Legends of the sport: The showjumping career of Ann Moore *H&H Plus*

  • The enigmatic young showjumper who stole the hearts of a nation by winning silver at the 1972 Munich Olympics turns 70 this week. Ann Moore discusses her brilliant but brief career with Lucy Higginson

    Ann Moore’s showjumping career is in some ways an enigma. Marked in history as the petite young woman who won Olympic silver over huge fences at the 1972 Munich Olympics on her diminutive horse Psalm, her name and fame blossomed in a golden era for the sport. It led to invitations to movie premiers, meetings with royalty, TV appearances and even an Ann Moore doll. Yet in contrast to the extended careers enjoyed by top riders today, Ann retired from competition aged just 23.

    Bizarrely, she held the record as Britain’s most recent individual Olympic showjumping medallist for 44 years, until finally Nick Skelton “got her off the hook”, as he put it, with his unforgettable Rio triumph on Big Star.

    So who is the enigmatic and eloquent Ann Moore, who captured the heart of a nation, became a household name, and eventually disappeared from the sport so completely?

    The eldest of six children born to Norman and Dorothy Moore, originally of Birmingham, Ann is the only one to follow a career in horses.

    “All my siblings learnt to ride, but they saw the work involved – and the accidents at home – and it probably put them off,” she says.

    Her love of horses was inherited from her father, who built a successful engineering business after the war and was later able to fulfil his dream of buying a farm in Warwickshire and stocking it with horses.

    “Right from the start I wanted to ride. It was all I wanted to do,” says Ann. “I was very shy then, and much happier in my own company with the horses.”

    Indeed her five siblings feature considerably less in Ann’s memoirs (Clear To Win, written in the 1970s) than any of her ponies. The strong voice and confident opinions she now has were polished through being in the public eye: “If the sport did anything for me, it pulled me out of my shell,” she attests.

    Soon equipped with her first pony, a Dartmoor called Rascal, Ann enjoyed a classic pony childhood, competing in hunter trials, gymkhanas and Pony Club events, proving herself a very versatile and tough rider.

    One photo in particular of her jumping a sizeable fence would have modern instructors reaching for the smelling salts – one leg is in plaster.

    Later she hunted with the North Warwickshire on Witty, a 13.2hh New Forest pony, following the likes of Ted Edgar in the field.

    “With Witty I was one of those ghastly children who’d push past the master on a brilliant pony and jump something they wouldn’t,” laughs Ann.

    Despite her father’s hopes that she’d become an eventer – “I think he thought it was a nicer lifestyle” – by 11, Ann was settled on showjumping.

    “I don’t think I’d have made a very good eventer,” she speculates, “though I was shortlisted with Psalm for the young rider eventing as well as jumping teams. He was too careful and I’m too precise. I’m not sure I could shut my eyes and kick as I think you have to…”

    Soon Ann had become a tour de force on the junior jumping circuit, her parents taking her to shows up and down Britain.

    “It’s only afterwards that I’ve realised what an unsung hero my mother was, taking me to Hickstead or wherever,” says Ann. “She had help of course, but she had six children and I still don’t know how she did it.”

    Whereas most riders tend to list people who have taught them as their sources of inspiration, Ann instead names those she admired – Pat Smythe and Liz Edgar. And pivotal to her riding at every stage was her father; her backer, trainer, adviser and strategist rolled into one.

    “Ann’s father walked all the courses with her – he was a fully committed, hands-on kind of fella, fastidious and a good judge of what she needed,” remembers Graham Fletcher. “They’d plan their strategy, fitness regime and plan of attack and I can’t ever remember anyone else having any say in the matter. But the system they had was very successful.”

    Steve Hadley, another contemporary, agrees: “Norman had his own opinions, which were usually right… he applied his business brain to showjumping.”

    After Ann’s very successful championship debut – team gold in her first appearance on the junior British team on the lovely Kangaroo – Norman suggested his daughter make the transition to seniors a year earlier than necessary, and bought her the experienced Hopalong Cassidy to help her do so.

    Since Ann was only 5ft 2in tall, Norman was keen on smaller horses for her. His two most inspired purchases, April Love and Psalm, were both under 16hh.

