In her memoir, The Girl on the Dancing Horse, legendary British Olympic dressage competitor Charlotte Dujardin details the highs and lows of her illustrious riding career. She begins by sharing memories from her childhood spent aboard ponies and describes her path to reach the status of dressage superstar with the help of mentor and British Olympian Carl Hester and her celebrated mount Valegro. It is a surprisingly relatable story that she shares with humor, honesty and emotional detail. The following excerpted sections are a few highlights from the text, which is used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. The book is available through Equine Network Store. To learn more visit www.equinenetworkstore.com.
Charlotte Discovers Dressage
Debi Thomas had her own livery business at Wrotham Park, but she was still competing in dressage, and every time I’d see her she’d tell me I was wasted on show ponies and should be doing dressage instead. I usually ignored her because it wasn’t something that inspired me: Showing was what I was successful at and what all my friends did, so I didn’t see any reason to change.
But one day while I was on work experience, Debi suddenly decided she was going to put me on Truday, the horse she was training up to Grand Prix. I always leaped at the chance to ride anything new, although when Debi brought Truday out of her stable I did a double take. She seemed absolutely massive for one thing, at least 16.2, and although she had a really pretty face, she’d have been terrible for showing because she had a roach back, which meant that her bum was slightly higher than her withers. Show horses have to be absolutely perfect with not a lump or bump on them anywhere, so it was news to me that dressage horses could come in all shapes and sizes—fat, thin, long, short. Then I had another shock when I saw Truday’s saddle: Showing saddles are small and petite and neat, whereas dressage saddles are like big squares with deep seats and thick knee rolls. How was I meant to sit in that?
It felt completely different to everything I’d been used to, but we hacked down through the trees as usual and Debi got me to warm Truday up. Then, out of nowhere, she told me to do a flying change. Well, I had no idea what one of those was.
A flying change is when a horse skips from leading with one leg to the other while she’s cantering. But I couldn’t follow Debi’s explanation at all and just sat there, nodding away, totally lost. Even as she sent me off cantering around the arena I still had no clue what I was doing, but then I put my leg back behind the girth like I’d been told and to my complete surprise I felt Truday skip and start leading with her other leg. We did it a couple more times, then Debi told me to try some fours (changing legs every four strides) and after that a halfpass. By now I was so out of my comfort zone: All my ponies ever had to do was walk, trot, canter and go in a straight line, and suddenly here I was on a great big dressage horse doing tricks. The tempi changes I found quite hard because of the timing, but when I asked Truday for the half pass she didn’t hesitate—I was going sideways across the arena before I even knew it. It was amazing: All I could think was, Wow! This is so cool!
Crossing Paths with Carl Hester
After getting the feel of piaffe on Truday I knew what I was aiming for, so one day I thought to myself, I’m going to teach [my horse] Charlie McGee to do that. I found a big field while we were out hacking and started playing around, but it seemed like no matter what I did, it wasn’t happening: Charlie was a show horse and had no idea what I wanted him to do. I knew then that I somehow had to find a way of learning more, so the next time Mum and I were in RB Equestrian in Milton Keynes [a town in Buckinghamshire, England] I decided I’d get a DVD and try to teach myself. And that was how Carl Hester first entered my life, because it was his DVD that I ended up buying. At the time I barely knew the name Carl Hester and I certainly didn’t know how good he was. Carl had grown up on Sark, which famously has no cars, riding a donkey called Jacko. From those beginnings he’d gone on to compete for Britain at the 1990 World Championships and 1991 European Championships and he’d also been the youngest-ever British rider to compete at an Olympics when he rode at Barcelona in 1992. Carl himself had been trained by the legendary Dr. Bechtolsheimer in Germany, so if you were going to try to learn dressage from a DVD, you’d at least want it to be one of Carl’s.
I can remember now watching this DVD while lying on the floor of our lounge, completely mesmerized. When Carl explained how he was going to introduce suspension into his horse’s trot it looked so easy: “I pick up my reins, I half halt the front, I click with my voice and touch with my leg, and this is the reaction.” I can still hear him saying it. But of course Carl was a top international rider riding a top dressage horse, and poor Charlie was a Thoroughbred show pony, built completely differently. His natural movement was small and tense and tight through his shoulders, and when I first tried to get the elevation and suspension from him he didn’t move an inch. But I kept on persevering and when he did finally get it I was so proud of myself. Mum had thought I was just being a crazy child again when I told her what I was planning to do, but when she saw me and Charlie passaging away round the field, she absolutely loved it.
