Book Review: The Girl on the Dancing Horse
By Charlotte Dujardin
Penguin Random House UK, Autobiography, ISBN 9781848095083, 259 pages, Hardcover, Kindle.
Reviewed by Margaret Evans
This autobiography by British dressage rider, Charlotte Dujardin, is a gem. It’s an absolute must-read, not only for dressage riders but for all riders, horse-lovers, and sports enthusiasts, as well as thousands of moms and dads who stand behind their children’s dreams and know the joy and anguish of competition. Charlotte not only provides insights into all the horses she rode and the challenges and opportunities each presented, she also shares her own inner thoughts and feelings as she moved forward – sometimes boldly, sometimes tentatively – toward her goal.
Charlotte was born in England into a horsey family in 1985 and her mom competed in eventing and show jumping. As a pre-schooler, Charlotte was in lead-line classes, constantly arguing with her older sister Emma-Jayne over who won what. She hated school, found she was dyslexic, and was terrified of spelling tests. But she got through it, graduating admirably.
In the show ring, though, she found freedom. “I never got nervous before competitions; the bigger the crowd, the more I liked it. Getting to the Royal International Horse Show at Hickstead was one of my dreams as a kid.”
Like her sister, Charlotte did well at horse shows, but her perfectionist side drew her unexpectedly into dressage. It began when her instructor, Debi Thomas, put her on Truday, Debi’s dressage horse. Blindly following instructions for a flying change (something she’d never done before), Charlotte felt the horse skip beneath her. When Debi called to her for a half-pass, Truday instantly paced sideways across the arena. It was a “Wow!” moment. Instantly, Charlotte’s goals shifted sideways too, as her vision focused on the world of dressage, something far removed from her comfort zone of showing.
Enter Charlie McGee, a 15 hand Irish Thoroughbred show horse. Charlotte set about teaching him dressage moves; then she realized she had to memorize a test.
“My first dressage test was done and dusted in four-and-a-half minutes,” she writes. “All I could think was, ‘Is that it?’ I scored 58 percent and I genuinely didn’t know if that was good or bad, it was all so new to me.”
She excitedly rang Debi. “That’s a good start, Charlotte,” she told her. “But obviously there are some things to work on.”
Those “things to work on” led Charlotte to top international dressage rider Carl Hester and his training farm in Gloucestershire, England, where she became a working pupil. And this was where she met Valegro.
The horse’s strength and stride were huge. Carl, with a back problem, found him uncomfortable to ride. In fact, he had twice tried to sell him. But about two months after arriving at the farm, Charlotte had an opportunity to ride him. She was skilled at riding hot horses and instantly loved Valegro. He had a solid build with hind legs pounding like pistons that were almost, she writes, too much for the front end to cope with.
“He was fiery, he was sensitive, he was expressive, he was powerful – everything I’d always wanted in a horse, he was,” she writes. “It felt like he was the missing piece I had been looking for.”
The story of Charlotte and Valegro reads almost like a fairy tale. She shares that story from when her responsibility was limited to simply getting him ready for Carl to ride, to the moment when those exquisite piaffes, passages, canter pirouettes, flying changes, and half-passes all choreographed to Tom Hunt’s How to Train your Dragon score stopped the equestrian world in its tracks that extraordinary day at the 2012 Olympics.
Before reading this fascinating autobiography, go to You Tube and watch her record-breaking gold medal freestyle performance on Valegro at the 2012 London Summer Olympics. Her score? A stunning 94.3 percent! Everything in The Girl on the Dancing Horse (published by Penguin Random House) leads to that moment.
This review was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.