Tributes have been paid to the first rider to win Badminton three times in succession, who has died today (9 June) at the age of 81.
Sheila Willcox, who took the title in 1957 and 1958 with High And Mighty (pictured), and 1959 on Airs And Graces, died peacefully at home, having suffered from Alzheimer’s for some years.
Sheila and High And Mighty also took team and individual gold at the 1957 European Championships, and a second team gold in 1959.
Brother John Willcox described Sheila as a “very determined sportswoman and a very gifted rider”.
Sheila continued competing at the highest levels of the sport in the 1960s, until she was badly injured in a fall at Tidworth Horse Trials in 1971 and switched to dressage.
Olympic 2012 team silver medallist and two-time Badminton winner Mary King worked for Sheila for two years as a teenager.
“She made my life – made my career,” Mary told H&H, adding that Sheila was “one of the first really successful female riders in a male-dominated sport.”
“Without her input and help at the start when I worked for her, there’s no way I would have had the career I so fortunately have had,” Mary said.
“I owe her everything as far as my competitive success goes.”
As detailed in her autobiography, Mary found life at Sheila’s tough.
“She was an absolute stickler for everything to be correct,” Mary said. “It was hard work; there were many tears shed.
“But I was determined to stick with it and that’s what made me.”
Mary said she left Sheila’s on “tricky terms” to pursue a competitive career – but she remembers Sheila calling to congratulate her the day after Mary won Badminton on King William in 1992.
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“That was the first time we’d spoken since I left but it was lovely she was following what I did,” Mary said.
Badminton media director and former competitor Julian Seaman paid tribute to the first rider to win the event three times in succession, a record that still stands. He added: “She was probably one of the first real professionals in the sport.”