Legends of the sport: The eventing career of Princess Anne *H&H Plus*

  • As the Princess Royal turns 70 this weekend, Madeleine Silver charts an equestrian career that threw eventing into the spotlight as she became the first member of the royal family to compete at an Olympic Games

    “It was a fairy story ending,” read the 1971 Horse & Hound report of Princess Anne’s eventing victory at the European Championships at Burghley. “Of course, everyone knows now that the Princess Royal won the individual championship, but only those who were there can appreciate the extent of the popularity of her victory, or the tension that gripped the thronged arena during her jumping round on Sunday.”

    The reporter WW Thomson’s gushing account of the 21-year-old’s performance aboard Doublet perhaps reflected a nation gripped by this sporting tale; a rapid rise to the top, a home-bred destined to be a polo pony and a mother who happened to be The Queen.

    “This really was a fabulous event. The Queen and Prince Philip were there, the weather was right, the winners were right, and Princess Anne not only beat the best in Europe, but trounced them,” it read.

    In the following decade, the Princess was on the podium at another European Championships with a different horse, at an Olympic Games and in the top 10 of the world’s biggest four-stars, silencing any sceptics who’d wondered if Burghley had been a chance feat.

    “It was very new really, having a woman royal doing such a tough sport,” reflects her fellow competitor and former team-mate Lucinda Green. “Not long before, eventing was considered a man’s sport. She was more than up to the task of eventing, but she just had to deal with the press, which is never easy. In retrospect she did our sport a huge service.”

    For someone barely out of teenage-hood when she reached the sport’s highest echelons, the Princess’ start in the saddle was refreshingly low-key, with ponies turned out rugless and ridden straight from muddy fields.

    The setting was, of course, grander than most – Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral served as sprawling riding schools, and early equestrian thrills came from riding in her grandmother’s carriage to watch Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards Parade. But there was also an unremarkable Shetland (Fum), a hefty Welsh pony who stood on her toe (Kirby Cane Greensleeves) and humiliating bending races on the 13.2hh Bandit.

    By the time she was riding the 14.2hh Watersmeet High Jinks, who was stabled at the Moat House riding school in Kent during her last year of boarding school, there was no escaping her gilded status.

    On one occasion, workmen spotted the Princess’s policeman leaning against the end of the school, before calling out “‘Oi! You!… Are you royalty or something? Why’s that man watching you?” she recalls in her 1991 autobiography Riding Through My Life.

    “At the age of 16 or 17 you’re not terribly ready with an instant repartee to queries like that, so I replied, ‘Well, yes, I am.’”

    Competition discipline and manners were instilled by the riding school’s owner Cherry Hatton-Hall, one of many who helped shape the Princess’s eventual prowess. Before the Princess and her older brother were competent enough to ride with The Queen, Her Majesty would impart knowledge from her bicycle as she rode alongside them. And then there was the groom Frank Hatcher at Windsor, who was a stickler for ensuring feet were picked out and tack was on correctly.

    But it was perhaps Alison Oliver who was the vital piece in the puzzle that enabled Princess Anne to transition from a horse-mad schoolgirl to a sportswoman riding for Britain in just three years.

    “I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” says Alison about her royal student. “We just clicked.”

    ‘She wanted to succeed’

    When the Princess realised that a conventional career didn’t seem viable on leaving school, she was determined to channel her energy into doing something well – and the answer was equestrian sport.

    As Mary Gordon-Watson, who was part of the British team at the 1971 Europeans, says: “She was obviously very determined and hard-working, like she is in everything that she does. She wanted to succeed, and she did, at the highest level.”

    At first, the Princess was lured by the prospect of polo; riding her father’s ponies had given her a taste of the competitive spirit of horses. But it was the combination of being lent the crown equerry Lt Col Sir John Miller’s horse Purple Star, who sparked her interest in horse trials, and being sent to Alison Oliver’s stables at Warfield in Berkshire, that meant that an eventing career was set.

    By the time she won gold at Burghley in 1971, she’d ridden at just two other-three-day events, but it was soon obvious that this was no flash in the pan.

    “You couldn’t fail to be impressed when she achieved success all over again [at subsequent championships] with Goodwill, who was a totally different type of horse,” adds Mary.

    “From Doublet, Princess Anne went to a veritable hurricane in Goodwill,” says Lucinda about the difference in the Princess’ two championship rides; the first who was bred as a polo pony was polite and willing, and the latter was a famously strong former showjumper.

    “If Doublet had turned up later in my career, we would all have looked at him and said: ‘What’s that?’,” the Princess told Eventing magazine about the gelding who The Queen had bred out of an Argentine mare and on whom Prince Philip had played polo.

    “It was only because he came along at such an early stage in my life and because he was home-bred that he got his chance to be an eventer at all.”

    In contrast, she remembers Goodwill as “nearly everybody’s idea of the ideal type of event horse… with excellent conformation, strong, active paces and well-developed jumping muscles”.

    The pay-off for this raw talent, however, was having to learn to adapt to the gelding’s strength. “Dressage was largely a case of containment,” she admitted.

    A high profile

    At the 1973 Europeans in Kiev, the Princess’ and Goodwill’s appearance came to an abrupt end when she fell at the second fence.

    But out of the saddle there was also her own high profile to contend with; a bugging device was found in her hotel room telephone, and on one occasion she was accosted with outstretched arms by an over-friendly hotel maid.

    “She might have mistaken me for somebody else, somebody more famous like Lucinda Prior-Palmer for instance, but then we shall never know,” quipped the princess.

    At the Europeans in Luhmühlen two years later, she was subjected to press speculation that Goodwill’s good dressage score was the result of doping, when what they had in fact seen was Capt Mark Phillips giving the horse a sugar lump before the test.

