The teenage girl on a pony who conquered the world stage has become the stuff of showjumping legend. Penny Richardson finds out more about Marion Mould and her partnership with the inimitable Stroller.
It is a tale to rival National Velvet: a teenager begs her father to be allowed to keep her pony and they end up becoming world champions and winning an Olympic medal.
This is the unlikely but true story of Marion Mould (née Coakes) and the incomparable Stroller. In 1960s Britain, it struck a chord with every pony-mad girl who had Stroller’s picture on their bedroom wall and dreamed that one day they too would hit the showjumping heights.
The story began in Hampshire in 1950, when three-year-old Marion was taught to ride by her father, farmer Ralph Coakes.
“There were always horses about at home. Dad bred Shires, did ploughing matches and showed them with a wagon at county shows,” remembers Marion. “He even had a stagecoach we used to play in when it was in the barn for the winter. One of my first memories is watching Dad get the Shires ready: cleaning the feathers and doing those special plaits.”
Ralph took Marion hunting on the lead-rein. “We went out with the New Forest hounds and buckhounds, the Wilton and the Portman hunts. I’m told that I jumped everything and Dad used to say: ‘Follow Marion and you’ll be OK!’” she laughs.
Marion was one of six children and because two older brothers and one sister were already showjumping, it was natural for her to follow them into the sport.
“I started out in gymkhanas. We used to hack to shows or pack our ponies into the lorry and off we’d go,” she remembers. “I absolutely loved the games: apple bobbing, musical chairs, bending, you name it.
“In those days, you went to a show and did everything from games to jumping. We also did hunter trials, so it was an all-round education.”
‘A fabulous pony’
Marion remembers the day she first saw Stroller. “It was in 1960 at Lavant show. Dad missed it as he was clearing up from a show he had run the day before. I was 14 at the time and I saw Stroller jumping with Sally Cripps. I went home and told Dad that I’d seen a fabulous pony,” she says.
It wasn’t until the Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) at Wembley that year that Ralph was able to secure the deal that changed his daughter’s life.
“Stroller was jumping there and by this time, everyone was after him,” says Marion. “Dad knew the Cripps family and somehow managed to buy him. I missed it all because I was at school, so I didn’t even have the chance to try him.”
The new pair’s first meeting wasn’t the greatest success. “We went to pick Stroller up and Dad said I’d better have a go on him. I fell off,” laughs Marion.
But from then on it was a match made in heaven between Marion and her magical Irish-bred Connemara/thoroughbred. Although he stood just 14.1hh, Stroller was a horse in miniature, which meant that his length of stride made pony classes difficult.
“I did struggle in combinations to begin with because the distances were so short for him,” admits Marion.
Two years later it was time for Marion to move on to horses, and Stroller was due to be sold. Ann Moore, who went on to ride Psalm to individual silver at the 1972 Olympics, was due to be Stroller’s next partner.
“I was devastated and in a real hump with Dad,” says Marion. “We went to stay at Ann’s house near Birmingham so that she could try Stroller and I was upset for the whole time. In the end, Dad said: ‘If you want Stroller that much, we’ll keep him.’ I owe Dad everything. Ann’s parents were offering an awful lot of money.”
After Ralph agreed to keep him, it was thought that Stroller would give Marion a gentle introduction to young riders classes.
“The idea was to run him alongside an old grade A schoolmaster, but I think Stroller had other ideas!” says Marion.
It wasn’t long until Marion and her supersonic pony were taking on and beating the world’s best. It didn’t matter which challenge: Stroller was up to it.
When Marion was 17, they won the Derby trial at Hickstead and finished second in the Derby itself. The following year the pair joined Britain’s Nations Cup squad. They were on three winning teams and Britain captured the President’s Cup, then the World Championship for teams.
That season, Stroller and Marion were victorious in the first ever ladies’ World Championship at their favourite venue of Hickstead. They also won the first of their two Queen Elizabeth II Cups at the Royal International, at that time held at London’s White City.
In 1967 they were back at Hickstead, where Stroller carried the 20-year-old Marion to a clear round and Derby victory, despite a stumble when coming down the Bank. Marion’s record as the youngest Derby winner lasted until 2019, when Irish rider Mikey Pender triumphed aged 19.
Marion and Stroller added two more second places and a third to their tremendous Hickstead Derby record, and in 1970 they scored an unforgettable win in the Derby at Hamburg, the class that inspired Douglas Bunn’s great course in Sussex.
In Hamburg, Stroller jumped the sole clear, only the 50th ever achieved over the course, simultaneously making Marion the first lady winner of the class.
