A man who learned to ride on a donkey and a billionaire’s granddaughter yesterday helped Britain break Germany’s decades-long domination of Olympic dressage in London.
It was the host’s first gold in the equestrian event, and 20,000 people cheered as Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro completed the victory at Greenwich Park in south London. Germany won silver, while the Netherlands took bronze.
Dujardin broke a record set by teammate Carl Hester, 45, on Uthopia, to overcome Germany, which had won every Olympic team gold in dressage since 1976, apart from the boycott year in 1980. Laura Bechtolsheimer, 27, with Mistral Hojris was the third member of the squad.
“Outrageous,” Hester said in an interview after the medal ceremony. “Just amazing that I learnt to ride on a bare-back donkey.”
Hester grew up on the Channel island of Sark, off the Normandy coast between Guernsey and Jersey, where the only transport available were horses and donkeys. When he was 19, he applied for a job at a riding center in Hampshire, England, and was given his first opportunity to compete.
Bechtolsheimer is the granddaughter of German retail billionaire Karl-Heinz Kipp. She moved from Germany to the village of Ampney St. Peter in Gloucestershire, England, when she was a year old with her father, former German dressage rider Wilfried, and mother Ursula. Coached by her father, she started riding on a pony called Peacock when she was three years old.
Kipp, the founder and former owner of the Massa retail chain, is worth $5 billion, according to an estimate by Forbes in March of this year.
Bechtolsheimer yesterday said she’d been inspired by Britain’s first show jumping gold in 60 years the day before.
“I watched that from start to finish, I was jumping up and down on the spot as they were going all clear,” Bechtolsheimer said. “Seeing how awesome the crowd were when the British show jumpers won their medal in such style, it definitely made me think ‘right, I want that, too.”’
In dressage, the horse and rider perform a series of controlled movements and are awarded scores for individual and overall performance.
Britain had only been 0.5 percent ahead at the half-way stage. Fluid and near-flawless rides by Hester and Bechtolsheimer extended the lead to 1.16 percent, giving Dujardin the chance the clinch the gold.
‘Legs Like Jelly’
Despite “legs like jelly,” Dujardin scored an Olympic record of 83.286 percent.
“I didn’t ride like I knew I could but he still felt really good,” she said. “It’s so surreal. Valegro is the horse of a lifetime.”
Britain has 22 gold medals overall at the London Olympics, putting it in the record books as the most successful Olympic campaign in 104 years.
“What this says about dressage is that it is accessible to anyone,” Hester said. “The three of us come from three totally different backgrounds.”
Hester hired Dujardin, 27, as a stable hand five years ago. He’s also her coach as well as the co-owner of her horse, Valegro.
Hester said the long partnerships between the three riders and their horses had been key.
“We’ve all been with our horses for over five years, and that shows that you can handle them in atmospheres like this and with problems that arise from the tension that can be produced in an Olympic stadium,” Hester said.
It can take up to eight years to train a dressage horse to an Olympic level. The Dutch team, which included triple Olympic individual champion Anky van Grunsven, and the German squad struggled because some of the horses and riders hadn’t worked together for long.
In 2010, dressage fans in the Netherlands mounted an online protest after former German Olympic show jumper Paul Schockemoehle bought record-breaking black dressage stallion Totilas from its owner, Kees Visser. Schockemoehle paid a record 15 million euros ($18.7 million), Dutch broadcaster NOS reported at the time.
Totilas was the first horse to score above 90 percent in competition and win both team and individual gold at the 2009 European Championships and the 2010 World Equestrian Games with his Dutch rider Edward Gal, who won bronze yesterday with his new ride Undercover.
Shortly before the London Olympics, Totilas’s new German rider, Matthias Rath, pulled out of the games, citing glandular fever. None of the three German riders that took silver yesterday had ever competed at an Olympic level before.
“It’s important for the sport that many nations can reach this goal,” German rider Helen Langehanenberg said in an interview. “It’s not that the Germans are getting weaker. The other countries did their homework and really worked hard on it.”
Van Grunsven, whose medal performance has made dressage one of the most popular sports in the Netherlands, said Britain’s success was “great for the sport.”
The seven-time Olympian singled out Hester.
“He has really played a very important part in their gold medal by picking those two horses, I really admire what he’s done,” Van Grunsven said in an interview. “Besides from the fact he trained those two horses, he’s also been able to show his best under pressure, in front of a home crowd. That’s pretty astonishing.”