In this article, first published in Horse & Hound‘s 135th anniversary issue, 2019 Badminton winner Piggy March (neé French) gets together with her childhood hero Mary King to talk about the fan mail she sent her, combining motherhood with competing and Mary’s future in the sport...
Piggy: I must have been your most persistent fan — there can’t have been anyone who beat me in the fan status, surely?
Mary: You were the most consistent and it was such an easy name to recognise. Before social media, I used to get lots of fan mail. Occasionally someone would write a second time, but you just kept going. I tried to send different pictures, to remember which ones you already had.
Piggy: I have them all still. Most of the letters start with, “Thank you very much for the lovely talcum powder or apricot face cream you sent me for my birthday.”
I was forever drawing King William or Star Appeal. You’d also respond when I told you my pony was off with a splint or we’d moved house. Did you think I resembled you as a child or was I just a stalking weirdo?
Mary: I could tell you were really passionate about eventing. You were similar to me, with my heroine Lucinda Green — or Prior-Palmer as she was then. I didn’t write to her — I wasn’t very good at writing. But I used to follow everything she did.
Piggy: I admired the fact you were immaculate on a horse. I loved all your “King” horses — there was a theme, a family. I also liked the way you loved what you did and
your horses, and it always meant so much when you won.
Mary: Lucinda was so elegant on a horse, so attractive and tall, and a natural rider. She had that style across country — lower leg forward, riding forward. In those days, the standard was lower and other riders would interfere and go to their hand all the time. I saved up enough money for Davies boots like Lucinda’s — I remember the wooden trees cost as much as the boots. And then she met David Green. He was so handsome and she was so beautiful and I was in awe.
Piggy: Who was your best horse?
Mary: King William was an amazing cross-country horse — in his heyday, around when I won Badminton in 1992, he was brave, strong, secure and fast.
I had some great rides on Star Appeal — he was a big Irish horse, not as elegant or with the same movement as William, but you could ride a very accurate test on him.
Imperial Cavalier was hugely talented in all three phases and should have won a number of major events, but he loved the sport too much — he was so enthusiastic all the time.
Call Again Cavalier wasn’t quite such an expressive mover, but he was a fabulous jumping horse and was easier to manage temperament-wise.
Piggy: If an owner wanted to buy you a horse for Badminton now, would you look for the same stamp and blood?
Mary: The sport has changed a lot and you can have a different horse now for Event Rider Masters or championships to Badminton or Burghley — in my day, Badminton and Burghley were your major selection trials.
Longevity is important — I still love horses with plenty of thoroughbred blood. The foreign horses can win a major event and seem amazing, unbeatable. But then they are generally more fragile. King William did Badminton as an eight-year-old and kept doing two long-format top-level events every year throughout his career.
Also, it used to be about dominating the horses, whereas now riders have become more knowledgeable and kinder with their training, realising that forming a trusting partnership will bring out the best from your horse.
Piggy: I’ve just been lucky enough to win at Badminton. Do you still remember your first win very clearly?
Mary: Oh yes. I’d been fortunate enough to be second and third, but to win was in a complete league of its own — it just gave you such satisfaction to think you’d done it, beaten the rest of the world.
We didn’t have television when I was growing up and when I went on the Pony Club coach trip to Badminton, I didn’t really know what eventing was. I was 11 years old and in awe of the whole event — shiny horses and shiny riders, who all seemed so brave and rich. I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Piggy: Did anything change afterward your win?
Mary: I still kept really hungry, still wanted to produce other horses. The second win in 2000 was wonderful for different reasons. To have children and win Badminton — I felt guilty really, for being so lucky.
I hope I inspired other mothers. It used to be that once you had children, that was the end of your eventing or other job. I went to my first event in March after having Emily at the end of January. People said I wouldn’t feel the same. I remember setting off out of the start box, jumping the first fence and thinking, “Nope, it doesn’t feel any different, it’s just the same.”
Piggy: Obviously you’ve played a massive part in Emily’s career.
