Carl Hester Interview

Following is an interview given by Carl Hester to  Christopher Hector during a break in competing at The Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain - originally published in THE HORSE MAGAZINE in early March 2016.

Carl covers many subjects in the interview including his relationship with Charlotte Dujardine, future plans for Nip Tuck and his own plans in the build up to The Rio Olympics amongst many other fascinating topics.

Given that the organizer of the Florida dressage circus, Mr Belissimo, would have probably handed over half a million in neat folding bills for Valegro to make his re-appearance in Wellington, why are you in Jerez?


Carl and Charlotte and her new Grand Prix star, Barolo

“Good point, although we didn’t get an offer. Never planned on it. As you know I kept it rather quiet that he was coming here, as I think Charlotte deserves a show where she can ride without the pressure of expectations, and have a bit of fun. The fun goes out of it when you are a gold medallist, going to every show with everybody picking on you – so we just wanted to put some fun back into it. The horse has been off since the Europeans last year. Up to Christmas it was just hacking, no schooling, just turn out and hacking out with Alan. He has come back so fast with his fitness, and I think right now, he’s the best he has been. So I said to Charlotte, let’s take him down to Spain and see how he goes, and maybe put him through the Grand Prix in the second week of the show.”

At the European Championships last year, I thought Valegro clearly won, but there were little things that you probably saw more than everyone else, because you know the pair so well, that weren’t Valegro and Charlotte at their very top… Did you come away from Aachen with a plan to fix things?


“Yeah. We are not entirely sure if it was just down to the fact that the horse was jaded after all these years… he has always behaved like a professor, so he doesn’t have the excitement that some other horses get. What he does outside, he does inside generally, and after six years at the top, I thought it was time for him to have a break and do something different, which is why we gave him all that time off. The horse never wants to not do his best, and that last music day, it was a bit like a cat howling. Watching it, I was just feeling that the horse just wasn’t where he was earlier in the year, and maybe it is time for a break, to give him a chance to freshen up. It will be interesting to see if I’m right. Is it just a fact of going into the ring again that’s just boring him? Or was it tiredness after a summer of competition?”

And with the jockey, did you have to do any brain surgery with her?

“No. I gave up on that Chris, a long time ago. A long time ago, most of our interviews together used to be, I’m telling her this, I’m telling her that, and she is screaming about this and screaming about that. It’s past that now, she’s thirty years old, I’m not dealing with the twenty-one year old kid I started with. We’re past that now and we are in a really good place with our training and everything, working together, respect for each other. I really felt for her, that last night of the music at the Europeans, that German crowd was a difficult crowd, to behave like that at a prize giving, I thought was pretty shocking. (There was booing from the German crowd when Charlotte’s winning score was announced.) For the first time, I saw her vulnerability. I was catching the plane home at six o’clock that night, and of course, she finished the prize-giving and was then told she had to go to the town centre to stand on that stage, and she felt absolutely rotten about it. She said, Kristina (Sprehe) is going to go up and get the silver and they are all going to go mad, and I’m going to walk out into that… I really felt for her. I’m at the airport, and she is crying down the phone. I actually thought, you have got a heart after all these years and it is affecting you.”

“It used to be like, In the arena I don’t mind, I don’t care what happens, and suddenly, your personality has done a huge great big U-turn, and you are the person with a heart, you are the person getting nervous about what other people think, which the rest of us have had all our lives. For me, that was like a turning point, I thought she needs my support in any of these situations now. Look what she’s done for me, for Great Britain, the horses…”


For dressage!

“And for dressage. She has been a breath of fresh air with her story, because she is a horsewoman. I think she will be a horsewoman who people will remember. She is going to do it on more and more horses, that girl. I love that about her, the fact is what she has had to learn is to ride horses that are not gold medallists. That’s where we’ve got to with her learning curve. Oh he’s not good enough, he’s not good enough – I said, but he is good enough for what he does, so let’s not keep thinking that we can only train gold medallists, let’s just train other horses to Grand Prix as well – that’s where you are going to become a horsewoman. And that’s what she is doing.”

