Life lessons: Course-designer Sue Benson *H&H Plus*

The Badminton runner-up and leading course-designer on never doing anything badly and always controlling the horse’s shoulders

  • Sue won three eventing European Championship medals with the British team and was second at Badminton in 1979. She remains involved in the sport as a cross-country course designer – the highlight of her career in this sphere was being responsible for the track at the London Olympics – and she also owns two event horses.

    I wish I had known when I was a teenager how hard my mum worked to give me the chance to be an event rider. After she died, I wondered if I had thanked her enough.

    From a very early age, I was told life wasn’t fair, which I live by. My mother always said never to do anything badly. If I did a bad transition out hacking, I’d do it again. She also said if you don’t think you can do it, you probably won’t – negativity breeds losers.

    Growing up, my idols were Marion Mould and Stroller. Watching her on our tiny black and white television, I dreamed of riding as quietly and effectively as her.

    Now, I admire all our top riders – it’s a different world to when I was eventing. They compete four or five horses a day week after week, getting up at 2am, mixing and matching the phases and never missing a beat. I remember competing three horses and thinking it was the hardest day of my life!

    On competition day, I always checked the stitching on my reins, girth, saddle straps and stirrup leathers. I’ve seen so many mishaps due to broken tack and it’s a waste of effort as well as being dangerous. There’s no excuse for it happening.

    At Badminton 1980, I was having a really sticky ride on Monocle, but having been second the year before I was determined to win. I attempted to jump across the notorious footbridge on an angle and inevitably the horse and I ended up in a ditch. It was a sobering lesson that you need to stick to your plan if all is going well, but be quick to change it if necessary.

    “Making it on my own”

    My mother remortgaged our house to buy me the Australian thoroughbred Harley from Bill Roycroft. He was so talented and beautiful; I was 21, so ambitious and lacking knowledge.

    In 1973, he won the Midland Bank open championships, was third at Burghley and then we went to America to win the US championships. Two years later, he broke down at the European Championships at Luhmühlen, but I still had to showjump. He came back, but not for long.

    Three-day events were really tough then and to do Burghley and the US championships in one season was ridiculous. I should have done one more one-day event after the Midland Bank championships and put him away for the season.

    I wish I’d known then not to go for everything all at once. I was back home trying to make it on my own, having been head girl to Lord and Lady Hugh Russell – I thought I knew everything, but you just go on learning with horses.

    I had a lightbulb moment in my 30s, when Annabel Scrimgeour told me that if you control the horse’s shoulders with both hands, everything else looks after itself. It’s true – if you’re in total control of the shoulders, horses don’t fall in or out and can turn accurately and quickly.

    On the horse management side, I went to a lecture by racehorse trainer Fred Winter many years ago and he said if you feed concentrates alone, it’s at your peril – you should add roughage to every meal you give.

    That leads me on to the fact I believe if you can keep your horse out most of the time, he will benefit. Stable-kept horses are bored, and bored horses rarely perform to the best of their ability.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 27 August 2020