British Dressage gold medallist Carl Hester talks about Valegro, his horse of a lifetime
PUBLISHED: 10:48 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:29 14 December 2015
Debbie Graham meets up with dressage superstar Valegro, and his owner and trainer, Olympic gold medalist Carl Hester
Down a Cotswold country lane, a superstar worth millions of pounds – one who has broken every world record possible in his sport – quietly resides away from the glare of the media. Winner of nine gold medals, including two Olympic Golds, this unassuming hero, who has captured the imagination of the world, is the equine Usain Bolt of the graceful sport of dressage.
Valegro has catapulted British Dressage into the limelight and is perhaps the most famous horse in dressage today, perhaps ever. Thanks to him, dancing horses have become mainstream; an equine sport both horsey and non-horsey people could marvel at and admire.
But Valegro’s story is not that of a horse bought for a hundred thousand pounds that was set to be a champion. This is one of dreams, talent and hard work. Through him, Charlotte Dujardin, an enormously talented young rider who started out as a groom, has become Olympic, World and European Champion. It is where attitude is matched with talent; where a lovely generous horse with a heart of gold has been blessed with the ability to match; where ordinary meets extraordinary.
“I can’t really explain what he has done for not only British Dressage, but the world of dressage,” says Valegro’s part-owner and trainer, Olympic dressage rider Carl Hester. “He is a phenomenon, and to have a horse like this in your life is very special. But to us at home he is still very much a family pet; he doesn’t know he is worth as many millions as people say. He is just a very kind, loving horse, who likes nothing more than to eat grass and looks forward to meal times.”
Bought by Carl for around £3,500 – “hunter money, really” says Carl – at the KWPN stallion show and grading event in The Netherlands when he was just 2 ½, this cobby, squat little horse was far from the champion he was to become.
“I was starting out and I needed to invest in horses – I hoped one would become a star; that was as much as I dreamt of at that time,” says Carl. “I just fell in love with the shape of Valegro. One saying, when you are talking about a really good horse, is that the horse should have the bottom of the cook and the head of a duchess (in other words a beautiful front end and a strong hind quarters) and that’s the first thing I thought when I saw Valegro. Then I saw him cantering, he had this amazing canter, and I thought ‘wow’.”
Valegro came to Carl’s Gloucestershire home to start his dressage career, but it wasn’t plain sailing. Twice, Carl almost sold him and twice fate played its hand and prevented the sale from going through. At four he was only 16 hands high and as Carl didn’t think he was going to be big enough for him to ride, he provisionally agreed to sell him to Suzanne Davies, however, before the sale could go through Suzanne received a tax bill and couldn’t afford him. Carl then decided to take him back to Anne Van Olst (Valegro’s original owner) in Holland for her to sell, but after just a few days she told Carl he should keep him. “It was obviously meant to be,” says Carl. “Fate has played a huge part.”
And even the most cynical have to agree with him and believe Valegro was meant to be the one to change the face of dressage, particularly British dressage.
Then, in 2007 he was paired with Charlotte, a young rider who came to work for Carl as a groom and soon proved she had the talent and the drive to succeed at the very pinnacle of the sport. With Charlotte they won every level at the National Championships, from Novice to Intermediare, between 2007-10 and started to demonstrate what they could become. Although the original plan was to hand Valegro back to Carl once he reached Grand Prix level, Carl changed his mind and gave Charlotte the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I realised I liked watching and helping her and having someone who was in the same yard to competing at that level with me. I realised that with Utopia [Carl’s other Grand Prix horse] we could have two horses going to London. It was the perfect pairing. Charlotte and Valegro make it look easy – when you can do it with elegance and style, that is harmony. It’s like putting together a masterpiece – it was lovely for me to watch.”
On her website Charlotte describes Valegro as “my best friend, my horse of a lifetime and I love him more than words can say”.
Together they are one of just 11 pairings in the world ever to have scored more than 80 per cent at Grand Prix level and have to be the odds-on favourites for Rio, but it won’t be easy says Carl.
“This year was the closest anyone has got to her. She is now realising the rest of the world is closing up, for so long she has been ahead, and they are going to try and catch him for Rio. Rio will be a big test and he is not great in hot temperatures. “However, it won’t be a question of him not having tried his best if he doesn’t win, and it won’t matter to us if he doesn’t win. I think what he has done is out of this world. He has nothing else to prove – he doesn’t owe us anything.”
And after Rio? “He will retire here,” says Carl. “He is a horse who wouldn’t not want to be ridden and what we want to do is stop his competitive career maybe next year or the year after. He should be remembered at the top; that’s how he should be remembered.”
This decision has ended the rumour mill that has been circulating ever since Valegro reached the top. Since London there has been enormous pressure on Carl and Roly Luard (who has part-owned the horse since he was five years old) to sell him because of his enormous value. His guardian angel came into the form of Ann Barrott who bought a third share off Roly and thus secured his future.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when a decision gets made,” says Carl. “It’s a perfect way to finish. When it came down to it Charlotte and I couldn’t sell him. There was no one who would treat him like we do, and it’s not about us being better than anyone else – we just know what he likes. He doesn’t need to be bought by someone who wants a winning machine on the Continent, and we all know those stories don’t always turn out to be a success. This is the perfect ending for him and this is his home.”
There is a lot of relief in these words. For to Carl, Charlotte and Alan Davies, the man charged with looking after him, Valegro is a much-loved horse that has always tried his best first, and a global champion second. There will be many tears and emotions flying when Carl does retire Valegro but his legacy will live on in the belief that Britain can produce champions and that dreams can come true.
“He will keep British Dressage buoyant for a long time,” says Carl. “He has brought people to the sport, and thanks to him, people want to do dressage.”
The stunning hardback book Valegro Champion Horse, published by Third Millennium, is out now and priced £20. Crammed with 250 beautiful photographs, many of which have never been seen before, it charts the rise of Valegro the great through the eyes of not only Carl but others who have been involved in the journey of this once-in-a-lifetime horse.