Britain’s new golden boy
AMBITION His rollercoaster career finally coming good, with a European individual silver medal this summer, Carl Hester tells Gillian Newsum he now has 2012 Olympic gold firmly in his sights
Tall and blonde, with model looks and an infectious sense of humour, Carl Hester has been a star of British dressage for two decades. But until this year, and much to his own chagrin, he had never won an individual medal at international level. He finally put the matter right at the European Championships in Rotterdam in August, where he was part of the British team that gained an historic gold medal - its first ever – and Carl claimed not one, but two individual silvers.
“There was a lot of pressure - I’d waited 22 years for this,” he says. “And we went to Rotterdam with everyone saying Britain could win gold.” Barring injury to the ten-year-old Uthopia, Hester will be the mainstay of the British Olympic team next year. He is also training one of the other likely team members, Charlotte Dujardin. When they are competing, Carl admits he is “more nervous” for Charlotte, his pupil of five years.
Hester has come a long way from his idyllic upbringing on the Isle of Sark where he learnt to ride on a donkey. He moved to the mainland at 15, to work at the Fortune Centre, a riding venue for adults with learning and physical disabilities. It was here Hester began competing, on the Centre’s Jolly Dolly, with whom he rocketed to success within 18 months to win National Young Rider Championship in 1985.
A brief career in eventing ensued in Gloucestershire with Christopher and Jannie Taylor, a family he quickly adopted as his own. “The advert said ‘live as family’, but they didn’t have one,” recalls Hester. He credits his stint with the Taylors as the time when he cemented his horsemanship getting the best out of difficult horses through patience and tact. Turning back to dressage, Hester moved to work for Dr Wilfried Bechtolsheimer, father of British team rider Laura, where he had the opportunity to ride some outstanding horses. Almost overnight, Hester found himself competing at Grand Prix level and riding on the British team: World, European and Olympic (1992) championships followed, and his career went into overdrive.
Hester has been National Champion six times and has (so far) competed in three Olympic Games, two World and six European Championships. Hester left the Bechtolsheimers in 1993, but it was another 12 years before he found the means to buy his own house and land in Gloucestershire, by taking the momentous decision to sell his top horse, Escapado, with whom he had been the best placed British rider at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2005 Europeans.
News of the sale rocked the horse world, but Hester says: “I was determined to have my own yard, so that I could run it the way I wanted and be in complete control of my horses”. With Escapado gone, Hester’s success dipped. Though he had two horses selected for the British team two years in a row, both went lame before the competition. But in 2009, back on form with new ride Liebling, Hester gained a team silver medal at the European Championships, returning him to the forefront of the sport.
And after last month’s success in Rotterdam, the 44 year old is more determined than ever to gain that elusive Olympic medal. “Unlike most Olympic athletes, a rider’s career can span a long time,” explains Hester. “It’s difficult to sustain the levels of energy and commitment all the way through. There have been breaks in my career, for various reasons, but now I am totally committed and ready for the challenge. I’ve got the horse - and I’m going to get that gold.”