Standing on the outskirts of the warm-up ring at a top international dressage competition, there’s little chance that you’ll suddenly find yourself wondering whether or not you’ve stumbled into the local 4-H competition by mistake. True, the warmbloods may be Swedish, Belgian, Dutch, or German, and perhaps there will be a Lusitano or two, but you're unlikely to see many horses that haven’t been carefully bred for quality — some with pedigrees that stretch back through the centuries.
Yet according to top British dressage rider and five-time Olympian Carl Hester, breeding, surprisingly, isn’t everything. “Breeding is very important, and breeders have to have ethics and focus on [breeding for] paces and everything like that. But for me, I’m not that interested in breeding, at least not as a buying rule,” Carl says.
Photo by Ben Clark.
Instead, the number one trait Carl looks for in a horse is a good, old-fashioned work ethic. It’s one of the first qualities that drew him to his 2016 Rio Olympics mount, Nip Tuck. Although the pair haven't competed in the dressage arena since their fourth-place finish individually at the 2017 FEI European Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, Carl and “Barney” are gearing back up for a much-anticipated comeback at the Keysoe CDI3* this month.
Standing at 18 hands, Barney is far from the traditional grand prix horse model. Yet Carl has said that his work ethic and devotion to the job supersede the times when his physical ability might limit him.
Also a must-have on Carl’s list: paces, paces, paces. “When you look at all the horses [at a top show], all you see is different shapes and sizes. In the end, it’s not the shape or the size [that counts] — it’s the paces. The horse has to have three correct paces,” Carl says.
Photo by Sportfot.
The last piece of the puzzle: there has to be a connection between the horse and his intended rider. It’s a factor the Olympic team gold and silver medalist has experienced first-hand with his own mounts, and with his most famous protégés, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. As the story goes, Carl agreed to let Charlotte train Valegro up to the Prix St George level, after which time Carl himself would finish “Blueberry” as a grand prix horse. And we all know how that story ended.
“When the time came for me to take over, two things had happened,” Carl explains. “I had Uthopia, which was my other Olympic horse, and second, [Charlotte and Valegro] were in love and I couldn’t really separate them.”
Though he may have the pick of some of the best-bred horses in the world, it’s refreshing to note that for one of the world’s best riders, bloodlines only get you so far. “There also has to be the gel that you have with [a horse], and whether you can train it,” Carl says. “For me, I don’t go for the breeding. I go for those other things first.”
Feature photo by Sportfot.
This article was originally published on NF.insider on March 3, 2019.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.