“There was a crowd of 25,000, and when we landed over the last fence they went crazy. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Marion at the time.
Those were the days when horses – and in Stroller’s case, ponies – did every type of class, and Stroller was also a skilled puissance performer, clearing 6ft 8in (2.03m) and just dislodging a brick from the 6ft 10in (2.08m) wall to share the honours at Antwerp.
Their crowning moment came at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Despite an infected tooth, Stroller jumped clear in the first round of the individual competition over fences up to 1.80m and only had two mistakes in round two.
They just missed out on jumping off for the gold medal, but still won an extraordinary silver behind America’s Bill Steinkraus and his 2hh bigger thoroughbred Snowbound.
Stroller’s tooth problem had worsened by the team competition and he refused for the first time in his life. A second refusal and a fall put Britain out of contention, but Marion and her pony had already done their bit.
“When I was 10, I decided I wanted to jump at the Olympics, but I never really thought it would come true and I certainly didn’t think it would be on a pony! It’s still quite unbelievable,” says Marion.
Marion and Stroller returned to Britain as superstars, but 1968 had already brought another life-changing moment when Marion met her future husband. David Mould was a leading National Hunt jockey; he rode for The Queen Mother and, like Marion, was a popular public figure.
“Our first meeting was at the Horse & Hound ball at the Dorchester Hotel in London. I think David may have had a bit to drink, as he fell over in front of me,” laughs Marion. “We got to know each other properly at a barbecue at Hickstead later that year. I did think he was very good looking and he’s still not too bad after 52 years together!”
Marion’s new boyfriend was also a hit with her family. “Dad loved racing and trained a few point-to-pointers, so he was delighted when I brought a jockey home,” says Marion. “Dad and David used to go racing together, but jumps racing was something I never really got into. Even today, I prefer to watch racehorses on the flat. They’re just so beautiful.”
Marion and David’s wedding in September 1969 brought more headlines, with Pathé News there to film the nation’s showjumping sweetheart’s marriage to her dashing jockey.
Marion competed Stroller for another four seasons before he was retired aged 21 with 61 international wins on his CV. He enjoyed 15 years in the field before he died and was buried on the family farm. The land is now part of a golf course, but with the site of Stroller’s grave marked.
After Stroller’s retirement, Marion was successful with more regular-sized mounts, including victory in the 1976 Queen Elizabeth Cup on Elizabeth Ann, but the hours on the road and the constant battle to find good horses had taken its toll.
“In those days, we drove ourselves to shows and slept in our lorries. There was none of this leaving the driving to grooms, flying to the venue and staying in hotels. It was great fun, but I hated the travelling. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but one day I got into the lorry, looked at the road ahead and thought: ‘I don’t want to do this’.
“As good horses were also getting almost impossible to find and cost too much, I decided to stop competing and start training people instead,” explains Marion.
She and David set up a training centre at their home near Lingfield in Surrey. It was an immediate success and among their pupils was actor Michael Caine’s daughter Nikki. “She arrived when she was 14 and stayed for five years,” says Marion.
Future Olympic champion Rodrigo Pessoa was another teenage trainee. “Rodrigo came to us for a summer,” remembers Marion. “He’d been taught by his father Nelson and was already incredibly talented. You told Rodrigo to take off here, take off there, and he did it perfectly because he found everything so easy. He used to laugh in mid-air and I couldn’t help thinking: ‘You’re too good already.’”
After running their centre for 10 years, Marion and David sold up and they and their three-year-old son Jack moved to America for eight months.
“Some friends in Virginia asked us to set up an equestrian centre for them,” explains Marion.
When they returned to Britain, the Moulds settled in Hampshire.
“We had a normal family life. Jack had a pony, but he didn’t really want to ride. He was more interested in football. It usually ended up with him getting off and kicking a ball while Mum rode the pony,” laughs Marion.
Jack’s footballing talent became more apparent and he moved to Spain, where he played for eight years.
“We’d bought him a house in Dorset as a British base, but when he came home, he got married and wanted to live elsewhere, so David and I moved in. It’s only a little house with a small garden, but it suits us perfectly,” says Marion. “We love living in Dorset. It’s a beautiful county and our family members all live less than half-an-hour away.”
Although she watches showjumping on TV – “I like the World Cup shows” – Marion’s life is now a world away from the heady days of international sport. She has joined a local walking club and taken up cycling.
