Many of yesteryear’s top riders are now enshrined in legend. Here’s the pick of some of our readers’ memories of the stars of their time
A puissance pioneer
My mother Peggy Hooper (née Battrick) was fortunate to go to work for Lady Wright in 1963, aged 16, at Durley House in Savernake Forest. The work involved teaching children whose parents sent them for riding lessons and dealing with full hunter liveries.
Lady Wright was joint-master of the Savernake Forest Buckhounds; she had previously been master of the Tedworth Foxhounds, so hunting was a busy season with all the hunter liveries. She was very hot on etiquette and was not afraid to tell anyone off for not having their gloves on.
My mum always talks about the privilege of being able to ride Lady Wright’s horse Coppermint, whom she bred and was her hunter. Coppermint was exceptionally well schooled – considering Lady Wright didn’t believe in dressage!
Lady Wright held the record for jumping 7ft 4in astride, before Anneli Drummond-Hay broke her record.
A royally hard act to follow
Dick Stillwell’s yard is one of my happiest memories of my early eventing days. The torture that he used to put us through – from being blindfolded when jumping because we were “fiddling”; the pole down your back or between your arms because you were “slouching”; the fear when the fences went up – but also so much laughter. He was an amazing man who worked so hard, as did his wonderful wife Joan.
Our lessons were always mixed up with our heroes, the top riders of the day. Richard Meade, who would always help you warm up before the dressage and he called my horse Arthur “Rubberneck” (he did get the best dressage in the Griffin section at Bramham in 1975!). There was Mary Gordon-Watson and “Corny” (Cornishman); Tiny Clapham with Martha – whose neck was put on the wrong way – and Lorna Clarke, who had just had a baby, and asked Dick if she could stop sitting trot as her milk was curdling!
Dick started teaching us in the Pony Club in the 1960s and helped us to success at Hickstead when we won the Pony Club championships in 1969. Thanks to the Pony Club and Dick, we moved on to have enormous fun eventing.
Eventing was so different in the 1970s. In those days every horse had to carry 11st 11lb, so I had to carry over two stone of lead and all my horses hated the dead weight. There wasn’t the pressure of huge sponsorship and the courses weren’t as technical, just enormous and frightening. But there was always a big wig like Lucinda (Green), a Ginny (Elliot) or a Richard (Walker), who would give us time and advice.
Richard once plonked me back in the saddle after falling off on the cross-country and had to point the horse in the right direction as I had knocked myself out for a moment! No health and safety mentioned.
It was a dubious honour to do your dressage test straight after Princess Anne when the press were there. I always got disastrous results.
Georgina van Cutsem
So close to gold
What seems a long time ago writing in 2020, I used to ride Pony Club competitions from Prince Philip mounted games, one-day events, show ponies, hacks, ladies’ hacks and then on to senior one- and three-day eventing. I was very fortunate to experience the extreme highs and lows of ponies and horses.
This photo was taken at the European Three-Day Eventing Championships at Burghley in September 1971. I was in the British team that won and I was second individually to Princess Anne, who won the gold medal.
Unfortunately my stirrup leather broke on the cross-country and in the photo you can see that my left leg is without a leather and stirrup.
A year later I was chosen for the Olympic three-day event team but very sadly my horse, Baccarat, was lame for the first time in his life on the morning of the competition, so at 7am I was substituted by Bridget Parker, who with Cornish Gold helped Britain to win the gold medal.
Baccarat was known for his brilliant and accurate jumping at great speed on the cross-country and showjumping, although he was only 15.1½hh. I was fortunate to have had him. Dressage was a nightmare, but jumping was great fun and he was an enormous character in a small package.
They were a long time ago but I can still recall the occasions very well. Happy memories – it is amazing how much can change over the years.
Debbie Lee (née West)
Fearless, invincible Lucinda
Being born in 1964, my earliest memories are of riding and following horses in the 1970s. Coming from a non-horsey background, I had to satisfy my interest with a weekly hack or lesson (costing 50p for an hour).
One of my favourite activities on the lesson was a round-the-world race with no horses being held and no hats being worn! For the rest of the week I read horse books. Jill’s Gymkhana and Jill Has Two Ponies were good, but my favourite was Four Square by Lucinda Green (Prior-Palmer then).
I looked forward to watching Lucinda on the television every year at Badminton as she seemed so fearless and always seemed to win. I can still picture her doing her lap of honour with Wide Awake in 1976 before the horse collapsed.
