In this exclusive Horse & Hound interview, the Princess Royal shares moving insight into her involvement with Riding for the Disabled, a charity for which she has been patron since she was just 19 years old.
She passionately relays the good she sees horses doing for people — not only those benefiting physically and emotionally from riding, but also those volunteers who report greater wellbeing as a result of their commitment to helping these riders.
Princess Anne also divulges that her opinions may not always have made her popular, but she has fought for this cause that is so close to her heart. She also talks on how, with her mother still riding at 93, she really has no excuse not to carry on herself….
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Half a century ago, the Duchess of Norfolk approached the then 19-year-old Princess Royal about riding opportunities for people with disabilities. Previously there had been various separate groups, but 1969 marked the formation of the national Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) — and those behind the move wanted the Princess as their patron.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything about disabled riders — but I do know a bit about horses, and I’m delighted,’” she says. “My father always recommended not taking on too much, but to pick something I might be able to contribute to, learn about it and keep things simple.”
And it could be said that the work of the RDA has remained simple as the charity celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
“In some ways, what we do hasn’t changed at all,” Princess Anne says. “The observation that being on the back of an animal, small or large, can make a huge difference to mental and maybe physical wellbeing is as true today as it was then.”
The Princess brings up Lis Hartel, the dressage rider who was Danish national champion twice in the early 1940s. She contracted polio at the age of 23 and was paralysed below the knees, but went on to win five more national titles — and two Olympic silver medals, long before the Paralympics.
“When the RDA started, apart from those original groups, individuals, some of whom had seen Lis win her medals, said: ‘Good lord, we can do that at home!’”
Princess Anne cites the “enormous” benefits to those early participants; giving a new perspective on life, and movement to those who could not move.
“Even just being able to look down at people rather than always looking up,” she adds. “You can only really ask the people who have been part of it about the difference it makes.”
Some benefits can be measured, she says; children who become able to walk, or sit unaided, those who are visibly “getting better”.
“It’s not a eureka moment, but bit by bit they become capable of doing something they couldn’t do before,” she explains. “Of course, scientists could say it might not have been to do with the riding because they might have been doing physiotherapy too — but most of the physiotherapists recognise the contribution.”
There are also the mental benefits of riding, carriage-driving and just being with horses — the “focus and link people get nowhere else”, the communication, teamwork and building relationships. This year, the RDA released its research into the “dual benefit” of volunteering; the fact that by enabling the RDA groups to run, and its clients to have access to horses, the volunteers also enjoy significant positive effects.
“It’s being part of a group, which you might not otherwise be,” the Princess explains. “A lot of people say, ‘I’d be no good at that because I don’t know anything about horses,’ but that’s irrelevant; you can teach that.”
A bold move
Princess Anne describes the RDA’s formation as a “bold move”, as there were far fewer opportunities for people with disabilities than there are today. The medical profession did not encourage such activities, not convinced the potential benefit outweighed the potential harm.
“There are so many opportunities now,” she muses. “Perhaps the RDA set that ball in motion and helped educate a lot of people.”
The Princess believes the real challenge in the RDA’s future is a “numbers game”, ensuring continuing access to enough volunteers and horses to cater for all those who want to access the service.
She adds that centres such as the Ian Stark Equestrian Centre in Scotland, where horses who do other jobs also take part in RDA sessions, show one way the problem could be combated.
“The horses do RDA sessions once a week and they know that’s what they’re doing because the handlers leave the headcollar on under the bridle; you can see the difference in how they behave.”
The Princess talks about the individuals who have created evolution in the RDA and the improvements in communication that allow riders who are both deaf and blind to participate fully. She also credits the training and support of volunteers that does not just tick boxes but ensures the individual rider — who is key to this — is supported. She speaks of her pride at seeing the British para riders rise to such stellar global heights.
She also touches on the way horses are used in therapy in other ways, such as in the prison service.
“For some time, we’ve tried to include offenders in the RDA [as volunteers],” she says. “I did get slightly grumpy when one lady bringing a group of offenders talked about assessing whether it was safe enough for them and I said: ‘It’s not for their benefit!’ That didn’t go down too well, but it does help both groups, and that’s the point.