Valegro: Standing Out from The Rest
The first time I saw Valegro (or “Blueberry”) was at Addington in the summer of 2006. He was being ridden by Carl, who also owned him, and I can honestly say I was blown away. His canter was huge, absolutely huge, and even though it looked a bit out of control, he looked like he’d be so much fun to ride. One of the things that immediately jumped out about him was the way he was built: He was a complete and utter powerhouse. Nowadays you see a lot of Thoroughbred-type dressage horses with very elegant, long legs, but Valegro was much more of an old-fashioned, stocky stamp–a real-leg-in-each-corner type. He completely filled your eye, but he also had a pretty dished face like a seahorse’s, and even then he looked like he only wanted to please. I saw him again, a few months later, at the Nationals, where he won the Shearwater Four-Year-Old Championship. He left the same impression on me as last time: Here was a horse that stood out from all the rest.
Trading Top Hat for Helmet
Opening people’s eyes to the importance of rider fitness was something that I think I achieved, particularly after the London Olympics when I’d often be asked about it. But although I was taking my health and physical performance more seriously I didn’t give my safety a thought until it was almost too late.
I’d never ridden in a helmet at home and at shows I wore my top hat like everybody else. Then one day the horse I was schooling bucked me off and my head hit the boards at the side of the arena. When I woke up I couldn’t remember a thing: My mind was blank. I wasn’t aware of being in pain, but I was crying with panic because I couldn’t remember what had happened, why I was on the floor or even what day it was. I was rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Gloucester while Carl phoned Dean [my fiancé] with the news—a call Dean had always said he dreaded getting. My mum and sister drove up from home as fast as they could and sat with me, but the worst moment was when I felt blood beginning to trickle out of my ear. I truly believed I was having a brain hemorrhage and was about to die, although the blood turned out to be from a burst eardrum. However, an MRI showed that I had a small skull fracture, which meant I was strictly forbidden from riding for at least three weeks.
Unfortunately, I had my regionals coming up fast. I promised the doctors that I’d be sensible, but a few days later I was back riding again, trying to ignore the fact that I had such a headache and my skull felt like it was full of jelly. I started wearing a crash hat at home straight afterward, although I didn’t compete in one for the first time until 2012. Looking back now, when crash hats are the norm and it’s seeing people in top hats that looks weird, the uproar it caused seems unbelievable. Some people felt that I wasn’t respecting the traditions of the sport and I think some even thought it was a publicity stunt, but I saw it as just taking care of myself: It seemed pretty darn stupid to me to put image over looking after your head.
Taking Double Olympic Gold
I was pleased with the way Blueberry felt, and we’d practiced our ones, which was the thing I’d been most worried about. When I’d been designing the test Carl had told me to do the minimum, 11, because he knew I shouldn’t push my luck. I didn’t feel under any pressure now that I was just riding for myself and not the team, but as I was going in [Dutch rider] Adelinde Cornelissen’s score flashed up on the giant scoreboard: 88.196 percent. That made it a bit harder, knowing I had such a big score to beat, but as I was riding round the outside I kept reminding myself that all I could do was my best.
I entered, halted, then moved off straight into “The Great Escape” theme and my passage and piaffe. I hadn’t got quite far enough up the arena to be exactly on my music as I turned for the extended trot to the theme from the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die,” but it was only out by a fraction. Then it was the passage half pass one way into a trot half pass the other way, where I always had to be careful not to canter because the aid is so similar with my outside leg going back behind the girth. I was concentrating so hard, but even as I was out there in the middle of it all, my music made me feel so at home, so relaxed, so in the moment, that I was enjoying myself, too—I felt totally in the zone with Blueberry.
