Story by Kim MacMillan
Photos by Kim and Allen MacMillan/MacMillan Photography
British dressage superstar Charlotte Dujardin’s secret to life is having fun. She works extremely hard and is dedicated to her craft, but she also loves her job and it shows. She’s the only dressage rider in history to hold Olympic Champion, World Champion, World Cup Champion and European Champion titles at the same time. She also possesses all three world record scores at Grand Prix level and rocketed to the top of the FEI World Dressage Rankings in September 2012 — just a year and eight months after her first Grand Prix win.
At the Reem Acra World Cup Finals in Las Vegas earlier this year, Charlotte talked about handling the pressure of being at the top, “It’s part of being a competitor and an athlete. Every time, I go out there to enjoy it and to have fun. I don’t think of the pressure because then I wouldn’t enjoy it. I’d get nervous and worry about it. So I just go in there to do my best and that’s all that I can do.”
In an interview with Eurodressage.com, Charlotte was quick to credit her mentor, friend and boss, British Olympic rider Carl Hester, for much of her success. “Carl has given me so many opportunities. Within the first week he put me on a Grand Prix horse — how amazing was that! He gives me confidence and never puts me down or puts pressure on me. He’s never in a bad mood or so serious that it takes the enjoyment away. You can’t help but enjoy every day.”
Her affection for Valegro, her equally famous equine partner in all of her championship wins, is evident, “I’ve been riding Valegro since he was 4 years old. I have a great partnership with him. We’ve learned everything together, inside out — from start to finish. He’s a very special horse.”
Charlotte’s Journey with Blueberry
Charlotte’s mother, Jane, met Carl in early 2007 and asked if he’d give Charlotte some lessons. Three riding lessons turned into a temporary employment offer for Charlotte to watch Carl’s barn for 10 days; she took the job and never left. The opportunity opened many doors for Charlotte, not the least of which was the chance to ride Valegro, whose barn name is Blueberry.
Carl had shown Valegro a few times when he was 4, but when Charlotte took over the ride in 2007, they really clicked. Blueberry, now 13, was a handful as a youngster according to Charlotte, “Valegro was very, very hot as a young horse. I started riding him and I never let Carl have him back. He was never naughty, just hot — he had all this power and he didn’t know what to do with it. He’s so easy to ride now; when you sit on a horse like that, it’s amazing.”
Charlotte smiled as she explained how Valegro was dubbed Blueberry. “He got his name because Carl decided to name a number of horses for fruits and vegetables. So we had a Radish, a Cucumber, a Tomato, a Raspberry… and he just happened to be Blueberry, which actually really suits him.”
The pair won their first national Grand Prix class together at Addington in January 2011, scoring 74 plus. They followed up their successful debut with four wins (two at Grand Prix and two in Grand Prix Special — all over 70 percent) in their first international competition in Vidauban, France, in summer 2011. By January 2012, they crossed “the pond” for a go at North American competition at the World Dressage Masters in West Palm Beach, Florida, where they finished a close second to Steffen Peters and his Olympic and World Cup partner, Ravel.
By mid-summer 2012, they’d been named to the British Olympic Equestrian Team and won team and individual Olympic gold in London before Queen and country. The roar of the adoring home crowd in the stands in Greenwich was absolutely deafening — suddenly they were the darlings of the United Kingdom and the world. They even had their own British postage stamp.
Rumors of Selling Blueberry
For nearly a year following the Olympics, Valegro (2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding by Negro, out of Maifluer by Gerschwin, bred by J. L. Hanse in the Netherlands), seemed destined to be sold for a huge sum. Rumors were everywhere from respected print media to Internet bulletin boards that he’d already been sold or was about to be sold for millions. It was a traumatic time for Charlotte, who told the London Evening Standard that the idea of Blueberry’s sale was “heart wrenching.” He was owned at the time by Carl Hester and Rowena (Roly) Luard who could’ve paid many bills with the projected proceeds. In the end, Carl and Roly decided to look for investors in a syndicate rather than part with him so Charlotte and Blueberry’s partnership continued. In 2014, Anne Barrott was added as one of Valegro’s named owners.
