Burbank, Calif.—March 8
It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the Beatles coming to America, but the arrival of 2012 London Olympic Games double gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, Calif., prompted a flurry of excitement all the same.
The 27-year-old British superstar wasn’t the only Olympian in the house. Hilda Gurney, a veteran of the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games for the U.S. team, was among the riders, as was Leslie Reid, who represented Canada at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.
Organized by Glenda McElroy and Pam Lane, the symposium was Dujardin’s first in the United States, and it attracted an appreciative crowd of several hundred spectators.
Dujardin was joined by her former trainer, Judy Harvey, a Féderation Equestre Internationale judge, British team selector and competitor. They met when Dujardin was 16, and Harvey coached her for four years before Dujardin moved to Carl Hester’s barn in 2007.
Harvey quipped that two weeks after Dujardin first arrived at Hester’s, he phoned Harvey to say, “That girl can ride. Do you think I should keep her?”
The anecdote set the tone for the symposium. Self-assured, quick-witted and sharp-tongued, Dujardin rarely missed a trick, telling one rider: “That was a bad transition. I might be talking, but I’m still watching.” When another rode a diagonal poorly, she cracked, “You wouldn’t have won any gold medals with that one.”
Dujardin sounded several themes throughout the day. The importance of keeping the horse moving forward was one. “I want that feeling that if I touch with my leg, the horse goes, and if I touch with my reins the horse slows down,” she explained.
Another was the necessity of making clear transitions—between as well as within the gaits. Riders who took a walk break without making a correct downward position were immediately sent back to do it over. “People think about the walk as being a breather,” said Dujardin, “but it’s as important to work on as everything else.”
Harvey noted that Dutch trainer Bert Rutten told her that one must ride every transition “as if your life depended on it."
The seven horses on day one ranged from Kristina Harrison-Antell’s 4-year-old Hanoverian Barnaby Wilde GCF to Gurney’s 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding Wintersnow. But it was Leslie Reid’s 8-year-old Pura Raza Espanola stallion Kobal who seemed to make the biggest impression—on Dujardin and the audience. After riding him herself, Dujardin said she was ready to put him in her suitcase and take him back to England. “He leaves tomorrow,” she joked to Reid.
Starting the day with Harrison-Antell and Barnaby, Dujardin ticked off the qualities she looks for in a young horse: temperament, paces, a good walk and a good canter. “Will and trainability” are paramount, she said.
With young horses, Dujardin said she typically limits sessions to no more than 20 minutes to keep everything “very forward” and “easy and clear,” with the emphasis on suppleness and an even rein contact.
Praising Barnaby’s trot and rhythm, Dujardin called him “a great horse for the future. Eventually when he gets stronger, you can put that suspension in. You don’t always want a horse with big movement. At the end of the day, you have to make sure the horse lasts.”
Harvey agreed: “Those big freaky movers that you see winning the Young Horse classes are very hard to keep sound.”
Next up was Jaye Cherry riding Marta Kauffman’s 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding Santana. Dujardin wasted no time telling Cherry that the horse needed to bring his neck up and out and move. “Go for ‘yee-haw,’” she said.
The goal, she stressed, was quick reactions. “Because he gets behind her leg, it’s important to do loads of transitions.”
Dujardin said riders are often too dependent on the whip to back up their leg. “I only pick up the whip when I’m going to do the piaffe. The whip doesn’t make the horse go, the legs make the horse go.”
Next, Harrison-Antell returned to the arena with the 9-year-old Dutch gelding Arlo. Again stressing the transitions, Dujardin said, “You’ve got to have that feeling that when you press, he goes. Push, and then bring him back.”
“We’re training our horses to do gymnastics,” Dujardin explained. “We do exercises to make our test movements better.”
Sheryl Ross, the lone amateur in the group, rode her 13-year-old Danish gelding Lancaster. To prepare for the working pirouette, Dujardin had them practice a half-pass exercise that required Ross to maintain activity and roundness in canter. “When you can learn that feeling, then you can make it smaller, and he will learn to wait,” Dujardin told her.
Between rides, Dujardin and Harvey shared stories. Dujardin remarked that she calls Hester “granddad” and that he calls her “Edwina Scissorhands,” owing to her strong hands when she started out.
After the lunch break, Mette Rosencrantz worked with her new horse, the 13-year-old Danish mare Cenna. Dujardin and Harvey had Rosencrantz concentrate on keeping the horse’s neck soft and loose while schooling the canter zigzag.
They began by asking Rosencrantz to do a few steep leg yields to make sure the horse was moving off her leg. “The zigzag is quite a tough thing to learn, and it’s [scored with a co-efficient], so it’s a very important movement not to mess up,” Dujardin said.
Working with Gurney and Wintersnow, she offered leg yielding exercises to encourage the 18-hand gelding to be more responsive to her left leg. And in piaffe, Dujardin suggested that Gurney think forward so that the horse doesn’t get “stuck,” even if it meant taking only two steps in piaffe before easing him out.
Dujardin clearly enjoyed riding Kobal, whom Reid found in Spain as a 3-year-old. “It’s a tribute to Leslie’s training that a strange rider can get on and do the changes,” she said. “I can just sit and swing, and off he goes. His trainability is fantastic.”
She ended with a beautifully cadenced extended trot that drew oohs and aaahs from the audience.
Reid said later that she was honored that Dujardin would ride the horse. “Her bar is set really, really high, and she’s determined to get people as close to that bar as possible.”
Harrison-Antell agreed. “I loved Charlotte’s attention to detail. She actually picked up on things that only I know I do.”
How do Dujardin and Hester keep the tails of their horses so quiet:
How do you handle a spooky young horse?
“You want to give them a jolly good kick, but try to ignore it. Leg yield them into [what’s scaring them] rather than letting them come away from it.”
What’s your favorite thing about Carl Hester?
“His sense of humor. He’s such a great person to work with day in and day out. He’s fantastic to have at shows. He never gets stressed.”
How did winning the gold medal change your personal life?
“It was the toughest time of my life. Socially, I couldn’t deal with it. I was in demand [TV, radio, appearance at Buckingham Palace, asked to appear on “Skating with the Stars”]. I said ‘No’ to much of it.”