Charlotte Cundall: My story

Saturday, 26 September 2020

When tragedy struck, Charlotte Cundall was faced with not only losing the sport she loved, but her sense of self, too. After struggling through some dark years, she's carved out a new identity for herself as a para dressage rider on British Equestrian's World Class Programme. This is her story... 


Where it started

I come from a very horsey family and was pretty much born on a pony – both of my parents rode, so it was probably inevitable I would end up in the saddle, too. I made my way through the Pony Club ranks, then fell in love with eventing. There were posters of Mary King and Pippa Funnell on my bedroom wall and, like my heroes, I was determined to ride round Burghley and Badminton when I grew up.

Even though I wanted to leave school and focus on horses, Mum insisted that I get an education alongside going through the Pony, Junior and Young Rider ranks in eventing. “If you have an accident and can’t ride anymore, what will you do?” she’d say to me. With this in mind, I went to university in Newcastle, and spent years to-ing and fro-ing so I could still ride and compete.

Fate intervenes

It’s a weird twist of fate, then, that just days after handing in my final dissertation, I broke my back in a riding accident. I had surgery and, after a long period of rehabilitation, was able to get back to eventing thanks to support from some very loyal owners, who had stuck with me while I wasn’t able to ride. Over the next few years, I reached what is now four-star level, thinking I was indestructible because I’d had a serious fall and managed to come back from it. Life was amazing and it felt as though nothing could ever go wrong again.

As it turns out, though, lightning can strike twice. Three years after my first accident, I broke my back again, this time in a different place. It was a really silly fall and I was wearing a body protector, as I had been the first time around, but horse sport comes with risks and even if you take all the precautions you can – which I’d done – these things still sometimes happen.

Losing my identity

So, that was me done. My surgeon sat me down and said that they’d put me back together multiple times, my spine was now full of metalwork and I really couldn’t fall off again. His words were, “now it’s time for you to get a proper job”. People from outside our industry don’t see working with horses as a ‘proper job’, but I was earning money from riding out racehorses in the morning and eventers in the afternoon so, in my mind, what I did was just as much a vocation as something done at a desk. Now, though, that was no longer an option. I went to work in an office and to the outside world it seemed that I was having a great time, but inside I was desperately unhappy.

I have no shame in saying that I was depressed. Taking horses away had stripped me of my identity – you define yourself by what you do, and I’d been Charlotte-who-evented and Charlotte-who-raced, but suddenly I was just Charlotte. I’d lost the thing that had defined me and got me up in the morning. When you’re competing, there’s always a goal in front of you to aim for – the next training session, the next competition, the next level. As a professional rider, your whole world revolves around where you are, what you’re doing, which lorry park you’re in that week. Suddenly, though, my eventing and racing friends were carrying on, but I was stuck in limbo.

I was getting progressively more miserable. Everyone around me could see me slipping, but when you’re in that dark place, you can’t be told that you’re depressed or you need to see someone – you have to figure it out for yourself, and that takes time.

Back in the saddle

It took about four years for me to phone my mum and tell her that I was coming back home to ride. I’d realised that I needed to get back that thing – riding horses – that had shaped my sense of self all my life. We didn’t really have anything suitable, though, so a friend brought over a quiet coloured cob for me to have a sit on.

When I first started riding again, it was with the intention of having fun and doing the odd competition, but it didn’t take very long for the competitive spark in me to ignite again. The problem was that I didn’t really have any knowledge about para equestrian sport, so I didn’t realise it was an option. For a lot of my fellow riders, the London 2012 Games was their inspiration, but I’d been in a dark hole in 2012 and hadn’t watched any of it. My mum, though, had seen the Canadian para dressage team training at Bishop Burton in 2012. Although she never pushed me to get back in the saddle, she could see I was serious about riding again and knew there was a competitive path waiting for me if I wanted it. When she asked me if I’d considered the paras, though, I thought she meant jumping out of aeroplanes!

After she explained a bit more, I went off to be graded, starting as a Grade 4 before the grades were shifted and I was reclassified as a Grade 5. I decided that if I was going to compete again, I was going to go all-in and throw everything at it. We’re only here once and you never know what’s coming, so you have to make the most out of life rather than treating it as a rehearsal.

