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British individual dressage Grand Prix gold medallist Charlotte Dujardin’s relationship with her horse, Valegro, has been described as “telepathic” – and it was this bond between rider and animal that helped the Londoner see off a strong German challenge to finish with an astonishing score of 83.286. On her way to the final at Greenwich Park, Dujardin topped even her final score, smashing the Games record set by Germany’s Kristina Sprehe earlier that day, and finishing just a shade off the world record.
Her neatly executed routine was set to music and crammed with patriotic British tunes, such as Land of Hope and Glory and I Vow to Thee, My Country. It also included the chimes of Big Ben – adding a dash of humour and colour to one of the most technically demanding events in the Games. In front of a cheering, shouting and stamping sell-out crowd of 200,000, she scored 12 tens to eclipse Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival's score of 88.196, while her British teammate, Laura Bechtolsheimer, and Mistral Hojris won bronze.
Having earlier taken team dressage gold with Bechtolsheimer and her mentor, Carl Hester, she joined Kelly Holmes, Rebecca Adlington and Laura Trott as one of only three British women to have won two gold medals at a single Games. The 27-year-old’s achievement came a mere five years after she took up the sport competitively – she had aspired to be a jockey – and less than two years after her first Grand Prix dressage event, having been trained by British equestrian champion Hester, himself a Games veteran.
Dujardin took up riding aged two and tried dressage – where rider and horse must complete a series of complex moves such as the tempi, zig-zag, piaffe and pirhouettes – for the first time at the age of 13. Hailing from a modest background, but competing in an expensive sport, she was able to buy her first Grand Prix horse, Fernandez, only in 2007, thanks to a legacy left by her late grandmother.
In 2011, she sold the 11-year-old horse to Norwegian rider Cathrine Rasmussen so she could buy a younger animal. It was, she admits, a tough decision, given the special bond that dressage riders develop with their animals – but of such hardy stuff are Olympic champions made. Dujardin won her Olympic medals on Valegro, the Dutch gelding partly owned by Hester, who employs her at his yard in Gloucestershire. He allowed Dujardin, then a groom, to ride the horse when he was a novice, with the expectation of reclaiming him when he had more experience. But horse and rider proved such a successful combination that they stayed together. One of the side effects of Olympic success is that Valegro – considered the best Grand Prix dressage horse in the world – will be sold, leaving Dujardin to forge a relationship with a new equine partner. For now, though, the surprise Olympic equestrian star is revelling in her breakthrough victories.
After winning individual gold, she said: “It is always something I've known the horse could achieve, but I didn't really know how I was going to find the atmosphere and the expectation. But when I got that phone call to say I had made the team for London, I was so determined. Not many people are going to have the chance that I’ve had to get to the Olympics in a year and a bit of competing in Grand Prix. I wanted to go out there and enjoy it. All I could do was to do my best. Valegro was feeling tired, but he got in there and he gave his all.”