Legends of the sport: ‘Remarkable horsewoman’ Anneli Drummond-Hay *H&H Plus*

  • The consummate horsewoman followed up a Badminton win with a stellar showjumping career, and was shortlisted for the Olympics in all three disciplines, writes Martha Terry

    It is a phenomenal CV. Imagine if one of today’s top event riders ticked Badminton and Burghley victories off their list and proceeded to turn their talent to the world of international showjumping, racking up dozens of grand prix wins, a European Championship, seven Derbies and the high jump record. Comparisons across the eras may be arbitrary but Anneli Drummond-Hay’s list of achievements is unsurpassed in any generation.

    Her aristocratic heritage, her super-horse Merely-A-Monarch and her jet-setting lifestyle among a glamorous elite at a time when only football held sway over showjumping on primetime TV, implies a silver-spoon upbringing. But the true tale of how Anneli became one of the sport’s biggest and most enduring names – the first to secure commercial sponsorship, the only rider ever to be shortlisted for the Olympics in all three disciplines – is far grittier.

    Hers is a story of survival, of making the best of both brilliant and ordinary horses, of the necessity of winning sheerly to make ends meet. And now in her ninth decade, she is still enjoying doing just that.

    Anneli was born in 1937, and her childhood was characterised by the privations typical of the 1940s. Although her mother was the daughter of a duke and her father a Scottish nobleman, any family money evaporated, although there remained a “freezing cold Scottish castle without electricity” on her father’s side, and “a fairly grand polo set-up” run by her mother, Lady Margaret.

    As war broke out, almost her entire string of polo ponies was requisitioned by the army – bar one named Independenza, who was too old.

    “As soon as my mother could, she put me on ‘Indy’, who was like my nanny,” says Anneli. “The ponies were trained to neck-rein with a contraption called a bocado – the jaw was tied with leather connecting to your hand. I rode like a cowboy on a loose rein.”

    The unorthodox grounding paid dividends. “This was the basis for my riding: no saddle and no contact. It wasn’t classic, but it has its merits,” she says. “The horses were so sensitive you couldn’t balance against their mouths; you had to develop an independent seat.”

    Auspiciously, Pat Smythe – nine years Anneli’s senior – lived with the Drummond-Hays during those years and also learned to ride on these polo ponies. She competed one, Finality, on the British team.

    Anneli’s first competitive ride was Spider. The skewbald was by a thoroughbred polo pony out of a Shetland, Miss Muffet. Together they did gymkhana, jumping and even “flapping” races.

    “Spider was wonderful,” remembers Anneli of her 12.2hh Pony Club star. “My mother would have been furious if she’d known but we used to race round cinder tracks for the Glaswegian miners, who would bet. It was illegal, but good money – £3 to the winner. Spider was small so they’d give me a head start, but he was very fast and would often win.”

    Spider also took Anneli to the Pony Club interbranch finals, necessitating a train journey from Perthshire to Newmarket. This early version of the Pony Club championships consisted of a dressage test followed by six showjumps around the arena, then a flat-out gallop before halting and dropping the reins. They finished second.

    Besides giving Anneli her first taste of globetrotting, Spider was a soulmate in a somewhat feral childhood. One day, aged 11, after a row with her mother, Anneli decided to run away.

    “I took a bag of apples from the orchard, got on Spider and rode up to the hills,” she said. “We slept out for two nights. But no one noticed I’d gone!”

    Not the done thing

    Despite Anneli’s success on ponies, an equestrian career was unthinkable – “it wasn’t the done thing for a girl with my upbringing” – but in 1955 a catch ride at the European Championships provided a diversion from an impending music degree.

    Her oldest sister Jane was asked to compete at the Windsor Europeans but was waylaid by her imminent marriage. As her ride, Freya, belonged to a cousin, 17-year-old Anneli got the call-up.

