To be lent a horse, to learn about training as you go along, and to win two Olympic golds at the first attempt seems like the stuff of fiction, but that is the true story of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, the best dressage partnership the world may ever see.
Their success cannot be measured solely by bags-full of medals, repeatedly breaking their own world record scores, the blizzard of perfects 10s, or being heaped with sporting accolades that were hitherto inconceivable for this most esoteric of skills.
Valegro captures hearts because he is simply enchanting. He and Charlotte are of one mind. You do not have to understand complexities of any sport to know when you are seeing something very special. Valegro has blurred the distinction between athleticism and art. No wonder millions caught up in the magic of London 2012 christened him the “horse-dancer.”
Breyer's Traditional scale Valegro model is depicted in an elegant canter pirouette.
Valegro’s story started inauspiciously as a bargain-buy in Holland, plucked from batch a of Dutch stallion-grading “failures” by British dressage veteran Carl Hester, who had room for one more horse in his horse transporter. He sent Valegro away for breaking-in, and admits that although he liked the horse’s easy-going temperament, he was otherwise a tad disappointed in “squat” Valegro that returned. As a four-year-old he was then scarcely 16hh, the quality of his enormous canter offset by a “cobby” trot. He was also a head-shaker, a condition that has required diligent management ever since. Carl even tried to sell him.
But timing is everything. In 2007 Hester encountered Charlotte at a “talent-spotting” day and detected the same work ethic and thirst for knowledge he had felt as a teenager. Recalling the leg-up he’d received from a generous patron at the pivotal moment of his career, Carl offered Charlotte a job. He then decided to see what she could do with Valegro. The rest is history.
“The trend back then was for people to make the British team on purchased, ‘made’ horses,” says Carl. “With Charlotte there were no wealthy parents, it was about learning to do it. She had a God-given gift to teach horses how to really trot, and the most difficult movements, including the piaffe, the one that makes the difference between small tour and Grand Prix. What I had to do was channel that gift.”
There was already an excited buzz about the Hester protégés when Valegro and Dujardin made their winning Grand Prix debut in 2011 at Addington, UK. This parachuted them into the British team for the European championships that summer where, despite the pressure on two such ingénues, they contributed to Britain’s first ever team gold.
Over the winter any last hint of “greenness” evaporated as the confident pair raised the bar, and Carl took stock of the phenomenon he had unleashed. In spring 2012, Valegro notched up the first of his habitual world record scores - 88.022% in the Grand Prix Special at Hagen.
It seemed incredible that Valegro could be favorite for Olympic gold 15 months after his low-key international debut. At London 2012 he was in the winning team and, to melodies such as Land Glory, The Great Escape, and the chimes of Big Ben, claimed the freestyle with an 90.089% before an emotional home crowd.
The real Valegro meets his Breyer model!
Valegro has gone on to be the only horse to hold Olympic, world championship (2014), European (2013) and World Cup titles (2014 and 2015) simultaneously. It will only be news the day he doesn’ttop the leader board. Valegro’s effortless brilliance has forced his rivals out of their comfort zones, while often moving his own rider to tears, and inspired a trickle-down effect to the buoyant British domestic sport.
Valegro is known as Blueberry at home. He’s worth millions on the open market, beyond price to Charlotte and Carl. But he lives like a normal horse and is turned-out daily in the paddock and hacked out around the lanes. So what makes him extra-ordinary?
“It’s like he read the encyclopedia when he was four years old,” says Charlotte. “He’s very clever and down to earth. So many horses get stage-fright when they enter the arena and that’s it, the performance is over. Valegro goes out to win and he gives me everything he has got to give, over and over again. He really is the horse of a lifetime.”