Can we talk about positive tension? It looked to me, when we have been watching Charlotte working Valegro this week, that the incredible quality that she was showing was positive tension, he was electric, he was alive, maybe he was a little over-the-top at times, he was never stressed, but he was electric, and that’s a very weird concept…

“Where it tips over, that positive tension, is if you let the horse get strong in the bridle. Once you let the horse become heavy on the hand and strong in the bridle, it’s not positive any more, because then there is a block. If you can create what we try to create, without heavy hands, without hanging onto the rein, if you can do it with self-carriage, then it looks beautiful. It’s this word, expression, which is a dangerous word because once you put expression into it, like heightened suspension and things like that, then if you have got the wrong rider, or a rider who doesn’t ride with an independent seat, then they use their hands and that’s when you get that horrible looking, jerky dressage. It is something we really work on, to be able to create it, without going over-board.”

Did you have to create it with Valegro?

“Of course. Anyone who remembers him as a four, five or six year old, he had a very strong, Cobby, trot, there wasn’t the sort of power and expression he has now. He has a hanging moment now and he looks like an incredible mover, but back then, he had all the mechanics, but he didn’t have the lightness, he was always a bloody strong horse. He always had the hock action, that I don’t believe you can change.”


“Look at Nip Tuck for instance, that’s a horse without hind legs and I have to create, but I can never create Valegro hind legs for him. We can get Nip Tuck more engaged, but he is never going to have those hind legs that give him the same look as the natural ones.”



“That’s what makes me laugh when you get his critics saying, he should be more sitting, he should be this or that… Well, I started with no walk, no trot and no canter, that’s what I started with, Valegro started with all three paces.”



“That’s training, it does show that you can create something in every horse that has the willingness to work – it won’t be of the same quality, but it is something you can still make.”

Can you talk a little about self-carriage?

“Self-carriage is really easy to see. It’s that tension into the hand that we were just talking about with Valegro, that really tells it – it’s the first place you see it through the whole of the top line of the horse. The best thing you can do for self-carriage is the give and re-take of the reins. It is amazing how you forget to do that when you ride on your own. That constant giving the hand, taking, giving, taking, making sure that the outline is stable, the mouth is soft. You only have to look at the mouth to know how it is working, the horse is carrying its own head and neck. People that ride on their own, it can be something that they forget they are doing, people put in too much power and that’s why they find self-carriage difficult, and I always think you’ve got to create a balance and then put power in, that way around.”


“We were always told, particularly through the German system, hind legs, hind legs, hind legs, ride him more forward, ride him more forward… and when you look around the world, there are very few riders with an independent seat, and if you don’t have that independent seat, then finding self-carriage is one of the most difficult things, and you should never forget it, really. But balance first.”

I’m not sure if it is chicken or egg, but the riders who sit in the middle of the movement, in the middle of their horse are the ones with the self-carriage…

“Exactly, they have self carriage themselves.”

And the riders who sit behind the movement, particularly the ones with their shoulders back, they are never going to have self-carriage….

“No, because they are driving the horse down in front. If they sit too strong, behind the vertical, then they are pushing the horse down, through and into the hand. I was told by ‘Rocky’* when you go forward you bring your body forward and when you want to come back, you bring your body back. And it is amazing how most of us do the opposite to that. He always said to me, when you piaffe, you should be sitting over your knee, not sitting on your backside. Charlotte does that naturally, I have to remind myself to do it because I want to be too strong, but that is a really interesting little tip he gave me because piaffe, you get the feeling that you are driving, but in fact you should be sitting over your knee to let the horse use its back.”



Carl and his new Grand Prix star, Wanadoo (Hann, Wolkenstein/Cavalier)

*Franz Rochowansky (1911 – 2001) affectionately known as ‘Rocky’ was a head rider for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, before moving to the United Kingdom where he was an influential dressage teacher and went on to be the Olympic team trainer for the Netherlands, USA and Britain.

Do you think the breeders have gone down the wrong path with these super quality horses…

“No. I don’t subscribe to that view.”

But Charlotte’s new horse, Barolo, is by Breitling, not a pretty horse, but he gives strength…

“And he gives good movement and three paces.”


