Charlotte Dujardin: From humble Enfield roots - where she trained in front of car headlamps - to history books

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Charlotte Dujardin celebrates her bronze medal to become Britain's most decorated woman Olympian - SHUTTERSTOCK
Charlotte Dujardin celebrates her bronze medal to become Britain's most decorated woman Olympian - SHUTTERSTOCK

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.

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 and Dujardin was hooked. She started buying DVDs to study technique - her childhood hero was British rider Carl Hester.

For her parents, Jane and Ian, seeing their daughter’s talent was bittersweet. Dressage is an eye-wateringly expensive sport. A horse at Grand Prix level could cost several hundreds of thousands, while 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 Dujardins 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.

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In 2002 Jane inherited some money from her mother and bought Dujardin’s first horse, Fernandez, 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 - ANDREW CROWLEY
Charlotte Dujardin with Valegro at Carl Hester's stables back in 2014 - 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.

Hester on the secrets to Dujardin’s success

Carl Hester is a six-time Olympian who first gave Charlotte Dujardin a job as a groom at his stables in 2007. They have worked, trained and competed together ever since. Hester has stood alongside Dujardin to win every one of the three Olympic medals ever won by a British Dressage team since 1912. Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph, Hester describes Dujardin’s incredible feat in winning individual bronze on her new mount, Gio, the least experienced horse in the field.

There was no confidence from the dressage world when Charlotte came to Tokyo with Gio, this inexperienced horse. But it is just ridiculous to ever underestimate Charlotte, she is the best rider in the world in my opinion, she is an out-and-out winner.

Right before she entered the arena I said to Charlotte, “We can’t see three Germans on that podium”. She looked at me and replied, “Absolutely not”. That’s Charlotte, the ruthless competitor. As always she just goes in there and nails it. The bomb strikes and she was just brilliant.

What made this medal so special is that she and Gio were the underdogs. Everyone assumed that Mount St John Freestyle would be her horse in Tokyo, but she had a small injury and so Gio came in. In truth he wasn’t ready. Everyone thought her chance was gone, but he is a delightful little horse with so much presence and desire to do it.

He just gives himself over to Charlotte. She has brought him up from a young horse. That is why the partnership is so good. She had never ridden him in an Olympic stadium and put him under that sort of pressure to perform. For her to get those scores from a horse that is 10 years old, they just blew it out of the water.

I first saw that winning instinct in Charlotte back in 2011, her debut year of Grand Prix, when we did the Europeans together and won gold. She relished competing. The more pressure you heaped on her, the more she gritted her teeth and went for it. She literally is the Great White Shark of dressage. She munches up all of her prey.

Charlotte Dujardin atop Gio at the Equestrian Park in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES
Charlotte Dujardin atop Gio at the Equestrian Park in Tokyo - GETTY IMAGES

As a team we are all strong combinations which makes it possible for Charlotte to be as ruthless as she likes, because we aren’t just back-ups. It’s not left on her shoulders to win the medals anymore, which it probably was back in the Valegro days.

As individuals we’ve worked together 14 years but we are both very different - she needs calming down and I need winding up which is why it works so well. It would never be obvious that Charlotte was nervous, she just goes very quiet.

Charlotte has been a catalyst for a lot of change in our sport. Winning gold in London 2012 as this young girl from a totally normal background, working as a groom for me, and creating this amazing partnership with Valegro - who also has his own huge fan club and a statue in our town Newent. It made our sport open to the public and helped people to understand that dressage isn’t just someone getting on an expensive horse and steering it around. It has gone to a new level, and Charlotte has influenced that with her desire for perfection.

She only ever thinks of getting 10 out of 10 when she rides. I don’t think anyone could ever get 100 per cent in a dressage test, but Charlotte can come closer than anyone.

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