One-On-One with Carl Hester

The British Olympian speaks candidly about life as a dressage star and working with rising students and horses.

I’m making sandwiches with Olympic gold medalist Carl Hester. “You have to try this butter. It’s amazing,” he says, handing me the bright yellow delicacy only available from his homeland, the Channel Island of Sark. “Or as it’s often referred to, 600 alcoholics clinging to a rock,” Carl offers. I’ve known the British Olympian for approximately 10 minutes and straight away I can tell this is going to be a cool interview.

Credit: Photos by Arnd Bronkhorst – Making history: Great Britain wins their first team gold in dressage at the 2012 Olympic Games in their own London, England. Charlotte Dujardin (left), Hester (center) and Laura Bechtolsheimer (right) celebrate on the podium.

Have you recovered from the Olympic Games?

Carl Hester:I must say, whatever a nervous breakdown felt like, I was having one. It was just horrific. I was just shattered, shocked, worried, so much resting on our shoulders. Thank God [teammate and partner Charlotte Dujardin] was really good through it. She stayed pretty upright through the whole thing. And I couldn’t let her know what I was feeling.

I had a bad preparation for the [Olympic] Games. I hadn’t had the time to put into Uthopia. He was too fat, and then he pulled a shoe just before [2012 CDI] Hagen and went lame. Then I had to deal with everyone saying, “He’s lame! He’s lame! He’s done a tendon!” You get all of this added pressure because people assume that you’re just covering up. But I wasn’t, it was the truth.

I just got into this awful mindset: Is my horse going to go lame? Is Charlotte’s horse going to go lame? Is [teammate] Laura [Bechtolsheimer]’s horse going to go lame? Every day I was just panicking. Anything that could go wrong was always flashing through my head because I realized how important it was for our country, let alone myself or Charlotte or Laura. And I just couldn’t bear to think that this one opportunity in our life would escape.

No, I can’t say it was an enjoyable time. Obviously, looking back now, it was amazing. I enjoy it now, but not then.

Do you find that sports psychology helps? 

CH:I don’t do sports psychology, no. I have done it in the past, but it doesn’t work for me. I’m much better left alone just to fester away. I just tuck myself away; I smoke and drink for a night, feel shocking the next day, and off I go. I left home at 15. I like that sort of independent brain thing of “I’ll sort it out.”

Are things good between you and Charlotte Dujardin?

CH:Understandably after the games we had a bit of a difficult time with our relationship—where it was going to go and how it was going to work. There was a period of adjustment. It couldn’t have gotten bigger than winning a gold in our country. The media for us (even dressage riders, which is just hilarious) was massive and continuous from August until January. So we really didn’t spend a lot of time together during that period because we were all over the place.

It’s just not been easy, but I think we’ve found a really good solution. We’re back to laughing again. We only school four mornings a week. But those times we’re together now are brilliant. 

With a student “on the same level” who he could compete with, Hester (left) admits Charlotte Dujardin (right) brought back some of the drive he felt he had lost.

There’s been a lot of talk since the Olympic Games in London that dressage has changed with you Brits taking the gold; that the training methods and judging are changing. Do you agree?

CH: Yeah … interesting. I think it has. I think it has definitely helped get away from forms of riding that people don’t like to watch. Charlotte, Laura and myself are very straightforward dressage riders with a system that involves just getting the horse balanced and on the bit. It’s still not perfect, but I don’t think anyone will ever be perfect. 

People want to do what the winners do. I mean let’s face it: If you know you’re going to be a winner and be successful, you’re going to be a role model. There are going to be people who will never change their ways, but there’s going to be a bigger majority who want to know what you do, why you do it and would it work for them.

Were you happy with the British performance at the Europeans last year?

CH:I was really happy. At Hickstead, it looked like Valegro and Uthopia were coming back into form. Laura’s horse looked great there in the demo but obviously wasn’t right somewhere along the line. It looked like another gold medal-winning team again. However, there we go, we lost Laura. I said to Gareth [Hughes, who took Laura’s spot], who’s my pupil, “Hang in there, don’t give up.” His horse went great at Hickstead. We had 72 percent, so a good fourth member if something happened. He got the call up two days before we were due to travel, but he coped well; he’s got that Aussie side to him and he was up for it!

