A Review of The Girl on the Dancing Horse

Photojournalist Nancy Jaffer shares her thoughts on Charlotte Dujardin’s memoir.
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After photographing and interviewing Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin at the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games, the 2015 FEI World Cup Final and various other competitions and occasions, I thought I knew a lot about the charming Olympic gold medalist and her fabulous mount, Valegro.

Valegro was thrilled to meet his fans up close and personal after Charlotte Dujardin invited them to greet him at New York City’s Central Park in 2016. 
(Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Valegro was thrilled to meet his fans up close and personal after Charlotte Dujardin invited them to greet him at New York City’s Central Park in 2016. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Turns out, there was a whole lot more to learn. My familiarity was with the public persona. I had met Dujardin on her way to the top of her game, and then after she was an Olympic gold medalist. But the backstory, as she tells it in her new autobiography, The Girl on the Dancing Horse, reveals as much about the struggle as it does the success and as much about Valegro as it does about the author. Dujardin wanted to write her own book. It was a wise decision since her bubbling style of conversation comes across to make this an easy read with abundant photos.

She minces no words about the fact that financially her mother, a former show jumper, and her father had some rough times. While the family moved often as their fortunes changed, Dujardin was always able to ride. With the unfailing assistance of her mother, she and her older sister competed very successfully with show ponies, giving Dujardin an opportunity to become proficient at “ringcraft,” as she calls it.

But as Dujardin tired of the show routine, she discovered dressage. In a delightfully quirky twist of fate, she decided to learn more about her new discipline via DVD. The one she chose to buy was done by British Olympian Carl Hester. She barely knew who he was at the time, but eventually Hester would become her mentor and put her on the path to international success.

Along the way, Dujardin worked extremely hard in a variety of jobs: clipping horses for a dealer, as a traveling groom and then mucking, grooming, turning out, tacking up and cleaning tack for Hester after taking a few lessons from him. It all came about when his “head girl” groom took off for a 10-day vacation. Dujardin was able to fill in as a working student—and never left.

She recounts in detail meeting Valegro at Hester’s and being impressed from the start, how she brought him along and the steps in his development that every dressage rider will appreciate. Nicknamed “Blueberry” (at one point all of Hester’s horses were named after fruits or vegetables), this Dutch-bred powerhouse is depicted in detail both as an equine athlete and a personality. Have you ever wondered what Valegro is really like? Now you’ll know.

You’ll also have the opportunity to ride each step of the Grand Prix, the special and the freestyle with Dujardin at the London Olympics. Even though we all remember how that turned out, I found myself holding my breath as she depicted every move that led to the podium. It was truly amazing for the British team to take the gold—at home, yet—and then for Dujardin to earn individual gold for a nation that previously had never won a medal in dressage.

And how incredible to do it in such an iconic city with the hopes of a nation resting on her shoulders. Hester had masterminded the moment, but it took Dujardin and her charismatic mount to make it happen. Afterward, it was all a blur of interviews, special honors and big moments, including meeting the Queen. The big reveal in the book, which has been well-publicized already, is how Dujardin “hit rock-bottom” post-Olympics, depressed, “crying buckets” and losing an unhealthy amount of weight.

The glare of the spotlight put on the pressure at the same time as her fiancé, Dean Golding, left after deciding things weren’t working if he saw more of her in the papers than in person. She also lived in fear that Valegro would be sold.

That was indeed a concern at one point, but from a conversation I had with Hester at the London Olympics, I got the idea that a sale might not go through. We talked about whether people would be reluctant to buy a world-famous horse because of what happened with Totilas, who never hit the same heights after he was sold for a record price and no longer ridden by Edward Gal, who had trained him.

Hester agreed that it probably would be tough to find someone to purchase Valegro after the way things went with Totilas. In the end, Anne Barrott chipped in as the third person in a syndicate with Hester and Roly Luard to make sure Valegro would never have to leave home. Dujardin wound up keeping the ride through another individual gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the horse’s retirement from competition.

It all turned out well with her fiancé, too. He had returned a few months after he left as they tried to work things out. Then he got his share of the spotlight in Rio when the camera caught him with a homemade sign on his shirt that said, “Can we get married now?” after Dujardin took the gold.

Although Valegro no longer competes, he still makes appearances, as he did at New York City’s Central Park Horse Show in September 2016. After her inspirational exhibition freestyle there, Dujardin was greeted by fans jammed into a small space outside the converted ice rink that serves as a ring. To give everyone a better look, she turned around and led Valegro back into the arena, inviting the fans to come with her. Scores of them took her up on the invitation. The response was overwhelming. They descended on Valegro, completely surrounding him.

“Many other horses would never have coped with a situation like that,” Dujardin recalled in a masterpiece of understatement, but Valegro knew how to be kind to his fans. I marveled that the swarm of people didn’t faze him at all. As Dujardin noted, he turned his head to the right and then to the left, so everyone had a chance to get a selfie with him. Jim Wolf, of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, stood behind Valegro so no one would get hurt if the horse happened to kick, but he didn’t put a foot wrong and enjoyed his adoring audience. I’ve never seen anything like it.

That December, Valegro made a special farewell appearance at Olympia, the big Christmas show in London. He performed to his music from the 2012 Games and the outpouring of adoration from his fans was memorable. “For him to finish at his best, in front of all the people who loved him, was all I could ever have wished for,” stated Dujardin as she concluded her book.

While Valegro’s competition days are through, Dujardin is still going. She has a new sensational ride in the mare Mount St. John Freestyle. Doubtless we can look forward to seeing Dujardin this September at the WEG for yet another chapter in her fantastic story.

the girl on the dancing horse cover

The Girl on the Dancing Horse, by Charlotte Dujardin, is published by Trafalgar Square Books and is available at EquineNetworkStore.com.  

This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Dressage Today

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