Legends of the sport: eventing superstar – Ginny Elliot

  • One of the first female Olympic medallists in eventing, Ginny Elliot also claimed three consecutive European titles and multiple wins at Badminton and Burghley to earn her place among the sport’s greats, discovers Andrea Oakes

    Few have ridden across country with the panache of Ginny Elliot, the petite eventer whose distinctive purple colours blazed a trail around the sport’s toughest tracks. Yet Ginny delivered not just style, but substance.

    During an astonishing decade, she dominated the international scene – claiming multiple Olympic, World and European Championship medals alongside a Badminton hat-trick and five Burghley wins. “We hit a real purple patch in the 1980s,” she recalls. “I’d had a tough time but, thankfully, everything suddenly clicked.”

    She certainly made it look effortless. Fellow eventers admired her, spectators adored her and no pony-mad youngster’s bedroom was complete without posters of Priceless, Night Cap and Master Craftsman on the walls. But the polished performances came after an arduous climb to the top.

    Ginny, whose maiden name was Holgate and first married name was Leng, was born in Malta, in 1955. Her father was a Royal Marine so she spent much of her childhood abroad, with spells at school in the UK.

    “My interest in horses grew from my mother [Heather]’s side, as she and my grandfather [Ewart Rice] had always been into showing and polo,” explains Ginny, who started riding at three and whose first proper pony was a Welsh Mountain mare called Misty. “Grandpa had a passion for buying horses. One day he arrived with a foal he had bought for me, for £35, from Five Lanes Cattle Market in Cornwall.”

    The colt, christened Dubonnet, would play a pivotal role in Ginny’s success.

    “When ‘Dubby’ was five, I would hack him over for lessons with Sally Strachan [elder sister of eventer Clarissa],” recalls Ginny. “He was only 15.2hh, but we were excited to discover that he was by the same sire as Mary Gordon-Watson’s great Cornishman V. I just imagined that Dubby would be the same.”

    Despite early eliminations and many rookie mistakes, she and Dubby progressed from Pony Club teams to become junior European champions – even taking a tilt at their first Badminton, in 1974. Ginny developed a small string and was long-listed for the Montreal Olympics with a promising youngster called Jason.

    But her plans came to a shuddering halt soon after her 21st birthday, when she broke her left arm in 23 places in a fall with Jason at a one-day event. Thanks to the skill of a talented surgeon, the jigsaw of bone fragments was pieced back together and Ginny’s arm was saved from amputation.

    ‘We had no money’

    Ginny was back in action at Burghley later that year with up-and-coming star Tio Pepe, but faced bigger hurdles on the path to success.

    “My poor dad had developed multiple sclerosis and we had no money,” she says. “Mum said we would have to find a way, so we bought and sold horses to make ends meet. Every week, we bagged up sacks of shavings at a sawmill, because they were free. We had to scrimp and save.

    “Mum sent me to Pat Manning for lessons and I would live in a caravan, mucking out 22 boxes in return for a one-hour lesson,” Ginny recalls. “It gave me the opportunity to decide whether I really wanted to do this or not.”

    Disappointments came thick and fast, however, as all three of her advanced horses were forced into early retirement with health issues. Ginny admits that she was close to giving up when she started schooling Priceless and Night Cap, two five-year-old Ben Faerie sons bought locally in Devon. As they started to make their mark, she set about securing financial support.

    “I would go up to London on the train once a week to try to find a sponsor,” says Ginny, whose efforts eventually paid off with backing from British National Life Assurance. “I’m not particularly competitive, but I am determined.”

    And so began that extraordinary run of results, when, as Ginny explains, “everything went right”. Priceless led the charge, defying the critics who claimed he was too common by backing up world and European team golds with a win at Burghley in 1983.

    Ginny became European champion three times in a row – in 1985 with Priceless, in 1987 with Night Cap and in 1989 with Master Craftsman. She clinched World Championship gold in Gawler in 1986, with Priceless, before riding Night Cap to victory at the alternative worlds later that year (laid on at Bialy Bor, Poland, because many nations couldn’t travel to Australia).