Then suddenly we had to be a bit realistic. When we got there, Denmark looked really strong, and there was a chance that they could win the bronze. We all sat down, and I said if everyone rides to his or her best, we could be a bronze medal-winning team. But we have to beat Denmark. This was going to be a fight, not a walkover. 

When you think we were all within 1 percent of the gold with Laura missing, it would have been a walkover with Laura. But that’s how dynamics within teams work. 

So Gareth Hughes’ ride didn’t go so well?

CH: Poor Gareth. The horse walked in great, saw the big screen on the way down to the arena and literally with three minutes to go just freaked out and never relaxed. As I said to him, there’s two ways of looking at it. We would have won the bronze anyway, relying on Michael, so better to have 60 percent and a right royal [mess] up than get 66 percent and think everything had gone great and have no hope for the future. He was cool. 

It was a brilliant experience. We got on really well, the four of us, so it was nice. And you know, I’ve never won a bronze medal, and as I said in the press conference, these two guys—their first time on a team—should be thrilled they got any medal. And Charlotte won the Grand Prix anyway. So yippee do, it was happy all round. I thought the Europeans were a big success from the point of view that we had two new riders on the team, and they’re our future, aren’t they? 

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Charlotte and Valegro before the Europeans though, correct?

CH:Before the Europeans it was “Damon Hill, Damon Hill, Damon Hill” [ridden by Helen Langehanenberg]. Charlotte had to match [Helen], and she was still running on her Olympic success a little bit when she was at Hickstead. There were mistakes and I was like, “You’ve got to pull yourself together now. Olympics are done. You’re just thinking that he’s going to do it, and you’re not riding.” 

So I rang up Hartpury and asked them if we could set an arena up. I wanted to do some test riding with Charlotte away from home in a plait-up situation. I took her there, and it was the same thing. 

The first time through, there were mistakes. I said to her, “Now, you have to realize, the horse is not a computer. He’s offering but you’re just presuming he’s going to do it. You’re not going to win a gold like that.” I was really hard on her. We went through the test three times until we got it right, and Charlotte was very quiet. She didn’t say a word. I really laid it on the line for her. She had to ride better. It worked. It was just what she needed, and for the first time ever, that night I got a text from Charlotte saying thank you. I knew she was obviously thinking about it and she had been watching the video of it. I told her to watch it until she was blue in the face. She had one week left. She knew what was going wrong. 

I made Charlotte watch Damon Hill as well. I told her, “Google him, watch him. He gets 85 percent, so what are you going to do? You have to pip it somehow.” It’s healthy competition. I think Helen’s a lovely person, I think Adelinde [Cornelissen]’s a lovely person. It’s not about being anti or evil. Those girls are the best at the moment. So watch them. Why are they winning? What are they doing? 

I think the competition made Helen ride like Helen’s never ridden before. That Grand Prix at the Europeans when she rode for gold for the Germans, I took my hat off to her and I thought, Good for you. That made you raise your game. I’ve never seen the horse go like that. Absolute maximum. She took risks, she deserved it. It was brilliant to watch.

I thought Charlotte’s [European] Grand Prix test was the best test I had ever seen, and I’ve seen some of the greats: Rembrandt, Corlandus, Totilas, Bonfire, Salinero and all of Isabel’s horses. I’ve seen them all in action and I’ve seen them all win their golds. I am not biased when it comes to Valegro. I’m harder on Charlotte and Valegro. Even at the Olympics, I still said to Charlotte when she came out of that music, “You were lucky. You and I know that was not his best test.” But I have to say when he came out of that Grand Prix at the Europeans, I thought that was beautiful. He had power and everything I wanted him to have. It had a bit more harmony, a bit more lightness, a bit more engagement and all those things.

You took Uthopia instead of the other horses you have in the stable. Why?

