Legends of the sport: Happy 70th birthday to six-time Badminton winner Lucinda Green

  • The event rider’s record of six Badminton titles has yet to be surpassed. Lucinda Green tells Catherine Austen about those winning horses and the lessons each one taught her as we celebrate her 70th birthday today (7 November)

    An unmistakable figure in primrose-yellow cross-country colours with that rock-steady lower leg position and arm stretched forward to allow the horse freedom, Lucinda Green was the public face of eventing for over a decade. Her six Badminton wins – and the popular books she wrote about the horses who gave her those victories – made her a household name.

    Her legacy to the sport she loves is her passion for bold, safe cross-country riding and for passing that on to others.

    No one, however, is born a fully fledged horseman or woman; their skill and understanding is built from myriad experiences with horses in all sorts of situations. Which lessons, therefore, did each of Lucinda’s most significant horses teach her?

    The earliest tutorials were delivered by her New Forest pony, Jupiter.

    “He taught me two of the greatest lessons of my life, when I was eight,” Lucinda says. “He taught me the timing of using the stick, and the art of soft fingers over the fence, because if I touched his mouth over a jump, he would stop dead at the next one.

    “I learnt that, no matter how out of balance I was, I must allow him to have whatever rein he needed. This, I believe, is one of the fundamental reasons why those different horses tried their hearts out for me.

    “The timing of using the stick came in handy with Be Fair, who never took the bit into a fence – he’d always have to be urged.”

    Be Fair, who gave Lucinda the first of her six Badminton winners in 1973, was bought for her as her 15th birthday present. He was five, and had done little.

    “He was a shocker – all he did was rear,” she says. “He was a very handsome spoilt brat, and I didn’t know what to do with him.”

    Be Fair was sent to “reform school”, first with Betty Skelton and then Malcolm and Janet Firth. Finally, in the winter, it was suggested he was sent hunting.

    “He went to a wonderful hunting farmer, Tom Payne, whose first ride on him was a day with the Pytchley. Tom found himself in a field with hounds when they took off. He had the choice of following them out over the only available fence, not yet knowing if this young horse could jump, or turning round and taking him to the back of the field.

    “He chose to go, and that’s really why we’re talking now, because from that moment onwards, Be Fair never looked back. His whole attitude to life changed,” remembers Lucinda.

    Three years later, in 1972, they finished fifth at their first Badminton – having learnt a couple of sharp lessons on the way.

    “At our first intermediate at Sherbourne, he was having a good look at an upright rail with a drop behind. I saw an enormously long stride and gave him a wallop to jump it – and of course, when horses can’t see where they are landing they don’t want to take off on a long one,” Lucinda says.

    “He put in a short stride, hit it and I fell off. Then at Wylye about six months later he fell at a revolting fence at the top of one of those very steep hills. It was called Griffins’ Grotto, and had an open front and some of the Midland Bank griffins as a groundline. I just kept kicking, and he turned clean over. I learnt that, when you arrive at the top of a hill, you need to recalibrate the horse’s engine.”

    At that first Badminton, aged 18, Lucinda learnt never to wear leather gloves when competing.

    “At Tom Smith’s Walls, I pulled to turn him to the second part, and the rein slipped through my hand. He didn’t run out – he never even turned,” says Lucinda with regret. “We were fifth with a stop, so we would have gone very close, even that first year.”

    Taking the title the following year was “surreal – that only happens to others”, and on they went to their first senior championships, the Europeans in Kiev, later that season.

    “That was the most extraordinary experience. Russia was a country I had only heard about at school, and there I was, with my horse,” she says. “It was such a long journey that we arrived two weeks before the competition, and there was nowhere to ride. The roads were far too busy, and the tiny, tennis court-sized arenas we were meant to school in were far too small.”

    Kiev is remembered for its second fence, an oxer over a vast ditch at the bottom of the hill two strides after a turn, where 22 competitors fell.

    “The Russians approached it fast down a vertical hill – we all came along a track in the valley and turned sharply to it. Somehow Be Fair made it – but at fence eight I learnt another valuable lesson,” she says.

    “It was a log pile in a wood and the sun was shining through the leaves. Be Fair crashed straight into it. I learnt from that to be so careful when you are riding in woods, especially if there’s a bit of breeze, because the shadows then are moving which contorts the horse’s judgement even more.”

