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Charlotte Dujardin: 'The girl with the dancing horse'

Story highlights

  • Charlotte Dujardin won two gold medals at the London Olympic Games
  • The British rider came top in team and individual dressage events last year
  • Dujardin bought her first horse with inheritance left by her grandmother
  • She was given her first training job by London 2012 teammate Carl Hester

It was a triumph that came with joy from above.

When Charlotte Dujardin stood on the podium celebrating her second Olympic gold medal of the London 2012 Olympics, she felt somebody watching over her and smiling.

"The girl with the dancing horse" -- as she became known afterwards -- wowed the watching world as she claimed top honors in the team and individual dressage events.

Joy was the order of the day -- and perhaps that was apt as it was her grandmother Joy's generous gift which allowed Dujardin to canter her way into the history books.

"Sometimes I do feel like she's up there looking down on me and watching me," the English equestrian told CNN's Human to Hero series.

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"We were very close and she was very into horses too. She had a massive farm with lots of horses. I used to love going there and having so much fun.

    "It was only down to her inheritance that we could afford the horse, so I do think about her quite often."

    Making her way

    To compete in the world of dressage takes talent, hard work, dedication and money.

    While there was no doubt about Dujardin's ability, the lack of finance remained a huge hurdle in her battle to make it to the highest level.

    Horses cost serious money, as do all the extras which come with owning an animal primed for the very top.

    "My family didn't have lots of money or anything," the 27-year-old said.

    "I literally did it through hard work and dedication. People out there who think you have to have loads of money to do this sport ... it just shows you.

    "I worked six days a week for very little money. But I did it because I wanted to and I loved it. I set myself goals. For me it was a challenge."

    With the inheritance left by her grandmother and the guidance of a determined mother, Dujardin moved from riding ponies to the world of dressage.

    It was the $27,000 purchase of her first horse Fernandez which allowed Dujardin to lay the groundwork for an astonishing rise through the sport.

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    At the age of 15, she began her ascent, joining up with coach Judy Harvey and spending four years learning the ropes and working to earn a living.

    The mentor

    But it was her meeting with Carl Hester, a British Olympian and professional dressage competitor, which helped steer her towards that glorious day in London.

    She made such an impression that she was offered a job as a groom at his yard in Newent, Gloucestershire, where she would go on to learn her trade.

    "I got asked to do a world-class training day, and Carl was one of the selectors for that," she said.

    "He actually rode my horse Fernandez, which I was absolutely over the moon about because obviously someone like that riding my horse was like a dream.

    "I then got my mum to ask him if it was possible to have a lesson. So I met him at our national championships at Stoneleigh and he said he would give me a lesson.

    "I had four lessons; he asked if I would do 10 days' cover. I did it and I never went home."

    Hester, the youngest British rider to ever compete at an Olympics as a 25-year-old in 1992, saw something special in Dujardin and handed her the horse which would transform her life forever.

    Love at first sight

    Valegro, or "Blueberry" as he is known within the stables, turned out to be a "dream horse."

    Too young to compete at a Grand Prix event, the top level of competition, Hester wanted Valegro to learn the trade under his young apprentice.

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    "I just fell in love with Valegro when I saw him," Dujardin said.

    "He was just a powerhouse at four years old. He had paces then that he couldn't control and he had a fabulous temperament.

    "He was my dream horse. And then I managed to take him out and compete him at all the young horse classes."

    In their seven years together, the pair have become near inseparable, with Duajardin describing him as "my best friend and my partner."

    From their first Grand Prix together in 2011, a journey which took five years in the making, the duo have not looked back.

    "He always wants to please you," she said. "He goes into that arena to do his best. He never lets you down. He's with you all the way.

    "To find a horse that can cope with all the atmosphere as well is very difficult. He just does it all.

    "As a rider he gives you so much confidence. You go in there and you know you can do it because you know he's behind you.

    "I think it was the connection we had, the fact we'd learned everything together. If I got it wrong, or if he made a mistake, between the two of us we both learned how to get it right.

    "That is what was so good. He was forgiving my mistakes and I was forgiving him."

