Starting From Scratch: Charlotte Dujardin on Buying and Training Young Horses

Charlotte Dujardin. Photos by Meg McGuire.

Sherwood, OR ­– October 2, 2015 ­–“I love working with the young horses,” Charlotte Dujardin told an adoring crowd who, bundled under jackets and spare coolers, encircled Devonwood Equestrian Center’s stadium dressage arena, adorned with mums and other fall foliage. “For me, that’s my real passion, to start from the bottom and get to the top.”

Dujardin explained that the progression of horses set up for the opening day of the clinic had been organized by age and level ­ first a 4­year­old, next a 5­year­old, then a 6­year­old, and so on ­ to better see the progression of her training system.

“I think with the relationship you get with your horse and the partnership, you become true friends,” she continued. “You are really united. That really, really shows when you get to the top.”

The two ­day clinic, presented by Scott Hayes, was advertised as “an intimate weekend” with Dujardin. On this first day, Dujardin lifted the curtain behind her training process in a lighthearted, friendly atmosphere, interspersed with cheeky banter between her and Hayes. Dujardin candidly discussed the method behind her training system, what she looks for in a young horse, the methodical progression of their workload and her horses’ daily routines. She also gave the crowd insight into some of her dislikes in the show world and how she handles the stress and increasing pressure on the international show circuit.

While giving individualized attention to seven horse and rider combinations, Dujardin managed simultaneously to chronicle her thought process in trying, buying and raising young horses. Here is what she shared.

Charlotte Dujardin working with Nichole Charbonneau and Enya WS

What to Look For

When trying new horses, Dujardin suggests paying closest attention to the walk and canter; however, bigger is not always better.

“A walk with a hoof overtrack is plenty,” she explained. “For me, I don’t want a big overtrack. I don’t want a big walk, I just want a good walk so that when I pick up the horses, I have a clear rhythm in the collected walk.”

Dujardin pointed out that horses with massive walks often, down the road, have the most trouble collecting.

“You will see ­ horses with big extended walks find it hard to collect,” she said. “I’m just happy with a walk for a 7.5/8. That’s plenty. I don’t walk for a 9 or a 10. I just want to have a walk that’s really loose and through and swinging.”

The same rule applies for canter.

“I just like a good canter,” she stated. “ I don’t have to have a huge canter, but a correct canter with a good rhythm and the adjustability of the canter.”

Trot is the pace Dujardin is least concerned about, “because I always know, in my training, that I can teach a horse to trot.”

So why does the world’s top ranking dressage rider not seek youngsters with dazzlingly expressive gaits? Dujardin explained she’s much more interested in a combination of the trainability of the horse and her ability to create the expression ­ something that flashy movers, like those hailed in young horse classes, don’t automatically possess.

“I hate the young horse classes,” she shared. “I hate them because the judges, I feel, want to see huge, flashy, big moving young horses. In my eyes, that’s not correct. I think it’s all judged on the first appeal that they see, not the character of the horse, the trainability of the horse. They just want to see the biggest walk, the biggest trot and the biggest canter.”

Dujardin finds young horse classes irrelevant to young horse success, in that they overlook many with great potential (Valegro is a notable exception).

“A number of my horse that I’ve gotten to Grand Prix all did rubbish in young horse classes,” she said. “So I had great pleasure in showing those judges that I could get to international Grand Prix with those horses that they no longer thought were good enough!”

In light of her distaste for young horse tests, Dujardin explained she doesn’t compete her young horses much, only for the experience of getting in different arenas.

She also answered one auditor’s question on the relevance of bloodlines.

“For me, the bloodlines are one of the last things I look at,” she said. “I’m not really worried about what breed it is.” She did confess that she is partial to Dutch Warmbloods, finding them really sharp, quick, and hot; however, in her opinion, bloodlines and even the breed itself are not limiting factors.

“All shapes and sizes can do it,” she insisted. “It doesn’t really matter.” When thinking of bringing along a Grand Prix prospect, Dujardin explained what the ideal balance looks like,

“A really talented horse can do two things: sit (the sitting work is a piaffe and a pirouette), and push (extension and passage),” she said. “Horses that can do both of those things, which is quite rare to find ­ and have a good temperament, good trainability ­ that’s the hardest thing to find.”

Charlotte Dujardin watching Molly Eastridge on Donnerspiel

The Budget

Also interesting to learn was that Dujardin maintains a surprisingly limited and sensible budget for all her youngsters.

“I buy all my horses at the age (roughly) between foals and 2­year­olds,” she explained, “because that when they’re at the cheapest!”

