Meet the royal family’s first ponies through the generations

  • From rocking horses to Shetlands and sturdy Pony Club steeds, horses infiltrate every aspect of a royal childhood, whether the Olympics beckons or a trot around Balmoral is the extent of their riders’ equestrian prowess, finds Madeleine Silver

    WHEN The Queen’s childhood governess Marion Crawford first met a young Princess Elizabeth, she found “a small figure with a mop of curls sat up in bed”, who had tied the cords of her dressing gown to the knobs of the bed and was busy driving her team.

    ‘‘Do you usually drive in bed?” Marion remembered asking, in her 1950 book The Little Princesses, to which the princess replied: “I mostly go once or twice round the park before I go to sleep. It exercises my horses.”

    The 30-odd toy horses that she had, each standing a foot high on wheels, had a strict stable routine; their grooming basket stood at the end of a long line of them, first at No. 145 Piccadilly, and later in the corridors of Buckingham Palace. Each night they had their saddles removed, and were attentively fed and watered. And after her and Princess Margaret’s annual trip to Olympia Horse Show with their parents, the toy horses would be put through several weeks of intensive training. On other occasions Princess Elizabeth would harness her nanny with a pair of red reins to set off on a fictional delivery round.

    “I would be patted, given my nosebag, and jerked to a standstill, while Lilibet delivered imaginary groceries, and held long and intimate conversations with her make-believe customers,” wrote Marion. “Sometimes she would whisper to me, ‘Crawfie, you must pretend to be impatient. Paw the ground a bit.’ So, I would paw.”

    Undated picture showing Queen Elizabeth II of England and Prince Charles riding horses in the park of Windsor Castle. (Photo by - / CENTRAL PRESS PHOTO LTD / AFP) (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

    The Queen and a young Prince Charles riding in the grounds of Windsor Castle

    And at Royal Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, where weekends were spent, two life-sized rocking horses were put outside the then Duke of York’s study, so he could hear his daughters riding while he worked.

    WHEN Princess Elizabeth’s grandfather King George V gave her the diminutive Shetland Peggy when she was four years old, it was her first real taste of life in the saddle – and a place for her to channel the attentiveness she’d shown her toys. A photo from the 2014 exhibition Royal Childhood at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace shows her proudly leading her younger sister aboard Peggy, with the bowler-hat clad groom Mr Henry Owen, who taught her to ride, in attendance.

    “[Princess Elizabeth] liked me to come and watch her [riding lessons with Mr Owen],” wrote Marion. “Her first canter was a great day. I used to walk with the dogs, and it was pretty to hear her bell-like voice through the trees talking to Owen about burs, galls and girths.”

    21st April 1939: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret (1930 - 2002) riding along with their father, King George VI, on the future Queen's 13th birthday. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

    The young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, riding with their father King George VI in Windsor Great Park

    For all the stereotyping of Shetlands being comically naughty, they have continued to be the royal family’s choice of breed for a child’s debut in the saddle. It was Queen Victoria’s fondness for the breed that helped raise their profile in the 19th century, according to Anne, Countess De La Warr, president of the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society.

    “It made them popular with other Victorian mothers,” she says. “They’re particularly good as a first pony, but also as what I call a family pony; if you have a trap or a cart, you can all go on family picnics with them. I have one friend whose pony is said to know his way to the pub.”

    Princess Elizabeth riding her pony in Winsor Great Park, 1930s. The future Queen Elizabeth II (b1926) of Great Britain as a child. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

    A young Princess Elizabeth riding her pony in Windsor Great Park in the 1930s

    Flora and Alma, two Shetlands who were presented to Queen Victoria by King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, proved particularly popular with her grandchildren, and it’s a trend that Anne continues to see today.

    “Grandmothers can have them in the field and when a child comes to visit, you can hoik them out and put a saddle on. They’re amazingly easy,” she says.

    If it weren’t for the grand surroundings, BBC footage from 1992 of The Queen with Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie riding Smokey at Balmoral could be any idyllic scene of a grandmother with her grandchildren.

    As Anne explains, the best Shetlands tend to come via word of mouth and the royal family is no exception in following that ethos on the hunt for the perfect pony. Prince William learnt to ride on the pint-sized Smokey aged four; Llanerch Topaz, another that the future king was pictured on as a child taught the Princess Royal’s children to ride and it was reported that Zara Tindall provided a Shetland for Prince George to kick-start his riding.