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    International success

    The relationship has blossomed beautifully, and they were part of the British team which won gold at the 2011 European Dressage Championship at Rotterdam.

    Dujardin and Valegro then won the FEI World Cup Grand Prix at London Olympia in 2011, and set a new world points record at the Olympic Grand Prix special event the following year.

    It was the prelude to the most exciting and most daunting challenge of Dujardin's career -- the London Olympics.

    Competing in both the team and individual event in front of a home crowd might have left lesser riders with stage fright -- but not Dujardin.

    "I see the arena, the competition arena, as an arena at home," she said.

    "I do the same thing wherever I am, whether it's at home or at a competition.

    "I never think of who's in the competition. I never let myself get in that frame of mind, worrying about who I'm against.

    "I keep myself away, I keep myself very focused. I keep myself in that zone of what I have to do and deliver. I'm really lucky that I can control my nerves; it doesn't seem to get to me."

    London calling

    Just 18 months after making her Grand Prix debut, Dujardin headed out onto Greenwich Park as part of the British team seeking to win its first ever medal in dressage since 1912.

    The discipline was originally used to train horses during the Renaissance period.

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    The "piaffe" is a signature move where the horse jogs on the spot, while there are also the "flying changes" -- where it skips on alternate legs.

    Following two controlled rounds, where competitors are marked out of 10 and awarded a percentage score, they then go on to perform a freestyle routine.

    Riding alongside her mentor Hester and Laura Bechtolsheimer -- granddaughter of a German billionaire -- it was a dream come true.

    With 23,000 people packed inside the arena and the world watching on, Dujardin delivered in style, becoming the new Olympic score record-holder with 83.286%.

    "We had high expectations to deliver that gold medal," she revealed.

    "Everybody expected us to win it, we had such a strong team. But you know at the end of the day they are horses.

    "You never know what can happen. And I think it probably put pressure on us a little bit more that everybody expected that.

    "But I'm the sort of person, I don't think of things like that. I just do my best. And that's what I did."

    The victory of the British team reverberated around the world as it finally broke the German stranglehold on the sport.

    Magic moment

    But for Dujardin there was still work to do.

    "Going into the individual, I honestly was going to be absolutely delighted with any medal," she said.

    "I wasn't even thinking of getting the gold. I was thinking any medal would be amazing.

    "And you know, I went in there, and Adelinde Cornelissen had just come out with a huge score of 88%.

    "They announced that just before I was going in. So I heard that as I was going down."

    The Dutch rider's score had left Dujardin requiring an Olympic record to claim top spot, but that didn't faze the home favorite, who was the final competitor to perform.

    "I went in there and I thought, 'Do you know what, I can do this, I know I can do this,' " she said.

    "And I went in there and I can't even tell you how it felt. It was just indescribable."

    Sitting on her beloved Valegro, Dujardin had the horse dancing majestically to the sounds of "Land of Hope and Glory," "The Great Escape" and the chimes of London's iconic Big Ben.

    The beautifully artistic routine appeared to compensate for any technical deficiencies as she wowed the judges.

    'A dream come true'

    "The moment I finished my test it was like uproar," she recalled. "It was like everybody screaming, shouting and standing. It was unbelievable.

    "And I didn't know I'd won. I looked over and there was this lady hanging over the stadium, and she said, 'You've done it! You've done it!'

    "And I'm looking, and then I heard the crowd just go crazy. And then I realized I'd actually got the individual gold. And for me that was just unbelievable.

    "To think in 18 months what I had achieved and come away with. Just to be at the Olympics in your home ground anyway was a huge achievement for me.

    "But then to come away with two gold medals was a dream come true."

    Dujardin received an overall mark of 90.089 in the individual event, which was lifted by a mammoth 93.429 for artistic merit.

    "I still find it really hard to let it all sink in what I've achieved, because everything happened so quickly," she said.

    "From 2011 to 2012 I didn't stop. We just kept going. Then you stop and you sit down and you look back at what you've done and what you've achieved."

    It certainly would have made her grandmother proud.