Life lessons: Mary Low (née Gordon-Watson) *H&H Plus*

  • Mary Low (née Gordon-Watson) won individual gold at the 1969 European and 1970 World Championships on Cornishman V, as well as three team gold medals, including at the 1972 Olympics. In this exclusive feature, the former world champion reflects on having an “in-between horse”, and recalls the Olympian who inspired her to take up eventing...

    I went straight from a 14hh home-bred pony on to Cornishman, who was 17hh. My father fell for him at a farm sale and bought him for £500 to be his hunter. We thought he’d paid too much, as the horse was wild and only four.

    It might have been good if I’d had an easier “in-between” horse to gain experience on, had I realised Cornishman was going to be my best event horse. He was very big and aggressive after running in three point-to-points, but also very sensitive, and I had a lot of learning to do to adjust to riding him.

    The sport was so different to nowadays, and I just had that one horse to work on. He became my whole life. We had to learn together, making plenty of mistakes on the way.

    When I started eventing Cornishman, by accident, really, my father just wanted his hunter back, but he did become more enthused when a year later we got to Badminton. My mother was the driving force, and lorry driver. She rarely offered riding advice, but gave lots of moral support. She was definitely competitive and didn’t really tolerate time-faults. Luckily, her positive attitude and great sense of humour helped if things went wrong.

    Fitness and feeding

    I was only let into my first Badminton at the last minute, hors concours, because after just six events, we weren’t qualified! When I was nearly home after an exhilarating ride, my horse came to a stop, exhausted. I had gone too fast and he was not fully fit.

    I learnt never to compete an unfit horse again. It’s one aspect of the event you have complete control over.

    Richard Stillwell was such a clever trainer who could often see what others couldn’t – and find a remedy. His flatwork exercises were often unorthodox, but usually worked to improve a horse’s suppleness, obedience and straightness, which helped the rider develop better “feel”, so important but also difficult to teach. He also emphasised making the rider even-handed.

    Feeding was simpler in those days as we had fewer choices and made our own blends. Once the horse was fit, their diet was generally oat-based, adding bran, boiled barley or other grain. The great Bertie Hill, who won Olympic team gold on Countryman, often fed whole oats direct from the farm. His horses were fit and lean, like greyhounds, with many point-to-point winners among them.

    My icons

    I had many icons. In racing, there was Lester Piggott and John Francome. In eventing, dual Badminton and Olympic gold medallist Frank Weldon, and then Anneli Drummond-Hay who just seemed so much better than anyone else when I watched her winning at Badminton and Burghley on Merely-A-Monarch.

    The person who most inspired me to take up eventing was Sergeant Ben Jones. When he was an instructor at the Portman branch of the Pony Club camp, my mother persuaded him to stay with us for two weeks. He came with his wife and small twins, and two horses from the King’s Troop – Sherpa, a modest troop horse, and Master Bernard, who was much less brave than his rider but was very well-placed after dressage at the Tokyo Olympics.

    At 14, I would watch Ben schooling, in awe. He had so much talent and determination, and he was very generous with his time and knowledge, instilling patience and perseverance. For the whole fortnight, I wasn’t allowed off a small circle in the field, because it took that long for my headstrong 13hh Connemara to let me ride her, but then the transformation was amazing.

    I was eternally grateful to Ben, who was later a team gold medallist at the 1968 Mexico Olympics on The Poacher.

    Ref: 14 January 2021

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