    Lucinda’s bank of knowledge about cross-country was building up, and at Luhmühlen in 1975 she and Be Fair finished on their dressage score to become European champions.

    “Really he taught me the power of love and of trust in a relationship. He was a ‘no’ horse, not a ‘yes’ horse, and it eventually became clear to me that this horse absolutely trusted me,” she says.

    A different style of riding

    After Be Fair, Lucinda had to adopt a different style of riding to find the best in Wideawake, who was sent to her as a seven-year-old novice.

    “I’ve only met a couple of other horses who would never refuse – ever, which is quite frightening; they just always go,” she says. “He wasn’t a puller and didn’t go flat out, but he just took everything on. He had a long stride and was incorrigibly brave.

    “He jumped in a pretty bad style – he hit a lot – and didn’t like being gathered up; he’d just hollow more, whereas Be Fair was completely naturally balanced.

    “All I’d ever known was to kick, because Be Fair was always sucking back. If you kicked Wideawake, you can imagine what happened, so I learnt that you can’t kick everything – you have to find another way.”

    Wideawake taught Lucinda another significant lesson when competing in the advanced class at Downlands.

    “He’d been pretty awful in the dressage, and I was very cross with him. I led him back to the lorry in silence and loaded him into my little two-horse box,” she says. “I went between him and the partition to fix his rug, and he leant on me – he put his head away from me and leaned. He really meant it, and eventually I realised I was being deliberately squashed and screamed for help.

    “I learnt from that that you don’t get cross with horses. I had done nothing physical to him, but I was mentally furious and just switched off him. Horses are so sensitive to the emotions around them and I learnt then that you don’t hold a grudge, and you wipe your mind clean, because they pick up everything you feel.”

    Lucinda admits that they had a “difficult relationship”.

    “He was an odd horse. When I took him hunting, if I queued for a fence, he would petrify – turn to stone – and stand there. Everyone would gallop off and we would still be there 10 minutes later. This did once land me in hospital when I aimed him at too big a fence rather than have to queue.”

    The pair won Boekelo in 1975 on their dressage score by a margin of 18 penalties, but with quite a few “lucky moments”.

    The following year, however, Badminton was theirs. “I’d never had such a good ride cross-country on him – he was inspired,” says Lucinda. “I had this extraordinary feeling when I was walking the course that we were going to win; oddly, I’ve had that premonition with several of my Badminton winners.”

    With his long, flat stride and dislike of being held together, Wideawake wasn’t easy to showjump, but he pulled off a clear and took the Badminton title – Lucinda’s second. Tragically, the horse collapsed and died during his lap of honour of a suspected heart attack.

    The aftermath was horrible, with Lucinda receiving “poison-pen letters” accusing her of killing her horse. Then a short time later at the finish of a silver-medal round at the Montreal Olympics, Be Fair slipped the Achilles tendon off his hock, and the bright young star of British eventing found herself in a dark place, having lost her two top horses within months of each other.

    “Dick Stilwell, who was such a great influence on my riding, along with Pat Burgess, told me: ‘It’s not so difficult to get to the top. It’s staying there that’s hard.’ He was right – my God, you come down so fast,” says Lucinda.

    However, doors open when you are least expecting them. On arrival home from Montreal, Lucinda had a phonecall from Charles Cyzer asking her if she’d like to ride his horse, Killaire, at Burghley three weeks later.

    “Charles brought him down in this smart horsebox, and out came a really fat bay hunter,” Lucinda says. “With zero assurances that I would take him to Burghley, I said I would give it a go.

    “We rode up later that day to [trainer] Toby Balding’s practice hurdles. It was hard to tell when he actually jumped because he scuttled along, lifted his legs up, the hurdle passed underneath him, he landed and scuttled off again. You didn’t feel any jump over anything.”

    After a strenuous exercise regime, Killaire did indeed “scuttle round” Burghley three weeks later, having learnt extended trot for the first time the day before his test when David Hunt took away the two boards from the practice dressage arena and told Lucinda to keep going on the diagonal until Killaire eventually lengthened.

    Miraculously, they finished second to Jane Holderness-Roddam and Warrior.

    The following year Killaire was third at Badminton. An infected leg from wire meant missing Badminton in 1978. He won on his return in 1979 and was second the next year – creating a still-held record of first, second and third at Badminton.

