Archive | October, 2015

VALEGRO Champion Horse

7 Oct





Do you know where you were in 1984? I was watching Ahlerich and Marzog duel for the title of Olympic Dressage Champion at Los Angeles’ Santa Anita Racetrack. In 1984, we had no kurs, no 80% scores, no internet or social media.
A book came out about that year’s eventual champion: “Ahlerich:The Making of a Dressage World Champion.” Dr. Klimke traced the schooling and training and gave hitherto unknown glimpses of the need for understanding how to compete, how to survive, and how to win. Many people still have video of the victory-lap around the Santa Anita Racetrack, an endless succession of gorgeous one-handed, one-tempis as Dr. Klimke waved his top hat and basked in the roaring approval.
Dr. Klimke and Ahlerich set a record for international Grand Prix at that time, 70%!!!
Since then, we have had the amazing duels between Isabell Werth and Anky van Grunsven, two great champions with multiple champion partners.
And then, we had Edward Gal and Totilas — Ed-and-Toto as they were known with affection– all too briefly. For the first time, one horse and rider held all three world records at the same time and held all of us in the palm of their hand and hoof.
And here we are, 2015, and we have Team Hester — Charlotte and Carl and Valegro – and a new, wonderfully worthwhile book, “VALEGRO Champion Horse.”
I expected to enjoy this book. The photos are sumptuous, the narrative offers many insights.But added bonus—it presents quite honestly just how big a village it takes to get to the top in sport today. Any sport, but particularly one where one of the partnered athletes does not speak our language. Equestrian is notable for many things but perhaps most significant, only one athlete is human, and it seems to make little difference to the horse if the athlete is male or female, so men and women compete as equals—mo0re than can be said for any other sport.
The book’s format is delightful. On nearly every page is a bit of chronologically laid out history courtesy of Carl Hester (and co-author Bernadette Hewitt), plus a big sidebar from someone intimately connected to Valegro: breeders; vets; the people who have ridden him, groomed him, arranged the travel plans– the paper file, the shoeing, the massages; the owners; and the incomparable Alan Davies, manager of so much more than Carl’s competition horses.
Through it all are the constants that have become Charlotte Dujardin as competition partner and Carl Hester as co-owner, mentor, manager, trainer, teacher, and magician who looked into the hat and pulled out these concurrent Olympic, World, European and World Cup Championships.
The only bar still to be topped is the 90% technical test. Charlotte and Blueberry (Valegro’s barn name) are aimed to compete at Rio Olympics in 2016, so we might still see this magical bar finally be achieved.
As he has already done in past books, interviews and commentary, once again Carl Hester uses his refreshing blend of humor and honesty to reveal Valegro’s growth and development rather like peeling onion layers.
It is some 30 years since Ahlerich, and we are inundated with social media, kurs and 80% does not come close to Valegro’s 3 world records. Nevertheless, the instant communication has made everyone an expert on everything, especially training. But we still have only one Valegro.
Carl does not discuss the actual training here, more the strategy of keeping Valegro sound and fit. Of course we have his other books and videos outlining his process, his routine.
Significantly, Carl as an international competitor and co-owner of Valegro has been asked many times why he did not keep the ride for himself. Instead ,he and Uthopia and Charlotte and Valegro were 2/3 of the team that granted Great Britain its first and only Olympic team gold medal in dressage as well as the cherry on the icing of the cake, the individual gold for Char and Bluebs. Carl does indeed address all this in this book.
The growing realization that the calm, confident young horse might be special; the first glimpses of greatness; the incredible 2011 team gold medal at Nations Cup in Rotterdam, where the British team pulled out 80% rides and announced to the world that Great Britain had become a major dressage power.
Everything changed after that. Everything. Suddenly it just seemed appropriate that 2012 Olympics would be in London and medal hopes could begin apace.
The lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012 and the team gold medal, the cherry on the icing of the cake—the individual gold medal—is all presented here and is a very exciting part of the story.
But for me, the biggest moment is Aachen 2014 . Char and Bluebs by this time had come to own the #1 ranking on every dressage list as well as records set. But there was the still matter of Totilas, now ridden by Germany’s Matthias Rath and trained by Netherland’s Sjef Janssen. This collaboration had already produced unbelievable media coverage, both positive and negative, leading to electric sparks. Many saw Aachen as The Showdown between the two gold standards.
The incredible movement of Totilas.
The exquisite training and foundation of Valegro.
Instead, in the blink of time that flying changes take place and mistakes can be made, Blueberry’s Grand Prix score suddenly slipped the pair down to 5th or 6th place and Totilas reigned supreme in both the Grand Prix and the Special. Wisely, the Totilas team withdrew from the freestyle as a quickly recovering Charlotte dug down and with Valegro back in form did win the freestyle.
But now the question was there for all to ask.
Had we seen the summit for this partnership? What would the future—including World Equestrian Games—reveal? Would there be yet another new champion?
How Carl and the rest of the team rose to this challenge remains for me one of the best parts of the history presented here.
In tracing the history of Valegro, Carl also reveals the growth of and globalization of dressage as sport. It is exciting to have no foregone conclusions in any sport; it only adds to the drama and the luster to have intense drama and competition.
Despite the best care, the best technology, the best knowledge and experience, in horse sport, it still comes down to no hoof, no horse—and then no sport.
The book makes clear that achieving success requires all the touchstones—luck, knowledge, experience, strategy, planning. But maintaining that success, staying on top, is even more nerve-wracking and complicated.
Here’s wishing the best to Team Hester for Rio 2016 and well beyond!