    “I jumped at the chance, though in hindsight it was mad as I’d only done Pony Club,” she says. “Then I discovered you had to be 18, so I kept quiet about my age.”

    Freya was bold, but chronically unsound: “I couldn’t jump her in training, nor do any fast work,” says Anneli. “I just used to walk her for four or five hours a day.

    “Ignorance is bliss. The course was huge, and Robert Hall – who stabled the horse – told me not to bother walking it as Freya would go lame on the steeplechase. But I was young and foolish, and the horse had an amazing heart. She was one of only three horses to jump clear, and somehow I came 16th out of 80 starters.”

    This was the catalyst for Anneli’s extraordinary career. Essentially self-taught, she started producing dozens of horses, most of them fairly moderate, but “because of financial scarcity everything had to win or I couldn’t eat. It made me very competitive,” she says. One of the better rides was her sister’s Trident, with whom she finished sixth at Badminton in 1956. Her brother-in-law’s hunter, Pluto, gave her a third placing there in 1958, before Perhaps – whom she bought for £15 as a three-year-old destined for slaughter – so nearly landed the odds in 1960.

    “He should have won, but there was a water jump in the showjumping and, having been asked to jump into water the previous day, he hit the tape,” says Anneli. “The two riders who beat us went on to take gold and silver at the Rome Olympics.”


    It was around this time that the mighty Merely-A-Monarch stepped on to the scene. One of the 100-odd answers to Anneli’s wanted advert in H&H for a four-year-old, was a photo of a two-year-old, which she rejected for being too young.

    “Providentially the photo fell into a suitcase, and six months later when I was packing to go to an event, I found it,” says Anneli. “The horse happened to be stabled near where I was competing, so I went to see him.”

    The youngster, by the thoroughbred Happy Monarch out of a dam with Fell blood, was in a paddock “surrounded by barbed wire and old bottles, but he had the look of eagles”.

    Three hundred pounds seemed expensive, but from his very first show onwards Anneli was besieged by people offering huge sums of money, even blank cheques, including from a leading National Hunt trainer who believed he’d win the Grand National after witnessing him annihilate top chaser Flame Gun on the gallops.

    “It was just my good luck,” says Anneli. “Merely-A-Monarch was head and shoulders better than anything I’d ridden before, a superstar from day one. But he was terribly naughty and difficult to back. Because he was so talented and powerful, and full of joie de vivre, he would buck and twist and I’d go flying.”

    Aged six, Merely-A-Monarch went to the inaugural Burghley, and won by a record margin.

    “I was drawn last and my informants told me the cross-country was impossible; everyone had fallen. There were rails on cliffs, horses slithering up and down ravines. My heart was in my mouth because I had this special young horse, so I set off very carefully and he jumped clear. I was never wild but I think I inspired my horses to be brave.”

    He went on to thrash the field at the following Badminton in 1962, which Anneli had already decided would be their last event. Having won the world’s two premier horse trials and with no Olympic opportunity for ladies at that stage, Anneli set her sights on a new challenge.

    “I don’t want to sound blasé but I’d reached the top of eventing so decided to switch to showjumping,” she says. “Merely-A-Monarch was too precious, too good to event. He was already at grade A but I found big jumps difficult to ride and that was the challenge. I believe a top showjumper could ride round Badminton but not the other way round.”

    Anneli’s rival and team-mate David Broome calls this comparison “very generous”.

    “There used to be a showjumping class before the Badminton cross-country and afterwards Harvey Smith and I would hack round the track,” he says. “I remember thinking you’d have to be out of your mind to jump those fences. You have to admire their bravery.”

    Anneli took her wonder horse to the top classes at Royal International just two months after Badminton.

    “People were gasping as I rode round in eventing style, standing off and dropping strides,” she says. “My horse was so talented I got away with it.”

