The H&H interview: Anneli Drummond-Hay *H&H Plus*

  • H&H features editor Martha Terry found the inaugural Burghley winner, who is now in her ninth decade and remains a huge fan of riding green thoroughbreds straight off the track, more inspiring than ever…


    “We don’t like talking about age,” says 82-year-old Anneli Drummond-Hay. “Apollo and I have a combined age of 103, but he still thinks he’s young. I’m very chicken nowadays and only jump up to 1.20m classes. I used to jump much bigger but I stay in my comfort zone.”

    “Much bigger” in Anneli’s eyes means a world record for ladies’ puissance, victories at both Badminton and Burghley, European showjumping gold, the Hickstead Derby and dozens of international grands prix. She is the only rider to have been shortlisted for the same Olympics in all three disciplines, and has represented both Britain and South Africa, where she has lived since 1972, bar a spell in the Netherlands training juniors.

    “I wasn’t born to be cold,” she says, shivering at the memories of mucking out in a European winter.

    But while she might not still be gracing the five-star circuit, Anneli is defying age with astonishing panache. Before this interview, she WhatsApps me from the saddle to postpone our chat for later in the day, when she’ll “be off a horse”. That was the fifth she’d ridden that morning, in the furnace of an African summer.

    “It can be desperately hot in the afternoon, but I like the heat and it’s an easier life here,” she says from her base near Johannesburg, her husky voice sounding far younger than its years. “I have half a dozen horses of my own, and one faithful pupil’s horse. I used to have an academy, but I have scaled down a lot. I do like to teach, though, and it brings in the pennies.”

    Most elite riders don’t compete for fun after stepping down from the top, opting to announce their official retirement. But Anneli doesn’t understand this mentality.

    “Riding is like brushing my teeth. It’s an everyday thing and I wouldn’t contemplate not doing it,” she says. “I enjoy it. It would be like saying, ‘I’ll never eat chocolate again.’

    “I’m reasonably fit and active,” she adds understatedly. “I’m quite creaky in the mornings, but I’ve never really taken a break from riding except for when I cracked a bone in my leg and had to be off for three weeks.”

    Anneli, great-aunt to top event rider Izzy Taylor, insists she competes “when I feel like it”.

    She quietly admits: “I am still competitive, though not as brave as I used to be. But I do plan to win if I think I have a chance.”

    Her husband Trevor Bern, also a horseman, is more expansive.

    “Anneli is still one of the most competitive riders here. No class is ever won until Anneli has jumped,” he says. “She has unbelievable feel and complete trust in her horses, and happily starts ex-racers off in their new career.”

    Apollo, whom she is enjoying teaching one-time changes even though “dressage is not my first love”, may share her status as a senior citizen, but however much Anneli pleads her lack of courage, she does not restrict herself to sensible veterans. She’s a huge fan of green thoroughbreds.

    “I have three young ones, all ex-racers,” she says. “We’re lucky in South Africa, you can buy them cheaply off the track. It’s so exciting when they turn out to be special.

    “You can tell if they’ll have talent from their bloodlines, you can see if they have the size, and I believe a good one can do anything a warmblood can do. People are wild about warmbloods, but the wheel is starting to turn back. The thoroughbred was bred to be a sport horse and when you find a good one, there’s nothing like it, especially for eventing.”

    However, Anneli’s most famous horse of all, Merely-A-Monarch, was not thoroughbred.

    “His grandmother was a Fell pony — and that pony blood made him so intelligent,” she remembers. “He was a freak, and it was a complete fluke I got him.”

    Anneli had advertised in Horse & Hound looking for a four-year-old, and received more than 100 answers, one of which was for a nice-looking two-year-old she ignored for being too young. When this lost photo turned up six months later and Anneli’s quest for a horse was still unrequited, she decided to try him.

    “He happened to be stabled near to an event I was competing at, so I thought I might as well,” she says. “It was fate really, for his picture to be lost and found.

    “He was barely backed and terribly naughty; I didn’t love him all the time,” smiles Anneli, who paid the princely sum of £300 and had to pay it back in instalments.

    Later she would be offered blank cheques for the horse who “was utterly brilliant at whatever he did”.

    Anneli rode him at the first Burghley in 1961 when he was only six.

    “He won by 50 marks — and went on to be unbeaten in the dressage arena,” says Anneli. “He was also a grade A showjumper and could even have excelled on the racetrack.”

    That might seem an outlandish claim for a horse with Fell ancestry, but Anneli relates how she took him for a pipe-opener at a leading trainer’s gallops.

    “The trainer put a jockey up and worked him upsides Flame Gun, the top racehorse of the time,” she says. “As they came up the straight, Monarch left the other horse standing. The trainer asked me if he could train him for nothing, saying he’d win the Gold Cup and the National, but luckily I kept him.

    While much of Anneli’s success harks back to bygone times, when a six-year-old could win a flagship eventing fixture, she believes Monarch “would be exceptional in any era”.

    And the fact that she still holds the ladies’ high jump record proves her own timeless calibre, although she brushes off the accolade.

    “I feel it’s a silly thing to have. It was amazing at the time, but the horse didn’t trust me again. It’s an exciting competition, but not the best for the horse.”

    This horsemanship that runs through every fibre of her being is still thriving today. Always a pioneer, she remembers representing the Perthshire branch of the Pony Club in the interbranch finals — a hotchpotch of dressage, showjumping and a gallop round the arena — having hardly done a dressage test.

    “We hadn’t a clue,” she laughs. “I looked in a book to see what a turn on the forehand was and taught myself. I still believe your best instructor is yourself. Many riders rely on instructors to the detriment of their independent thought process. We had initiative; we watched and learned. You can admire others, but the ball is in your court.”

    She may not like to mention her age, but in her ninth decade, Anneli continues to set the benchmark for riders of every generation to watch and learn in awe.

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