By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
When the British dressage team saddles up for the European Championships this week, they will have a real shot at their first ever gold medal, but no matter the result it will be a major step toward possible unprecedented Olympic glory on their home turf.
The country’s rise to within smelling distance of the top of the sport can only be described as meteoric in the glacial pace of change in dressage–a bare 10 years.
And if Britain strikes gold in this leafy Rotterdam show grounds, much of it will be due to Carl Hester, a rider and trainer who found and trained from youngsters two of the four horses on their team, Uthopia ridden by himself, and Valegro ridden by Charlotte Dujardin, one of his students.
The remarkable achievement is by a man born and raised on Sark a speck of an island three miles long and 1 ½ miles wide in the English Channel with no horse in sight and no family interest in equine activities. Sark’s population of 600 makes it smaller than the entire group of owners, riders, grooms, drivers, and officials at most international horse shows. If you want to know what turns them on in Sark: sheep racing is big.
In his typical unassuming and humorous style that has made him a favorite both as a talented trainer and rider and a quiet helping hand to those in need, he credits the now legendary “Dr. B,” Wilfred Bechtosheimer, father of superstar Laura, of providing him with the path to the top and instilling a sense of giving back.
Carl, at the age of 44 and two horses that draw the kind of attention that is reserved for the best and a student in Charlotte that he is quick to point to her success at Grand Prix in only six months has been injected with a renewed sense of enthusiasm.
Uthopia is a 10 -year-old KWPN stallion by Metall out of an Inspekteur mare that he began showing Grand Prix in 2010 and in all his starts has logged seven first places, four second places and one third place. At the same time, he competed Liebling II for the British team at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. He had ridden the horse to an historic team silver medal at the Europeans in Windsor in 2009 and then the horse was sold to be ridden by Cheryl Meisner as an Olympic prospect for Canada. It did not work out and he agreed to compete the horse in 2010.
Valegro is a nine-year-old KWPN gelding by Negro who, since Charlotte, aged 26, started showing the horse in March this year, has not scored lower than 73 per cent and posts results above 78 per cent.
Carl reckons that dressage in Britain, a nation with a strong tradition of horse sports and eminence in eventing and jumping, was probably kick started at the European Championships in Hickstead, England in 2003. His part was a result of Laura Bechstolsheimer’s father providing Grand Prix horses for him to compete for three years.
Within a couple of years of the Hickstead Europeans, the sport became the fastest growing equestrian discipline in Britain.
“When you consider how big eventing and show jumping are that was a pretty amazing feat,” said Carl who had became a member of the British team in 1990, a relative unknown and decidedly not wealthy. That sent a signal throughout Britain that the sport was open for business to all comers.
Laura, he said, has since provided the charisma and talent by her individual performances that did more than anything else to broaden the popularity of dressage in Britain.
“We never had a horse getting high scores to take you to the medal zone like Laura did and suddenly people got inspired,” he said. “Horses were acquired. That’s how it all took off.”
The World Class program of funding professional services for accomplished combinations was a major factor, too, funneling lottery money to riders who had produced results competing on the international circuit.
“It’s interesting because you start showing up at competitions with staff of nutritionists and vets and suddenly it became a profession,” he said.
“I think that contributed a lot to helping people determine how to structure their futures.
First of all you have to achieve success on your own. When you achieve that you get the backup and then you can sustain it.”
Now, the program is reaching deeper into trainers with six and seven year-old prospects whose abilities could add depth to British high performance dressage.
Carl said that after he left the Bechtolsheimer to go out on his own, he thought top horses would drop into his lap.
Not so. The lesson that got him through that “silly young age,” as he describes it, came from Bert Rutten of Holland who told him the way to success would be to buy young horses and train them to Grand Prix. Bert made it a reality by selling him a two-year-old for 5,000 British pounds (US$8,200) that he could train and compete. If it didn’t work out, he could sell the horse as partially trained and recoup his investment.
And that is how he ended up with Uthopia and Valegro.
“i didn’t know that at 2 ½ or four years old I was going to have the two stars that i’ve somehow ended up with.” he said.
“tt’s a careful process of elimination along the way and sorting out the good ones.
“They were lucky finds.
“It’s a good story, though, because anyone could have afforded those horses, no matter what they are worth today.”
Why does Charlotte ride Valegro instead of himself?
“As wonderful as Uthopia may be, Valegro may have a slight edge on him from a presence point of view,” he said.
“The girl can ride. I don’t want to see the opportunity to ride for Britain go to waste. And Charlotte is one of the most incredible, driven and capable riders. Ridings is her passion as it is mine.
“To be honest, it’s given me a new enthusiasm to be able to work with someone who is riding at the same level, who is driven. We don’t have holidays and days off.
“It’s given me renewed enthusiasm for the sport because i had gotten worn down after so many years competing at the top levels of the sport. Horses take up a lot of your time. When you have to make a living it’s hard to keep popping abroad to compete.”
Charlotte, he said, has a good sense of humor that he illustrates by telling the story of when he took Charlotte to Aachen, Germany, for the World Equestrian Festival for the first time this year.
“i told her this is different than anywhere else, it will be nerve wracking.
“She turned to me and said: ‘in other words, same old shit, different arena.’
“Wow,” he responded. “if you can say that after six months at this level it’s a pretty spectacular way of looking at it.”
A major shift in perceptions has come, though, with success.
“Who would ever have thought this day would come?” he asked.
“With the success of the past four years, we are now expected to do well. I think back to the first 16 years and I laugh because I was always on the sidelines and you never thought it would be you center stage.”
But the close relationships between Laura, Charlotte and himself have helped enormously. They are three “nice people” who “just gel.”
“Suddenly being on a team that has a reputation for having good horses on it is a totally different feeling. Big groups of people flying from England to Rotterdam because they have something to support. It’s a totally different way of dealing with it. It’s enthusiasm.
“I mean, to get the Olympics in London when we have the horses for the team that we have. How lucky is that to get that in your lifetime in your home country. These are exciting times.”