    1963 was a superlative year, even against a rich seam of household names – Pessoa, Smith, Broome and more. The scene was set for Tokyo 1964, by which time the Olympics had been opened up to women in eventing. Anneli was shortlisted in all three disciplines – Merely-A-Monarch being unbeaten between the white boards – and while this peerless duo would have been hot favourites for eventing gold, Anneli was captivated by jumping’s precision and glamour.

    “It would have been a backward step,” she says, “and Merely-A-Monarch was too talented to risk.”

    By this stage, Anneli could no longer stem the tide of potential buyers and sold Merely-A-Monarch, with the proviso she kept the ride. But the arrangement turned sour as Merely-A-Monarch started refusing, provoking the owner to confiscate him one night and send him to David Broome. He jumped even worse for David, who later apologised to Anneli. Eventually, vets discovered an abscess in the horse’s groin, Lady Margaret managed to get a court injunction to recover the horse and the pair returned to form. But their first Olympic dream had been shattered, and history would repeat itself.

    Four years later, the selectors were priming Anneli and others for Mexico, insisting they jumped in certain huge classes, which took their toll. Although Merely-A-Monarch regained the winning thread, he was overlooked in favour of Marion Mould’s Stroller.

    “It did grate, but I was philosophical enough to know it was cut-throat,” Anneli says.

    She was hamstrung, too, by a new rule that scuppered the chances of another Olympic prospect. In 1965, Anneli became the first rider to get a major sponsorship, from Ford Motor Company, which gave her £20,000 to buy a horse and get it to the Olympics within two years.

    She found the grade B Killenaule, renamed Sporting Ford. However, the Olympic committee declared no horse with a commercial name could compete, which ended the Olympic dream and sponsorship.

    “My three shots at the Olympics all went by the wayside,” she says. “But I never look back; it’s water under the bridge.”

    Sporting Ford did, however, break the British high jump record at 2.37m. “It was hideous and I’d never do it today; I don’t think it’s good for the horse to keep asking like that,” Anneli says. “It isn’t recognised as a record because there was no official record keeper there, but it certainly is a record.”

    Settling in South Africa

    An invitation to compete in South Africa culminated in marriage and emigration in 1971. “I was getting old, about 33!” smiles Anneli. “I thought it was time to finish competing. People didn’t go on being sporting achievers as they do now.”

    Little did she imagine she would still be competitive 50 years on. Thanks to “a habit of collecting horses”, she has always had a string, mostly thoroughbreds bought cheaply off the track.

    Her marriage broke up and, just as in the early days in England, she was fighting to survive. Yet she went on to have an exceptional career in her adopted country, including winning two South African Derbies and being crowned South African sportswoman of the year eight times.

    Two horses stand out from those decades. Seville “won every big grand prix the year I had him”.

    “No one could beat him,” she says. “He was my best horse since Merely-A-Monarch, but I killed him with kindness, it was so sad.”

    Intramuscular iron injections were prescribed to treat the horse’s anaemia, and within two minutes of the vet injecting, Seville was dead. This “miracle drug” was taken off the market.

    In the mid-’90s when Nelson Mandela came to power, the ban on African horses travelling was lifted, and Anneli was tempted by one last tilt at the world stage.

    “I bought Olympian for £200,” she says. “He was grade A by the age of six and won the South African Championships. Everyone said we should go to the World Championships in the Hague.”

    Olympian made the trip to Europe via three months’ quarantine in America: “It was dreadful, he wasn’t cared for and he emerged with a long staring coat and the same shoes he left South Africa in,” says Anneli.

    Olympian didn’t recover in time, physically or mentally, for the championships, and although they completed, it was nothing like the high standard to which Anneli was accustomed. Ever the horsewoman, she blames herself.

    “It was a gamble to take him, but quarantine was gruelling and I feel I broke him,” she says. “He was never as good a horse as he had been in South Africa. The brilliance had gone.”