Mary: People think I must have helped Emily a lot, but she’s always been very independent — she is by nature strong-minded, and most importantly I wanted to stay friends with her. So I tried to keep my mouth shut and let her learn from her mistakes, unless what she was doing was dangerous.
Piggy: And have you had much input in her horsepower?
Mary: She chose her first horse herself. She was 12 and came to groom for me at Pau, where she was fascinated watching the horses in the sale loose jump. She said she’d seen a horse and when I watched it, she really had chosen a very nice one.
The next day, she said: “Andrew Nicholson’s trying ‘my’ horse, can I ride it?” She rode it, then asked me to buy it. I said no, because all my life I had been reliant on owners owning the horses I rode. Then she used my phone to text Sue Davies, who owned the Cavalier horses: “Dear Sue, I’ve seen a horse that will really suit me, will you pay for it for me?”
Minutes later, Sue phoned. I apologised and she said she would pay for it, but not running costs. Emily suggested we call the horse King Joules and ask Joules to pay his costs.
Piggy: I want my son Max to learn to ride because it’s so fortunate for kids to be brought up outside, work with animals and have that responsibility. But after that it’s completely up to him. I would only let him be an event rider if he was seriously passionate about it.
Are you a very nervous mum watching?
Mary: I feel a bad mother, but I would have more butterflies if I was doing it myself than when Emily’s riding.
Piggy: I don’t think I’d be very good if Max was going cross-country.
Mary: What is your mum like with you?
Piggy: I think she was — and is — quite stressed about the whole thing. She had about four fags on the go. She just wants everything to be OK.
Without horsey parents, you started from scratch — how important is that? Do you think young riders now expect a final result and skip their ABCs?
Mary: Absolutely, and I think that’s why so many riders do brilliantly as juniors or young riders and don’t seem to be able to make it in the senior world. They have so much help at the start and the opportunity to ride really good horses early on. You need a broad base of knowledge to build your career on.
Piggy: I really do think it’s lacking — just from studding up your own horse, feeding, washing. I don’t do studs any more, but I will quite often tack up. I try to know the horses’ personalities — you pick up things you can take with you to a competition. I was always hopeless though, I would never have been employed as a groom. I still couldn’t pull a tail now — I thought it must hurt so I didn’t do it.
Piggy: I know you still love the sport, but your competing is limited by an issue with
Mary: I still really enjoy it and I’m very happy breaking in and producing my home-bred horses. I don’t have anybody working for me and I have 12 horses around, with two I’m eventing at the moment, plus broodmares and youngsters. I just do them all myself. They live out in the field so I don’t have to muck out.
When I was younger, my friends would say, “Let’s go riding,” but I much preferred to be on my own with my pony.
Piggy: I’d be the same. And do you still want to get back to Badminton?
Mary: I’d love to, but I know I’m not riding so well and I don’t want to be there riding badly. I have injections in my neck every three months and there are times when I have more control of my head and times around the injections when my head’s quite loose and out of control. It affects my balance, but I do get a month of thinking I can ride just like I used to, so that’s what keeps me going.
Mary: I felt so proud when you won Badminton.
Piggy: I had a text message!
Mary: Was it one of your first? I was quite quick off the mark.
Piggy: I was like, “Oh my God, yes it is from Mary,” and Emily sent me one too.
We are the first and last winners of the Mitsubishi Motors Trophy, but we’ve had some weird connections — Imperial Cavalier went lame for the Europeans in Fontainebleau in 2009 and I was called up last minute and won the silver medal. This box came with all the kit, labelled “Mary King”. You have a good pair of boobs — I needed some padding.
Mary: And when did we first meet — can you remember?
Piggy: One of the first was at Holker Hall when Mum was competing and you had King Alfred. I think I patted your pony all week and hung about like a crazy person.
And obviously there’s that picture at Burghley, with me in my braces. I walked the course with you and I remember running off to buy you an ice cream. I’m so glad I kept the letters. I can’t imagine ever not doing so, though. We used to hang around for the post if it was your birthday, knowing I’d get thanked for the talcum powder!
As told to Catherine Austen and Pippa Roome
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