Charlotte Dujardin shocked the dressage world last year when she announced that she’d sold her Olympic mount Gio. Everyone wanted to know more about “Pumpkin’s” new, young rider. Annabella Pidgley, a 17-year-old British dressage star at pony and junior levels.
Pidgley’s father, the late Tony Pidgley, was a self-made businessman, founding one of Britain’s largest housebuilding companies, Berkeley. Her mother, Sarah, is a dressage rider and judge, and the couple have been major supporters of the sport for years.
Annabella competed at the 2018, 2019 and 2020 European Pony Championship aboard her horses Ine and Cognac IX. In 2020, she also stepped up to juniors with her mount Belafonte, and in 2021 she won individual and freestyle silvers aboard Sultan Des Paluds at the European Juniors.
Dujardin and Danish Olympian Cathrine Dufour train Annabella today, and both professionals also compete horses owned by the Pidgleys.
We caught up with Annabella after she and 11-year-old Gio (Apache—Zenzi, Tango) won one of their first Intermediaire II competitions. The pair then went on to win their U25 Grand Prix debut in May at the ICE Horseboxes All England Dressage Festival at Hickstead (England).
How did the purchase of Pumpkin come about?
It actually started as a bit of fun. My Juniors horse, “Sultan,” looks quite similar to Pumpkin. They’re both chestnuts with the white stripe down their face. So Charlotte joked after the Europeans that they looked a bit similar, so maybe I should go and try Pumpkin. We thought she was just joking, and we just laughed, but then we went and tried him and loved him because he’s such an amazing horse, and it just grew from there. At around 16.1 hands, he’s small but powerful.
What’s he like to ride?
He’s definitely the most powerful horse I’ve ridden. In the beginning it took me a while to get used to the amount of power beneath me. Charlotte would say to half halt, but I really had to work for it. But then the power just comes up under you, and it feels so amazing when you get that perfect balance.
Have you needed to do more core work to ride such a powerful little rocket?
Yes definitely. It’s taken me a while to get used to him and really learn how to ride him because he’s just so well trained. Now things are finally starting to click. I try and go to the gym as much as possible, and I also go to the physio to make sure I’m as straight and strong as possible for my horses. They’re all athletes, so I also need to be on top of my game.
What’s Charlotte like as an instructor?
She’s amazing. I love training with her. She’s taught Pumpkin and knows all his buttons, so it’s been incredible to train on him with her. He’s so perfectly trained; he just listens to everything you ask. When I get it right, he’s quite amazing. As a rider it’s so nice that you know when it’s right, and he also tells you when you’ve done it wrong. It’s really rewarding because then everything falls into place. Also the power that Charlotte has put into him. His pirouettes are amazing to ride when you get the aids right. Pirouettes are new to me because as a junior rider, you don’t have to do them. Charlotte is the queen of pirouettes.
OK then, ride us through a pirouette taught by Charlotte.
She’s taught me that preparation is key in the collected movements. You can’t just ride into the pirouettes and spin around. You have to collect, prepare, get the shoulders first and count every step and really take time in the movement so it’s set up well and flows really nicely.
Horses seem to really want to work for Charlotte, even the ones that may have been a bit cheeky in the past. What do you think that quality is in her?
I think, above all, she really loves her horses. She loves to come and spoil Pumpkin with treats. She came this weekend to warm me up, and she had Pumpkin’s own personal packet of Polos. She loves to spoil her horses, and she’s a really kind rider as well.
Back to where it started with you: Your mom has always been interested in dressage?
Mom is a dressage judge, and I think I just wanted to be like her and follow in her footsteps. I remember I used to do the Pony Club competitions on my 12.2-hand pony, and I was never good at dressage. I used to win the jumping and come last in the dressage. I wanted to do it so much, but then I got a different pony, Farbenfroh [who had just won bronze at the 2015 European Pony Championships with former owner Sara van Deurs Petersen], and things improved, and that’s when it started to take off.
I rode my first International in England when I was 12 and later that year went abroad to Le Mans in France with that pony. I fell in love with competing then and did my first Europeans at 13 years old.
What was the step up from ponies to horses like for you?
I had never really ridden horses, but I got really lucky because I had a schoolmaster, Belafonte, who I rode in my last year of competing ponies. He really helped me step up to the junior level and taught me a lot, and then I got Sultan in March 2021. He’s quite small but powerful, so he was a nice size. He came from Helgstrand [Dressage].
Which leads us to Denmark. You have a connection with Cathrine Dufour?
Yes I have two horses with Cathrine: a 5-year-old, Freddie Mercury, and Vamos Amigos. [Dufour rode Vamos Amigos to silver at this year’s World Cup Final in Germany.] That came about from my first pony Farbenfroh. His old owner trained with Cathrine. When we bought him, I started training with her, and I love training with Cathrine, and the partnership has just grown. Then we bought horses for her to bring on and ride.
It’s been great. She’s so open to new ideas. I’m so lucky to work with both Cathrine and Charlotte, because between the two there are so many ideas, all the small details, and you can work together to really improve. I train with Cathrine online most days.
What are some nuggets you’ve learned from Cathrine?
She watches my videos, and we go through things. When you’re at this level, it’s about fine tuning. She’s known for her square halts, so we practice lots of halts just to make sure that we’re not making any silly mistakes and dropping silly marks. If things aren’t quite right, she’ll come up with new techniques, maybe more collection or whatever else we need.
Your competitiveness. That’s a natural characteristic in you?
I’m competitive and ambitious. My dad started with nothing and built his company from the ground up. He worked so hard for that, and I think it was just instilled in me. Watching him work hard and succeed also made me want to succeed and be competitive. My dad is one of my biggest inspirations, and every day I work to make him proud. Even though he’s not here, I hope he’s looking down on us and very proud.
People who make it onto the podium seem wired a little bit differently to the rest. What do you think gets someone onto a podium?
Hard work above all. Dedication and routine. Just showing up to training every day, even if you’re tired or stressed or have other things going on. You have to show up and work hard and love what you do—and love the horses. Especially when you have to get up so early in the dark and cold. You have to be passionate.
What’s a normal day for you?
Sometimes I wake up at 4:30 or 5 a.m., and I’ll train before school. Then I’m at school all day, sometimes until [5 or 6 p.m.], and then I come home, do my homework, go to bed, then do it all again.
What’s your training pattern?
It differs and depends on competitions. I also train with Charlotte, so I usually give them an easier stretching day the day before because I know we’ll have a good lesson. Then I’ll often give them the next day off, then maybe two more days of work. But really I just listen to their bodies and see how they’re feeling. Some days I’ll just do 20 minutes because they feel amazing.
Do you get any downtime?
A little. I see friends or just watch Netflix. Sometimes it’s nice just to do nothing.
What are your long-term goals?
This year definitely the Junior Europeans, then in the future I just want to see how it goes with all my horses, decide with Charlotte and Cathrine, and make a plan. I don’t want to rush things, just enjoy it and see how it goes. I’m in sixth form at school, so in another year I’ll apply for university in London so I can still be at home, and I definitely want to do further education, but we’ll see what happens. Horses will always be a big part of my life. I just want to keep all my options open.
Is your mother still very involved with your training?
She’s the key part of our team. She’s on the yard every day. I don’t ride without my mom. We have a livery yard of about 50 stables, though we have someone else running it. My younger sister loves eventing, and between us we have 10 horses. Mum tries to split herself in half!
And you’re going out with [Danish Olympian Andreas Helgstrand’s son] Alexander Helgstrand at the moment? It must be nice to share the journey?
Yeah it’s really fun. And to be able to support each other at competitions. It’s really nice to have someone there who understands the pressures.