    After a decade on the Continent, Anneli and her husband, fellow horseman Trevor Bern, returned to her now native South Africa with a couple of horses in tow, one of which – 20-year-old Apollo – she still competes up to 1.30m. At 83, she produces ex-racehorses and trains other riders, a perpetual inspiration the world over. And as for drawing stumps?

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

    David Broome on Anneli

    “Anneli was as tough as nails and a very good horsewoman,” says David of his team-mate and rival. “She was one of the best in her era. It wasn’t just Merely-A-Monarch, she did very well with Xanthos too. She was always competitive – you’d never won until she’d ridden.

    “She is also a lovely person, as kind as can be. I remember once being invited to ride in Cape Town and the horse they lent me was useless. She was so embarrassed she lent me one of her best horses to ride. She has the kindest of hearts.

    “And she’s still phenomenally tough – when you think Pat Smythe retired at 33, and Anneli’s still competing at 83!”

    Althea Gifford on Anneli

    “Anneli had great attention to detail,” says Althea Gifford, who competed alongside Anneli in the 1960s. “If she had a difficult horse, she believed in going back to basics. This was ahead of her time in this country and influenced me. She was very generous with her help.

    “She was strong but open-minded character who thought everything through meticulously. She had to work hard as the money wasn’t always there.

    “Merely-A-Monarch was exceptional. Anneli let me ride him once on an American tour – it was like riding a Rolls-Royce, he was so supple and athletic, and had tremendous power, but that did take some riding.

    “He was in a different class to all his rivals in eventing, but for showjumping Anneli had to learn to contain that power. Showjumping didn’t come naturally to her at first. She had to learn to see a stride, but she just kept improving.”

    The Hickstead Derby winner

    Anneli will always be best associated with Merely-A-Monarch, but her Hickstead Derby win came courtesy of the “amazing” Xanthos II. First impressions were not good, however. A friend urged Anneli to try “this fantastic horse”, who was proving too difficult for his young rider.

    “I thought my friend must have lost her marbles; it looked like a pony, but out of respect I did sit on him,” she remembers. “He was like a bomb: hot, unorthodox and stamped his feet, but his jump was amazing, so I bought him, thinking I could fix him.”

    Back home, Xanthos would bite her legs and paw the ground, and in desperation she put her groom on board while she watched, to try to work him out.

    “He pinned his ears back and galloped over the jumps, so fast but unbelievable, it took your breath away,” she says. “I realised I’d have to let him go his way. From then on I’d shut my eyes and let him charge at the first fence and then he’d settle.”

    The 15.1hh – known as Tiger at home, “he wasn’t cuddly” – went on to win the Hickstead Derby and two Italian Derbies.

    “I remember going into the ring at Hickstead and the bookmaker announced his starting price of 40/1,” Anneli says. “I thought, ‘What cheek, he’s not that bad!’ – it inspired me to win.”

    Anneli on training

    “My philosophy on training is I don’t want a robot, I want my horse to think for himself while listening to me. I never had a fall eventing though I rode over 40 horses, and some had a disgusting style!

    “It’s been puzzling me why these rotational falls happening now in eventing rarely used to happen. But I think many riders who have had bad falls have made their horses like robots. The horses have lost their initiative so they can’t adapt to taking off too close or far away.

    “Obedience has been overemphasised. While that’s OK for showjumping, for cross-country with varied footing and distances, horses must be able to think for themselves.

    “It never fazed me if I couldn’t turn my horse into a robot. Yes, it needs to go forward when you say so, and it mustn’t be wild, but you can give way in some areas and it will then look after you.

    “Maybe I’m wrong; it would take me two lifetimes to learn how to train horses.”

    Anneli in numbers

    1 Burghley and 1 Badminton win

    7 Derby titles including 1 Hickstead Derby

    14 years on the Britain’s Nations Cup team

    1 European showjumping title

    3-time British sportswoman of the year

    8-time South African sportswoman of the year

    2.37m her unofficial British high jump record

    Ref Horse & Hound; 1 October 2020