Zara Tindall: ‘riding for your country – it’s what dreams are made of’ *H&H Plus*

  • The former European and world champion tells Catherine Austen about her passion of riding for the British team, why pressure makes her tick and her chance to return to the Olympic fray

    Not many riders have won a medal at every championship at which they’ve competed. Zara Tindall has – from individual silver at the 2002 young rider Europeans to team silver at the 2014 World Equestrian Games (WEG). Her six chunks of precious metal also include, unforgettably, her individual victories in the 2005 European Championships and the following year’s WEG.

    Exceptionally cool under pressure – possibly innate, possibly partly the result of growing up in the media spotlight – means that she is undoubtedly a considerable asset to a team. This is borne out by the fact that she has been a counting score on each of the five teams on which she has ridden.

    “I love riding for my country; those have been the best experiences of my career,” she says. “To get your horse to that level is what it’s all about and what we all strive for. I love the big occasion because I love the pressure – sitting on a horse that you know is good enough, you are fully prepared, riding for your country, it’s what your dreams are made of.”

    Zara would have been a long-shot for Tokyo 2020, but in Gleadhill House Stud’s Class Affair she does believe she has a team horse for the near future. The chestnut son of OBOS Quality 004, now 11, impressed at Bramham when finishing ninth last year – she berates herself for having two showjumps down – and showed great improvement in his dressage at Burghley, his first five-star. He blotted his copybook, however, with a run-out at the skinny fence after the Leaf Pit drop, which tipped Zara off out of the side door, and then ran out again at Blenheim. She did some rethinking, worked on how to ride him in the early part of the course so that he was properly focused and listening to his rider, and they were seventh at Boekelo with a double clear.

    Class Affair clearly has the ability: “He’s such a lovely jumper – he properly operates over a fence, he has super paces, he’s striking to look at, and has a high cruising speed”, but he isn’t straightforward.

    “He’s quite a mad character in that he doesn’t really trust people – he’s very suspicious about people on the ground and things like that,” says Zara. “He’s actually better at competitions than at home – he’s so spooky at home; everything is going to eat him. You have to be really careful with him, he’s not one of those horses that you can just walk up to, give him a kiss and get on. He’s not easy to get on – there’s always a system and if you do something before he’s ready, then you know about it. It happened to me once when I had my foot in the stirrup and swung my leg over before he was ready and he bolted!”

    A spring target

    Both Class Affair and Watkins, a 14-year-old owned by Judith Luff who came to Zara in 2015 from New Zealand rider Heelan Tompkins, had Badminton as their spring target.

    “The problem now is trying to work out a plan,” she says. “At the start of the season you have your goal and you work out your plan to get there. Having horses like Class Affair and Watkins to aim at Badminton was exciting and gave everything a focus; now those goals aren’t there, it’s quite weird and you have to deal with the disappointment.”

    She gave her string two weeks’ holiday at the beginning of lockdown, initially thinking sport might resume in June.

    “I thought it would be good for them to have a nice little break and to come on from their winter training. It worked really well; they look good, they’ve kept their muscle and they’ve come into themselves more. But now I am not sure if we are going to get much of the season, if any at all.”

    The thoroughbred Watkins is very different to Class Affair: “He’s great fun and brilliant across country – he loves his jumping, but he is not good on the flat. He doesn’t enjoy dressage and gets wound up by it, so we’ve got to the stage where we work with what we’ve got and we don’t try to change too much,” she says fondly. “He’s a dude, but he’s not going to get on to a team, whereas Class Affair has got it all there – he just needs more experience and to be a bit more consistent.”

    Class Affair’s predecessors, Toytown and High Kingdom, have given him big shoes to fill. Toytown gave Zara her world and European titles, and High Kingdom her Olympic and second WEG team medals.

    She says with a laugh: “In his younger years Toytown was a nightmare to hack out and ride. He had a lot of attitude and personality; he was a very expressive, exuberant character. He loved showing off but he was a redhead at heart. He was really tricky but he loved his job and loved a crowd, which at a championship was fantastic because he upped his game.