    Ginny also claimed individual bronze and team silver Olympic medals with Priceless in Los Angeles in 1984, achieving the same with Master Craftsman in Seoul in 1988. Slotted between were additional Badminton and Burghley wins – Master Craftsman took both titles in 1989, four years after Priceless had achieved the same feat.

    “I really respected how wonderful the horses were in those years,” says Ginny. “I like to think they trusted us. I used a training ethic taught to me by Lady Hugh Russell and Pat Manning, and we went to some lengths to prepare them – turning them out every day, incorporating roadwork, hillwork and gallops into their routine, but never using gadgets.

    “I begged racehorse trainer Michael Dickinson to show me how to get them really fit, helping him in return with some gridwork for his racehorses.

    “I was incredibly fortunate with my team,” adds Ginny, who had built a formidable back-up crew that included Heather and Dot Willis (Pat Manning’s former head girl), with showjumping input from trainer Pat Burgess. “Everyone paid attention to detail. It’s like a Formula One driver with the mechanics – you can’t win without them.”

    Ginny is quick to credit the likes of Mark Todd and Lucinda Green for the help she received on the way, saying: “I love asking questions. I asked lots of those at the top of their game and they all managed to put up with me.”

    The world stage

    Just as she had studied her heroes, all eyes were on Ginny as she established herself on the world stage. Her preparation was second to none.

    “I like doing things properly and hate making mistakes, so I would double-check everything,” she says. “I used to get pretty nervous. Everyone else was as cool as a cucumber; Mary King always seemed so calm. I was envious!

    “The worst thing was waking up on cross-country day to the sound of rain falling on the caravan roof, and thinking, ‘I wish I wasn’t here,’” she adds. “But, as soon as the starter said, ‘Go,’ I was fine. All those horrible feelings just disappeared.”

    Ginny remembers coming to terms with her fame with a smile. “At Badminton, in 1985, it was announced on the tannoy that I’d finished the cross-country in the lead. We packed the 10-minute halt stuff [long-format eventing] into the car and I was sitting in the back with my great friend Louise Bates while mum drove.

    “As we fought through the crowds, I noticed that everyone was waving at me. ‘Amazing,’ I thought, ‘We’ve really made it!’ Then a man tapped on the window and said ‘We’re not waving at you, you prat – you’ve left a bucket on the roof’. Talk about coming down to earth with a bump.”

    Horses being horses, there were inevitably ups and downs. Murphy Himself proved one of the tougher nuts to crack.

    “He was the sort of child you wouldn’t want at school,” says Ginny, who bought the gung-ho gelding when he was advertised as a four-year-old in Horse & Hound. “We were told he’d been backed, but we later heard they’d tied a sack of nuts on his back and he’d jumped out of the arena. If he was fed up, he’d rear. It took so much patience to try to understand his personality and his brain. He was a monster, but in a charming way.”

    After winning Burghley in 1986, aged just eight, Murphy took it into his head to leap from the top of Badminton’s notorious “ski jump” to the bottom.

    “I fell off, fracturing my ankle,” explains Ginny, who still managed to finish third on Master Craftsman. “My family said Murphy was just too strong. I was determined to find a way, but they put pressure on me and I bent. I passed him to Ian Stark, who did a great job with him, but to this day I regret moving Murphy on.”

    Welton Houdini proved a different challenge. Described by Ginny as “talented but timid”, he took a crashing fall in the quagmire that was Badminton 1992.

    “He liked to carry his head quite high into the jumps, so one day I lengthened his martingale,” she says. “Along with some hunting, to build his confidence in the mud, it transformed him. He won Badminton the next year and never went better.”

    Hanging up her boots

    “I didn’t go out with fireworks,” says Ginny, who explains that her international career “petered out” after her last team appearance at the 1993 European Championships at Achselschwang.