    “My father believed I shouldn’t ride a big horse. I think he was right,” reflects Ann. “Because I didn’t have that length of leg, we’d buy ones that need calming down, not stoking up.”

    Her size also influenced her distinctive riding style, throwing herself up her horses’ necks: “Psalm was also a horse you had to commit to and instil that ‘we are doing this’ feeling in. I would hope I was effective, if not classical!”

    “Norman must have had a talent for picking the right horses – Psalm and April Love were inspirational buys really,” says Steve Hadley.

    Although April Love came with plenty of experience, and Psalm was bought as a youngster, both were complex characters. The former, a grey mare, was brave as a lion but liked to do things at full pelt. Psalm was sensitive and easily bored. Ann soon learned to school him in different fields on the farm, but hunting proved the making of him.

    “Father always said that the value of hunting is not how much you gallop or jump in a day but the fact that you take a young horse out and sit on him for seven hours,” says Ann in her memoirs. “Psalm jumped some terrible places out hunting without a moment’s hesitation.”

    Once Psalm began competing, the Moores were careful not to win too many classes with him too soon. But by 1970 Ann was becoming well established internationally, riding with complete determination, winning over audiences and classes all around Europe.

    Throughout 1971, Psalm in particular became the horse to beat: “One county show I was at alongside her, she won the big class every day – that’s going some,” remembers Steve.

    ‘Careful and sensitive’

    British showjumping was not exactly renowned for transparent selection policies in the 1970s and ’80s, but Ann’s results made it impossible to omit her from the 1972 Olympic team. Nevertheless, everyone imagined April Love would be her ride. Sadly the mare hadn’t recovered from a problem earlier in the year.

    “We never thought that Psalm was an Olympic horse,” says Ann. “He was very careful and sensitive and took a bit of handling. They [the selectors] did everything not to choose him. They didn’t want a girl and didn’t want a horse that was slightly sensitive…”

    Ann will never forget her astonishment at Psalm’s reaction to the vast crowds in Munich: “He just grew a hand, picked up the bridle and we were off – it was not the reaction I was expecting.”

    The occasion clearly didn’t unnerve his jockey either. “The pressure in Munich didn’t bother her one little bit – I think it bothered me more,” remembers her team-mate Mike Saywell. “Or she didn’t show it, anyway!”

    A clear round in the individual contest meant a jump-off for medals, resulting in a British silver medal and a place in the annals of equestrian history for Ann and Psalm. Having given so much in the individual, Psalm had a far less happy time in the team event, and Ann was devastated for Britain to miss a bronze medal by a single penalty.

    Catapulted firmly into the public eye even before Munich by virtue of winning the Ladies’ Europeans in 1971, and with the sport’s profile boosted by colourful characters like Harvey Smith, Johnny Kidd, Graham Fletcher and Douglas Bunn, Ann’s life became increasingly full with press, TV and radio interviews, balls and awards nights. The world, it seemed, lay at her feet. Yet within three years of Munich she had retired from competition.

    The last true amateur

    It’s common enough to see riders drop from the podium as their top horses retire and the quest continues to replace them. But for Ann the niggling injuries that beset Psalm and April Love after 1972 triggered a more profound shift, in part because this very professional rider was in other ways also one of the last true amateurs, backed not by sponsors and performance programmes, but by committed parents.

    Steve Hadley agrees: “She didn’t have to ride rubbish, because she wasn’t being paid to. She just rode the horses she wanted to ride, but that isn’t always a passport to success.”

    “To be honest, I was very tired. I’ll never know if, with six months off, I’d have come back again,” Ann reflects. “We also had to consider, do we go out and spend what was by then becoming very big money to buy a made horse. And I’m the eldest of six, remember – it couldn’t all be about me.

    “I made the decision that this was the end. If you go, you go, and I didn’t want to go to shows any more as a ‘ghost’.”

    It may seem strange and even a little sad to step away from something you are brilliant at in your early twenties, but it was also Ann’s privilege to do so. She had no sponsors’ or owners’ contracts to meet; she had won an Olympic medal and moved on before there was any danger of becoming stale.

    Many top athletes have spoken about the emotional upheaval caused by stepping away from an utterly focused life in sport and Ann, too, took a little while to find her equilibrium.