As I was approaching the halfway point, Judy Harvey, who was in the commentary box with Mike Tucker, was, I think, feeling the heat. “If ever there’s a time to ride for your life, it’s now, Charlotte,” she said to the viewers at home. Well, I was, Judy. In the collected walk to “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” encouraging Blueberry to get the relaxation was another challenge, but with that and my trot work out of the way, I now had to nail the canter. We had a tiny mistake in the zigzag where Blueberry made the change before me, but I wasn’t too worried about it because it barely showed and we got it right the next time. My goal had always been to give Blueberry a nice ride and try and keep him confident, but as we were going from “Land of Hope and Glory” and the extended canter into the final pirouettes to the chimes of Big Ben, I could feel him beginning to tire. He was still only 10, it was a sweltering afternoon and he’d never had to work as hard as he’d had to over the past 10 days. My one-times went without a hitch and at that point I was starting to feel really happy, but with Blueberry now flagging, I began to click to encourage him. And that was when it happened. As we went into the final piaffe ahead of the pirouette I clicked at him with my tongue to make the transition but he didn’t quite get it. I brought him back and clicked again and he cantered again. I completely and utterly blame myself because Blueberry is so sensitive that it was my clicking that had made him panic and shoot forward. Then I’d done it again and he’d got nervous again, so it absolutely wasn’t his fault. We finished the final pirouette, halted and at that point my emotions were mixed: I felt a little bit annoyed with myself because I’d made a mess of the end, but happy because I thought the rest of the test had gone well. I decided I’d done the best I could and Blueberry physically could not have done any more, but then I rode out and I saw Carl’s expression. He looked so disappointed. As he came over he said, “That just cost you the gold.”
I can honestly say when I rode into that arena I’d never even thought of winning gold. With Adelinde having such a massive score I’d thought getting any medal at all would be amazing, but the feeling that I’d let Carl down was just gutting. I was deflated.
The minute I rode out, Blueberry had to have his tack and bit checked. All the horses have to be checked over to make sure you haven’t used any prohibited equipment. Carl, Ian, Dickie and Alan were all there with me in the kiss-and-cry area at the back of the grandstands and I don’t think any of them could bear it as we waited for my score. Then the next thing I knew, a woman appeared over the top of one of the stands and was leaning down toward us. She was peering down because she was so high up, but what she was yelling was, “YOU’VE DONE IT! YOU’VE DONE IT!” I’d got 90.089 percent. And then the whole place erupted. The noise was so loud and so sudden, it caught me and Blueberry both by surprise and he shot forward. Then I burst into tears and fell down onto his neck: He didn’t know what we’d just done and I couldn’t tell him in words, but I could hug him and try to show him how grateful I was.
People had asked me in the run-up to London if I’d cry if I got gold and I’d always said, no, why would I? I’d be happy. But in the past few minutes I’d gone from never imagining it was possible to thinking I’d completely blown it, and now I was an absolute emotional wreck. I still can’t watch that test back because it makes me cry every time, reliving those roller-coaster feelings. But I’d done it, I’d got it and I’d set a new Olympic record.
I got off and buried my face in Ian’s neck, sobbing. Adrenaline had really kicked in now and I was shaking so badly that people kept asking me if I was all right. I was fine but completely overwhelmed—I’d won two Olympic gold medals. And that uproar . . . when you hear it, that’s a sound you will never, ever forget. The cheering and stamping and clapping were so loud you’d have thought the house was about to come down.
Fighting an Inner Voice
Sport psychology had been a huge help at the start of my career, and the first time that [sport psychologist] Kate Goodger and I sat down together, she had me to a tee within seconds. I’m not easily impressed by people, but Kate worked me out so quickly it nearly reduced me to tears. What she realized was that it wasn’t the pressure of performing that I needed help with: My “same old stuff, just a different arena” attitude quite impressed her. It was the way the media fed into my own doubts that was the problem and how I struggled with the inner voice I’d always had that told me I couldn’t do things. Kate works via the Chimp Management system. The idea of Chimp Management started with British psychiatrist Dr. Steven Peters, who began helping the British cycling team in 2001. In 2012 he wrote a book, The Chimp Paradox, explaining that your brain is divided into three parts. There’s a human part which is rational, a chimp part which is irrational and driven by emotions, and a computer part which handles memory. There are also gremlins, which are the negative beliefs that get in the way of what you want to do.
After I started seeing Kate, she’d come to my house and I’d sit at the kitchen table with her, ranting and raving. Then suddenly she’d say, “Charlotte, who’s talking? Is it your human? Or is it your chimp?” and it would stop me dead in my tracks.
I know I may not come across as an emotional person: I’m quite tough, as you have to be to work in my sport and the equine industry as a whole. I’m blunt and I can be outspoken, but if I don’t stand up for myself, nobody else is going to do it for me. People don’t always understand the time and effort that go into training horses, and almost all riders have had the experience of rides being taken away from them. It had happened to me so much as a kid that after nearly losing Blueberry in 2012 I’d decided my days of getting on anything were over. I didn’t want to be in the same situation of powerlessness again and now I only train and compete horses I have at least a 50 percent share in. But there’s another side of me that’s quite vulnerable. I take things to heart, I get hurt and then I start to doubt myself. My chimp, the part of me that tells me I’m not going to be able to do things, I decided to call “Betty.” Kate helped me realize that when I got stuck in a negative rut it was often Betty who was behind it and this was the first step in being able to take charge of my fears and self-doubt.
