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Horse of a lifetime: Mark Phillips and Columbus

It was 1972 and the grey’s map had already been marked. At 17.1hh, he was too strong and tall for Princess Anne, who had been placed at novice and intermediate level on him. She thought he had matured into a man’s ride and asked Lt Mark Phillips, whom she later married, to take him on.

“I asked him because I thought he was the best person to ride the horse,” said Princess Anne at the time, “not because I actually fancied him.”

Mark, already a Badminton and Olympic team gold medal winner, was nervous of the invitation, realising the potential embarrassment if he failed to steady Columbus, who had been bred by the Queen out of a mare ridden by Princess Alexandra, by the stallion Colonist, named after Winston Churchill’s horse.

Mark’s fears were quickly realised. He took Columbus, known unaffectionately as the Monster, to Chatsworth, where the gelding went lame before the dressage. Liphook was next in 1973, but Monster pulled all the way round and won with consummate ease.

The World Championships were held later in the year at Burghley. There, neither horse nor rider disappointed the pundits, as they buoyantly finished the cross-country course with an inspiring nine-point lead, but Columbus was suddenly found to be injured.The team worked all night to get him sound, which they succeeded in doing until the vet examined him the next morning. Monster lashed out at the vet and lamed himself again.

Capt Phillips, who had been through more troughs and peaks with Columbus than with any other horse, broke down and wept.

Columbus was rested for a year and returned to work, only for his hind leg to fail again, requiring a further six months’ rest. Then, just when he was fit and able to hunt, he injured his other hock and was once more on the absentee list.

In 1979, Columbus, at 14, set out on more adventures, including hunting, team chasing, tackling the Grand National course for the BBC and show jumping at Wembley in the grade C final.The unhandsome grey, built like a greyhound, was eventually fully retired at Gatcombe alongside Mark’s fourth Badminton winner, Lincoln.

Even after years together, Columbus was too aloof to form a real friendship with his grazing partner. They were put down at the same time, after arthritis took its toll.

Mark, now married to dressage rider Sandy Pflueger, says: “Columbus was the best horse I have ridden and one of the all-time greats in three-day eventing. In his time, he was head and shoulders above everything else.

“It seems a funny thing to say about a horse who won Badminton and led the World Championships, but Columbus never realised his full potential,” he adds. “Without his injury at Burghley, who knows how many international competitions he might have won?”

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