During her seven decades on the throne, the effect of The Queen’s love of horses has extended not only to her family, but to the equestrian world at large, says Horse & Hound’s former Editor Michael Clayton, in this exclusive article first published in Horse & Hound on 10 June 2021
FROM early childhood our Queen was a horse-lover, but no one could have foreseen the immense contribution she would make to all our riding sports.
Everyone who shares The Queen’s passion for horses is in her debt, none more so than my generation, who were brought up during the deprivations of World War II. It was by no means guaranteed that equestrianism in Britain would blossom in the early post-war years of economic austerity. The lead given by the royal family was a crucial factor in the huge growth of riding as a widely popular sport.
We saw Princess Elizabeth, a stylish figure, as a consummate horsewoman in public, when she appeared riding side-saddle in a dark blue habit, at the 1947 Trooping the Colour ceremony, the first since the war.
It was an annual duty she has fulfilled ever since, arriving by horse-drawn carriage from 1987. There was always an element of risk in this parade, emphasised in 1981 when a youth fired blank shots near The Queen, who rode on coolly on her horse Burmese, a black mare who carried her for 17 consecutive years on ceremonial parades.
Her marriage in 1947 to the Duke of Edinburgh brought to the nation a level of glamour and excitement which defeated the greyness of that time. Princess Elizabeth received a filly, Astrakhan, as a wedding present from the Aga Khan, and soon registered her own colours: scarlet, purple hooped sleeves, black cap.
Since her teens, the heir to the throne shared the close interest of her father, King George VI, in thoroughbred breeding and racing, but the wider horse world would also benefit from the future Queen’s patronage. Nearly every major equestrian activity would involve at least one member of The Queen’s close family as breeder, owner, or competitor.
DURING conversations over lunch at Sandown Park before the Horse & Hound Grand Military Gold Cup, of which she was patron, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother recalled to me something of the late King George’s passion for riding and hunting: “They were such happy, carefree days,” she said with a glowing smile.
Our Queen inherited her love of horses and country life from both her parents. As well as a recreation, equestrianism is an important royal tradition, going back to the monarchy’s reliance on horsepower in ceremony and war.
The future King George VI won a pre-war reputation as the most polished horseman of the royal brothers, on the polo ground and in the hunting field. As Duke of York he took a hunting box with his family at Naseby in the Pytchley country for several seasons in the 1930s. In 1931 Princess Elizabeth, aged five, rode a pony to see the Pytchley’s huntsman, Frank Freeman, hunting hounds for the last time. As Freeman’s fox went away from covert the Princess was watching on her pony nearby, held by a groom standing next to the Queen Mother. The scene was captured in a painting by the artist Lionel Edwards.
Princess Elizabeth started riding lessons that year with Henry Owen, groom at White Lodge, Richmond Park, and in 1938 she received more training as a rider from Horace Smith who had a yard at Holyport, Berkshire. His daughter Sybil later gave Prince Charles and Princess Anne their first riding lessons.
Princess Anne remembered later: “We were both on a leading rein, and we were towed around a cinder ring, never faster than a trot… I thought it was a most grisly waste of time.”
During the height of the war, in 1943, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret appeared at a local show in aid of Windsor Wings for Victory Week. It was so relaxed that a runaway lurcher stole a chicken from the caterer’s tent, and sat chewing it under the King’s chair.
Princess Elizabeth proved she could drive as well as ride. With her sister as passenger, she competed in the single private driving turnout class with a Norwegian pony called Hans. The future Queen won the cup, and Princess Margaret drove a Fell pony, Windsor Gypsy, to win a trophy in the utility driving class.
The wartime fixture was the forerunner of the magnificent annual Royal Windsor Horse Show, and an example of the thread of continuity in The Queen’s interest in horses.
Racing provided an excellent opportunity to learn horsemanship through watching her father’s horses in training. Although Flat racing was to be The Queen’s main interest, her first victory was in a steeplechase at a Fontwell Park National Hunt meeting where her new colours were carried to victory by Monaveen, jointly owned with the Queen Mother, and trained by Peter Cazalet.
The Queen supported her mother’s involvement in National Hunt, sharing her triumphs and disappointments, the worst being her runner Devon Loch’s collapse when in the lead of the 1956 Grand National.
I have never seen The Queen happier on a racecourse than when she presented the 1986 Horse & Hound Grand Military Gold Cup to the Queen Mother after the third victory of her horse Special Cargo, well ridden by Gerald Oxley, despite a broken stirrup.
It is part of racing legend that on the morning of her coronation in 1953 The Queen was asked beforehand by a lady-in-waiting if all was well, and replied: “Oh yes, the Captain has rung to say Aureole is really well.”
Four days later, her colt Aureole, ridden by Harry Carr and trained by Captain Sir Cecil Boyd Rochfort, was beaten into second place in the Derby by Pinza. Since then The Queen’s horses have won the other Classics, but a Derby victory is still wanting.
