Pippa Funnell’s belief in the unorthodox Supreme Rock was finally vindicated when the pair won a brace of Badmintons and medals galore, but the early days weren’t quite so rosy, says Ellie Hughes
Once in a while, a horse and rider’s careers are so inextricably entwined that it is hard to imagine how the story might have unfolded had one been without the other. This was certainly the case for Pippa Funnell and Supreme Rock, whose dominance as a partnership at eventing’s highest level came after both emerged from a run of near-misses and heart-wrenching what-ifs.
The 16.3hh Irish-bred gelding with a huge swaggering walk and enormous floppy ears waltzed into Pippa’s life quite by chance, and although his unorthodox style of jumping did not point to greatness in the early days, his rider’s ethos of never giving up paid dividends. As the partnership grew, so too did their list of illustrious achievements – among them two Badminton titles and back-to-back European gold medals.
Supreme Rock’s story begins in 1988 in Skibereen, Co Cork, where he was bred by Lindy Good. By the popular thoroughbred sire Edmund Burke out of a three-quarter-bred Irish Sport Horse mare called Rineen Classic, “Rocky” was an old-fashioned eventing type, who was perfectly suited to long-format eventing.
Supreme Rock spent his early years in the hunting field and it was during a day with the Grafton that Robert Tomkinson first clapped eyes on the rangy bay. He knew his niece, Emma Pitt (née Lewthwaite), was having a year out after her law degree and was on the lookout for a fun, young horse.
Emma takes up the story.
“My mum had vetoed horses while I was at university, so when my uncle told me about this nice horse he’d spotted I sneakily used my rent money to buy him,” she recalls. “He was a lovely character, but he was a nappy sod and bucked like stink, particularly on landing after a fence. I used to have to carry two schooling whips with me just to get him out of the gate.”
Emma was working for a large City law firm and keeping Rocky at a livery yard just outside London when fate intervened.
“One morning I had arrived at the yard to drive to an event, only to find that someone had stolen my lorry with everything packed in it,” Emma recalls. “The police told me I ought to find somewhere else to keep my horse because it wasn’t safe at the yard, so I phoned Pippa, with whom I’d been having lessons, in a panic. It was five in the morning and [Pippa’s husband] William answered the phone. He very generously said I could bring Rocky straight over and stay for six weeks while I found another yard…”
How Pippa Funnell took on the ride
Emma continued competing Rocky under Pippa’s watchful eye and won a novice class at Spring Hill – “the highlight of my career” – with him, but once he became established at intermediate she asked Pippa whether she would take on the ride full-time.
“I was thrilled that Pippa said yes. At the time she had only 10 stables and most of them were filled with really exciting young advanced horses. Rocky was very much the donkey of the yard and while the others were all out winning and looking flash, he was lolloping along, doing his own thing, looking quite unremarkable.”
Rocky’s power and scope were never in doubt – he once jumped out of his field over a double fence with a ditch in the middle – but it took longer to convince Pippa he had the other attributes needed to make a top-level eventer.
“I’ll never forget the early days. Whenever we put a placing pole in front of a fence Rocky would take off before the pole and clear the whole lot,” says Pippa.
Over the next two years, the pair moved through the levels from two-star (now three-star) to Badminton in 1999. It was hardly an effortless ascent. In fact, Rocky only managed one clear round across country at three-star (now four-star) level.
“Time and time again we would make a silly mistake,” recalls Pippa. “It was never because he wasn’t brave or he didn’t try, but he just didn’t seem to have that fifth leg to get out of trouble. What made it all the more frustrating was that he was always there or thereabouts after the dressage and often we’d be placed even with 20 penalties.
“A lot of people questioned my decision to stick with him, including Tina [Cook, see below]. The following year, just before Badminton, Emma and I had a long chat about whether I should keep going, but the stubborn side in me wanted to give it one more shot.”
In fact, Badminton proved to be a pivotal moment in Rocky – and ultimately Pippa’s – careers, even if no one quite realised it at the time.
Cross-country day descended into a quagmire and by the end of Saturday hardly anyone was making it round. Rocky, who was lying second going into the cross-country, sprawled up on to the jetty in the Lake and couldn’t jump off the other side, but despite this still finished sixth.
“Mandy Stibbe, who was chairman of selectors at the time, could see that we were knocking at the door and selected us for the squad for that year’s Europeans in Luhmühlen,” says Pippa. “She put her faith in us and put her neck on the line, and for that I am still incredibly grateful.”
Behind the scenes Pippa and William had been working hard on Supreme Rock’s jumping.
“The major breakthrough came when I started working with his strengths rather than trying to improve his weaknesses,” says Pippa. “Instead of setting up exercises at home to make him shorten – something he found incredibly hard – I pulled the ground rails out and focused on keeping a rhythm and giving him time to jump the fences in his own way. When I started doing this he grew in confidence.”
There was extra pressure in Luhmühlen as the Brits still needed to secure their Olympic spot for Sydney. The pair answered that question emphatically and vindicated Mandy Stibbe’s decision by claiming their first European title.
“Clearing that final fence was a special moment, not just for me, but for our partnership, because Rocky had finally proved why he was worth sticking with,” says Pippa.
It was the start of a truly magical run that – bar an unlucky stop at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez in 2002 – lasted for the next four years.
