The rider who captured hearts as “the galloping nurse” and was the first woman ever to ride on a British Olympic eventing team has enjoyed a stellar and diverse career in horses, discovers Lucy Higginson
Many horse lovers know Jane Holderness-Roddam’s name without quite knowing why. In recent years she has appeared in various guises: as a technical delegate; the owner of West Kington Stud; a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Royal; an ambassador and fundraiser for the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and Brooke; and a long-time chair of British Eventing. But she was also a top rider, winning Badminton twice, Burghley once, and gold as a member of Britain’s victorious Olympic eventing team in Mexico City, 1968.
Born fifth of six children in the extraordinary Bullen family – her mother Anne was an artist who bred and produced show and riding ponies, and father Jack was a former cavalry officer – Jane was always destined to ride.
Jane’s elder sister Jennie (Loriston-Clarke) dominated British dressage for years and contested five Olympics; her brother Mike evented at two Games, while her younger sister Sarah became a successful actress.
“The Bullens are all very talented,” attests Clarissa Bleekman (née Strachan), a team-mate in the 1970s. “They’ve all been very focused and successful.”
Jane was riding by the age of three, “side-saddle, because Mum got fed up with me going over the ears”, she smiles. So began a happy horsey childhood packed with hunting, hunter trials and Pony Club events with the Cattistock branch, plus – with her siblings Charlie, Jennie and Sarah – a great deal of showing. The photo archives of Royal Windsor Horse Show are crammed with photos of the Bullen girls collecting just about every trophy on offer.
One pony Jane remembers especially fondly is the 12.2hh grey Coed Coch Pryderi, owned by a show enthusiast, Miss Stubbings: “I rode him for years in pony and side-saddle classes, pairs classes and so on.”
“Jane was a natural rider as a child,” says her sister Jennie. “She had a lovely seat and good balance, and was always brave.”
Jane always knew she would not follow Jennie into dressage: “I wasn’t much good at it, and just liked jumping…”
But she hardly imagined the “little weedy thing” that arrived one day at her parents’ home with a farmer offering “the ’oss” for sale would catapult her into the sport’s record books. Having failed to live up to his pedigree in racing, the diminutive Our Nobby was purchased for £120, aged five, and promptly gave half the yard ringworm.
The Bullens began the process of retraining him and fattening him up.
“I realise now how long that takes both physically and mentally,” says Jane. “It may be that we overdid it a bit because he became terribly nappy – he once took [brother] Mike backwards over some 4ft 6in rails to get back to his stable. Consequently, we couldn’t really sell him, and he became my Pony Club mount, not with any great expectations.”
The Bullens moved from Dorset to Didmarton, near Badminton, and Jane joined the Beaufort Pony Club branch at a glorious time in its history, riding in teams alongside a young Mark Phillips, Mike Tucker and other great names. Though Nobby’s size seemed to shrink or expand a little according to his competitive goals, by 1964 he had won the individual Pony Club Championship eventing title.
“He was a flying machine over fences,” remembers Jennie. “He’d pull like a train and was tiny, but had the most amazing spring.”
Clearly an intuitive and enterprising horsewoman and teacher, Anne Bullen always had an open door for visiting trainers and riders, conscripting them to give what she called “light and heat courses” – clinics whose profits helped power the family home each winter. Jane learnt from them all, plus a good deal from Australia’s Bill Roycroft who stayed with the Bullens while preparing for Badminton: “He taught me a lot about sitting up in front of fences, the importance of rhythm, how to jump open water and about fitness.”
Our Nobby also became a focus for Jane through a very sad period in her life when her mother died of cancer, aged just 51, followed two years later by her father. By the age of 18, she had lost them both.
“The horses were a blessing,” confirms Jane. “I remember going for a ride on Nobby when my mother died – I’ve always found it helpful at times like that.”
A good Pony Club horse
In that era, without junior or young rider teams, it wasn’t uncommon for a good Pony Club horse to take you quickly on to much bigger things. Nobby did his first mainstream event with Jennie at Chatsworth – “quite a brave thing to do, with its hills, and Nobby so downhill and on his forehand”, reflects Jane, who then embarked on her first year of affiliated eventing with him.
After leaving school at 16, Jane followed in her mother’s footsteps into nursing, at the Middlesex Hospital. Elder sister Jennie married and moved to the New Forest, where Jane would return as often as possible to ride Nobby.
