Charlotte Dujardin celebrates her bronze medal to become Britain's most decorated woman Olympian
It was a story of David and Goliath, as Charlotte Dujardin cantered into the arena, in undoubtedly her toughest challenge yet. Riding a new pint-sized horse, Gio, competing in only his second ever Freestyle to music, and up against the best riders in the world on far more experienced horses, it was like Lewis Hamilton attempting to triumph at the Monaco Grand Prix in a Vauxhall Astra. And yet triumph she did.
In winning bronze with a score of 88.543, Dujardin, the girl from Enfield who trained under her mother’s car headlamps in a north London sand arena, has made history as Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. Her haul of six medals – three gold, one silver and now two bronze in Tokyo, beats Katherine Grainger’s historic total of five. Most extraordinary of all is how Dujardin came from humble roots to excel in a sport that remains out of reach to most.
At every stage of her career, her extraordinary talent has stood out. Or as fellow rider Roland Tong famously put it, “Charlotte could get a donkey to do piaffe”.
As a 14-year-old Dujardin had her very first break, spending a week helping out Debi Thomas, a friend of her mother’s, who worked in the local stables. Thomas had a 12-year-old dressage horse that was trained to Grand Prix level, but it was struggling for rhythm in its piaffe and needed a rider on top. It is unusual for a child to be put on a horse of such prestige. But Thomas had seen Dujardin ride from a toddler.
2907 Britains Most Decorated Olympians
The young Dujardin followed instructions and within minutes, she had the hang of it. Within days she would master more complex movements – the flying changes and passage. Thomas was mesmerised by her abilities; Dujardin was hooked. She started buying DVD’s to study technique – ironically, her childhood was British rider Carl Hester.
For her parents, Jane and Ian, seeing their daughter’s talent was bitter-sweet. Dressage is an eye-wateringly expensive sport. A horse at Grand Prix level could cost several hundreds of thousands each, a horse which might get on a team, could be in the millions, even a foal with good breeding could reach upwards of £50,000.
Jane loved horses and knew instantly that their daughter’s was a passion they must support. “Charlotte was the most determined child who would cry as a toddler if she was removed from the back of a pony” she says. “She would ride every day after school and I would even have to shine the car headlights on so she could keep riding in the dark.” The Dujardin’s spent every penny they had on giving Charlotte and her sisters the best ponies they could afford. Ian ran a packaging company but ran into hard times in 1999 and everything had to be sold, the house and the horses. It was obvious their daughter’s talent should be nurtured, but there was no way they could afford it. The costs were astronomical and the prize money and financial opportunities pitiful.
🚨 Amazing stat alert! 🚨
Charlotte Dujardin has won #bronze for @TeamGB in #EquestrianDressage making her the most decorated female British Olympian ever!#StrongerTogether | #Tokyo2020 | @FEI_Global pic.twitter.com/Gd3scWJP2O
— Olympics (@Olympics) July 28, 2021
In 2002 Jane inherited some money from her mother and bought Dujardin’s first horse, Fernadez, for the relatively small sum of £18,000. Within a few years Dujardin had trained him to elite level, working in a pub to earn money to pay for him. It was whilst riding Fernandez at a Talent-spotters final that Dujardin first met her idol Hester. He was judging the class and admits to being overwhelmed by her abilities to train the horse without having ridden a top horse herself. She begged him for lessons and soon after he offered her a job as a groom mucking out stables.
Charlotte Dujardin with Valegro at Carl Hester's stables back in 2014
Credit: Andrew Crowley
Within four years under Hester’s tutelage, Dujardin would go on to make sporting history. “Charlotte came along and I hadn’t met anyone with that attack,’ says Hester. “It gave me the enthusiasm to keep going. Charlotte reignited that love again and I thrived on her desire to win- it gave me a new lease of life. We drove each other to better results and even now we help each other most days. In my opinion she is the best rider in the world.”
Hester thinks much of her success comes down to her degree of perfection. “She only ever thinks of getting 10 out of 10 when she rides – no less. To break all those records and achieve some of the scores she has achieved in a Grand Prix is just incredible when there are 36 movements to score. Most people are just worried about getting to the end.”
Dujardin and Valegro rose to stardom in meteoric fashion and left a greater impression on the equestrian world than any partnership had done before. The pair smashed every dressage world record possible, and then kept beating their own record. They still hold all three.
Dujardin is only 36 – a youngster in this sport. In London 2012 the oldest competitor was a Japanese dressage rider who was 71. Even with three Olympics under her belt, she is already the most successful British equestrian athlete of our time. If she continues to compete for another 20 years, like her mentor Hester, her record could be untouchable.