When she talks about her past career, she is so modest that it’s almost as though Marion Coakes was another person. It’s doubtful whether fellow ramblers know that among their party is a former Olympian and Sportswoman of the Year, and you would hazard a guess that Marion Mould prefers it that way.
Marion on Hickstead and the Bunn family…
I’ve been going to Hickstead since it started. I went to the first ever show in 1960 as a groom for my brother and was back there last year to watch as a guest of the Bunns.
I competed at the same time as Douglas Bunn and his second wife Sue became a great friend. She’s now my son’s godmother.
One time, I was among a convoy of British riders – in five horseboxes and with Douglas in a Rolls-Royce – who drove to Poland for a show. It took forever. We must have been mad!
‘My life with Stroller’
Stroller was an absolute freak and when I look back, I can’t believe the things we did. It never occurred to me that he might be too small or that we couldn’t try something. Stroller simply did everything I asked of him. I suppose when you are young you don’t see danger, and I was basically just a kid from a farm trying to keep up with my big brothers.
When Jennifer met Marion…
Actor, comedian and writer Jennifer Saunders has long been one of Marion’s greatest fans.
“I was pony-mad and got my first pony when I was 11, when Marion was at her height. I kept my pony on my friend’s farm and we would trot around the field and jump tiny jumps, imagining we were competing at Hickstead or Wembley. The dream Marion lived was our dream. Your pony could get to Wembley and the Olympics because Stroller had.
“There was something serene about Marion. She was out there with all those ruffians like Harvey Smith and we knew they probably resented her talent and her pony, but she never lost her cool. We also knew she loved her pony. There was that moment at the Olympics when she and Stroller fell and her first reaction was to rush to him. It still makes me cry now, just thinking about it.
“She was also extremely brave. When you see the size of some of the jumps she faced where you could just about see Stroller’s ears as he approached, it was a real feat of trust and courage. I learned later that the guys on the big horses were so fed up of being beaten by a girl on a pony that they insisted on every competitor carrying the same weight – and she still beat them!
“This was showjumping before they earned big bucks and had triple-deck luxury boxes. I love the pictures of Marion feeding and mucking out her own horses. They’re something so real. It fired up the whole country’s imagination, too. Showjumping was on TV all the time and Stroller was a national hero.
“When I met her, Marion was everything I expected and hoped. She was unchanged and so modest. It was David, her husband, who told us how brilliant she was as a rider. He said that all horses went better for her.”
Marion on sponsorship in the 1970s…
I was lucky enough to have good sponsors, but in my day any support was usually through products. I got new kitchens at home and in the lorry when I was sponsored by Elizabeth Ann Kitchens. I actually won another kitchen in their class at HOYS, but I had to give that to one of my owners as I had nowhere to put it.
My final sponsors were Lancôme. I did possess an awful lot of make-up!
Marion on then and now…
Kids starting today don’t know how easy they’ve got it. I never had a manège or a flash lorry and I did my training on the local beach or in a field. We had a common next door, so Stroller did plenty of hacking. We could never have imagined a Global Champions Tour full of magical horses. Showjumping is a totally different sport now.
Heroes and heroines
I loved watching riders such an Anneli Drummond-Hay. She was such a strong character with a brilliant horse in Merely-a-Monarch. I got on very well with Harvey Smith, but my real hero was Irish rider Seamus Hayes. Seamus won the first Hickstead Derby in 1961 and I got to know him well when we travelled together to indoor shows in Germany. He was a lovely man and a fantastic rider.
When I watch present-day riders, I’m impressed by William Whitaker. I met him and Scott Brash in London and they were both extremely kind, calling me their heroine, which can’t possibly be true! Scott is the ultimate horseman and is the best British rider at the moment. He is also a really nice guy.
Marion on joining the Pythons…
There can’t be many riders who have starred in a Monty Python sketch, but Marion did just that in 1969.
“It was filmed at Hickstead and I had to jump the first Derby fence, the stone wall, and knock down a row of men’s heads! I had no idea what it was about, but I was paid extremely well and met the Monty Python cast, which was great fun.”
● 1965: women’s World Championship gold (Stroller)
● 1965: winner of Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Stroller)
● 1967: winner of Hickstead Derby (Stroller)
● 1968: Olympic individual silver (Stroller)
● 1970: winner of Hamburg Derby (Stroller)
● 1970: women’s world Championship silver (Stroller)
● 1970: winner of leading showjumper of the year (Stroller)
● 1971: winner of Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Stroller)
● 1976: winner of Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Elizabeth Ann)
● 2006: inducted into BHS Hall of Fame
Ref Horse & Hound; 28 May 2020
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