The year-long possibility of Valegro’s sale, coupled with the stress of seemingly endless post-Olympic public appearances and interviews as well as a break-up with her fiancé, Dean Golding, was a low point for Charlotte. Happily, things bounced back when she reunited with Dean. The dressage “wonder team” continued where they’d left off in mid-2013 garnering significant wins at Rotterdam in June and Hickstead in August.
Later in August at the 2013 European Dressage Championships in Herning, Denmark, they were once again on top scoring an 85.699 percent in the Special. Despite an error on course at the championships, this topped their 2012 Olympic score. It was vindication of their talents and a relief for Charlotte after the turmoil of the previous 12 months. “He’s my best friend and I never expected to be able to ride him in a championship again, so this is huge for me,” she said in an interview following the competition.
At the London International Horse Show at Olympia in December 2013, they earned a record-breaking score of 93.975 percent in the freestyle. They rode for the final time to their Olympic freestyle music featuring songs from the movie The Great Escape and the James Bond film, Live and Let Die; ending with the bell of Big Ben tolling. After winning the freestyle high score at Olympia, they held the world record in all three Grand Prix events. Charlotte spoke about what the win at Olympia meant to her after the show. “I can’t believe it. I’m over the moon and just ecstatic. I really wanted to come here and see if I could break the record to this music and at Olympia. It’s been such an incredible journey with Valegro. I’ve achieved so much more than I ever imagined.”
Early in 2014, they won the Reem Acra World Cup Finals in Lyon, France. Looking ahead, the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy beckoned in late summer. But first the road to Normandy ran through Aachen, Germany, in July and a showdown with the reigning World Champion horse, the Dutch Warmblood stallion Totilas, who had won Alltech World Equestrian Games gold with Edward Gal in Kentucky in 2010.
Paired now with German rider Matthias Rath for Aachen, Totilas won both the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix Special leaving Charlotte and Valegro to settle for a disappointing sixth place in the Grand Prix and second in the Special. After a winning streak of two years, uncharacteristic mistakes in their canter work dropped Charlotte and Valegro down the leader board in the Grand Prix. However they rallied by the end of the show to win the freestyle. Charlotte listed Aachen as her most difficult time so far with Valegro. “I didn’t get off to a good start,” she said. “I’ve never had that many mistakes in the Grand Prix with Valegro. But, that’s life; everyone makes mistakes. I’m not perfect and neither is Valegro.”
It all turned out to be a brief hiccup in their journey to the World Equestrian Games in Normandy where they easily won individual gold to be named the World Champions. After a brief rest, Charlotte and the Blueberry were back in front of home fans at the London Olympia CDI-W show again in December 2014 where they broke their old world freestyle record, winning with a whopping 94.300 percent. That record still stands as of mid-2015.
Another major win in the CDI-W at Amsterdam in January 2015 prepared them for their second World Cup title win in Las Vegas this spring. Billboards all over Las Vegas were decorated with huge photos of Charlotte and Valegro hailing their return to U.S. soil, and they didn’t disappoint. At the packed press conference following their World Cup win, fashion designer Reem Acra, who sponsored the event, offered to design Charlotte’s wedding dress when the time comes.
“I’ve got loads of cherished memories with Valegro,” said Charlotte. “I think London 2012 was the best probably, because it was my ultimate dream. There’s nothing more incredible than being on your home ground winning the Olympics and having all those thousands of people behind us.”
She summed up the joy of life with Blueberry, “Every day I’m with him, he makes me laugh. He has a real sense of humor.”
Born in the London suburb of Enfield, England, and raised in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, Charlotte started riding at the very early age of 2. By age 3, Charlotte earned her first ribbon, for second place, in a Pony Club jumping competition. She and her older sister, Emma-Jayne, rode ponies that their mom, Jane, picked up for training and resale to finance the family hobby.