    WHILE these early rides are the grand sum of some royal family members’ foray into equestrianism, for others it is just the start. Aged two, Princess Anne was bundled aboard Fum, and although her memories of the Shetland are vague, the experience paved the way for a series of more memorable ponies that would lay the foundations for her Olympic eventing career.

    circa 1960: Princess Anne, only daughter and second child of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with her Welsh pony, 'Greensleeves' at Windsor. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

    Princess Anne with her Welsh pony Kirby Cane Greensleeves

    Holidays as a child were spent at Sandringham, Windsor and Balmoral. Each offered a different terrain for Princess Anne to tackle on horseback, usually accompanied by her mother and older brother, and assisted by the groom, Frank Hatcher, who helped the children catch the ponies and brush them, and reminded them to pick out their feet.

    “The miles of stubble fields around Sandringham were pure luxury by today’s standards of relatively restricted hacking,” she remembered in her 1991 equestrian autobiography Riding Through My Life, reminiscing about the “rides” which had been cleared for Queen Alexandra to be able to ride through the woods and all over the estate without getting her hat knocked off.

    “The best ‘fun’ riding was at Balmoral: riverside paths, woodland paths, hill paths and the golf course. It was all right if you rode on the rough, but you were definitely not popular if you got ‘carted’ away with across the fairways.”

    HIGHGROVE, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 18: Prince William On His Pony At Highgrove With Princess Diana. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

    Diana, Princess of Wales leading a young Prince William on his Shetland pony in the grounds of Highgrove House

    As for a young Princess Elizabeth, who won a driving class at the 1944 Royal Windsor Horse Show with her Norwegian pony Hans, Princess Anne’s initially modest competitive career started from Windsor, where most of her riding happened at weekends (although not on Sundays, which was the grooms’ day off).

    She was a member of the Garth Hunt branch of the Pony Club – although she can count the number of rallies she went to on one hand.

    “They were memorable for persuading me that gymkhana games were not my forte. The pony I had at the time was a 13.2hh called Bandit, who was charming and reliable in every way except that he refused to repeat himself. By that I mean that he would take part in one bending race, but tried very hard not to take part in the next,” Princess Anne wrote in her autobiography.

    It was this same pony that knocked a young Prince Charles’s confidence when it came to jumping. On clearing one round the grey was known to “indulge in his well-known imitation of a horse rampant if asked to face up to round two,” remembered Princess Anne. Discovering hunting helped renew the Prince’s interest in jumping, and being introduced to polo by his father at the age of 13 was a world away from the tedious early lessons inflicted on him and his sister with Miss Sybil Smith at Holyport.

    Princess Anne remembered: “Being put on a small, fat, white cob, on the end of a leading rein, one each side of a large, fat, white cob, ridden by Miss Smith, and being led, very sedately, around a cinder circle was not our idea of riding!”

    Even with the abundant privilege, being royal couldn’t negate the calamities that accompany getting to grips with ponies. On holiday at Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother, a favourite expedition for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret was to take the pony down to Glamis Station to watch the Aberdeen Fish Express go through.

    “The pony was temperamental about trains, and the station master very kindly let us shut him up in the waiting room,” remembered governess Marion Crawford. “Unfortunately, one day when, as usual, we did this, the stationmaster had forgotten to warn us that he had put all his best chrysanthemums ready for the flower show in there. The pony ate the lot.”

    A tumble came for Princess Anne when riding her bay 14.2hh Watersmeet High Jinks in from the field while leading another, and making an unplanned dismount on some hard cobbles. “Not for the first time he looked genuinely surprised at the antics of his erstwhile rider,” she wrote.

    An earlier mount, Kirby Cane Greensleeves, left a lasting imprint on the Princess after the Welsh pony trod on her toe. “In that endearing way that ponies have, the more I shouted, the more I pushed and the more desperate I became, the harder she leaned,” she wrote.

    Zara phillips on shetland pony Smoky at Sandringham

    Zara Phillips being led aboard Shetland pony Smokey at Sandringham – Shetlands were popularised as a family pony by Queen Victoria in the 1800s

    And while the royal ponies might have nestled alongside horses reserved for pulling golden state carriages when they were stabled at Windsor Castle, it was often a refreshingly low-key existence. At Windsor, the ponies lived a distance from the Mews, so the children would take the tack down in the car, tack them up in the field and take them out from there.

    “These were pretty rough, scruffy little objects,” remembered Princess Anne.

    What was drummed into the children however by The Queen was that whatever went wrong, it was never the ponies’ fault. Along with Zara’s Pony Club grounding, this was a mantra that Princess Anne instilled in her own children, and one that seems likely to exist for the next generation.

    “There is no doubt that the level of involvement required in equestrian sport teaches young people a great deal about life, especially that ‘life’ is not fair,” wrote Princess Anne. “Horses are no respecters of reputation or ego and certainly not of wealth, making them a challenge to everybody, whether looking after or riding them.”

    This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 10 June 2021

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