    She had just married, for the second time, and was settling down in her new Oxfordshire home with farmer Mike Elliot. Her sponsorship had ended, Houdini had a soundness issue and Ginny was “tinkering” with two intermediate horses. When she broke her leg in an accident on the gallops, the decision was made for her.

    “It was the right moment to stop,” she says. “I did wonder whether to announce it, but decided to disappear quietly. Mikey and I tried for a family and after that I thought, ‘Why go back? Remember the good times and appreciate them.’”

    Now an MBE, Ginny has written autobiographies and children’s fiction and devotes time to charities such as Spinal Research and the Horse Trials Support Group, of which she is the current chair. She also coaches, has trained point-to-point horses, and, as performance manager, steered the Irish eventing team to a fifth place at London 2012 – a role she describes as “eye opening”.

    “I had no idea how much people had done for me when I was on teams; I now appreciate the enormity of their efforts.”

    In Ginny’s day, eventers completed the long format – which included roads, tracks and steeplechase – and fans wrote letters to their idols to ask for autographs. What does she make of the modern scene? “The sport is changing, but that’s very healthy,” she says. “I would have loved to be eventing now, as I hated the steeplechase.

    “It’s easier these days to get your profile out there, with social media, but back then we became icons,” adds Ginny, whose TV and radio appearances included A Question of Sport, This Is Your Life and Desert Island Discs. “It was so much fun.”

    While she has a few hunters, Ginny reveals that there are no special horses in her life. “I’ve always fancied a crack at pure dressage, so you never know,” she laughs. “But the love in my heart goes to all those boys in the ’80s – my heroes.”

    Starring roles

    “It was a hoot,” says former eventer and Badminton media director Julian Seaman, who, along with Ginny and other eventers including Jane Holderness-Roddam and Richard Meade, secured a riding part in the film International Velvet. “Ginny was a good friend of mine and had one of the lead roles, doubling for Tatum O’Neal. It was filmed at Burghley right after the 1977 Europeans, and it was just like grown-up Pony Club camp; we would play chase-me-Charlie over the fences every morning.”

    Ginny on her top trio…

    Priceless – “‘P’ was like an army sergeant: forthright, well-built and bossy, but a real soldier. He was just 16hh and 3/4-bred, and in those days I had to carry a lot of lead. He put up with me and my mistakes and never had a fault across country. He was genuine and incredibly intelligent – I adored him.”

    Night Cap – “Night Cap was far more polite – a real gent. He was not overly brave, but very talented. With what P taught me, I could give him confidence.”

    Master Craftsman – “The George Clooney of the horse world, Crafty was good-looking, charming and courageous. He didn’t really have a flaw. While he hit a few fences as a youngster, when he reached four-star [now five-star] he turned into a machine. He was the perfect event horse.”

    Ian Stark on Ginny…

    “What we all admired about Ginny was her set-up,” says Ian Stark. “Ginny was obviously brilliant, but Heather Holgate, Dot Willis and the team were meticulous about detail. They were out-and-out winners.

    “We travelled together a lot and they were good fun to be with,” he adds. “They seemed to have a great system for producing horses, and Ginny rode them in such a stylish way. The whole team worked as one, which played a big part in her success.”

    Ginny on Lucinda Green…

    “I watched endless videos of Lucinda in action and tried to emulate her amazing lower leg position and upper body balance. When I ended up riding on a team with her, it was awe-inspiring. We formed a lifelong friendship and even now will walk a course together, as we did at Burghley last year. She’s a special girl.”

    Ginny’s career in numbers

    5 Burghley wins

    3 Badminton victories

    8 European medals overall

    2 Individual World golds (Gawler and Bialy Bor 1986)

    3 consecutive individual and team golds at European Championships

    4 Olympic medals

    2.5 stone: the lead weight Ginny had to carry (around 15kg)

    Ref Horse & Hound; 14 May 2020

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