CH: I chose Uthopia, not because I had wanted to, because I’d made the decision not to ride him again, which is why Charlotte had started to ride him until the situation [a legal dispute regarding ownership] sorted itself out. It shows he’s fit and well and we keep him going.

But why wouldn’t you ride Uthopia yourself?

CH:Because my pleasure is producing the new ones. Dances with Wolves had a really hard season. I rode him at a lot of shows to try and better his temperament. After Rotterdam, which he did kind of cope with, I still thought, Not just yet. The wrong day, the wrong weather, somebody moves in the crowd, he’d just be like, “Ahhh!” And he just needed a holiday.

Fine Time got a lot better and I really trust him, but he can’t get the scores that Uthopia can get. And Charlotte was like, “One more time! One more time, Grandad! Just do it, Grandad!”

So I thought, Why not? I can just get on Uthopia. I know him so well, I’ve been riding him for seven years. He was cool. He’s that little bit of stallion, he
is fresh, he’s young, so I thought, I’ll take him.

He’ll go anywhere, he doesn’t spook, he doesn’t look, he’ll always do his job. And I thought I have to take him now with Laura not there. The decision was made, and it was the right one. And although I didn’t have an amazing ride in the Grand Prix, I got 75 percent. Dances with Wolves and Fine Time couldn’t have got that going at their best. Then everyday Uthopia put 3 percent on his test. I was sixth at the Europeans again. That’s fine! Consistency. It worked out great and obviously Charlotte was outstanding.

Tell us more about your newest dressage star, Dances with Wolves

CH:He’s such a cool horse, and it’s such a cool story. He was owned by Jane Gregory, a friend of mine who died. Jane and I used to talk about this horse, and she would say, “He’s so strong; he’s so hot-headed. I’m sure he’s brilliant, but I just struggle with him because he is enormous.” She was right. He’s the biggest horse in our yard. When he’s strong, he is strong. It doesn’t feel like dressage anymore, it’s like waterskiing. He has done a lot for my body, I tell you! 

Jane said to me when we were in the Maldives on holidays the year she died, “Carl, if I can’t ride him, you’ll have to ride him.” And I thought, Jane, you’ll never let me ride him because you’ll never give up.

Hester competes Dances with Wolves in memory of his late owner, Jane Gregory. She told him, “Carl, if I can’t ride him, you’ll have to ride him.”

So it was so sad because I did get to ride him, but not how I wanted to. But the nice thing is, for her friends and myself and her husband, every time he does something great it’s really good because we have a good memory about Jane. I didn’t think I would bond with him. The first six months he was here I thought, Well I can’t ride him. I just can’t ride him. What am I going to do? How am I going to tell Jane’s husband I can’t ride him and I can’t get on with him? 

I expect my horses here to fit in. They all hack on a Wednesday and Saturday. They all get cantered around the field and they all get turned out. And of course I think they were so worried when he came here, they said, “Don’t hack him out; don’t ride him on the grass whatever you do, he’ll run off.” Three days later I thought, this horse has just got to fit in with everything else. I’m not going to make concessions for him. So we’ve been through hedges out hacking; he’s done it all, but he’s come through the other side. He has to be a normal horse if he is going to cope with the pressures
of competing.

What’s your lead up to the World Equestrian Games looking like?

CH:Uthopia has actually been released to be sold now, so I will be working on that. Fine Time is also to be sold. So that leaves me with Dances with Wolves and another horse, Don Archie, who’s 9. I don’t know where we’ll go. I think Dances with Wolves will be my only option, but he has to step up to the plate. It’s time. He’s such a big horse and because of his mentality he needs a lot of riding. He’s not old though and not all of them are going to be top notch at nine, 10 or 11. He might just take a bit longer. Valegro will definitely go to [the World Equestrian Games in] Normandy.

So you won’t sell him then?

CH: I get worried about the fact, will we ever find him a home that does what we do? If someone else pays a huge amount for the horse, will they ever let him be a horse? I wouldn’t blame them. I don’t know. 