None of my friends were horsey, so I was never able to chat about horses with anyone. Imagine my excitement a few years ago to find only myself and Lucinda standing at a cross-country fence at Barbury Castle as the cross-country was held while a fence was repaired. Now was my chance to chat to Lucinda herself – and she was very gracious talking about the book and Wide Awake. I couldn’t have imagined that would happen 40 years ago.
The best I’ve ever sat on
In 1963 the show rider Billette Mackie moved to the stables in the Gloucestershire village where I was a horse-mad teenager. She was only there for a couple of years but during that time I got to ride horses I’d only dreamt about, travel to shows as a groom, and see my heroes and heroines.
The star of the stable was large hack His Royal Highness (Nibs). He won his class at the Royal International 1964, held outside Wormwood Scrubs, and then Bill rode him through the London traffic back to White City, where he was reserve hack champion.
When Bill let me ride him she said: “He is like nothing you have ever sat on before, you only think the aids.” How right she was, for, more than 50 years later, I can still remember the feel of that extended trot.
The day I held Red Rum
In the late 1970s, Red Rum was steeplechaser of the year at HOYS, which was held at Wembley then.
The grand old champion was to head the parade at the end of the final evening, accompanied by his trainer, Ginger McCain.
As a journalist, I was down beside the collecting ring, smartly dressed, interviewing the owners, trainers and riders of the year’s leading hunters and hacks and driving teams and ponies et al. Ginger suddenly realised he had left something vital in the lorry, parked some distance away behind the arena. He pushed Red Rum’s reins into my hand and told me to hold him. So I stood on one side of the collecting ring’s barricade, teetering in high heels and a tight skirt, while my equine hero chomped at the bit on the other side.
He knew the importance of the occasion and could hear Dorian Williams announcing his name and the trumpeters heralding his appearance. I looked frantically for Ginger’s return and when I saw him in the distance, I stumbled through the arena sand as the huge curtains opened. In the nick of time, I passed the reins to the sprinting Ginger and the pair trotted proudly into the spotlight.
An Olympic relay team could not have made a cleaner hand-over!
Toska, a real warhorse
My great-uncle Seweryn Kulesza was a Polish cavalry officer who won eventing team silver at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – despite falling off and remounting. The Germans won gold, and Seweryn told how the riders from every other nation fell in the water, while the Germans, on home ground, seemed to know of a ridge beneath the water and stayed upright.
Poignantly, Seweryn was reunited with Toska, the horse that carried him to the podium, against the Germans three years later – in battle. Toska was killed. Those early days of eventing really were a test of the military – riding genuine warhorses.
From Bertie Hill to Mary King
Back in the day, I did three-day eventing and I represented Great Britain, back when roads and tracks and steeplechase where still part of the format.
When I was 14, I showed ponies for the late great producer Douglas Kellow. After school I would ride the ponies for him, when he told you what he thought – good and bad. The ponies didn’t have make-up on for the show ring nor did they have all the bling, just the pony as it is including a good natural shine from within, plaited mane and pulled tail.
At 17, I worked for the legendary Bertie Hill, where everything from Olympic horses, Badminton winners and the breakers were ridden in just an eggbutt snaffle. No noseband, no gadgets. If we couldn’t use our riding ability to work the horses properly we, the riders, were the ones who got shouted at. Today, people quickly reach for the easy way out, using things like draw-reins and so on.
Bertie made us work the horses properly and hard; they had a lot of galloping to do at events, so the horses had to be fit or they would struggle to complete. I was at Bertie’s the same time Mark Phillips kept his horses there and because I rode his horses while he was away, I got to groom for Mark at a couple of big events, like when he won at Burghley on Maid Marion in 1973.
A big difference at shows now is the horseboxes. We didn’t have any living; a foam mattress was put on the floor in the horse area. It never mattered what the lorry looked like, it was what came out of the lorry that counted!
When I left Bertie’s yard and set up on my own I took a lot of what I learnt into it, like not having any gadgets on the horses and keeping things very simple.
I also did dressage judging and I can remember judging a 16-year-old Mary King (née Thomson) at Molland Horse Trials – it wasn’t surprising she went on to be a top rider. I was very impressed with the partnership she had with her horse and the test she did was impressive.
This picture is of Jäger-tee, one of my shortlisted horses for the Olympics.
During lockdown I’ve spent time tidying cupboards that have not seen the light of day for many years!
I came across this programme for the 1971 Perth Horse Show, and it brought back so many happy memories. Many riders autographed the back of the programme too. It’s a delight to see some of the names listed are still involved with showjumping nowadays.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 July 2020