Barolo, Charlotte’s new Grand Prix competitor

And Valegro is by Negro, again not the modern type, but he gives strength, and the breeders have got away from that concept of strength in the search for Thoroughbred beauty…

“I don’t believe it is a breeding problem, I think it is a training problem. I think the quality of the horses being bred, the movement, the types, are lovelier than they were, and they are more natural, but this increased expression we are seeing, that’s wanted for winning, is just getting some people who haven’t got a good training system in place, to do things that are just not right. People think the breeding is the problem but I still think it is that the training is just not good enough. Or it’s a system that is just not keeping horses sound – horses should not be moving at optimal levels for weeks and weeks of a year.”

“The horses that we have brought here to Jerez, are strong in their hind legs, strong in their front legs, and strong in their bodies, but we are not training them dressage movements all the time. Just walk, trot and canter on long reins, that is basically teaching them in a natural way to look after themselves, they are not under the sort of constant pressure that is expected in the competition arena.”

And where are you mentally going into Rio – there has been the odd hint of you moving to a different rôle in the future…

“I said that in London, so I feel I might be lying whatever I say, because in London it was like ‘this is it guys, I’m off’, and of course I didn’t…”

You’ll be like Robert Dover…

“That’s why I am not going to commit myself to a public statement. That makes me laugh, I think it was four public retirements for Robert. I’m not going to make a public statement, but the only thing in my life that is difficult really, is having enthusiasm for the competitive side of it. I am enthusiastic about riding, I’m enthusiastic about training, and I am enthusiastic about the way we still like bringing horses on… but I’m not so enthusiastic about going to shows all my life. If I’m going to commit myself to doing that, then I am going to have to ride on teams, and you have to have that drive to do that, that’s the only thing I miss a bit nowadays. Charlotte did bring that back to my life for the last ten years.”


So you’ve got enough revs to make it to Rio?

“Oh yeah I can do that! I can manage a few more months!! But what I do after that… It’s interesting because Nip Tuck is one of my most favorite horses I’ve ever ridden in my life, and I really look forward to riding him all the time. I just love the generosity of the horse… So as long as I go on looking forward to getting on horses, every day at home with all the young ones we’ve got, I’m oh this is a good one. And Charlotte’s like, well you will have to see that one all the way through then… and I’m like, oh I didn’t mean it like that!”

How many young ones do you have?

“We’ve got twenty at home.”

Whoa, and how many riders?

“Three, myself, Charlotte and my new young rider, Amy Woodhead – she’s only 23, and her sister, Holly is 22 and was on the British Eventing Team for the Euros last year, very good riders, both of them, super. Amy did her first Grand Prix last year and she did three of them, each with 70% – just like that, never done them before, so I’ve got quite high hopes for her. Then we’ve got the work riders who just help us with the hacking.”

Do you go anywhere in particular to buy your youngsters?

“Wherever they pop up, to be honest, England still is the place to buy horses. They are cheap. I just can’t put myself into the position of going for those great big moving, produced horses, I like to find the raw ones down the road. I’ve got a really exciting mare at the moment and she cost me four thousand pounds from a racing yard down the road! A friend of mine lives next door and she rang me, there’s something moving in the racing yards next door that doesn’t move like a race horse…”

You bought a Thoroughbred?

“It’s actually a Dimaggio, it is a dream. It’s got like top dressage bloodlines. I asked my friend, what’s it doing there. She said, I’ve got no idea but it is for sale. How much? £4,000. God I said, should I just buy it? Yes buy it. So we bought it, and I said, don’t tell them it is me, I don’t want the price to change, don’t say a word. On the day we were supposed to send my tiny little lorry which is plain, no signs, it wouldn’t start, so we had to send the Charlotte Dujardin truck with her name and picture all over it. It was too late by then, I said, we’ve bought it. There’s me thinking I’ve got a bargain, then I met the people who owned the horse, and he said, you think you’ve got a good deal, I got it for free because she was a bitch to break in! We all had a good deal out of it, really. Those are the stories I like, and those are the horses I like, and it is a damned good horse.”


Interview by Christopher Hector - originally published in THE HORSE MAGAZINE -




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