Charlotte Dujardin has the chance to become the first ever female British Olympian to win gold at three consecutive Games
Credit: Ryan Pierse
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“After London 2012,” Charlotte Dujardin recalls, “I had two gentlemen come up to me in a restaurant and say, ‘Oh my God, you’re the girl off the dancing horse. Now, was it you asking the horse to do that? Or does the horse just do it?’” She cannot help but beam at the thought. “That’s when you know you’re doing a good job – when you make it look effortless.”
As the pre-eminent dressage rider of her era, with three Olympic golds, Dujardin finds it is not always easy to disentangle the mysteries of her craft. The talent to enable a horse to respond fluidly and elegantly to minimal human cues is, she believes, innate rather than acquired. In explaining the art of piaffes and half-passes, she could delve into dressage’s ancient military origins, where the ability to manoeuvre one’s horse sharply became a vital survival skill. Or she could just refer to a famous sketch by Eddie Izzard, which depicts her discipline as trying to back a half-tonne animal into a broom cupboard.
Not that the finest practitioners object to such caricatures. “I think it’s quite funny,” says Carl Hester, Dujardin’s long-time mentor, at his glorious Gloucestershire yard, an equine Cliveden where the peace of a summer’s afternoon is broken only by the cries of peacocks. “It’s better that they take the p— out of it than say nothing.”
But as we watch Dujardin rehearse her tests aboard Gio, the 10-year-old gelding that she rides in the team dressage at the Tokyo Olympics, her third Games, it becomes clear that polishing a performance to this level is a profoundly serious enterprise. “We start training the horses when they’re four,” she says. “If you’re lucky, you get them to a top grand prix at nine. Then it takes another three years to make it look finessed. It might look like we’re doing nothing. But there’s a long, long time spent working out each horse’s character, its strengths and weaknesses.”
Charlotte Dujardin riding Gio in a warm up event for Great Britain's Olympic team at the Royal Windsor Horse Show
Credit: Steve Parsons
Dujardin cuts against the preconceptions formed of equestrianism from Jilly Cooper novels. True, the sport remains a bastion of rare privilege: when she took individual gold in London, she shared a podium with British team-mate Laura Bechtolsheimer, descended from a German property billionaire, and in Tokyo she competes in the same arena as Bruce Springsteen’s daughter, Jessica. But she is hewn from far less starry stock, educated at an Enfield comprehensive and introduced to horses only through her mother’s skill for finding untapped potential in cheap ponies.
Hers is a supreme gift. The freestyle score of 94.3 per cent that she earned with Valegro at Olympia in 2014 still stands as a world record, despite judges arguably becoming more inclined since to award the highest marks. Hester first had an inkling of how high she could rise in 2007, when he saw what she accomplished with Fernandes, in his description a “pretty average horse that seemed to know how to do a lot of things”. He invited her to work alongside him, convinced she could flourish with his expertise and choreography, and she has never left.
“It’s a feeling in my body that I know what I want to create,” Dujardin says. “I describe it as being a bit like an artist. I can’t draw to save my life. If I can put a pen to paper, I can see what I want to draw but I can’t make it happen. Whereas an artist can just free-flow and you think, ‘Wow, how do you do that?’ That’s how I am when I get on a horse. Feel is something you can’t teach someone. You either have it or you don’t. I’m quite lucky to say that I was born with it.”
It was with Valegro that she forged her greatest masterpieces. She heralds him as a “once-in-a-lifetime horse”, whose ability to fire up at the crucial moments she likens to turning the ignition in an Aston Martin. It would not matter if he performed in front of empty stands or amid firework displays at Las Vegas exhibitions, such was his consistently dauntless brilliance. Bought by Hester for £3,500 as a 2½-year-old, a “funny little chunky thing from Holland”, he was valued in his prime at over £6 million. Now 19, and immortalised in bronze in nearby Newent, he enjoys a happy dotage, illustrating the origins of his stable name “Blueberry” by munching his way around the orchard.
“Hello, Blueberry,” Dujardin says, tenderly, as he trots past. “It took him a while to get used to retirement. He would see all the lorries loaded up with other horses and he would be left behind. You could see him at the stable door, thinking, ‘Why am I not going?’ Now the girls here are very lucky, riding him, learning how to do the movements on him. I get on him occasionally, just to remember what it was like. He was one of a kind. Some horses get scared, or the atmosphere takes a part of them away. But with him I could go full power and it wouldn’t faze him.”
Gio, the horse to be ridden by Dujardin, is presented for inspection
Credit: Carolyn Kaster
Tokyo cannot help but feel different for Dujardin, deprived of the horse on which she triumphed in London and Rio. Finding a successor to Valegro has proved fraught. Her original plan was to ride Mount St John Freestyle for these Olympics, only for the mare’s owner to announce earlier this month that he was not sufficiently fit to travel. Into the breach comes Gio, or “Pumpkin” as he is known within Hester’s team, a horse far less experienced than her first choice but one she considers better equipped for the Japanese heat and humidity.
Gold is far from assured for Dujardin, given the pedigree of her chief rival, Germany’s ever-improving Jessica von Bredow-Werndl. But in a close battle for the individual prizes, her peerless mental strength could be decisive. Asked how she manages her own tension, she smiles: “Oh, I love it. The bigger it is, the better I am. I perform at my best when I have all that pressure. I rise to the occasion.” There is a sense, too, that Hester, himself gracing his sixth Games at the age of 53, is not about to tolerate any drop-off in standards. “After 12 years of medals, I don’t want to go back to a no-medal situation,” he declares. “No way.”
The history that beckons Dujardin is stark. Not only is she poised in Tokyo to become the first British female Olympian to win golds at three consecutive Games, she has an appetite, at just 36, for extending her distinctions much further. “We’re very lucky in our sport, we can keep going to whatever age. I can keep going for as long as my body lets me, and for as long as I keep loving the sport. I don’t have any plans to give up for a long time. It will only be when I physically have to.”
For all that Valegro is now savouring a blissful indolence, Dujardin is restless to keep rewriting her records. Having had a taste for glory early, she finds that she is insatiable. “I really don’t feel,” she says, breezily, “as if I will ever stop.”