    Lucinda says: “I couldn’t hit him because he was frightened of the stick, but the year he won I was so scared of the Vicarage Vee that, as he was scuttling towards it, I thought, ‘This is so big that you have just got to make more of an effort,’ and gave him a slap as he took off.

    “He did what you’d expect and veered away from the stick, and I had all of a second, which felt like a minute, to realise what I’d done – I’d taken him off his line and he couldn’t therefore land on that tiny patch of ground on the far side and was in fact plunging straight into the bottom of the wet, muddy Vicarage ditch.

    “Do you know, that horse landed in the bottom sludge and jumped straight out of it again, up the bank, and scampered off as though nothing had happened?

    “He had the biggest heart, and all he ever did was try. I learnt that a horse who was only an ordinary hunter could jump round courses like that, because he wanted to.”

    ‘A dire situation’

    Killaire was the fourth of Lucinda’s Badminton sextet; before him, in 1977, came George.

    “Dad was dying, and the Strakers rang up to ask if I wanted to ride George at Badminton. My initial thought was that the horse had fallen in his last five major three-day events. But I talked to Mum and Dad, and Mum encouraged me to take him on because she knew I needed a distraction from what was a dire situation,” explains Lucinda.

    “I thought that was the bravest thing – she thought of me and what I needed.”

    Like Killaire, George came to Lucinda three weeks before Badminton. Despite not knowing each other at all, George and Lucinda clicked and they won Badminton.

    That autumn, the European Championships were held at Burghley and, a week after Lucinda’s father, the Major-General, died, she took her second individual gold medal.

    “I was incredibly weak, because I had been on a sympathy fast for Dad for months, and George, despite being a thoroughbred, was old and leaned down on his big, intelligent head,” she says.

    An error of course halfway round the steeplechase led to George tangling up in the roping and Lucinda falling off, but they still finished inside the time.

    “I had the whole of phase C [the second section of roads and tracks] to wonder if I actually had the strength to go cross country,” she says. “I was last to go for the team, it was 5pm and virtually all the spectators had gone home.

    “About three-quarters of the way round and knackered, this lone man raised his shooting stick and shouted, ‘Come on England! Come on George!’ That cry gave me the strength to finish.”

    Lessons learned

    Village Gossip didn’t win Badminton – he was second in 1978 – but the lessons he taught Lucinda gave her the tools to ride Regal Realm a few years later.

    “David Kingsley bought Village Gossip for me after he’d been round Burghley as a six-year-old with Katie O’Hara,” says Lucinda.

    “I couldn’t ride one side of him. He’d come out of his mother with a very odd temperament and had attacked the person who fed him, even as a foal. He had been sold to someone who was learning to ride, and they had balanced on his mouth, which is why he found any pressure on his mouth intolerable.

    “You couldn’t regulate him at all; everything was on his own terms. If you tried to collect him, to jump a coffin or something, he just stopped. I remember being in floods of tears hacking at home, thinking, ‘I’ve been bought this wonderful horse and I can’t find the brilliance that was there for all to see last year with Katie at Burghley. I can’t do it and I don’t know how to ride him’.”

    It was at that point that Lucinda decided that if Village Gossip wanted to go fast, she’d let him and she wouldn’t interfere. They won their next event.

    “In that moment I’d learnt how to ride him,” she says. “But you did have to let him go flat out into everything. He’d go storming into fences, shorten himself up and ping over.

    “If I’d had him before Wideawake, I might have found Wideawake easier to ride. I learnt to be what I call ‘actively passive’. You didn’t just sit there and close your eyes; you used your body in the best way you could to balance him, and you were ready for anything, but you could do nothing. It was a huge lesson, because I’d always thought you had to do something.”

    ‘He had such power’

    Australian-bred Regal Realm also liked to go very fast and pulled hard, but Village Gossip had accustomed Lucinda to that.

    “He was much more negotiable mentally,” she says. “He was clever and, having done cattle work until he was seven, very nimble. He was ewe-necked and his ears were always in my mouth. I don’t think he ever basculed in his life – if he was with us now, we’d probably find that he had kissing spines – but he had such power.

    “He taught me that it didn’t matter if a horse didn’t ‘make the shape’ over a fence, and because Village Gossip had taught me the art of doing nothing, I could find the amount of communication that he would accept.”

    In 1982 they went to Luhmühlen and became world champions, winning Badminton a year later – Lucinda’s fifth title.

