Poster-girl Funnell keeps passion alive

I have seen great sport, and seen it in many guises and places. Eventing is the finest sport ever devised. The most perfect expression of horsemanship in terms of sport: in the triple-discipline of dressage, show-jumping and cross-country. It tests horsemanship, understanding, team-work, courage and trust. And above all, it tests that particular courage required to win. Pippa Funnell has it – Simon Barnes, former Chief Sportswriter for the Times

I grew up with posters of Pippa Funnell on my bedroom wall. I read her training books devotedly, watched her style obsessively. When she offered me a chance to work at her stables, I learnt more about horsemanship and being a sportsman in a week than in my 18 years in the world of sport.

Throughout her 30-year career Funnell has remained an inspiration to me and millions of pony-mad girls, particularly through her best-selling Tilly’s Pony Tails series of books. But she is also globally recognised for her achievements on horseback: she was the first and only event rider to land Three-Day Eventing’s most coveted prize – The Rolex Grand Slam – for winning all three major four-star titles in a year (2003). She has been European champion twice, and won two team silver medals at the Olympics as well as an individual bronze. She has an MBE, was Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year in 2003 and made it to the top five in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

Now, 11 years after competing at the Athens Olympics, could it be that Funnell is on the brink of a call-up to compete for Team GB in Rio next year?

The British team selectors certainly believe in her, even naming her for Championship teams on inexperienced and unproven horses on several occasions. Funnell never failed them, often finishing as the best British rider. Last week she helped the British team win a silver medal at the FEI European Championships. More importantly, her young horses put their faith, their lives even, in her hands, willingly, adoringly, as her results with them show.

Yet despite this catalogue of success and ability to train horses to win medals, there is one individual who is less believing in the skill and talent of Pippa Funnell. And that is Pippa Funnell herself. Most sporting prowess is built on an unshakeable self-belief, but Funnell is no Mohammad Ali. She even had help from sports psychologist Nikki Heath, but admits that the doubting demons are still part of her psyche.

“It doesn’t get any easier. The more I keep going in the sport, the more I seem to work off negative psychology,” explains Funnell. “Whilst competing at Badminton this year I was thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ When it’s for a team there is even more pressure.  I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this for the team and for my country’. On cross-country day I’m usually feeling ill.”

It is a high-risk sport where rider injury is common and fatalities not unknown, but Funnell denies this as the issue. “It’s not a fear for my own safety. I just don’t want to let anyone down and I really don’t want to let my horse down.”

Yet despite this fear of “letting the side down”, last week Funnell commandeered an inexperienced equine partner by the name of Sandman around the FEI European Eventing Championships to score a double clear and help the British team finish as runners-up. She finished eighth individually.

Funnell is a horse lover but Sandman is clearly a favourite. She has nurtured him from his very first competition and regarded him with such fondness that she gave a share in him to her mother and a share to her first trainer, Ruth McMullen, for her 80th birthday. “As a young horse he wasn’t the most talented I had ridden, but I always really liked him. I never dreamt at that stage it would work out like this. The fact that Mum, Ruth and I own him makes it extra special.”

The selectors were certainly taking a chance on Funnell. Sandman had only contested one event at the same level (CCI Three-Star) and the cross-country course for the European Championships at Blair Castle was a true test of stamina with full use of the mountainous topography made. When riders describe it as “a true championship track” what they really mean is “it’s bloody enormous!”

Even Funnell exclaimed her astonishment at team selection. “I didn’t start out this year with that aim at all. I was thinking about possible selection for next year. I was amazed to be put on the team with such a young horse, but I’m grateful to the selectors for having faith in us.”

Then when Mother Nature unleashed 24 hours of heavy rainfall, making the going treacherous and unnerving for even the most experienced riders, it added more drama to the competition. Take a huge cross-country course on the side of a mountain, several thousand spectators huddled close to the jumps to cheer on their idol, atrocious weather making your saddle and reins feel like a bar of wet soap, and your equine teammate never having experienced anything like it before and, well, that’s pressure for you.

Funnell’s illustrious career has been plagued by injuries. Not hers but her horses’. Missing out on a championship because of injury or misfortunate is something most professional riders experience perhaps once in their career. For Funnell there have been at least three major setbacks. She had two horses on the short-list for the London Olympics before withdrawing both shortly before the Games. Last year she relinquished her place on the squad for the World Equestrian Games when her horse suffered a problem. “It’s when I’ve had good horses with injuries that I’m at my lowest point. It’s been enough to make me seriously consider giving up. I like to think you make your own luck. But in sport you need to have things go with you, too, and they certainly haven’t always for me.”

So what has kept her in the sport? “It’s horses like Sandman that keep the passion alive. I love bringing on the young horses and establishing that relationship. I keep thinking of giving up. I have already achieved more than I ever imagined. And then another young horse comes along and I get passionate about the sport again. Crossing the finish line with him [at the Europeans] meant more than anything in the world. There was so much at stake. I didn’t know if he was good enough. I felt sick all morning, worrying that it was a step too far. But as soon as I’m out of the start box all these doubts evaporate.

“That’s what horses have taught me – to be very balanced about life, but persistent. You can’t lose your temper and you have to be focused. When I’m doing my job on the horse, all the other fears and problems just melt away. It’s an amazing feeling and I couldn’t live without it. Besides, without horses I wouldn’t have met my husband.”

William Funnell is a top showjumper himself and the pair juggle running a successful breeding and training operation with competing all over the world. Beyond the pressures of elite level sport Funnell was faced with the common dilemma facing so many sportswomen – when to start a family. Funnell told the world ten years ago that it was in the plan to have children. It didn’t happen.

The Funnells have been married 22 years and are visibly united by their love of horses and the sport. “Oh, Willy, you’re here! Come in out of the rain,” chirps Funnell with childish delight and an enormous smile when he appears in the media zone after her cross-country round. In the middle of his own busy schedule he has made the 1,000-mile round trip to support her. Testing times in their marriage are long past. “There wasn’t an option. You either let yourself be beaten or you stay strong. You have to, don’t you?”

It is that philosophy on life and sport that makes her my hero. I watched her performance at the Europeans in the same devoted fashion I did in my childhood. Nerves more on edge than when I compete myself. It is that knowing feeling of apprehension, excitement, my heart jumping as she and the magnificent Sandman soar over huge fences, yet with every faith that they will deliver the goods.

It has been twenty years since the posters came down from my wall, but to me Pippa Funnell is still the ultimate sportswoman of all – the greatest horsewoman, too. It is her focus, attention to detail, her courage and her extraordinary ability to be in the moment when it really matters, casting aside those nerves and lack of self-belief. To achieve such success in spite of her inner battles make her all the more inspirational.


ElK headshotEleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice.


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