Charlotte Dujardin has lifted the somewhat obscure equine discipline of dressage into the general public’s consciousness by partnering the venerable Valegro to more Olympic success this year. It has led to Dujardin being nominated for the BT Sports Action Woman of the Year Award 2016, and here Eleanore Kelly explains why she believes the talented rider is the ultimate action woman.
The Mixed Zone is publishing a series of articles by contributors in support of each of the 10 nominees for the annual prize, the winner of which will be announced during the Action Woman of the Year Awards Show, presented by Clare Balding, on BT Sport on Monday, December 12.
The winner, from an outstanding list of sporting performances by British female athletes during 2016, will be decided by the public. For details of how you can vote, along with the full list of nominations, CLICK HERE
They call it the ‘Dujardin effect’. Her presence sells-out seats as fast as One Direction. Her spellbinding performances in the dressage arena has made the sport ‘cool’. Dressage has often been caricatured for its fuddy-duddy formality and baffling scoring system. But Charlotte Dujardin has changed that perception and introduced a new wave of enthusiasts to the sport. Her partnership with a horse called Valegro has captivated hearts, souls and minds for the last five years. Horse and rider have displayed a talent and harmony never seen before in the world of dressage.
I have witnessed great numbers of Dujardin devotees happy to wait in line for hours for an autograph. When Dujardin won the 2015 World Cup Final in Las Vegas, I met a woman who had travelled all the way from New Zealand to watch her idol and another who had journeyed from Alaska. Even The Queen, who invited Dujardin to a private lunch, was heard to say: “I have to tell you that there is no other girl who rides like this young lady.”
Dujardin is one of the most successful riders in history. A triple gold medallist from the London and Rio Olympics, she is world, European and World Cup champion as well as holding all three world records in dressage.
Her rise to the top has been meteoric: she only entered her first Grand Prix in 2011. It was a time when the Germans and the Dutch were still dominating the sport. That year Dujardin and a fledgling Valegro, then nine years old, made their first British team appearance at the European Championships in Rotterdam. Their performance helped the team win their first dressage gold in the championships’ history. Less than a year later Dujardin and Valegro were crowned individual and team Olympic gold medallists.
There was no silver-spoon upbringing for Dujardin. She grew up in a two-up-two down home in Enfield, but had a passion for ponies from the age of two. Her parents did everything they could to support their daughter to the point of near-bankruptcy. “If I had a pound for every time someone said, ‘Give up, you can’t afford it’, I’d be rich,” says her father. “But the horses and Charlotte’s enthusiasm are what kept me going through all the hard times.”
Dujardin began her career as a groom to Carl Hester. He has remained her mentor, trainer, benefactor and friend. He quickly spotted her ability and gave her the ride on the very green but precociously talented Valegro. He was tricky horse to ride but with Dujardin there was instant chemistry. Their relationship has been one of the greatest love stories of sport, but the affair has come to an end.
Though still in his prime at 14, and arguably with the prospect of more medals to come, Valegro’s retirement was confirmed after Rio. Dujardin has chosen to forsake her own sporting ambitions for her horse’s best interests. “I owe it to him to finish at the top,” Dujardin said. “I want everyone to remember him as the horse he is – a hero. What he has done for the sport is truly inspirational.” Such is the significance of this retirement that an official ‘bowing out’ will take place at the London International Horse Show at Olympia on December 14.
For me, Dujardin is the ultimate Action Woman. She is an inspiration, both for her sporting prowess and her love and respect for her equine partner. She has been a game-changer from the beginning: she has helped to take British dressage from the doldrums to the top of the global stage, as well as giving a ‘niche’ sport, once considered stiff and boring, a great deal of air-time. She has reigned supreme for five years in one of the few sports where men and women compete against each other. And she has dispelled the myth that it is an elitist sport only accessible to those with vast sums of money.
Dujardin is a hero to so many. Even cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew was in raptures after her gold medal-winning test in Rio. It was a performance Dujardin knew would be her last with Valegro. Reporting on Radio 5 Live in Rio, Aggers summed it up perfectly: “She was under pressure and to cope with it was remarkable. She blew the rest away. It was one of the highlights of my sporting life.”
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.