    “The dressage is the bit that I remember most,” says Lucinda of the World Championships. “That winter I had been to America to have a couple of days of lessons with Bert de Nemethy. I’d stayed with General Jack Burton, who lived near him, and the snow came down and nobody could go anywhere. So I set out across country through drifts to walk to Bert’s to have this lesson.

    “I don’t think General Jack ever forgot that, because he gave me the most ridiculously good dressage mark in Luhmühlen. I always felt that monumental trek through the snow had won me the World Championships.

    “We were hot favourites to win individual gold at the LA Olympics in 1984, and Anton Bühler, who was judging, saw right through him. We earned the mark we deserved, and finished sixth overall.”

    Lucinda’s sixth and final Badminton triumph was with Beagle Bay in 1984.

    “He wasn’t as tough and hard as the other horses,” she says. “He would actually stop in the warm-up for the showjumping, which is another lesson. However much you trust a horse, you must be ready for him to stop, even if he is your Badminton horse.”

    Although Lucinda’s domination of the sport drew to a close towards the end of the 1980s, she continues to ride, train, coach and compete today. Her fascination with horses, and discovering how to develop the best out of each individual, is as keen as ever.

    A world champion on a world champion…

    Lucinda regarded Mary Lowe (née Gordon-Watson), world champion in 1970 aboard Cornishman V (pictured), as an inspiration.

    “I don’t know what made her do it, but she took me under her wing a little,” says Lucinda. “I went to stay with her one summer, and we went for hacks with her whippet. She became a totally touchable person, as opposed to an untouchable world champion, and she was happy to help me, which was wonderful encouragement.”

    Asked why she thinks Lucinda achieved so much success, Mary answers: “It was her personality, really – her enthusiasm and positivity. If something goes wrong, she is eager to find a way round a problem. She was a very brave and forward rider whose attitude was that you never gave up. She got the best out of all types of horses, particularly on the cross country, which was her tour de force.

    “She was absolutely meticulous when walking the course – much more like people are now. I think she inherited that trait from her father, who would turn up to competitions with several A4 sheets of paper with details about each horse.”

    Dick Stilwell and Pat Burgess…

    The two trainers who had the greatest influence on Lucinda were Dick Stilwell, a great, instinctive horseman who first taught Lucinda when she was a young teenager, and Pat Burgess.

    “Pat was responsible for my defensive style of riding, and for me not worrying as people do now about striding,” says Lucinda. “I had no eye then; she told me to keep that medium-length stride and the horse will sort it out, and she was right.

    “She was very into the ‘fold’ with the arms giving the horse full freedom. She was aware that horses’ confidence came from the knowledge that they would never be pulled in the mouth. That was vital.

    “Now I find it fascinating learning not to fold so much, because the one thing I couldn’t do was land and have the horse back that first stride after a showjump. You see people stay much more upright through the air now because they can’t lose a stride on landing, especially in grand prix showjumping.”

    Carrying the flag

    Lucinda was chosen as the flag-bearer for the British team at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She was – and remains – only the second equestrian athlete to do so; David Broome was the first in 1972.

    “It was one of the most moving things I have ever done – up there with having my two children [Freddie and Lissa],” says Lucinda. “I was so flattered to be asked. We waited for a long time underneath the stands, very gradually creeping forward, and as we got closer you could hear the noise of clapping and cheering, which grew louder and louder.

    “I thought then about what it must have been like to be a Christian waiting to be put into the amphitheatre in Rome with the lions – you could feel the crowd’s excitement.”

    Lucinda’s medals…

    • Team gold, 1971 junior European Championships (Be Fair)
    • Team bronze, 1973 European Championships (Be Fair)
    • Individual gold and team silver, 1975 European Championships (Be Fair)
    • Individual and team gold, 1977 European Championships (George)
    • Team silver, 1979 European Championships (Killaire)
    • Individual and team gold, 1982 World Championships (Regal Realm)
    • Individual and team silver, 1983 European Championships (Regal Realm)
    • Team silver, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (Regal Realm)
    • Team gold, 1985 European Championships (Regal Realm)
    • Team gold, 1987 European Championships (Shannagh)

    Lucinda’s career in numbers

    2 Burghley wins

    19 The age she won her first Badminton

    5 European gold medals

    7 European Championships appearances

    1982 crowned world champion and won team gold

    6 Badminton wins on six different horses

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