    “We came up the levels together and had the most amazing partnership. I shall never forget that feeling he gave me across country. I remember that first Burghley [2003, when they finished second to the Grand Slam-winning Pippa Funnell] and my dad giving me such stick for being 20 seconds inside the time. I told him I didn’t have any choice in the matter – he was pulling my arms out at the end, having done roads and tracks and steeplechase as well! It makes you sad that you don’t have those horses for long enough. I remember thinking at every competition towards the end of his career, ‘Is this going to be my last run on him?’ And you really treasure every moment on them at that stage.

    “High Kingdom is completely different to Toytown. He didn’t have such natural movement, but he was a worker – he learnt it all – and he is a little jumping ball. He was a much better showjumper than Toytown because he made a better shape over a fence; Toytown was so brilliantly fast across country because he never wasted time over a fence. High Kingdom was a much calmer, more relaxed horse. I remember walking him up the gallop at London 2012 with people everywhere, and he didn’t react at all. He stands stock-still in the start box while he’s being counted down, and then he just goes. It’s almost like he conserves his energy until the moment he needs it.”

    High Kingdom may no longer contest the big events, but he is still “bouncing along”. Zara jumps him every week, and had planned to do the arena eventing classes at venues such as Windsor, Hickstead and Bolesworth with him this year.

    “He’d love that and would be great at it, because you can jump and turn immediately afterwards on him,” she says.

    Alongside Class Affair and Watkins, Zara has nine-year-old Gladstone, an ex-racehorse again owned by Trevor Hemmings’ Gleadhill House Stud, seven-year-old Showtime, and six-year-old Classicals Euro Star.

    Zara has bred nine foals from a thoroughbred broodmare, Something About Molly, which she either sells or starts off and sends into training with Martin Keighley just outside Stow-on-the-Wold.

    “I really enjoy teaching them to gallop and jump, getting them a topline and then sending them off to the trainer,” she says.

    Zara lives at Aston Farm, a couple of miles from Gatcombe. Sinead Anglin and Jason Wood, her members of staff, live there too. “It means they are on site all the time,” she says. “The team behind you are so important – you just couldn’t do it without them. They are the biggest part of your life, you spend every day with them and you all have to get on.

    “I feel for them at this time; your team also have those goals of the big events, they are still working hard with nowhere to go. Hopefully we make it as fun as we can; at least the weather is great. And those of us who have been able to spend time with our horses during lockdown are so lucky – a lot of people haven’t and that’s incredibly tough for them.

    She continues: “I would like to say a huge thank you to my sponsors, old and new. They have been so supportive to me throughout my career; I have great relationships with them. They are very much part of the team and each play a part in any successes we have.”

    The race for an Olympic place starts again next year; Class Affair has age on his side, and will have benefited from the extra year’s strength and conditioning, but will not have gained any more match practice.

    A strong Badminton performance will be crucial if she wants to represent her country at a second Games; just the sort of pressure she relishes.

    A golden moment

    Zara will never forget riding into the vast cauldron that is the main arena at Aachen for her showjumping round at the 2006 World Equestrian Games.

    “Bettina Hoy had just jumped, and her round meant that the Germans had definitely won team gold,” she says. “Imagine how loud 50,000 German spectators were then! I couldn’t hear the bell at all; I was just circling around and around and then I looked at the clock and saw it was already running.

    “But it probably helped me, as I had to ride forward. If you are in the lead you try to protect that, but I couldn’t do that – I had to get on with it.”

    Zara had one fence but not two in hand; she used up her life in the middle part of the treble.

    “I had no idea about my time, but, weirdly, I was confident Toytown would jump clear over the last two fences. I was one second over the time, and when I realised I had won, I was so relieved.

    “I obviously didn’t think that being in the lead at the world championships was enough pressure, I had to add a bit more on, stupid idiot!”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 11 June 2020

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