We’re working on that, and I think over some time we’ll recoup some money. Whether he’s used for advertising or whether we do a syndicate with someone who wants to come in just because they love dressage. I’m still having meetings about these things all the time. We’re dealing with a racing syndicate manager at the moment that is helping us piece a program together that might suit some people. I’m not in any hurry.

I’m going to take a break and we’re going to start building now. There’s no pressure anymore. I know Valegro can do it, so Charlotte and I will enjoy that. 

I really enjoyed riding Dances with Wolves last year. What comes with maturity is the fact that you realize not everything is going to win the gold medal. So when Fine Time gets 73 percent or Dances with Wolves gets 75 percent in a special, I’m as ecstatic as winning a gold. That’s maturity, rather than thinking, I’ve got to win, I’ve got to win.

But that’s what those gold medals have done. They give you a new lease on life, different expectations. I enjoy competing like this again now. It’s too crazy at the top!

You have an exciting new colt. Can you tell us a bit about him?

CH:He is out of Valegro’s full sister by Uthopia. He has to be the best-bred horse in the world, surely! He’ll probably be useless! (laughing) He probably won’t move or he’ll be ugly or something. No he’s not ugly, but he’s big. He’s called Euphoria and is coming three …. a black colt. 

Do you always buy horses when they are young?

CH: Absolutely. I think the only way for a professional like myself to do it is to buy 2-year-olds. I’m buying horses for a few thousand euros, and therefore for me if they make it, that’s all fantastic; it’s been a great journey. And if they don’t, I make them into something where I don’t lose a lot of money. Valegro and a lot of the horses here have been unbroken horses when we bought them. People say, “Oh you must have a really good eye for young horses” because we’ve got a lot of good ones. But I still think it’s the training. 

I don’t look for the flashiest mover or anything, I just look for a great hind leg and a nice physique, and the rest is training the temperament. And we’ve only had one horse out of the whole batch we’ve had that has been an unrideable one. Everything else has made it, in one form or another, into a decent horse. 

I’m always reminding Charlotte: “You are a mug if you think that the more you spend, the better you get. Don’t, whatever you do, fall into that category because that’s very often a dangerous route.” 

It’s the same with trainers. I also teach a lot of people, or I have, who want a lot of help. And I say, “What I can tell you for this amount of money, someone down the road could tell you for half the price. You don’t need me to teach you every week. You just need somebody who has a bit of an eye and is honest with you and charges half the money. Come back to me every three months or so and we’ll have a look at your progress overall.”

Why is your training so successful?

CH:I don’t work so hard that I don’t have a life. Always remember that. Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life. I love that saying. It is so true. Both Uthopia and Valegro won their first Grand Prix at 9 years old with 70 percent. That sounds like we have worked the horses hard, but that is absolutely not the case. The difference is, we do four days a week. I think it’s about fittening, and the days off they have in between their schooling is what really gives them their ability to learn. Because it’s not pressure until they get tense and nervous, it’s just learn it, leave it, do it again. It’s always having the black and white process in place: No, that’s wrong; yes, this is right. I think my system is completely straightforward. I don’t have any tricks up my sleeve or anything like that. It’s just the basic way of balancing a horse, and I think when you’ve learned to balance the horse, then you can get on with the difficult stuff. 

I tribute my system to all the people I’ve met. I’ve trained with a lot of interesting people starting with Harry Bolt. Harry was my first dressage teacher with Dr. B [Dr. Wilfried Bechtolsheimer] when I was there. And it’s really funny, because people ask me what I’ve learned from different trainers, and actually I learned really simple things.

Hester finds pleasure in giving back to the sport. This includes allowing his students, like Dujardin, to ride and grow on his horses.

All I learned from Harry was half halt. I didn’t know what that was. I mean I had lessons for three and a half years, and if you asked me what we did, I have no idea. I just know that’s all he used to say: “Half halt.” So in the end, I had to find out what it was because I didn’t know! I remember going around once and someone said “volte,” and I thought, What is that? So, I kept going and they said, “volte” and I kept going. I was too embarrassed to ask what a volte was. That is how raw and green I was. I did not know what all these things were. And then when I left Dr. B’s, I had to go to Holland to Bert Rutten, who is again a very old, classical, straightforward trainer, and people ask, “What did you learn from Bert?” 

