Carl Hester, one of the top dressage trainers in the world, is lanky with an easy grin. At the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) 5*, he graciously posed for photos with spectators from the largest crowd ever at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida. He laughs a lot. He’s funny. He’s kind and genuine. He’s the kind of guy you want to help you celebrate your birthday and he’s REALLY the kind of guy you want to train your horse. The British superstar has amassed a stash of ribbons, awards and prizes and, aside from his Gold Medal from the 2012 London Olympic Games, he donates most of them to charities. “I mean what can you do with all of those things?” he asked. “The kids love them, don't they? We try and give them all to the Pony Clubs and, even if it only makes five pounds, it's five pounds toward The Pony Club and back into the horse world.”
Not only is he Mr. Nice Guy, Hester is also the life of the party. While visiting the AGDF to coach student Katherine Bateson-Chandler, he was asked to judge the Wednesday night American Equestrians Got Talent show, a fund-raiser for the USET. He was told he would be given dinner and a glass of wine at The Grille, a Wellington watering hole for the horsey set.
“A glass of wine,” he exclaimed. “I told them I wanted an entire bottle. Or two.”
As the night wore one, Hester grew more extravagant with this praise and criticism, earning the nickname “Simon” [Cowell, judge of “American Idol”] from U.S. Olympic athlete Robert Dover.
When asked what his most embarassing moment was, besides the night judging "American Equestrians Got Talent", Hester recalled when he was younger and a secret smoker. He was a rider at Dr. Willfried Bechtolsheimer’s, also known as Dr. B and with whom he rode and trained for three and a half years. One night, at the 1990 Stockhom World Equestrian Games, Hester waited until Dr. B and his wife left the stable and then the rider and a groom crossed the street to a café for a coffee and a cigarette.
“As we crossed the road, there was a car coming and it beeped its horn,” he said. “So I turned and stuck my finger in the air with a cigarette in it. It was Dr. B. Until last night, that was my most embarrassing moment! ”
Another incident involved Hester with U.S. Olympic Charlotte Bredahl in Barcelona, Spain, as they headed to a local nightclub to test his aforementioned drinking abilities. The club’s strict dress code forbade Hester to enter wearing shorts, so he and Bredhal swapped trousers, her skinny jeans for his shorts, and entered the nightclub.
“That wasn’t embarrassing,” he said. “That was ingenious.”
Not only does Hester make unusual fashion statements, he’s known for adopting an unorthodox approach to conditioning and maintaining a horse. He believes in regular turnout and hacking out, even for the No. 1 dressage horse in the world, Valegro. Hester believes in getting the 18 horses in his barn used to different sights and sounds and riding them on a variety of surfaces. The U.K. employs a lottery funded World Class Programme in which horses and riders are backed financially after they reach a certain level. Once eligible, riders have access to personalized nutrition plans, physiotherapy, and money for traveling and training.
Aside from that expert help, he learned his present conditioning regime from and another expert, Shelia Willcox, the first woman to win the Badminton Horse Trails. He rides the horses in his care on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings, leaving afternoons and all day Wednesday and Saturday to teach and conduct clinics. Sunday is everyone’s day off.
As he teaches or conducts clinics, he finds he says the same things over again. His No. 1 piece of advice to riders is that they should see what they are feeling.
“For instance, there’s a horse that won't accept a contact, goes behind the bit and is very light and the rider thinks the horse is carrying himself because there’s nothing in the hands,” he said. “You can go, ‘OK, but now Iook in the mirror. Where is the horse’s head? It is way behind the vertical’ Riders make a horse over bent because it feels better in their hand when it goes over the bend and they get a light feeling. I think that's why people struggle the most with the contact.”
When it comes to training, Hester admits that he and Dujardin laugh that they really can’t take credit for Valegro’s success. Hester said the people-focused horse is intent on pleasing and learning, and now that the gelding is so well trained, he and Dujardin focus on keeping him happy and sound. He said the gelding was easily started, was a champion early on, and has never done anything wrong—except the time he came to the 2012 World Dressage Masters Palm Beach.
“He came here to Florida and in the prize winning ceremony he reared up,” he said.” I think he scared himself to death. It took him weeks to recover from that.”
Although there are rumors that Hester and Valegro will be retiring soon, some media outlets have reported that it’s all a wait-and-see decision. Meanwhile, Hester and Dujardin take things with Valegro week-by-week and month-by-month, and Hester has a few up-and-coming young horses including Ectopic with a canter like Valegro but with a bit more spunk.
“I am annoying him a lot,” he said.
Hester is adamant that new blood in incorporated into the British dressage team and said the pressure is off him and Dujardin; the team is gaining depth and there are options for playing with team roles. But when he competes, he’s just like everyone else--sort of.
“There are butterflies, definitely, there are butterflies,” he said. “The night before and the nights before I don't sleep at all. But where I think Charlotte and I are, we know the horses so well and we know exactly what to expect, we know where they are in their training. So that doesn't make me nervous, that's what also makes me happy. I mean you know you're never going to get 100 percent because none of us are. I think because of the nature of the sport, it's easy to be a picky person but I think you can get to the stage where every horse can go to the best of its ability. If you are the one that made an error, of course then you get a good kicking, but thats under your control.”
His relationship with Dujardin is widely known as the “Odd Couple”: she’s the perennial neatnik and he’s the one who forgets his razor and toothbrush when traveling abroad.
“Charlotte has a very nice, little house with not a speck of dust in it,” he said. “She has all of her pictures everywhere. I mean, her house is a shrine to Valego. A few pictures would be fine, but they go up the stairs and around. He must be the best horse in the world to photograph with his perfect face and those wonderful eyes. The trouble is there are too many fabulous pictures of him. That's why they're everywhere.”
The affection he has for Dujardin in palpable and pair have been working together for eight years.
He grinned. “She is very argumentative.”