    She continued producing and selling young horses – often to the eventing world – and for three years was chef d’equipe of the British juniors and young riders, including a young Nick Skelton and John Whitaker.

    “I really enjoyed that,” says Ann. “It showed me the sport from a different perspective and I felt I should put something back into it.”

    A chance invitation to help commentate on a top men’s class also led to a long involvement with the BBC commentary team, and Brands Hatch even recruited Ann to help promote their sport by training her up as a Formula Ford racing driver on a two-year contract – “it was fascinating and great fun, and I still follow Formula One”.

    For more than 35 years, Ann has been happily married to David Curtis, a farmer in East Yorkshire, and though they share a love of racing, her main sporting interests are fly-fishing and working gundogs, spheres in which she also works as a photographer.

    Motherhood is one route Ann chose not to take: “David has three daughters, which I think is enough for any man,” she says. “It was a conscious decision and I’ve never, ever regretted it for all sorts of reasons. Coming from a family of six you realise parenthood is not all a bed of roses – it’s a massive commitment.”

    Though other great riders I’ve interviewed for this series admit they’d kill to travel back in time to their competition heyday, Ann stands out for being happily immersed in a non-horsey second life. There are only sheep in fields at home, and no horsey photos apart from in her study, “which I call my shrine”.

    “So where is that silver medal now, Ann?” I ask before we end our long call. “Right here, beside me…”

    Contemporaries on Ann Moore

    Mike Saywell: “Ann’s style wasn’t one you’d copy but it was very successful. The partnership with Psalm worked fantastically.”
    Steve Hadley: “Ann was a very nice girl, never spoilt by her success, and her parents were too. She was very consistent and a good competitor – she had her own way of doing it but it worked for her.”
    Graham Fletcher: “She was a total winner… she’d always have a go [to win against the clock]. I remember jumping in Rome and the crowds loved this little blonde girl on her grey horse.”

    The ponies who helped her on her way…

    Rascal was Ann’s first pony, and a Dartmoor. “I spent all my childhood on my own with him – he was just that lovely pony that every child needs.” He became a good jumping pony for her, too.

    David was a more experienced 12.2hh jumping pony. “He turned out to be the biggest character we’d ever met,” says Ann. “He would tackle anything, but if he saw a gap in a fence he’d try going under instead of over it.”

    Witty was a 13.2hh New Forest who came from the Simpson family, who later sold the Moores Psalm as a youngster. “She was fabulous hunting, eventing and showjumping but very careful. If she wasn’t right to a fence, she’d stop, so taught me a great deal.”

    With 14.2hh Kangaroo, Ann was selected for her first international, helping Britain to win team gold at the 1965 junior Europeans. As a teenager in the school holidays, she took him with her to train with showjumpers Phil and Alan Oliver, who had produced him. “He was wonderful, but he wasn’t a sit-and-steer job,” says Ann. “You had to get your stride right, but that was a good training for me.”

    Hopalong Cassidy was a 15hh former polo pony whose legs were rather short. “My father bought him to give me experience in senior classes and he was the perfect conveyance for that transition,” says Ann. “He was so genuine, he looked after you. He got me into my first Queen Elizabeth II Cup when I was 15, and ended his days with us at home.”

    Her two great – yet small – stars

    The grey April Love had competed in the Mexico Olympics with her previous rider, Australian Sam Campbell. Ann liked her from the outset, though admits today she was “a complete spanner”.

    At home she would be schooled for only two to three minutes before “going berserk and flying off in all directions”, and they would minimise time in the collecting ring to help keep her calm. Although only around 15hh, she was fearless and was consequently Ann’s first choice for Munich.

    Ann took longer to learn to love Psalm, who was a pure thoroughbred by Sermon. He was bought aged four and produced by Ann. An intelligent horse, he became easily bored, but loved to jump, and at their best they were formidable.

    Psalm was quite greedy and once nearly died from colic after eating lots of shavings mixed with long grass on the floor of his show stabling – after that he wore a muzzle in show stables.

    Graham Fletcher remembers him as a “really good model with a lot of jump”, and Steve Hadley as “a superstar, a proper job. At his best, they took an awful lot of beating.” He died at the grand age of 32 and is buried on the family farm where he retired.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 20 August 2020