“On and back.” That’s all he used to say, “On. Back,” and then a huge puff of cigar smoke used to escape out the side of his mouth. So then I would ask, “Why do I have to do on and back all the time?” And he’d say, “Because you need to get the horse to balance himself on four legs.” Right, so then I knew what balance was and then I knew what self-carriage was.

The other big influence was Anne Van Olst. Anne is also one of my best friends. We met at the Olympics. She’s not been my trainer but she’s somebody that if I’m going into Europe, I’ll stay with her. I help her; she helps me. We both tell each other the truth.

One thing I’ve always struggled with is getting from piaffe to passage. Every horse I ride goes into it the same way: a little bit of piaffe, piaffe, piaffe … trot … and passage. I just cannot get the bloody hang of it. But whenever I go to Anne’s, she’s like, “That’s what we’ll work on. This is what you have to learn.” And I help her to look nice! So we both work on each other’s weaknesses, which is what I think real trainers should do with you without demoralizing you. We’ve done 10 years of that together.

I think my system has a lot to do with lifestyle of the horses and how I feel they should be treated. I was an event rider before I was a dressage rider, so I’m not afraid of all those things that I know a lot of people are. We hack our horses, we don’t keep them in barns and not let them see the light of day.

It was interesting because after the Olympics, one of the biggest questions I kept getting, mostly from Dutch and German magazines was, “Do you contribute your success to the fact that you turn your horses out?” And I’d say, “No. I contribute our success to the fact that we train them the best we can.” You wouldn’t go to an event rider and say did you win Badminton because you turned your bloody horse out into the field. They’d just laugh at you. People just do that over here. 

My vet says and it always sticks in my mind, “The best way to keep your horse sound is to keep him moving.” That’s such a simple piece of advice.

I have five staff for 18 horses, so we can do it properly. When I decided to commit myself to the last Olympics three years ago I thought, I’ve got the best two horses I’ve ever had, and I need to dedicate my life to Charlotte, getting her going and to train her and her horse, and my horse, and I want the right staff behind me. I don’t care if I come away out of pocket in two years. No yard makes money. Like I said, that’s why Charlotte and I can only ride four days a week, because we can’t take a wage. But I thought it was worth it to actually pay attention to detail.

Do you prefer hot horses over lazy horses?

CH:I’m prepared to have my hot horses living out, and then I can work them without killing them through too much work. Lazy horses I don’t do. If a horse is lazy because he’s weak or immature, then that’s absolutely fine and we just wait for him to mature. If the horse has that inherent laziness in him, I wouldn’t bother. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to make a horse do it. For me the end result of dressage is that it has to be elegant, it has to be easy, it has to be a pleasure to watch and it should be in harmony. If it’s not, if I’m scrubbing away and shoving away on something, that’s not harmonious and I don’t enjoy it. 

Do you have any more Young Riders coming up?

CH:I have a fantastic Young Rider named Samantha Thurman-Baker. She rode at the Junior Europeans the year before last. She was tenth, but she won the prize for the most elegant rider. She is beautiful on a horse. She’s already trained her first horse to Grand Prix and won with 68 percent at one of our selection shows. Training your own horse to a successful level of Grand Prix at 18 is pretty incredible. She worked for me last year as my second rider. I also have Katie Bailey. She is on the World Class Equine Pathway squad. I’ve got her riding Nip Tuck.

Why do you give your Young Riders good horses to ride instead of just keeping them for yourself?

CH:I don’t feel like that about it. Like I’ve always said, if someone hadn’t given me the opportunity, I would be like every other talented rider. There are a lot of talented riders that never get a go. I just feel it’s my way of giving back to the sport, especially British dressage. It’s my way of trying to promote our country. It actually gives me pleasure. I do enjoy watching other people ride my horses, and I do think for my horses as well, it’s good that other people ride them and I can just hop on and polish them up and do my thing. I also know that the best way of learning is by feel. 