“For so many young and senior offenders who have failed their families, they’re making a difference, which is something they didn’t think they could ever do.
“I think that’s true for many volunteers too; they really see they’re making a difference. It’s not only that without them the group wouldn’t exist — what it does for them is equally important.”
A life intertwined with horses
The Princess’ life has been intertwined with horses from birth. As she sits in a small room in St James’s Palace, cosy against the raw autumn day despite the cardboard on the ground floor telling of a recent flood, she is a stone’s throw from the Household Cavalry’s London base.
“Horses were always there,” she explains. “I started on ponies before I had a conscious memory. I’ve had more experience with horses than anything else, and if I was ever going to do something in the competitive world, that was it.”
Princess Anne says she at first assumed she might play polo, but that, having competed in a couple of Pony Club hunter trials and one-day events, “I was given a horse and sent to a trainer”, and her career path was assured.
Of her achievements in top-level eventing (see list, below), the Princess says her individual European gold medal-winning ride on Doublet at Burghley in 1971, at the age of 21, is not necessarily the highlight.
“I think perhaps it was almost too soon,” she explains, adding that she had only really started eventing competitively three years previously. “I was hugely more impressed with myself with the medals in 1975 because by that stage, everything that could have gone wrong had done, and I’d started again.
“Getting to the Olympics too — it was in bite-sized chunks. We had to get them past the trot-up, then through the cross-country — I don’t remember the cross-country at all!”
Princess Anne also raced, remembering coming third to a horse who later won at Cheltenham.
“I saw the horse in the paddock at Cheltenham and thought, ‘What’s that doing here?’ I was that close to him!” she laughs, adding that perhaps she should have raced more, as it “hugely improved my riding”.
“I rather regret that,” she says. “I didn’t hunt until after I’d started eventing either, which would have helped; the racing definitely did.”
With much recent talk of equestrian sport’s need to maintain its social licence to operate — essentially the ongoing acceptance of its practices by stakeholders and the public — the Princess says she believes the long relationship between horses and humans means “horses would be almost as lost without human contact as we would be”.
“Remember what that relationship is — and what would happen if it didn’t exist?” she says. “Some organisations seem to think we shouldn’t have any animals as part of our lives, and I don’t think that’s realistic, on the basis of that historical relationship.
“We all have a duty to be responsible for those animals, as we have for being better educated, and getting our message across. And when we see the advantages of that relationship to humans who are less capable, you’d have to be pretty unfeeling not to think that’s a genuine relationship that has every right to exist.”
In terms of horse welfare, the Princess says each horse’s wants and needs are different and must be taken into account. She gives the example of The Queen’s horse Goodwill, her Olympic ride, who had to be competed from the field; and another of her horses, Columbus, who did not like being turned out.
But she believes that modern routes into horse ownership, without the grounding of a horsey family or knowledgeable riding school, are “probably the most dangerous”.
“I think being introduced to horses by those who understand them is the best way, but if you start from scratch, a child saying ‘I want a pony’ and the parents buying them one, it can be more difficult for them — much more.”
Another welfare issue is preventing disease, and the Princess urges owners to consider vaccination. She is hopeful a strangles jab will be on the market soon, and that it is used.
“It’s rather similar to how people have forgotten the impact of human disease,” she says. “I was in Hong Kong when they were working with the Chinese on a vaccination programme and they were losing hundreds of horses. In the western world, people didn’t lose horses to flu. That really brought it home; it does kill horses.”
The Princess has to leave at this point, as she has another engagement. She is in the heart of London, although her own heart may be in grassier, more open spaces.
And does she still ride herself? She laughs.
“Well my mother still rides, at the age of 93 — I don’t think there would be much excuse if I didn’t.”
Princess Anne’s eventing achievements
1971 European Championships individual gold, Badminton Horse Trials fifth, Doublet
1973 Badminton eighth, Goodwill
1974 Badminton fourth, competed as an individual at the World Championships, Goodwill
1975 European Championships team and individual silver, Goodwill
1976 Rode on the British team at the Montreal Olympics, Goodwill
1979 Badminton sixth, Goodwill
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