earlier, the inaugural version in 1990 followed by his first Europeans a year later.
“I have actually been doing this for quite a while,” he laughed in reply to a question about what he thinks his legacy will be, “Everyone forgets that. I didn’t arrive six years ago. I was looking at pictures yesterday and there’s a great one of me at 15 bareback . It doesn’t feel very long ago but it was actually 35 years ago. That’s where I remember thinking about wanting to be a competition rider.
“It’s not such a big surprise to me that we’ve had success because I did chip away at it for over 20 years to try to find my way and find a way of training, finding the right horses, of course, and being able to put together a team of people rather than it just being me.
“I could see over the years that there was always one great one but not a great team and that’s how we’ve evolved. I hope that’s how my contribution will be, that I’ve helped other people train horses and be good competition riders. That’s what my passion is. I think that’s more of an impact really so that is more of a legacy.”
Expectations this time around will be different than they were in 2012 when Valegro and Uthopia were both to be put up for sale after the Games and Carl, who had found the horses, trained them and pwned with others, hoped to make enough to pay off his mortgage, or as he puts it, “come out alive.”
“It never happens.”
Not only did it not happen, Uthopia became embroiled in a bankruptcy wrangle that only recently, four years on from the Olympics, was resolved when an anonymous buyer put up the money to insure Uthopia stays in Carl’s care for the rest of the stallion’s life.
“It just made me realize that nothing’s for sure, is it?.” he said. “In actual fact, I still think that my happiness that has come from being successful with the horses is the most important thing… and the fact that they’re still here, they have changed my life in other ways.
“Yeah, it didn’t pay off my mortgage but they changed my life in so many other ways and it’s still been worth it. I’m happy that we got to that decision. It was kind of made for me, and sharing in the fight we put up to make sure that Uthopia stayed with me which is fantastic that he’s doing that.
“And Valegro, I couldn’t imagine his future anywhere else.”
His thinking about the Olympics this time around is different, too.
“Last time it was about what will happen after the Olympics. This time it’s life will continue after the Olympics as normal, chipping away at all the things you do. I will be coming out of it as if it was just another show.and I’m going on to another show.”
Although he sometimes thinks out loud about changes in his life, he says he doesn’t want to be “one of those people who reires every 15 miniutes. People will say he’s cried wolf so many times so they won’t care when I do retire. I would like people to care.”
He admits to thinking about competing less. And though “the whole Grand Prix circuit doesn’t excite me” he see young horses that both he and Charlotte own and compete that does excite him to the point of “thinking we’re producing another one, let’s get on with it.”