At the end of the day, you know everyone’s going to move on and make their own career at some point. That’s life. But I hope they go having had a lot of good opportunities.


When did Charlotte Dujardin come to you?

Carl Hester teaches his long-time student, Charlotte Dujardin

Carl Hester:Eight years ago now. She had a 6-year-old horse she was producing, Fernandez. He wasn’t a very special horse although he turned out to be a very good horse. At a selection class for potential future Grand Prix horses, the guys I was judging with said, “No, that’s not a Grand Prix horse.” And I said, “Well he looks pretty sharp to me. He looks like he wants to work.” So I got on and thought, “This is a damn nice horse.” 

Then Charlotte came up to me afterward and asked if I would help her. I told her no, that I didn’t have time. Then her mother rang me and chased me around for a bit and said, “Please help her. She always watches your DVDs and she really wants to learn how to make a Grand Prix horse.”

So I rang her up, because one of my girls was going on holiday for 10 days, to see if she wanted to come and fill in. I told her to bring the horse and we’d have a look at him. She arrived and then never went home. 

It’s good because I’ve helped her become a rider. But I hope I’ve also guided her to having a successful career. She had to make the really big decision to sell Fernandez. It was a big risk for both of us because I rode Fernandez as well. Initially I said we will keep him in case one of our horses went lame, he would be a backup, because he could still be a team horse in this country. The trouble was, this was her future sitting here. I said to her, “You have no money, you need to get your foot on the property ladder, and you have Valegro, who I’ll leave with you until the Olympics. You have to think about it.” She did, and she sold him. I think it was really hard for her, but now she’s 28 years old and she’s got three gold medals and a house with no mortgage. That’s absolutely fantastic, and it’s a story that other people can cling to.

I mean I don’t begrudge anyone whichever way you do it. None of us should. If you’re born with lots of money or somebody gives you lots of money or someone gives you a top horse, great. You still have to ride it, and there’s an art in that. I don’t take a wage out of the yard and I can’t pay her a wage out of the yard. We make the horses and go earn the money out of the teaching. Charlotte’s is at least a realistic story that anybody could say, “That could be me.”

But it was the same as your story.

CH: Yes. I think mine, in England, was certainly unusual. It was like an opening for more young people when I did it, and now Charlotte’s has really made a big opening.

Yes, but why did you make it when others did not?

CH:Well, of course, you get lucky. You get the opportunities. I mean, I was a groom and I remember going for my interview and being asked, “How much money do you want?” I said, “Oh, I don’t want paying.” Why did I say that? Because all I wanted to do was ride, and I was worried if I said I wanted paying that I wouldn’t get the rides. That was the most important thing to me, was to be able to ride. And then, “What day off would you like?” I said, “Oh, I don’t want a day off. I just want to ride.”

Charlotte was the same when she came here. She just wanted to ride. And if I said, “Well, there’s only that.” Then she would say, “Well then I’ll ride that.” Now she’s a princess [he says jokingly]! That’s where you could see it. It wasn’t like, “Oh look at Charlotte. She’s a gold medal-type rider.” I had no idea Charlotte was a gold medal-type rider, but for the last few years, if Charlotte said to me, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I’d say, “Well I’ve got 11 lessons. I’m exhausted.” And she would ask, “What time are you starting?” I’d say, “8 a.m.,” then she’d say, “Right, I’ll be on at 7 a.m. Can you teach me at 7 a.m.?”

I wouldn’t say no to that. I was like, “Too bloody right, and if you’re going to do it, then I’m getting up.” I’d lost a bit of my drive, but Charlotte brought that out of me again because I had somebody to enjoy it with, somebody on the same level as me, somebody to go to shows with, somebody who knew my horse really well and I knew what she was doing really well.

Pieces of this interview were first printed in the June 2013 and January 2014 issues of The Horse Magazine.






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