It is not unusual for athletes to cry when they win a medal. Tears of exultation, relief, pride – the culmination of a long-held ambition. And many of us watching struggle not to join them in the sentiment. To watch Charlotte Dujardin’s gold medal-winning dressage performance was to witness something otherworldly. With her I cried. Her tears ebbed and flowed as she completed her final movement for this has been an epic journey. For those who know her story, her tears were more than joy, relief, pride, but also sadness, a sense of loss. For there are two protagonists to this story, two great champions – Dujardin and a horse named Valegro. And as his rider drew her final halt we may have witnessed the end of an era.
“He couldn’t have done anymore,” Dujardin said afterwards. “I was thinking this could be the last time”, before bursting into tears. In just nine years Valegro has helped Dujardin become one of the most successful British riders in history. She became the first British woman to retain an individual Olympic title following her team and solo gold in London. Along with world and European titles, this extraordinary partnership holds all the world records in their sport.
There are some athletes we come to expect great things from. We depend upon them to make us proud to be British, without so much as lifting our remote control finger to tune into their next performance. Think Andy Murray, Justin Rose, Laura Trott, Heather Stanning and Helen Glover and, of course, Charlotte Dujardin. But to maintain such consistency with a horse is near impossible. Two hearts, two minds, two bodies. So much can go wrong. Her mentor and coach Carl Hester summed it up: “I think for her, for sure, it must be better than London. Consistency is so hard with a horse and to see that horse being at the top for six years with hardly a blip on his record is phenomenal. I can’t think of many horses that have done what he’s done”
Probably because there are none. This is a relationship between a girl and horse that has put Britain on the map in the sport of dressage and has captured an audience around the world way beyond equestrian enthusiasts.
Dressage: the competitive examination of horse and rider skill to display the highest expression of horse training presented to between one and seven judges in a series of pre-determined movements. Put simply, it’s ballet with horses. Riders train for years to achieve a harmonious and barely detectible communication with their horse.
Dujardin and Valegro began their dressage careers together. The 31 year old from Essex started out as a stable-hand to trainer Carl Hester in 2007. She started riding Valegro initially with the intention that Hester would take over the ride. But after competing in their first Grand Prix test in 2011, they were selected for the British team who won gold in the European Championships later that year.
From then on the overnight sensations became global superstars. Crowds flocked to witness their performances, thrilling to a telepathic partnership that most riders can only dream of emulating. I once met a lady at the World Cup Final in Las Vegas who had travelled more than a thousand miles from the Nebraska just to witness the great duo. She queued for four hours for an introduction to her idols and when the moment came, she could hardly speak for tears.
Back in Rio, the individual medals were determined by the third and final part of the competition, the freestyle to music. Riders choreograph their own “dressage dance”, highlighting the horse’s strengths, and set to the music of their choice. Marks are awarded not only for correct execution of each highly-skilled movement but also for the inventiveness of the choreography and for the music. These marks are totalled and a percentage produced, with the highest percentage winning.
Dujardin and Valegro danced through piaffe, pirouettes and tempi- change. It was a dressage routine never seen before, designed especially for the Olympics and set to a new music composition with a definite Carnival twist. Their rhythm, tempo and masterful choreography was so outstanding that her final score of 93.857 was a gulf ahead of the silver-medal score of 89.071. To underline the significance, the rider in second place was the multi-medalled German maestro Isabel Werth, who now has an incredible ten Olympic medals from an extraordinary career that began before Dujardin was even born.
Dujardin’s score fell just short of the freestyle record she recorded at Olympia in 2014. “We set the world record at 94 so I knew it was possible. But to come here and do it again at the Olympics is quite special.” she said after her test. “Today was magic. In London there was no pressure to take gold, but today I was nervous because I felt the expectation to deliver. But trotting around the arena before the start, Valegro felt so good it just put a smile on my face and I knew it was going to be OK. I felt he knew what I thinking in there, and he looked after me. He did his very best. I have a partnership, a connection with this horse that nothing is going to break. He has a heart of gold. He definitely won’t be doing another Olympic Games or a big championship. I owe it to him to finish at the top.”
There is anotherr man in Dujardin’s life, too. Her partner, Dean Wyatt Golding, proposed to her during London 2012. As Dujardin and Valegro galloped their lap of honour, Dean could be seen in the stands with a banner on his chest with the words: “Can we get married now?” “I said yes,” Dujardin revealed. “Bless him, he’s been waiting a long time. We’ve been together nine years, but it’s definitely going to happen now.” My guess is Valegro, with three Olympic gold medals around his neck, will be a prominent member of the wedding party.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Eleanore’s latest articles.