When asked to describe in three words what it means to win Badminton, the world’s most challenging and prestigious equestrian event, Jonelle Price — this year’s victor and the first woman to take the title for a decade — knocked back a glass of champagne and answered: ‘Dreams. Come. True.’
For the past 20 years Jonelle has relied on dreams and phenomenal willpower to get to the top of the exclusive and very expensive sport of eventing. Hers has been a different route from the classic one of ‘Daddy bought me a pony’ (or in the case of her fellow competitor, Princess Anne’s daughter Zara Tindall, ‘Mummy’).
The child of suburban parents, Jonelle first sat on a horse as an eight-year-old. Her mother, a bookkeeper, is still terrified of them. Years of babysitting, waitressing and mowing lawns followed, to fund her riding career in New Zealand. Until she won team bronze at the London Olympics in her early thirties, she rode all day and worked three nights a week at a pizzeria, bringing home leftovers for Tim, her husband and Olympic team-mate. Jonelle’s title-winning ride earlier this month was 11 minutes and 50 seconds of glory ground out the hard way.
I watched her scorching over fences and ditches deep and wide enough to bury a truck in, and I felt not just admiration but envy. I sat sweating with excitement in front of my laptop as she navigated the course, stomach churning, praying the live online feed wouldn’t fail. You know you are watching the wrong sport when you find yourself asking what the point of it is. You know you are watching the right sport when you wonder what the point of everything else is.
An old fantasy began to resurrect itself. If Badminton can be won by a new mother with no obvious sporting head start beyond determination, then perhaps it’s not too late for me. I found myself wondering whether by this time next year I might not have got myself organised enough to ride competitively — something I haven’t done since I was 17 (and even then with no great success). I began to window-shop online for horses.
Horse obsession afflicts thousands of British women, and I’m not sure it can ever really be cured. A childhood spent on horseback returns to haunt you in later life; it tugs at you until you give in. Drop down several rungs from the highest levels of eventing and you’ll discover a growing army of mums and even grannies contesting novice and riding club competitions. I admire them. They’re having fun, and they’re infinitely more relaxed and pleasant than the frustrated mothers who channel their horsey ambitions through their children. Some are living out a childhood dream denied them, others are resuming a love of riding that a career or child-bearing interrupted.
For them, Jonelle’s an inspiration. She couldn’t compete at last year’s Badminton because she was pregnant with her son Otis. But she was back riding internationally within five weeks of giving birth, describing motherhood breezily as ‘a work in progress — much like horses really’. She has the ability, in common with all truly brilliant cross-country riders to make one of the most statistically dangerous sports look effortless, at times even easy. Watching her on one of the plucky, opinionated mares she favours, you forget the grind. It looks meant to be.
For every women who’s made the leap back on to a horse, there are dozens more like me who circle closer every day, looking at horses for sale, wondering about grazing and where to put a box.
What is it with women and horses? Why do so many of us love them so much? I think it may have something to do with both power and powerlessness. To ride a horse and have it do as you ask, despite the difference in brute strength, is to feel powerful. But no matter how brave the rider, that power can only accessed by persuasion — and perhaps this is a particularly female gift. The experiences I had with horses in my teens delayed my interest in boys and provided me with a useful precursor for later romantic entanglements. Horses are the ultimate strong and silent types, they let themselves be fussed over without any evidence they love you back.
Yet equestrianism is the only Olympic sport where men and women compete head to head against each other on equal terms. Tim Price came 12th at Badminton this year. Their selection isn’t yet finalised but my guess is that their legions of fans will watch both Prices compete at the World Equestrian Games in September, wishing we were there, wishing we were them — and forgetting for a few wonderful minutes that we aren’t.