In 1967, Jane and Nobby tackled their first Badminton, coming fifth despite a run-out at Huntsman’s Close. The following year, with the Olympics looming, they won. “It was the right year to win!” reflects Jane.
Incredibly, by today’s standards, and given the stamina-sapping long format of the time, the final trial was Burghley, just a month before the Games.
“We were told to go slowly,” says Jane, “something Nobby just couldn’t do. He completely blew his top in the dressage, despite everyone’s help, then ended up third after galloping his way around the course.”
Jane was duly selected for Mexico, aged just 20, alongside Major Derek Allhusen, Richard Meade and Sgt Ben Jones. She was the first woman to event for Britain at the Olympics, and was branded “the galloping nurse” by the press. Mike Bullen flew Nobby out through his transport firm Peden’s, and Jennie accompanied Jane as her groom, the two young women attracting much media attention in their chic Hardy Amies Olympic uniforms.
The path to team gold was eventful. After producing one of his best dressage tests, Nobby nearly gave Jane the slip on phase C’s roads and tracks.
“In those days, we used to run parts of phase C [to save the horses’ energy] and Jane slipped, fell over and caught Nobby by his tail,” remembers Mark Phillips, who was there as a reserve.
Later, it rained torrentially so that water fences were completely submerged. The ground became saturated and little Our Nobby fell twice, Jane remounting to complete.
“I actually cracked two vertebrae in my back and was pretty stiff, though not as stiff as poor little Our Nobby… It wasn’t gutsy at all, it’s just what everybody did back then, completing at all costs,” insists Jane. “Now there is more emphasis on the welfare of the horse, which has to be good – and making sure the rider is all right!”
“I always remember Richard saying that behind that very gentle exterior was a steely grit,” remembers Richard Meade’s widow, Angela. “And I think there was…”
Although Jane’s was the discard score, the memory of that medal ceremony is an abiding one for her, and she retired Nobby from top competition soon afterwards to enjoy a lower key life educating younger riders: “I felt he’d done enough – he gave his all really.”
Other rides followed but nothing capable of winning at the top level until an American friend of Mike Bullen, Suzie Howard, decided to buy Jane a good horse, Warrior, from John Shedden, who had won the first-ever Badminton.
“He was a very intelligent horse, always one jump ahead,” says Jane. “He really taught me how to ride because you had to just get it right. John said I’d never do any good unless I rode him in a gag, and actually he was right. Though a lovely looking horse, he was quite downhill, but he’d carry himself in a gag, as long as you rode him on a fairly loose rein.”
Lucinda Green rode him for a while before Jane, and remembers: “He was a good but not a brilliant horse, so she got some super performances from him. Jane had a fantastic relationship with him and sorted out his balance.”
Jane was riding Warrior by day and nursing by night in Lymington hospital, and the pair climbed the ranks. When she married businessman Tim Holderness-Roddam in 1974 and moved to London, she moved Warrior to trainer Dick Stilwell’s Berkshire yard.
In the mid-1970s they excelled, winning Burghley in 1976, team gold at the Europeans there the following year, and then Badminton in 1978. It is a pity that Warrior’s last championship should have come later that year at the disastrous Worlds in Lexington in extremely humid conditions.
“It was so airless you could hardly breathe,” Jane recalls, and it bottomed out the British horses, the team failing to complete. Warrior finally “turned to jelly” at the notorious serpent fence…
“It was horrible to see the horses that night in the stables,” Jane remembers. “Every horse was lying down apart from six that were on drips.”
The experience knocked the stuffing out of Warrior, but Jane revived his enthusiasm for life with tactics surely inherited from her mother, who taught ponies all kinds of circus tricks. “I took him to a tiny little hunter trial, and took a rosette which I pinned to his bridle when he had finished,” Jane recounts. “It helped turn him around.”
The pair contested their final Badminton the following year, and were third at Burghley in 1980.
Besides her nursing and competing, Jane also made some on-screen appearances. Those who remember International Velvet actually watched Jane and Warrior storming over fences as doubles for Tatum O’Neal and Arizona Pie. They also featured in a TV documentary, The Great Event, with Chris Collins, about preparing for Burghley.