Jumping ponies in the show ring endowed her with show ring savvy and confidence. She and her mom’s ponies took home four championships from the Horse of the Year Show and three from the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead. She admitted in a 2011 interview with Eurodressage.com that she was also very competitive, “I always wanted to beat my sister — I hated not winning,” she said.
At age 13, Charlotte got her first taste of dressage when her trainer, Debbie Thomas, allowed young Charlotte to ride her Grand Prix horse, Truday. “I remember doing flying changes and thinking ‘This is amazing!’” she explained. Shortly after trying dressage, she decided that she wanted to switch from jumper ponies to dressage full time.
After finishing school at Vandyke Upper School at age 16, Charlotte’s dressage skills were developing quickly. She was encouraged by her trainer at the time, Ian Cast, to take lessons with Grand Prix rider Judy Harvey. Under Judy’s tutelage she competed in Young Rider competitions and was named Reserve Rider for her area team in 2006. She rode with Judy until going to Carl Hester’s barn in 2007. She still lists Judy as a significant influence in her life along with Carl.
About the same time, her mother Jane purchased a 3-year-old Westfalen gelding named Fernandez (Florestan — Weinburg) with inheritance from her late mother’s estate for Charlotte to train. Charlotte, with some help from Carl, developed and competed “Dez” through Grand Prix. Dez was sold to a rider in Norway in 2011 and Valegro became Charlotte’s primary horse. Charlotte expressed her gratitude to her mother for the valuable gift in a post-Olympic interview for the valuable gift. “My parents don’t have a lot of money and it was only through my mum’s mum dying that we managed to buy Fernandez at a sale,” she said. “He taught me so much and I have to say, I owe my mum an awful lot.”
Among the first FEI dressage riders to wear a helmet full time, Charlotte is extra careful after being injured in 2009. “I actually fractured my skull through not wearing a hat,” she said. “I was so lucky to escape from that and now it’s something I always do. I feel unsafe without my hat on. People say you don’t always need it but for me, especially in this kind of atmosphere, you never know what can happen.”
Family, Friends and Fun
Charlotte, who describes herself as fun, a fighter and strong-willed, turned 30 in mid-July of this year. She’s close to her family; her parents, Jane and Ian; her sister, Emma-Jayne; and younger brother, Charles, were all in attendance to cheer her on at the London Games in 2012. “I’m the middle child,” she said. “My mum used to ride when she was younger. She gave up riding herself and supported us [Charlotte and her siblings]. My brother — I used to make him ride — but he’d just jump off. He used to be like Batman; he’d just start flying. There was not a chance that he wanted to ride.”
Charlotte really enjoys spending time socializing with friends, some from equestrian sports and some from outside her life as a rider. “I try and do a real girls’ day out at least every other week and I’ll meet up with [friends] for coffee every week. I like having friends outside of the horsey world. I’m just ordinary to them. I try to get one day off a week, but that’s not always possible,” she said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in November 2014.
Her fiancé, Dean, is from South Africa. He used to compete as a long distance runner and currently works building equestrian facilities. Carl introduced her to Dean in 2006 and Dean proposed two years later. Charlotte said most of the time, Dean is the one who cooks in their household and lists his salmon marinated in orange and sweet chili sauce served with sweet potato and asparagus as one of her favorite meals.
They’ve found ways to cope with Charlotte’s time away from home. “It’s tough on relationships,” she said. “But Dean and I Skype a lot and he’s so supportive. He’s very laid-back and chilled out, doesn’t get stressed and takes life as it comes. I’m the kind who frets if something goes wrong, panics, needs to be organized, can’t wing anything and must plan. So he calms me and I give him motivation,” she said in the November interview.
