KBIS Para-Dressage Rider Charlotte Cundall Reflects On 2021: “What A Year”

What a year. I think that is a phrase that many people will be saying when they look back on 2021. The reasons behind it though will vary massively, I imagine. Some will have very fond memories of the year, whereas some will look back on the year with sadness. Our thoughts are with those that have not had a good year and here’s to 2022 being kinder.

When I look back on 2021, I am extremely fortunate to say that with the horses it really was a year that I will remember forever. If someone had said on 1st January 2021 all of the things that were going to happen over the next twelve months, I simply would not have believed them. It really was a case of ‘the dream that very nearly came true’!

We need to dream in the world of horses otherwise I think we’d all give up, especially in the dark, wet, winter months. The dream might be to make it round a 90cm course, jump round Badminton or simply stay on a youngster when it tries to buck you off – regardless of the dream, we all have them and they give us the umph to keep working hard.

So, the early part of the season was taken up with selection trials for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games (eek!) and training, mainly behind closed doors. The boys were fabulous and just kept getting better and better. I really do believe that the lockdown year did us all good in so many ways, the basics got better and the attention to the smallest of details really did start to pay off when we could all get out competing again properly.

June arrived and we had a trial after which the list of 12 ‘nominated entries’ for Tokyo would be announced. I was happy with my results at the trial but you never dare to dream that you might be included as one of the final 12. There were so many people performing at the top of their game and places were hard fought for. Then the phone call came, Red and I were listed as one of the twelve combinations. I mean seriously, ME, listed amongst my heroes as a nominated entry for the Paralympic Games! Literally, every single other rider on the list had won individual medals at previous Europeans, World Championships or Paralympics – and then there was me. I could not believe it. This for me was where my dream looked likely to come to an end, I had gotten as far as I dreamt I could and I was absolutely ecstatic to this point.

The final trial was at Hartpury in July. In my best efforts to pull my best performance out of the bag, I obviously changed my bit two days before the competition… Not a great idea at possibly the most important competition of my life! Contact issues on the first day raised a few eyebrows… So, I changed the bit back again and normality was resumed on the second day. Lessons learnt – do not EVER change your bit so close to a major competition unless certain it going to improve things. With this in mind, I happily accepted that this really was the end of my Tokyo journey as after Hartpury the team of four, plus reserves that would enter pre-export quarantine would be announced. That would have to be a bridge too far, I was already pinching myself to get to this point. Three days later the performance manager’s number popped up on my phone…

“Charlotte, you are a Reserve”… Yes, Red and I were listed and reserves for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games and were heading into quarantine! (Not a covid-related quarantine, this was a pre-export quarantine for horses to be flown to Japan). At this point, I am pretty sure I burst into very happy tears of joy. All of the hard days, all of the days where you felt like a failure, this is what it was all for. I was SO proud of Red and so grateful to him and his owner The Lady Joseph Trust for giving me the most incredible opportunities and memories.

So off we packed to go to quarantine. Now, this is where it all got very surreal. I was in quarantine for ten days with all of these multi medallists, the riders I look up to for inspiration. I was now in planning meetings with them talking about an actual Paralympics which at this point I was now 1st reserve for. Being first reserve meant that at the end of quarantine when the team members were packing their trunks ready to be packed on the plane I had to pack as well. Now anyone that knows me will know I like lists and spreadsheets, but this was a whole new level! The flight packing list had to detail everything that was heading into those trunks, when I say everything I mean every little detail. So my trunks arrived at my stable for me to load up…..they had some stickers on as they had already been out to Tokyo being used by the able-bodied dressage team. Cue another surreal moment, these very trunks had been Charlotte Dujardin and Gio’s, I mean seriously could this whole journey be any more extraordinary.

Packing for something that you might, or might not be going to, was a fairly odd experience and I had been warned that being a travelling reserve could feel odd as you are so close, yet so far. I can honestly say that I was just so unbelievably grateful to be part of the whole thing and learnt so much from the amazing experience.

Loading the horses onto the lorry to set off to the airport in Belgium was an emotional moment. My special boy Red was on a lorry with the four team horses and was heading to the airport ready to be ‘super-sub’ should anything have happened before take-off. I came home from quarantine and waited for the message to come to say whether I was dashing to Heathrow or whether I was heading back to the office day job. A day of travelling later, the horses made it to the airport and the message came that all the team horses were safely loaded onto the plane and Red was making his journey home to Yorkshire. He had fulfilled his reserve role brilliantly and now deserved a nice rest and some field time.

Over the next week, we witnessed Team GB putting in some outstanding performances bringing home the Team Gold once again, along with a huge haul of individual medals. They were all amazing. People kept asking me the same question, ‘are you desperately disappointed you didn’t make it to Tokyo?’. No. No, I wasn’t disappointed, in my first year of making it anywhere near a team I was first reserve for a GOLD medal-winning team! How could anyone be disappointed with that?! I am just so proud of Red and I will always be so grateful to him for what we did together this year. It has been a year full of memories that I will never, ever forget. What amazing opportunities I had in 2021. I am one very, very lucky lady. Thank you to Red and all those who helped make all of it possible.

Now on to 2022… I have the hunger to try and make it one step closer next time 😊

Happy New Year to you all and I hope your horsey dreams come true.

Charlotte x