“When people are all doom and gloom about making mistakes I remind them of Rocky,” continues Pippa. “A lot of the really good horses did not have impeccable records as youngsters and it’s important to remember that.”
Rocky’s incredible temperament meant that the bigger the competition, the better he performed. In 2000 there was a lot of talk about the effects of travelling horses halfway around the world to compete at the Sydney Olympics, but Rocky was the ideal candidate.
“He was so chilled out at big competitions that the first thing he’d do when he arrived was lie down for a kip,” remembers Pippa. “I would always have people coming up to me saying I needed to go and check on Rocky because he hadn’t moved for hours, but of course we knew he was just conserving his energy.”
Emma adds: “He had already proved everyone wrong when he weighed in heavier on arrival in Sydney than when we’d left home. The advice during quarantine had been to give the horses an easy couple of weeks and make sure they had plenty to eat as they were bound to lose weight on the long flight – but Rocky ate the whole way to Sydney. He had to spend the first week working off his excesses!”
A first Badminton win for Supreme Rock
The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 meant that it was another 12 months before Rocky had the opportunity to perform at Badminton again in front of a home crowd. By this time he and Pippa had successfully defended their European title at Pau and helped Britain secure another team gold medal.
“We’d not had the best lead-up to Badminton as I’d had a fall at Belton and had my leg in plaster until the last minute, but I was adamant I was going to ride Rocky,” says Pippa.
“I can remember walking under the archway from the stables into the park on Wednesday morning and for the first – and only – time in my career I thought, ‘We’re going to win this’.”
When Jesus Christ Superstar blared out on the main arena sound system just as Rocky started his dressage test, there was only ever going to be one result.
“Rocky loved a sense of occasion; he just loved showing off,” says Pippa.
His winning margin that year – four penalties – was a relatively luxurious cushion. On more than one occasion he almost lost his advantage in the final phase as Pippa was forced to work overtime to keep his huge stride in check while the clock ticked away in the background.
One such occasion was the pair’s second Badminton win in 2003 where one fence down and six time-penalties left them less than a second off losing the title – and the second leg of the Rolex Grand Slam, which Pippa went on to win at Burghley later that year.
Pippa and Emma agreed that they wanted Rocky to have a long and happy retirement, and when a knee injury kept niggling, he stepped down from top-level competition. He was officially retired at Badminton in 2005, aged 17.
“It was so emotional,” recalls Pippa. “[My other horse] Primmore’s Pride won the event that year and we were all in floods of tears for different reasons from start to finish.”
An active retirement on the hunting field
Rocky went home with Emma to Northamptonshire and his life came full circle when he spent his retirement hunting with the Grafton.
“I used to load him in the trailer and take him on the school run in the mornings before we’d go off hunting,” says Emma.
Rocky’s advancing years finally caught up with him and he was put down at the age of 25.
“When I think back, Rocky’s golden years really were a heyday for the sport. To a certain extent his and my fortunes and the fortunes of British eventing went hand in hand,” reflects Pippa. “I really do owe him everything – he was one in a million.”
Tina Cook on Supreme Rock
“I would be the first to admit that I warned Pippa off Rocky. I thought he was too big for her and quite uncoordinated in his huge movement. I told her that I didn’t think he would do her confidence any good. But Pippa’s mindset, like mine, is that if you believe in a horse you find a way to make it work. And that’s what she did.
“Pippa was open-minded enough to change her system to suit Rocky instead of trying to make him conform to her style of riding, and ultimately the confidence he gained from that is what made him a winner. It is one of the biggest lessons I have learned from her, and try to apply it with my own horses.”
Supreme Rock “was quite the escapologist”
“Rocky was generally very easy to look after at home, but he had an annoying habit of escaping from his stable and then refusing to be caught,” recalls groom at the time, Nini French, who was head girl to Pippa until after the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
“I can remember one year at Thirlestane Castle when I was putting on his leg bandages and he barged past me out the stable door and charged around the castle grounds with three bandages on. It wasn’t until a group of riders who were exercising their horses made a ring around him that I could finally catch him.”
Pippa recalls an equally embarrassing misdemeanour when he escaped one year while in quarantine.
“We were at Eddy and Mandy Stibbe’s yard and Rocky pinged open the bolt on his stable and disappeared,” she says. “He set off on an adventure around their beautifully manicured garden, refusing to be caught. He thought it was a great game.”
“A tough cookie”
The fact that Supreme Rock started in — and won — almost every major event he was entered for between 1999 and 2003 was testament to his toughness and soundness.
“I don’t remember him ever having an off days,” says his owner Emma Pitt. “He never had any kind of veterinary interventions like joint injections; in fact the only complementary therapy he had throughout his career was acupuncture. He lived his treatments and I think they helped keep him supple through his back.”
After he won the £4,000 first prize at Chatsworth in 2000, Emma suggested to Pippa that they use the money to fly out Rocky’s acupuncturist to the Sydney Olympics.
“She kindly agreed. The acupuncturist flew to Sydney, where she treated Rocky for two days before flying back.”
Supreme Rock’s greatest achievements
- European team and inidividual gold in Luhmuhlen, 1999
- Won Chatsworth, 2000
- Team silver and fourth individually at the Sydney Olympics, 2000
- European team and individual gold in Pau, 2001
- Team bronze at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, 2002
- Won Badminton twice, 2002 and 2003
Ref: 28 January 2021
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