She and Dean share their home in Newent, Gloucestershire, with three dogs: Winnie, a Boxer; Hugo, a Patterdale Terrier-Toy Poodle cross and their new puppy, Jingles. “Jingles is a rescue. He’s a Golden Retriever. I got him from the RSPCA at Christmas time last year. Now I’m thinking why did I rescue him because he’s destroyed everything in my house. It’s quite funny because my mum has him whilst I’m here [in Las Vegas] and each day I get a picture of what he’s destroyed. So, now she’s living through what I’ve lived through with him,” she laughed.
Besides riding, Charlotte also loves several other activities and sports. “I do a lot of cycling,” she said. “We’ve got loads of good walking areas, so I do quite a lot of that. I like to go out to the cinema. I like to go shopping — I’m a real shopaholic.”
OBE and Other Honors
Charlotte has won many awards over the years since she started riding Valegro. She was named the 2014 Sunday Times and Sky Sports Sportswoman of the Year, the 2014 BT Sport Action Woman of the Year and the 2013 Fédération Equestre Internationale Athlete of the Year to name just a few. She has been to Buckingham Palace three times so far: first for an Olympic athletes’ reception in 2012, then when she was awarded the coveted Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her service to equestrianism in 2013 and, finally, she received an invitation to have lunch with the Queen in May 2014.
“I went to Buckingham Palace to receive the [OBE] badge,” said Charlotte. “It’s an amazing badge and a huge honor to go to Buckingham Palace. When I went the Queen was sick, so I got to meet Princess Anne, which for me was great, because Carl trains Zara Phillips (Princess Anne’s daughter) at home. So I wasn’t so nervous.
“But, I have had lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace,” continued Charlotte. “There were only 10 of us invited. I couldn’t think why I was invited, but I knew there would be a lot of cutlery. Obviously the Queen is very horsey herself, but she knew everything I’d done. She was lovely and Prince Philip was so funny. It was such a privilege — the best thing I’ve ever done in the whole world. It was incredible!”
Charlotte keeps her Olympic and other medals in a safe at the bank. “I’d worry that if they ever got stolen, they are not replaceable. All of my trophies and all of my pictures are at home. Every competition I go to I get a picture. But, I’m running out of space on my wall. My house is a shrine of Blueberry. It’s like people come in and they say, ‘Oh is there anything else?’ But, it’s a huge achievement — everything that I do — so I like to have it up on my wall.”
Looking to the Future
Besides a wedding on the horizon, Charlotte is aiming Valegro towards the 2016 Rio Olympics. At home in Carl’s yard, she usually rides eight horses a day and also travels to a few other farms to ride young horses when her schedule permits. She listed some of her other horses in training, “I have a horse called Borolo; he’ll be my next Grand Prix horse. I also, obviously, still have Utopia, so I’ll compete him a bit this year. And, I have quite a few young horses at home that I’m training and getting out, so I’m very excited.”
While she and Carl, whom she jokingly calls “Granddad,” are still student and coach, she has seen the relationship become more than that over the years. “We help each other; I think we’re a real team now,” said Charlotte.
She’s teaching and coaching as well. Among her students are eventing greats Mark Todd of New Zealand and Sam Griffiths of Australia. While in North America for the World Cup, she taught a three-day clinic in British Columbia, Canada — her first in that country.
Early this year, Charlotte also joined a charitable campaign as a global ambassador for The Brooke, an equine welfare organization that operates in 11 countries around the world. “The Brooke is an incredible charity that’s dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys and mules in some of the poorest communities. I’m very proud to be associated with a cause that’s committed to making a real difference in the lives of animals that are less fortunate than those we have here in the UK,” said Charlotte on social media.
No matter what the future holds, a betting man would put smart money on Charlotte not being finished with re-writing equestrian history just yet.
About the Writer: A graduate of Purdue University with degrees in Agriculture Journalism and Animal Science, Kim MacMillan has been writing about horses and equestrian competition, science, agriculture, history and travel for over 30 years. Also an accomplished photographer, she and her husband Allen own MacMillan Photography & Media Services. They live on an 84-acre farm in Northeastern Indiana where they raise Warmblood horses and sport ponies.