One last dance for Britain’s favourite horse
This week one of Britain’s finest sporting champions will perform in competition for the last time. On Wednesday, he will bring to a close a competitive career encompassing four Olympic medals (three of them gold), several world and European titles and a plethora of records. That his departure has been less celebrated than that of the year’s other grand retirees such as Jessica Ennis-Hill or Steven Gerrard may have something to do with the fact he has four legs, a tail and is not known for the eloquence of his post-match interviews. Nonetheless, the emotional pull when Valegro trots his way through his routine at London’s Olympia Horse Show on Wednesday night will be significant. This, after all, is the nation’s favourite dancing horse.
“It’s going to be emotional,” says Charlotte Dujardin, the dressage rider who has been with him throughout his golden era. “It’s the first time many of his fans have seen him perform in this country since London 2012. And now it’s the last time. So it might get tearful. On the other hand, we don’t have to get too upset. He’s not dying. He’s just stopping doing competitions.”
She has a point. Watching one day last week as Valegro prepared for his exit, he does not look a competitor unduly concerned about the forthcoming turn of events. It seems, as he poses for photos and does a turn round the parade ring for the television cameras, that he is taking the end, as he did everything else throughout his stellar career, in his long, elegant stride. “We made the decision in Rio,” says Dujardin. “What better way is there to finish than at the very top? Very few horses do that. Usually they stop through injury or when they are not able to produce. We didn’t want that. It was important for us that he went out on a high. He’d done so much for us.”
And by us, Dujardin is not simply referring to herself or to the horse’s owner and her long-term mentor, Carl Hester, or even to the rest of the GB dressage team. She means her sport as a whole. “He changed everything,” she says. “Before 2012 if I said to somebody ‘I do dressage’, they’d have looked very blank. Since London people recognise me as the girl on the dancing horse. I was nominated for Sports Personality of the Year. A dressage rider nominated for Spoty? To have that recognition has been huge for our sport.”
Since the pair embedded themselves in the national consciousness, the offthe-beaten-track yard where they work has seen a steady increase in visitors, from the local MP, through pop stars to other sporting practitioners anxious to discover precisely what magic was being spun in rural Gloucestershire. What Valegro and Dujardin did was popularise what had, until they arrived, been the most esoteric of pursuits. To watch them in action you did not have to be an expert on the nuance of dressage to recognise here was something special. The horse’s athleticism, timing and showstopping sense of occasion were complemented by Dujardin’s ease and control. According to Hester, before their double act stormed into the sport, conventional wisdom had it that even the very best of dressage horses were good at some part of the discipline involved, but were inevitably weak on others. Not Valegro. He was brilliant at every aspect. “He’ so good, it will be very odd for the crowd at Olympia,” he says. “They’ll be watching him for the last time thinking, wow, he’s still the best there is.”
Hester had originally bought Valegro to compete on himself. But one day, watching what the then inexperienced Dujardin did when she rode the horse round the parade ring, he immediately appreciated there was a connection he could not match. “Their first ride in a grand prix they came fifth,” he recalls. “That’s unheard of.” And from there the pair didn’t stop winning, setting records as they went that are unlikely to be touched in a generation.
“He is a horse built for the job,” Hester says of the mount he bought as an unschooled youngster in Holland. “He has no weaknesses. Nor does Charlotte. She has an amazing ability to feel movement. Everything they did together was an eight, nine or 10.”
That ability to deliver huge scores not only allowed Dujardin to hoover up all the individual accolades, but it propelled the GB team to a summit previously occupied by the allconquering Germans. The first time the wider public became aware of quite how good the partnership could be was at the London Olympics. There the judges were unanimous in their praise, awarding record scores to the pair.
“Not for one minute did I think I’d be coming away with that,” says Dujardin of the gold medals won in both the individual and team disciplines. “To stand on that podium in front of the home crowd, everyone banging their feet, shouting, it was incredible. It was a moment that will live with me forever.”
And it was just the start of a fouryear period leading up to the Rio games in which everything the two of them touched turned to gold.
It was not just the relentless work the pair put in, spending hours every day in the yard’s indoor arena practising each and every move until it became second nature. There was something else, something exceptional about Valegro’s character that enabled Dujardin to excel under the most severe competitive examination.
“What’s so amazing is he’s not afraid of anything. The bigger the atmosphere the better. Lots of riders could only go for an eight because their horse didn’t have the temperament. I could go for a 10.”
It was Dujardin’s decision to bring the partnership to an end.
“I think possibly if I’d done another year, I could have won more, I could have broken more records,” Dujardin says. “But I’ve already done so much, why push it? What is the point of doing that? Give him the chance to relax, go round the country as an ambassador for dressage, getting a hero’s welcome wherever he goes. Given what he’s done for the sport, it’s the least he deserves.”
Not that she intends to join Valegro on his extended lap of honour. At 31, she is still in the prime of her sporting life. She is all set to defend her title in Tokyo. Indeed, the retirement of her double act partner has only piqued her determination. “I’m still as hungry, if not more so. I know he’s a horse of a lifetime. But maybe I’ll develop a horse that will help the team challenge again in the world championships or the Olympics and that would be massive. Just to achieve a little bit of what we did with Valegro on another horse, that would be incredible.”
‘It’s the first time many of his fans have seen him here since London 2012. So it might get tearful’
Golden duo: Charlotte Dujardin (left) who flew the flag for Britain at London 2012 with her ‘once in a lifetime’ horse Valegro (right)