It’s evident. Equitation scientists love Valegro.
Valegro, ridden by Charlotte Dujardin of the United Kingdom, who’s coached by Carl Hester, also of the U.K., is the new poster child of equitation science.
What’s so great about this magnificent 12-year-old gelding that catches the eye of pretty much every equitation scientist out there? Well, I mean, of course, besides the seemingly endless streak of gold medals and greater-than-90% Grand Prix dressage scores?
Actually, that’s just it. Valegro is—whether his trainers realize it or not—a product of equitation science. A true success story of learning theory at its finest. And the judges are rewarding him for it.
It’s a win-win for all.
So what is it that’s pleasing both researchers and judges? In the end, it’s quite simple, really. It all boils down to lightness and a clearly happy horse.
Because, when Valegro moves, he moves willingly. He moves freely. He moves as though this is what he was meant to do, as if this dressage test is every bit his idea of time well spent as anyone else’s.
And Dujardin almost looks like she’s just come along for the ride.
Obviously, that’s not true. We know she’s an athlete who’s working hard mentally and physically to keep good communication and connections going with her mount. But the point is that it looks like she’s just a lovely decoration on top of this lovely horse who seems to be doing everything as though he choreographed the freestyle patterns himself. They're an ultimate team, a unified image of harmonious co-being, and a fascinating example of lightness itself. Valegro doesn’t look constrained or coerced. You don’t get the feeling that he’s tense or uncomfortable or irritated at all.
He looks happy. As in the unequivocal Fédération Equestre Internationale “happy athlete.”
I was pleased when I heard Dujardin and Valegro’s theme music at the 2014 World Equestrian Games. I have a 10-year-old little girl who is probably the world’s greatest Toothless fan, so it was pretty easy for me to immediately recognize the poignant soundtrack from Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. At the press conference after the medals ceremony, I asked Dujardin about that. “Is it meant to be representative of you, and your relationship with Valegro?” I said.
I asked because that’s sure what it looked like to me. In the movie, the young Viking engineer, Hiccup, rides the elegant and powerful Night Fury dragon named Toothless in a symbiotic relationship of love, trust, respect, and unity. The scenes of Hiccup and Toothless soaring through the Nordic air are breathtaking images of freedom and energy. And they’re joyful, while still being deeply moving and, well, simply beautiful. It’s a kind of ride that can only happen through a heartfelt relationship of mutual appreciation, communication, and understanding that transcend the barrier of species.
The writer in me, pen grasped in hand, eagerly wanted Dujardin to say, “Oh yes, that music is a real reflection of my relationship with Valegro. When we ride it’s like we have air under our feet, and we become one, just like Hiccup and Toothless.”
Alas, that isn’t what she said. The truth, I have to tell you, is that she just really liked the music. But I’m not buying it. I’m convinced that, deep down, she likes the music because she saw something in the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless that reminded her of the connection between herself and Valegro, and she just didn’t realize it.
Because both couples are, actually, ideal and fitting examples of equitation science at its best. The harmony, the suppleness, the grace, the perfect unity of two souls moving as one, whether Viking and dragon, or a Brit and her Dutch warmblood. Feet on the ground or not, they make my heart—and the heart of every equitation scientist out there—soar like a flying dragon.