“They strapped a camera on to me to capture my facial expression one day, but it made such a noise my horse panicked and galloped off,” remembers Jane, who duly fell off. “I remember feeling very bruised and battered, but the crew were only worried about their £4,000 camera…”
Although parenthood eluded Jane and Tim, they have been surrounded by new life at the stud they founded at Church Farm, their beautiful home of over 30 years at West Kington, Wilts, which has a loyal following from mare and stallion owners who value the personal and professional care there.
Jane may have stopped nursing after her marriage, but life continued at a gallop, including some fascinating trips overseas as a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Royal, running the London Marathon for the Fortune Centre, and doing a tandem skydive to raise thousands of pounds for the RDA. She even returned to eventing in a BE100 class in 2015 at West Wilts to raise money for the Brooke and World Horse Welfare charities – typically, turning in a double jumping clear.
Jane has devoted huge energy to her many roles in equestrianism, her chairmanship of British Eventing coming at a particularly challenging time, through a series of deaths in the sport and the onset of foot-and-mouth. She seems no less busy, now, in her seventies, juggling the stud with FEI judging, horse trials stewarding, chairmanship of the Caspian Horse Society and more.
It is typical of Jane to downplay her ability and courage, but she rightly deserves her place among the greats of eventing. “She was a very good all-round event rider, one of the best of them for a long period,” says her former team-mate Chris Collins, later chairman of Aintree Racecourse. “She’s a fine person and has conducted herself faultlessly throughout her life.”
“I have huge, huge respect for her,” adds Lucinda Green, who also appreciated the way she “put me in my place, without being unkind or rude, when I was a selector. She’d say, ‘Just put the gag on, Lucinda, and use a bit of lower rein…’”
The last word, aptly, goes to her sister Jennie: “We call her ‘the saint’ because she’s so good… but she’s much more steely than she looks.”
Jane on Our Nobby
“Nobby” was by Bewildered, a thoroughbred later exported to South Africa, out of Lady Sicily, and was not even 15hh. He joined the Bullens aged five, after an undistinguished racing career. Obstinate, and initially nappy, he took Jane from Pony Club right through to the Olympic podium, and became a bold, fast cross-country horse who was able to improve greatly on his dressage score.
After Nobby won a 14.2hh working hunter pony class once, “someone objected about his height”, smiles Jane. “We had to get him under 14.2hh which wasn’t that difficult – he was a terrible weaver and would weave himself down quite easily.”
To go to the Olympics, however, he had to be 15hh, “So we had to make him bigger again! A couple of vets wouldn’t do it but a Berkeley vet came for a good lunch and stiff drink. With lots of clattering and banging we got him to stand up just enough to hit the 15hh marker…”
Jane retired Nobby from top competition after Mexico to continue doing lower key, fun activities, such as hunter trials, and being a schoolmaster for younger riders. He lived until the grand age of 27.
Jane on Warrior
Bought by American Suzie Howard for Jane from John Shedden, who won the first-ever Badminton Horse Trials, Warrior was Irish-bred, out of Winslade and by Warwick.
“Suzie was very kind and wanted me to have a good horse. He cost £6,000 which seemed an awful lot then, and we had a lot of fun with him,” says Jane.
Together they were victorious at Badminton and Burghley, and also won European team gold. He spent his later years at Church Farm and died in his twenties.
Jane’s career milestones
1964 – Lands the Pony Club individual eventing championship for the Beaufort Hunt branch, riding Our Nobby
1968 – Wins Badminton with Our Nobby. Rides at the Mexico Olympics with Our Nobby. Takes home team gold.
1976 – Wins Burghley on Warrior
1977 – Competes at the European Championships at Burghley for Britain, taking team gold on Warrior. Her team-mates are Lucinda Prior-Palmer on George, Chris Collins on Smokey VI and Clarissa Strachan on Merry Sovereign. Lucinda also wins the individual title, and Jane is fourth.
1978 – Wins Badminton on Warrior. Competes at the World Championships in Kentucky, USA. Jane is a member of the British team alongside Chris Collins, Jane Starkey on Topper Too, and Richard Meade on Bleak Hills. Unfortunately, they suffered horribly with the high humidity, and the team did not finish.
1980 – Jane takes third place at Burghley riding Warrior, after which he is retired from three-day events.
Ref Horse & Hound; 10 September 2020