He’s arguably one of the greatest horses of all time. Not only has he won every major championship and smashed every dressage record, but also Valegro is responsible for opening the eyes of the wider public to the sport of dressage. Together with his talented rider, Charlotte Dujardin the pair have captured hearts and imaginations around the world with their performances and their fairy tale.
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro after their record-smashing 2014 Olympia performance. Photo by London International Horse Show
But the fairy tale is coming to a close. This week at The London International Horse Show at Olympia, Valegro and Charlotte will take their final salute in what will be the horse’s official retirement from competition.
Ellie Kelly caught up with Charlotte the week before Olympia to hear how she came to this decision, plus her hopes and ambitions as she looks towards a life without the horse affectionately known as “Blueberry.”
Journalist Ellie Kelly and Valegro.
“Since London I have had huge expectations, a huge amount of pressure,” Dujardin said with a sigh. “I’ve won more and more; it has been incredible to keep winning. After London I thought, ‘I’ve done it, I’ve won two gold medals.’ Then we won the Europeans and then the Worlds and then another world record and another world record.
“When you keep delivering like that, people start to expect it. I got to Rio, and I thought, ‘He’s done so much for me as a rider,’ and I wanted everyone to remember Valegro as the horse he is—being at the top. I didn’t want to finish with him being down in his career. He deserves to finish at the top because he is probably one of the best horses there will ever be, and I owe it to him,” she said.
It was Dujardin who, after Rio, made the final call about retirement. “As the rider I had to make the decision to retire him,” she said, claiming that Carl Hester, her trainer and part owner of Blueberry, would have been happy either way. “It’s not the end of Valegro. He’s going to stop competing, but I will still be able to ride him every day, and people will see him at some demonstrations,” she explained.
“Of course it was a difficult decision,” she said with a nod. ”It would be easy for me as a rider to go on. He’s only 14 and could go for another couple of years, and he could probably get another few gold medals, but why? There is nothing left for him to win, and he has given me more success than I would ever have dreamt of.”
Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at the 2016 Rolex Central Park Horse Show. Photo by Lisa Slade.
As the dressage world looks on to see whether the 31-year-old can emulate the same success she’s enjoyed with Valegro, you could forgive Dujardin for fearing for her future at the top of the sport.
“I’m not losing sleep over the fact people think I’m going to be a one-hit wonder,” she asserted. “What I’ve learnt on that horse, I can do again. Maybe not to the standard I’ve done with Valegro and not maybe win as much as I have with him, but I know I can train a horse up to Grand Prix.”
Dujardin has been quietly producing a team of horses in the background that she described as, “the best string I’ve ever had. That’s so exciting for me. It’s another challenge to produce another horse up the ranks for everybody to see, and I feel really excited for Tokyo. Hopefully I can get on some teams for the Europeans before then.”
This collection of exciting young stars includes several at the Grand Prix level, such as the Brietling W-sired gelding Barolo and two flashy bay mares bred by Mount St John Stud. Dujardin is particularly excited about the striking gray mare Florentina, who was bought as an unbacked 2-year old from Brightwells auction. Dujardin won the national Medium championship with the now 6-year-old, who has also produced a colt foal by Negro, the sire of Valegro.
But for 2017, Dujardin is looking forward to taking a step out of the limelight for a while. “2018 is going to be another year when back I’m out there at the top, but I think next year I want a bit of a quiet year. I can just concentrate on all the horses that I’ve had but not really had a chance to do a lot with because I have been so busy with Valegro,” she said.
It’s not just the horses that have had to live in Blueberry’s shadow during Dujardin’s reign of glory. Her fiancée Dean has proposed twice during their nine-year relationship and still not managed to get Dujardin up the aisle, despite her very public promises.
“I knew you were going to ask me that,” she said with a laugh when the question of marriage is probed. “The date for wedding is still not decided. It’s been so in the limelight that I think I’ll just nip away, get married without telling anyone. Then announce it.”
Dean has always known he would play second fiddle to Dujardin’s horses. “When we went on our first date I said to him: ‘My horses always come first—if you don’t like it, you know where the front door is.’ He has stuck with me through thick and thin, through my whole career. He’s been so supportive, and he’s really understood how busy I am.
“I think now Valegro has retired, he’s hoping he’s going to get a bit more time,” she added. “But he also knows that I have another load of horses that I’m going to be out competing. So he’s going to be trying to get that date in before the next lot start.”
Dujardin reveals that motherhood is definitely on the cards in the near future. “I actually can’t wait. I think I feel more excited about having a baby than getting married. It’s going to be another little chapter. I’ve already told Carl [Hester] and my groom Alan that they will be on baby-sitting duties,” Dujardin joked.
Since winning team and individual gold in London 2012, Dujardin and Valegro have lived with celebrity status. Whilst Valegro can bow out gracefully and enjoy his favorite hobby—grazing in the field—for his rider the journey in the public eye continues.
“The one thing I’ll never forget is going for lunch with the Queen,” she said. “There were only about 10 of us. It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done in my life.”
Dujardin recalled being complimented by her majesty with delight. “She said to some guests, ‘Now you’ve never seen a young lady ride quite like this one.’ It was such a huge honor,” she said.
Olympia was the obvious choice to host Valegro’s retirement party on Dec. 14. The prestigious show has been happy hunting ground for him and Dujardin. They won their first freestyle there in 2011, prompting the commentator to remark, “I think we are possibly looking at an Olympic gold medalist here.” At Olympia in 2014 they broke both the Grand Prix and freestyle dressage records.
Valegro has never failed to raise the roof with his performances around the world—we have witnessed his brilliance in Florida, France, London, Rio, Las Vegas and more recently, Central Park in New York. So as the curtain closes and Valegro takes his final bow this Wednesday evening it will undoubtedly be an emotional experience.
About the author: Ellie Kelly (www.elliekelly.co.uk) is a British journalist, producer, consultant and upper-level eventer who has worked with the BBC, Countryside magazine, Horse & Country TV and many others.