    This angst – combined with waking up on cross-country morning with a cold – didn’t detract from her performance. She clinched the individual and team silver medals, a triumph she looks back on with greater satisfaction than her gold four years earlier.

    “By that stage, everything that could have gone wrong had done, and I’d started again,” she told Horse & Hound.

    However, it was at the Montreal Olympics the following year that the Princess was given a stark reminder of the levelling nature of the sport.

    With her parents and three brothers watching on, concussion after a fall on cross-country day meant that she was even stripped of the satisfaction of remembering finishing the course. But her upbringing had armed her with an enviable sense of perspective and the luxury of being able to see her sport as a hobby.

    “I had other things to do that would not be affected by my performance, good or bad,” she reminisced in her autobiography.

    The following year, her son Peter was born, and although she went on to finish sixth at Badminton in 1979, no more championships beckoned. For over a decade, however, whether photographed with a medal around her neck, or dusting herself off after hitting the turf, the media – and public – were captivated. Eventing had been dealt an ace card.

    Zara Tindall on her mother’s life lessons

    Growing up at Gatcombe Park surrounded by horses, the emphasis was on learning to ride properly, and not just being a “passenger,” says Zara Tindall. “Ponies were never machines, they were animals. You had to learn your trade, and learn the personality of your pony. My mother was very much someone who, if you fell off, would be right there telling you to get back on.”

    When the Princess started race-riding in the 1980s, Zara used to accompany her riding out for trainer David Nicholson.

    “She always wished she’d done that before eventing, because she thought she saw a stride better after going race-riding,” adds Zara, who says she has benefited from the insight into fitness, galloping and jumping that racing has provided.

    And when it came to following in her mother’s footsteps at championships, Princess Anne “was very laid-back,” says Zara. “She’d say: ‘You know your horse, so do what you know and don’t change anything.’”

    “My mother loves every part of the equine sport. She has been able to do a lot of different things in her life, but with the utmost professionalism.”

    Princess Anne’s eventing trainer: Alison Oliver

    Princess Anne was still at school when she began visiting trainer and former eventer Alison Oliver’s Berkshire yard.

    “In the school holidays she’d come over and have lessons on Purple Star, who had been sent to me to train by The Queen’s crown equerry Lt Col Sir John Miller. Gradually more horses came, including young horses of The Queen’s,” recalls Alison.

    “Princess Anne was so keen, dedicated and down to earth. She had a sense of humour and mucked in. And she had a natural ability, balance and feel for working with different horses. In any competition, one is alert and concentrating, but Princess Anne could control [her nerves] which you have to do as a competitor.

    “I had a young family when I was training her and although I had a nanny because I was working, the children were included and it was all very natural. Looking through old photos, there’s one of my son Philip who was six years old, following Mark Phillips’ footsteps as we were walking the course. And there are these wonderful pictures of Princess Anne pointing out to Philip that he’d got one trouser leg out of his boot and the other in.

    “We just got on so well and she became a very good friend.”

    Princess Anne’s eventing team-mate: Lucinda Green

    “I admired her braveness enormously,” says Lucinda Green, who first rode on the silver medal-winning British team with Princess Anne at the 1975 Europeans.

    “She had a horse that I wouldn’t have ridden. Goodwill did something I always hated which is split his front legs, which meant that he got the rail between his legs when he hit them. He was a very good horse and he very rarely made a mistake but he was incredibly strong and his go-to could be the front leg split if he was in trouble.”

    The following year Lucinda and the Princess were on the Olympic team together in Montreal.

    “I just had so much sympathy for what it was like to be in her position,” Lucinda says. “She was hounded [by the press] and had to deal with it. People tried to keep her away but it was an ever-present thing.”

    In the fast lane

    It is not just the eventing world that has profited from Princess Anne’s gallantry in the saddle. When she agreed to take part in a charity race in 1985 at Epsom over the Derby course, she never imagined it would be the first of almost 100 rides on the Flat and over fences.

    It was the late National Hunt trainer David “the Duke” Nicholson and his wife Dinah who gave the Princess her early training as a jockey when she began riding out at their Gloucestershire yard. And when it was suggested that she might like to ride on the Flat, she was put in touch with former Newmarket trainer Gavin Pritchard-Gordon.

    “She was brilliant with the staff,” remembers Gavin. “The first day she rode out, she wanted to know everybody’s name and I probably had 18 lads then. The next time, she knew half of their names already. She was very fit and obviously an extremely good horseman, but she realised she had a lot to learn about jockeyship. It was something she achieved very well; she was cool-headed, always in the right place, rode to instruction and was a good judge of pace.”

    In 1986 the Princess had her first winner on the Flat, riding Gulfland, who was trained by Gavin.

    “With the greatest respect to Redcar, it was probably one of the biggest crowds they’d ever had,” he laughs. “It was a big occasion that the Princess Royal was coming to ride there and my travelling head lad and I were very nervous – it was quite a responsibility to be putting a saddle on a horse to be ridden by the Princess Royal which I knew had a chance.”

    Princess Anne’s eventing career: the big moments

    1971: Fifth at Badminton and individual gold at the European Championships at Burghley on Doublet. Voted Sports Personality of the Year.
    1973: Eighth at Badminton on Goodwill. Goes to the European Championships at Kiev with Goodwill but retires after a fall.
    1974: Fourth at Badminton and competed as an individual at the World Championships with Goodwill at Burghley.
    1975: Individual and team silver at the European Championships at Luhmühlen with Goodwill.
    1976: Team member at Montreal Olympic Games with Goodwill.
    1978: Seventh at Luhmühlen with Goodwill.
    1979: Sixth at Badminton with Goodwill.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 13 August 2020

    You may also be interested in…