Book Review: ‘The Girl on the Dancing Horse’

An autobiography by Charlotte Dujardin.

I’m a fan of dressage in the general “I’m a fan of all horse sports” sense — I recognize the names and combinations of the big international stars; I’ve obsessively watched the great freestyles over and over again (who doesn’t get a little tear in their eye when watcing Blue Hors Matine or Edward Gal and Totilas?). As far as the fairy tale of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are concerned, I was pretty sure I knew that story well: the combination sort of burst onto the international scene for the London 2012 Olympics and kept the horse world enthralled for the next four years.

But of course, the YouTube-and-headlines version only scratches the surface of the real story that is Charlotte Dujardin and the incomparable Valegro. And at last, thanks to the publication of Dujardin’s autobiography The Girl on the Dancing Horse, we can all enjoy the full, inspiring, unlikely story and all of its ups and downs along the way.

Dujardin’s autobiography takes us all the way back to her childhood of showing ponies with her family; while the Dujardin family was never wealthy they nearly always were able to make the necessary sacrifices to keep championship ponies produced by Charlotte’s mother and ridden by Charlotte and her sister to national titles. As a teenager, Dujardin grew disenchanted by the subjective world of showing, but was fascinated by dressage — and worked her tail off to make inroads into the discipline, which was largely regarded as a sport for the rich.

Through persistence and a carefully-spent inheritance on a prospect, Dujardin found her way to her idol Carl Hester’s yard, where she first worked as an unpaid groom in exchange for lessons — originally a relationship that was supposed to last just a few weeks, but transformed into a legendary partnership where the rest, as they say is history.

What the world couldn’t see or hear about in the various interviews about Dujardin and Hester, or Dujardin’s ride on Valegro, are the personal struggles that are a part of every person’s life: while her parents, especially her mother, are Dujardin’s biggest supporters, her relationship with them remains an ongoing balance and a struggle. Dujardin’s relationship with her fiance Dean Golding also saw its own struggle in the wake of Dujardin’s launch into international fame after the 2012 Olympics. Dujardin does not shy away from her personal difficulties in and out of the show ring from self-confidence to nerves to the ability to handle pressure.

Additionally, much more happened “behind the scenes” of the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and various international competitions with Dujardin and Valegro: the horse was nearly sold several times after the 2012 Games and it was only through the investment of an owner that the horse stayed at Hester’s yard. Dujardin is frank about the realities of this level of dressage; while she and the entire team at Hester’s yard hold the highest respect for their horses and famously let them be horses in turnout and hacks, the fact remains that when “life-changing amounts of money” are offered, in Dujardin’s words, a business is still a business. Coming that close to losing Valegro means that to this day Dujardin will not ride a horse in which she does not hold at least a 50% interest.

Dujardin possesses a great storytelling ability that gave me the sensation that she was literally sitting down with me to chat. The various episodes of her progress up through the levels with Valegro through the great international championships are interspersed with more general observations about the world of dressage, the realities of the horse business, her relationships to her family and friends and the unexpected places her newfound fame has taken her.

The Girl on the Dancing Horse is a quick and enjoyable read, and should be on every equestrian’s reading list regardless of discipline — Charlotte Dujardin’s personal struggles are universally recognizable and her ability to conquer some of her struggles and come to terms with others is truly inspiring for all of us just trying to keep our horse lives and our real lives balanced.

The Girl on the Dancing Horse is available through Horse & Rider Books.

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