The Last Olympic Ride
On the Monday morning [before we competed in the Rio Olympics], I went up to the stables to give Blueberry a pat and to take him out for a walk and some grass. Alan brought Barney [Carl’s horse Nip Tuck]. We were hand-grazing them and talking, and I said to Alan, “If it all goes to plan and I win gold, I’m going to retire him after this.”
It was once I’d said it that the emotions started. Anders Dahl, Fiona Bigwood’s husband, was riding for the Danish team, and in the stable yard he came over to me, touched my shoulder and gave me a few words of support. Well, I literally had to bite my lip. The tears started rolling down my face and all I wanted to do was shut myself away. Everybody was wishing me luck, which was amazing, but I was an emotional wreck. I wanted so badly for it to go right. I took a little chair and went and put it in Blueberry’s stable in the corner and just sat with him, crying. I didn’t want anyone to speak to me, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I just wanted to be with him. Carl and I had worked out how we’d prepare: I’d do most of my warm-up in the air-conditioned indoor school while he was riding his test and then we’d do the last minutes together in the 10-minute box to get Blueberry used to the heat. Team Great Britain had an air-conditioned cabin on-site equipped with physiotherapy beds, a kitchenette and beanbags, and after I’d had my physio, I decided I’d stay there for a bit with Ian. We chatted about my music and my floor plan, but I must have been exhausted because I fell asleep. Ian, bless him, stayed with me the whole time, and when I woke up we put our music on and had our boogie, psyching ourselves up.
Then I walked out and the heat was like a smack in the face. It was over 30 degrees Celsius, no shade anywhere and knowing how Blueberry was in the heat I instantly started to worry. But I had to deal with it—I couldn’t change it, it was what it was and I just had to do my best. Ian watched me as we started warming up, and as soon as Carl had finished, he jumped off Barney and came to help. With 10 minutes to go, we went outside to do the final prep, and it was then that it hit me. I could see down from the warm-up arena to where [German rider Kristina Bröring-Sprehe] and Desperados were doing their freestyle and hear their music playing. The nerves I experienced then were like nothing I’d ever felt before. Usually the bigger the competition, the more I want to get out there: Bring it on. This time my heart was pounding through my jacket and my legs were like jelly. “I can’t feel my legs,” I said to Carl. “I’m so nervous, I can’t feel my legs.”
“You’ve got nothing to prove,” he said. “You’re going out there for yourself. Just go and enjoy it.” Even that was enough to make me want to cry. I had tears in my eyes when I walked Blueberry in the 10-minute box because I felt so nervous and worried and emotional.
Kristina’s 87.142 percent was enough to put her in first place. She was coming out, but I still felt I needed more time. There was a slope down to the main arena and as we all walked down it, Carl gave me a pat on the leg and Dickie Waygood looked at me and said, “Remember, it’s the same shit, just another arena.” That’s usually my philosophy, too, but this time it felt completely different. Then Robbie Sanderson, who was a friend of Alan’s and grooming for the German team, said, “Go for it, girl.” And just like that the message got through.
I picked myself up, held my head high and as we came trotting round the outside of the arena it actually felt like Blueberry had taken hold of my hand. It was the most unbelievable feeling: like he was reassuring me and saying, “We can do it.” From start to finish, he was perfect for me: It was the best feeling in the world. I was trying not to get emotional, but by the end tears were rolling down my face. It was one of the best rides of my life.
As soon as we finished I had my tack check then I was called for a doping test. Only after that could I get back to Blueberry to cool him down in the indoor school. I walked him back with Alan, who was now also crying. Ian was jumping for joy, then Carl arrived, saw me and burst into tears. I think he’d been trying to be strong for me before my test, but I could tell he’d been worried: He knew how much I wanted it for that final ride.
I jumped off Blueberry and we were all crying and hugging each other: We’d been through so much together, put in so many hours and gone through thick and thin. Someone filmed Carl and me and put it on the Internet, and watching it still makes me emotional now. Moments like that you just can’t describe. My 93.857 percent had put me in first and I’d scored an artistic mark of 99 percent, but Isabell Werth was the last to go. Then she scored 89.07 percent and that was it: the ultimate dream, everything I’d ever wanted. To finish by delivering in that way—it was perfect. A perfect day and a perfect way for the fairy tale to end.