My horses

The first horses I competed were ex-eventers because that was the type of horse I was used to riding. It would have been silly to get straight on a big, powerful Warmblood because I simply wouldn’t have been able to ride it. Starting at the bottom and moving through the levels was a rite of passage – serving my apprenticeship, Mum and I called it. As I worked my way up, I took the ride on a lovely grey horse called KBIS Starchaser, who has the claim-to-fame of being on a Nations Cup team in two different disciplines – eventing with British rider Izzy Taylor and para dressage with me.

Currently, I have a matched set of liver chestnuts. LJT Simply Red – owned by the Lady Joseph Trust, who have provided countless incredible horses for para riders through the years – has been with me for a couple of years now, and I’ve also recently taken over the ride on a lovely horse called FJ Veyron for a collection of owners.

I’m incredibly lucky to have had supportive owners throughout my para career – as riders, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the support of these wonderfully generous people. The guidance and support of my coach, Paul Hayler, has also been invaluable in helping me to forge successful partnerships with these lovely horses. 

Making it work

I still have a ‘proper’ job in addition to my riding, so it’s a struggle to fit everything in. Finding time to get to the gym to work on my own fitness was difficult, so I brought the gym to me for about £48 – I bought a cross-trainer on Facebook for £20 and a gym ball from Amazon, and found other bits cheap or second-hand. You don’t have to spend a fortune, there are bargains out there if you keep your eyes peeled. I also pay a monthly subscription to an online Pilates portal, so I can do my classes from home at a time that suits me. It’s so easy to say that you don’t have time or you can’t do something but, rather than making excuses, make some tweaks so it works for you and everything else going on in your life.

Lockdown training

Weirdly, I’ve really enjoyed the last six months. What’s happened has been awful and in some ways it’s been incredibly difficult, but as an athlete there are two different mindsets I could have taken with me into lockdown – either that there was nothing to aim for and nothing to improve for because I didn’t know when we’d be able to go back out competing again, or to simply make the most of it. Maybe because I’d had the rug pulled out from under me before – in some ways, the situation has felt very similar to after my second accident – I knew that I didn’t want to fall back into that dark place of having nothing to aim towards.

I’ve used this gifted time to try lots of different things, and to unpick the simple bits of my training that I might not otherwise have had the time to concentrate on because there was always another competition looming or another result to achieve. With one horse, I’ve done a lot of groundwork and he’s come back into the competition area as a different animal. I’ve also been able to concentrate on me a bit more – my position, my fitness – those little tweaks that can make all the difference. Sometimes, you just need to take a breath to reassess.

Chasing my dream

Great Britain is synonymous with gold medals when it comes to para dressage, and I’d dearly love to be part of that history. I’ve always wanted to ride for my country and it’s my fervent belief that, while you should never stop dreaming, sometimes you have to tweak your dreams in order to achieve them. Ten years ago, before my second accident, I didn’t know what form my dream would take now. It’s the same one it’s always been – to get the British flag on my jacket – but I’m taking a slightly route to get there now.

I’ve got some great horses to ride, I’m learning all the time and I’ve got some amazing people to look up to – I’m against the world number one, Sophie Wells, pretty much every time I compete. Some people think this must be intimidating, but it’s actually a positive because I know who the best in the world is, I can watch her perform every time I go out and she’s a great help to me as a fellow rider. Other riders who aren’t in this position don’t know what the best is until they’re at a championship, so I’m very privileged. One day, I’d like to be on a team with her and stand to on a podium with a medal round my neck.

The new Charlotte

The person I am today is a very different Charlotte to the one I was before my accident. I’m often asked whether I regret what happened, or whether I’d go back to being the Charlotte I was before I broke my back. In a weird, twisted way, though, I’m grateful for what happened because it’s changed my life. I’m not the old Charlotte, I’m not Charlotte-who-events, I’m not Charlotte-who-races, but I’m Charlotte-who-does-para-dressage. I’ve found my new identity and I’ve got ‘me’ back.