‘I’ll go faster next year!’ 69-year-old rider takes on side-saddle race on part-Connemara

  • A rider who took on her first race at a point-to-point aged 69, side-saddle on her part-bred Connemara, said she wants to do it again — and will go faster next time.

    Belinda Wilkins and Mystical Maisie finished the side-saddle dash in style at the Royal Artillery at Larkhill meeting on 22 January.

    Belinda told H&H she and Maisie had “never got out of a slow canter” in the side-saddle, until four weeks ago.

    “I was told last October they’d be running a dash at this meeting and I immediately said ‘I’m going to do it’,” she said. “I thought it was a bit of a tall order but had it in my mind all the time, then two weeks before, said ‘I’m going to put my entry in’.

    “That’s when I told my daughter and I think it was all a bit much for her to cope with. My answer was ‘I’ll just do the training’, and each day I posted on Facebook what we’d been doing, including beach rides, and my daughter could see my progression and that I was in control and there was no stopping me. I knew perfectly well I was going to enter, all along.”

    Belinda, who has ridden since childhood, comes from a line of side-saddle riders; her mother took part in a side-saddle display at Olympia, her grandmother and great-grandmother both hunted side-saddle and her great-great-grandmother’s riding habit is in a museum.

    Belinda’s daughter, Caroline Wilkins, is also accomplished, appearing in Downton Abbey hunting side-saddle and taking part in a display at the 2015 European Dressage Championships in Aachen.

    “I had all these pictures of all of them and then a gap for me!” Belinda said. “I had a go about 20 years ago and felt so uncomfortable, I gave it a miss.”

    She then tried again, on a horse of Caroline’s, but it was only when she was loaned one who was “more suitable” that Belinda “suddenly realised I quite enjoyed it”.

    She and Maisie, who is now 13, have since done more together.

    “I bought her as a hunter but she’s turned out to be brilliant at everything,” Belinda said. “We’re going arena eventing next weekend, then out with the Beaufort the next. We mainly go astride; I did go to the opening meet side-saddle but then did a quick swap after we moved off, but I think I can manage a bit more than the meet so I’m going out next month and will do an hour or so.”

    Belinda added that the side-saddle dashes; this one at seven furlongs and run for charity, are “good for someone like me who isn’t ready for the big fences in some of the races”.

    “Or I don’t think my family would let me!” she said. “My daughter was a bit worried to have her mother gallivanting across country on my whizzy little horse; they were worried she’d take off but I’d been training her out hunting to stay behind when the others took off.”

    There were some anxious moments on the day of the race; the M27 was closed en route, and Belinda’s husband Miles had a “terrible panic” when it was announced that another rider had fallen during the race. But Belinda and Maisie held their nerve to finish third.

    “It felt like sailing; that feeling when you get to the crest of the wave and are planing,” she said. “I felt like I was floating, sailing along with the wind. It was sensational.”

    Some other unplanned moments came when the horses spotted the fallen rider, who was not hurt.

    “I get puffed out easily and didn’t want not to get to the finish line so I went off at about 15mph,” Belinda said. “The racehorses just went; they said ‘go’ and within about three seconds, I couldn’t see them. I thought I could catch the girl in front but couldn’t get closer so I thought I’d just enjoy it. Then the girl in front’s horse spooked at the poor rider who had fallen. A Range Rover was coming over to her for first aid and I wondered if I should slow up to let them go in front of me but thought ‘No, no jockey slows up for anyone!’”

    Having pulled up after the finish line, not without some difficulty, it did not take long for Belinda to start planning her next dash.

    She plans to carry a whip next time, as side-saddle riders use to give aids on their non-leg side, as Maisie drifted away from the crowd somewhat.

    “I could have gone faster, and I will do next time!” she said, adding that she wants to take 30 seconds off her time at the same race next year. “But I wanted to complete it and still be in control, and  Maisie loved it.

    “My family were so pleased, and my son brought his two little girls, who are six and three and learning to ride side-saddle too, so we’ve got the next generation coming along as well.”

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