It turns out Dujardin and her longtime mentor Carl Hester keep a surprisingly limited budget on new horses purchases, Valegro being no exception.

“We have a budget of between 10­15,000 pounds,” she explained. “We don’t ever try to spend more than that. Most people think because we’re ‘Carl and Charlotte’ that we’re really lucky, we get owners that buy us horses for millions of pounds ­ I’ll have you know, Valegro was 5,000 Euro. Nip Tuck was, I think, 2,500 Euro as a foal. Most of ours are cheap horses. That’s a rule we have.”

Starting Young Horses

“I do breaking myself, as long as they’re not too crazy!” Dujardin said. “I really, really enjoy doing it. People think I’m crazy, but I do love doing the backing and the whole process of starting a young horse.”

When asked about her timing, in terms of when and how she starts these young prospects, Dujardin detailed the specifics of her patient practice. “We break them at the end of their 3­-year-­old year,” she said.

“We’ll break them, we do the long reining, the lunging, we lean on them, we get on them. Once we’ve sat on them, we do a little bit of walk/trot. Then they go away and get turned out again for a couple of months.”

Once the horses are brought back in as 4­-year-­olds, they are still not put into a rigorous work routine. They are played with on and off.

“The 4­-year-olds start, have a break, and then we pick them up again,” she said. “We don’t do masses with the 4­-year-­olds.”

Charlotte Dujardin watching Molly Eastridge on Donnerspiel

The Working Routine

Dujardin’s horses are worked four days a week: Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. All her horses, regardless of level, hack out on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and get a complete rest day on Sunday. Dujardin’s horses also enjoy to large amounts of time out in the field. All horses age 4 and under live out in fields, and all her other horses get long daily turnout. Some of the hottest, like Hester’s mount Nip Tuck, live out even past the age of 4. The hotter the horse, the more field time they get.

Charlotte Dujardin watching Jessica Wisdom on North Folks Cardi 

On work days, Dujardin’s Grand Prix horses go for 15­ to 20­minute hacks up the road before starting any work. The first 15 minutes of the session are then spent stretching. She explained that the next phase, the “working” phase, is no longer than 40 minutes. They go in the field, then they go out again and are walked in the afternoon. Dujardin stressed that time out of the stable is a big part of keeping her horses happy and sound.

“For their joints, obviously you want to keep them moving,” she said. “It’s the best way to keep them sound.”

Charlotte Dujardin on Colleen Church McDowall’s Dorian Dark

Dujardin’s Current Young Horses

When asked about her current horses, Dujardin expressed both the pride and heartbreak that come in the horse industry, particularly applicable when building relationships with young horses. She told a story filled with pride about her Florentina, her personal mare who recently won a National Championship 5­-year­-old class.

“That was really, really exciting for me, to have one of my own win something,” she shared. “It was really emotional for me. I actually got more emotional about that than anything else because it was my horse.”

But with exciting victories there can also be heartbreak. Dujardin explained she was forced to sell another one of her horses for financial reasons after buying him as a 3­-year-­old and bringing him up to Grand Prix.

“It’s really hard in this industry,” she explained. “I’ve come from the background of not having loads of money so I hope that I can inspire people who think this industry is all about having lots of money. I came from a background of not having that financial support. I’ve worked from the bottom, I’ve mucked out, I’ve done all the duties that you have to do to get to where I am today. I think it’s a huge achievement to set and to show everybody that through hard work and dedication you can get there. It’s not all about having loads of money and having people buy loads of expensive horses. You’ve just got to work harder, try harder!”

Charlotte Dujardin works with Alyssa Pitts on Furst Fiorano

Faith in Her System

When asked about how she deals with show stress, Dujardin expressed confidence in her training system.

“I don’t really worry about what people say,” she said. “I know my system works. I know my horses are happy. I’m happy with the way things work whether I win or lose. If my horse has gone in there and done its best and I’ve done my best, then all I can do is to be happy. That’s what I do. My job is my passion and my love for my sport. I’m so lucky to be doing it.”

To Dujardin, the pride in working comes not from expecting every mount to rise to the same victories Valegro did, but the process and journey of rising up levels.

“I believe every horse can get to Grand Prix, or can do their best at that level. In our eyes it doesn’t matter if they’re not the next Valegro. There aren’t going to be very many horses that can be the next Valegro. To us it’s still about the training and our system. To be able to train a horse to Grand Prix and not be able to just buy them ­ I feel like that’s a huge achievement alone. I get much more privilege out of riding and doing it that way than buying the horses.”

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