Hands up if you were a doubter. That moment when Zara Phillips entered the start box at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) on High Kingdom — did you question her ability to perform just seven months after giving birth to her first child, Mia Grace?
You weren’t alone. Millions quietly thought that the daughter of the Princess Royal needed more time to prepare, to be fit — and to be ready.
“Ha — I proved that wrong,” grins Zara from the black leather sofa she is curled up on in a cabin on a misty Saturday morning at Burghley Horse Trials. “The horse was awesome. When he did a double clear I thought, ‘There you go!’”
Zara was pretty awesome too. Courage, grim determination and every ounce of strength she possessed helped to steer “Trev” — after his owner Trevor Hemmings — around that energy-sapping course in Normandy which caused problems for so many. Their pathfinding round gave Great Britain the guts to fight for a medal.
“It was horrendous but you have to deal with what you’ve got. Even when I put Trev in a bad position he picked up.”
Zara is on the clock. She has interviews, course-walks and photo calls to squeeze in before switching on the television for the cross-country action at 11.30am. The 20 minutes she has allocated to H&H are ticking away. There’s no time for small talk. Did she really think she was ready for WEG?
“I probably wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be — ideally I would have liked another month,” she confesses.
Adapting to motherhood has, she says, been harder than she had expected. Still, the arrival of Mia Grace Tindall on 17 January, just five months after Zara stopped riding, barely halted her schedule. As soon as Zara returned home, she made that all-important call to her grandmother, The Queen, to let her know that all was well, then swiftly started making plans for the next eventing season. She had to make the British team, and to do that she needed to be fighting fit.
That’s when the criticism started. Her jacket looked tighter than normal, perhaps her breeches had gone up a size and she finished cross-country rounds looking rather too red in the face. Regaining that trim figure she once had was not easy.
“I’ve never not ridden for that long,” says Zara, whose first “big one” was Bramham in June. Trev looked great, although they didn’t chase the optimum, and the CIC3* track had been shortened because the footing wasn’t holding up on one of the road crossings later in the course.
The up-and-coming Black Tuxedo attempted the same course but Zara found herself sitting on the floor when he baulked at a ditch.
“Until your core strength is back it’s hard to look good on a horse. I look back at a few rounds now and go, ‘Jeez’.
“When you’re not quite fit enough you’re probably not as confident as normal. You have to be strong enough to help horses out without thinking about it.”
She pauses. Perhaps it is a ploy to change the subject, as her PR enters with a selection of baguettes. Zara chooses the sausage one and a debate over brown or red sauce ensues.
‘I’d forgotten what I’d done before’
On paper Aachen CIC3* in July wasn’t successful either, but it ticked a box. Tension in the enormous main stadium prompted a 52.8 from the dressage judges before Trev picked up 10 showjumping faults, plus eight for time in the final phase.
This from the horse who finished second at Luhmühlen CCI4* last year — his final run pre-Mia — on a sub-40 first-phase mark.
“Aachen was about match practice for me,” says Zara in between munches. “I warmed up for too long in the heat for the dressage. Trev only has a short period where he’s capable [of a good test] and I’d forgotten what I did at Luhmühlen and other big events. I was putting the final bits into place.”
Her own preparation needed fine-tuning, too. “People said, ‘Don’t come back too quickly,’ so I competed in April and built up slowly.”
Zara likens the eventing community to a big family. There are countless others with newborns and young children — including WEG team-mates William Fox-Pitt, Tina Cook and Harry Meade — and she’s had no shortage of help.
“It was hard getting back to fitness but I’ve had lots of advice. I’m getting there now.”
Swimming at a local pool and running around the undulating Gatcombe estate, where she lives with Mia and her husband, Mike Tindall, is on Zara’s daily to-do list.
“I do like swimming, mainly because nobody can talk,” she says with a smile.
It sounds like perfect downtime.
“When I swim I can think about things. Nobody is able to ask me questions.”
Trev was the first horse Zara rode after giving birth. “I only did walk, trot and canter for 10mins and then got off,” she laughs.
‘I was guilty of riding anything’
Starting a family doesn’t have to mean stepping back from the limelight — just look at Izzy Taylor, most of whose best results have come after having two children. Zara is pickier about the horses she chooses but she has no plans to slow down.
“When you’re young you ride anything, and I was guilty of that after [2006 world champion] Toytown [retired]. I would ride whatever I could get, even if they weren’t good enough for the top level. I guess I had to learn; I started from the beginning again.”
Zara would like Mia to share her love of riding. There are already several Shetlands in the field all waiting to be saddled up, assuming Savannah and Isla, daughters of Zara’s brother, Peter, haven’t nabbed them first.
“My nieces ride — it’s good for their balance,” smiles Zara, who currently has 10 horses on her yard, including two at two-star level plus Tuxedo “who is talented but tricky”. Finding a successor for Trev, who led Team GB to silver in London, won’t be easy. He’s 13 now and Zara has earmarked him for Rio.
“I’d like him to have the opportunity of another Olympics. London was a year too soon but he still performed,” she says.
When that moment comes, have no doubt that Zara will be fully fit and ready to pounce on another medal — with Mia watching from the sidelines.
Zara Phillips is a Land Rover ambassador and was speaking at the 2014 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials
This article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (18 September 2014)