With Lord Porchester as her general racing manager, and Sir Michael Oswald in charge of the bloodstock breeding side, The Queen’s involvement in thoroughbred breeding was intensified. She has a profound knowledge of thoroughbred pedigrees, and her expertise extends far more widely: she has successfully bred polo ponies for Prince Charles, eventers for Princess Anne, carriage horses for Prince Philip, plus Highland, Fell and Haflinger ponies, Arab horses…even a project to produce drum horses for the Household Cavalry.
THE Queen was a keen horsey mother, too. She is in the unique position of being the mother of a European eventing champion in Princess Anne, and grandmother to a European and world eventing champion in Zara Tindall.
Princess Anne’s heavy fall with her horse Goodwill in the 1976 Montreal Olympics three-day event was no laughing matter. The Queen and Prince Philip were present, and I remember them racing round to see if she was all right. The Princess was pretty much unconscious, but remounted and completed the course for the sake of the British team. It was a brave effort because she said afterwards she could remember nothing more of the ride.
We are used to seeing The Queen as a nonagenarian riding sedate horses on exercise in Windsor Great Park, but I recall her as a young woman galloping with great zest on Ascot racecourse. She made these excursions with relatives and friends in her Windsor Castle house party on the mornings before racing. As a press correspondent I reported a hazardous occasion when the royal party galloped under the taut wires of the old-style starting “tapes”. The Queen only just ducked her head in time to avoid what could have been a dreadful fall.
As an experienced, natural horsewoman, The Queen is well aware of the risks, but she has persisted in riding hatless on her private hacks. It was not the custom to wear protective headgear, nor was it readily available, during The Queen’s early life, and her unwillingness to abandon this practice has been respected as a royal prerogative in a long life in which private riding has been such a valuable respite from her demanding public schedule.
When the Prince took up steeplechasing, I recall The Queen admitting to feeling “very nervous” before the 1981 Horse & Hound Grand Military Gold Cup at Sandown Park. Prince Charles was riding his new horse Good Prospect in the race, falling at the 18th fence.
The Queen said very little, but there was a palpable sense of relief in the royal box when Charles regained his feet. The Prince’s determination was demonstrated when he rode the same horse the following week in the Kim Muir race at Cheltenham, and survived another fall. He had several wins in lesser chases, and was a bold rider in team chasing.
WHEN The Queen and Prince Philip visited our company’s range of magazines in 1978, then produced at King’s Reach Tower in Stamford Street, next to the Thames, Horse & Hound’s editorial office was the first port of call. In those days, the magazine was published on Fridays, and a royal carriage would come to the offices on Thursday to collect three copies for Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately the antis picked up on this, and Special Branch discovered that they were planning to kidnap the horse and carriage, so we quietly switched to couriering the copies by car.
Around that time, I was mortified by what I call “Horse & Hound’s greatest mistake”. I was invited to tea at Windsor Great Park for a polo cup we sponsored, and she asked me what had happened that week in H&H.
She was referring to a picture we had printed of her riding in a parade, but someone in the production team had inadvertently reversed the picture so her legs were on the wrong side of the horse. I was furious despite not receiving a single letter of complaint, but of course The Queen had noticed. I sent her the original, correct, proof in a frame and she was very good about it.
The Queen’s concern for horse welfare has been another major element in her equestrian life. As patron of the British Horse Society The Queen takes considerable interest in its welfare activities.
Welfare was an element in her decision to invite the innovative American trainer Monty Roberts to display his method of introducing unbroken horses to being saddled and ridden in one session. I was among guests invited to Windsor Castle for this demonstration, where The Queen told me she thought his methods were “marvellous”.
“I have seen an awful lot of ropes and straps being used in the old methods of breaking in a horse,” she said – and some home-bred royal horses were later “entered” to riding by Monty.
Apart from a great deal of fun, what else has horsemanship conferred upon the royals? Prince Philip pointed out the character-forming benefits of riding, as originally expressed by the Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson: “Princes learn no art truly, but the art of horsemanship. The reason is, the brave beast is no flatterer. He will throw a prince as soon as his groom.”
The “great leveller” was Prince Philip’s perceptive description of the horse. He wrote in an article for Horse & Hound’s 27 May 1977 issue, celebrating the Silver Jubilee: “Having a family which seems to be equally willing to be humiliated by the horse, I have to live with the expectation that they too will suffer injury and indignity.
“The only advantage of the personal experience of this sort of thing is that I am not surprised when it happens to them, and I am full of sympathy and useful advice for treatment and recovery.”
Prince Philip continued to drive a carriage well into his late nineties. Our Queen is still riding as a recreation – long may she continue to do so.
- This feature was first published in Horse & Hound magazine, Thursday 10 June 2021