Standing at the warm-up ring of 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 one thing you’re not likely to see is a horse that hasn’t been carefully bred for quality, many with pedigrees that stretch back through the centuries.

Yet according to the current #5 rider in the world, five-time British 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,” Hester says.

Instead, Carl’s number one trait in a horse is a good, old-fashioned work ethic. It’s one of the first qualities that drew him to his current top mount, Nip Tuck, a 13-year-old KWPN gelding Carl has brought along since he was just 1 years old. At 18-hands, “Barney” is far from the traditional Grand Prix horse model. Yet Hester has said that Nip Tuck’s work ethic and devotion to the job at hand 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,” Hester notes.

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 firsthand with his own mounts, and with his most famous proteges, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. As the story goes, Hester agreed to let Dujardin train Valegro up to the Prix St George level, after which time Carl himself would finish “Blueberry” as a Grand Prix horse.

“When the time came for me to take over, two things had happened,” Carl explains in the Winter 2017 issue of NOELLE FLOYD magazine. “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,” Hester says. “For me, I don’t go for the breeding. I go for those other things first.”

-Photos by Shannon Brinkman & Erin Gilmore.