An interview with top dressage rider Carl Hester

Carl Hester riding Uthopia in London

Carl Hester riding Uthopia in London - Credit: Archant

Debbie Graham talks to the golden boy of British dressage Carl Hester

Charlotte, Carl and Laura celebrating their victory

Charlotte, Carl and Laura celebrating their victory - Credit: Archant

In Beijing, the British dressage team came sixth and looked unlikely to ever challenge the German rule.

Fast forward four years and they not only arrived in London as firm favourites after taking gold in the Europeans last year but delivered in spectacular style with a team gold, an individual gold (Charlotte Dujardin) and individual bronze (Laura Bechtolsheimer).

The decades of German dominance are over and for now Britain reigns supreme.

“It was as amazing as it looked,” says team captain Carl Hester from Newent. “I don’t think anyone could have prepared us for what it was going to be like. Riding into a stadium filled with 25,000 people was a bit of a shocker, for us and the horses, but it was also incredible. It made the whole thing very special and lifted our game. I have been to four Olympics and I have never ridden under that amount of pressure before and that was hard. I look back at photographs of me then and I look absolutely haggard, tired and worn out because we weren’t sleeping. ”

The winning team is a close-knit group; Laura is the daughter of Dr Wilfred Bechtolsheimer, the dressage trainer who Carl credits with changing his life during their three years working together, while Charlotte is Carl’s protégé. She came to Carl for lessons in 2007, helped him out for a few weeks and never left.

“I have known Laura since she was four and I can say what I like to her and she can say what she likes to me. Charlotte and me live in each other’s pockets and can say what we like to each other as well. It makes for a great team spirit.”

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If there is a hero of British dressage it is without doubt Carl. He has been at the forefront of the sport for the last 20 years and has had much to do with its changing fortunes. Unassuming, personable, charismatic; his journey illustrates what hard work, talent, dedication and belief can achieve.

Born in 1967 on the tiny island of Sark to unhorsey parents, he got his first introduction to riding when the farm he helped out at after school got a donkey. A life-long love affair with all things equine was born and when he could he cajoled owners into letting him ride their horses, often without a proper saddle and bridle.

Carl, Laura and Charlotte on the podium

Carl, Laura and Charlotte on the podium - Credit: Archant

“When I look at the cliff paths now we used to gallop along bareback without a proper bridle just a head collar with two bits of rope…” he says with a shudder.

Aged 16 Carl was at boarding school in Guernsey and considering his future options when his former teacher at Sark put in a call, knowing his equestrian interest. She explained they had someone coming over from Fortune Centre of Riding Therapy on the Dorset/Hampshire border to talk about working with horses and did he want to come? Carl did and as a result he ended up there training for his BHSAI (the British Horse Society’s Assistant Instructor’s qualification).

“My parents weren’t very impressed with me going off and working with horses after my education but they let me go.”

Carl’s formal equestrian life had begun, but, he had a lot to learn he recalls. “I learnt how to ride in a saddle and bridle, I even learnt to tack up properly,” he says laughing. After gaining his AI he returned to Sark with the private intent of remaining there.

“Life in Sark is great, no crime, barbecues and parties on the beach - I thought ‘yes I could stay here for the rest of my life’,” he says. But he hadn’t bargained on his adored “bossy” grandmother, the family’s matriarch, and fortunately for Great Britain she had very different ideas.

“She told me to go to England and make something of my life so I applied for a job as a working pupil with the Taylors (Jannie and Christopher Taylor who ran an eventing yard at Bourton-on-the-Hill). I was very homesick for Sark, but they became my family and looked after me.”

While here he came to the attention of Dr B and was offered the job as rider and from this yard made his debut on the British team on Rubelit von Unkenriff in 1990 world championships. This followed with the European Championships in 1991 and in 1992 the Barcelona Olympics on Georgioni.

He then decided to strike off on his own, first in partnership with Kate Carter at her yard at Stow-on-the Wold. Then in 2004 he moved by himself to a yard at Malswick, near Newent where he is based now.

Carl at home with Lulu

Carl at home with Lulu - Credit: Archant

Over the next 18 years he has had numerous wins at national level but until 2009 no international championship medals and until 2012 no Olympic medals. That all changed in London when he got Olympic gold in the team dressage riding Uthopia and now the whole country is talking about the dancing horses.

“Builders have said they have watched me in the pub, in the pub! This doesn’t happen in dressage. I think it has had a lot to do with the freestyle dressage to music. People can relate to that,” he says. The team had even been interviewed by Chris Evans for Radio Two, a first for dressage and probably a first as well for Chris Evans.

The Hester clan including parents, step-parents, siblings, step-siblings and granny, now 88, were all there in force to cheer him on for the first time. “Visiting Olympics like Athens, and Sydney before were out of reach for them so this was the first time they were able to come to an Olympic Games. It was very emotional.”

And perhaps for granny it was the most poignant of all as it was her words all those years ago that speared him on to greatness.

Read Carl's autobiography Making It Happen, priced £20

Read Carl's autobiography Making It Happen, priced £20 - Credit: Archant

But what of the equine superstars they were riding, now hugely valuable? Valegro (Charlotte’s ride) and Uthopia are not owned by Carl, although he does have a share, and after the Europeans the owners were under considerable pressure to sell, but hung onto them for London so Carl and Charlotte would have a chance of glory. “We owe them so much,” says Carl.

But now it is the owner’s time to reap the reward for their dedication. Carl had openly declared Valegro and Uthopia were for sale before the games and since then the rumour mill has been rife with speculation and multi million figures.

“I only said that before the games to see if anyone would buy them for Charlotte and me,” he says. But the story took hold and Carl says he has even been told that the horses left the games to go abroad, that they had definitely been sold to Spain; each rumour wilder than the next… but the reality is they are enjoying the last few days of summer turned out in a paddock at Carl’s.

“I promised I would give them a holiday after the games and that’s what they are having. They are out in the field. After that who knows?” he says.

The same could be said for Charlotte as his protégé is the new star of British dressage, the individual Olympic champion. “I don’t know what will happen in the future now with Charlotte. She is set for life,” he says. “I can now put on my CV I have trained the Olympic champion!”

Her rise to fame is thanks wholly to Carl as he gave her the ride on Valegro when they both were relatively unknown and let her take him all the way to the Olympics.

But for Carl it is not only about competing at the highest level himself, but also about helping the next generation to realise their dreams. On his yard at home, where there are 18 horses ranging from novice to Grand Prix, he has a number of girls working for him in return for training and the chance to compete.

“If I can get them to win a championship I can set them up for life. They can make it a career,” he says. “I like watching them. I don’t watch and think I want to be up there competing.”

For him it is a way of repaying the debt he owes those that have helped him. “If it hadn’t been for the Taylors and Dr B where would I be now?” he says.

British dressage could have no better ambassador.

Read Carl’s autobiography Making It Happen, priced £20