It should be the most equal sport on Earth: men on horseback and women on horseback competing around the same cross-country course and over the same showjumping fences for the same prize. Yet the results for the last sixteen Burghley and Badminton horse trials combined, male riders have finished first. It wasn’t always thus, so why is it now? The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott tries to find the answer
If the theme of this summer of sport had gone to form, a woman who goes by the nickname of Piggy and her partner, Vanir Kamira, also female and a horse by the way, would have won this year’s Burghley Horse Trials. They were the only all-female partnership with a chance of the title going into the deciding showjumping phase, and given the solid example set by the England women’s cricket team, maybe fate would deliver more of the same.
The vast crowd swilling round the cross-country course on Saturday could see for themselves that teamwork was the key to avoid crashing into things, over things or falling headlong into a mud bath, as did Zara Phillips – on a course designed by her father, to add insult to injury. Cross-country riding at this elite level is devious, breathtaking, vertiginous, unceremonious and perilous.
And it didn’t happen. A tough, though visibly moved Yorkshireman, and incidentally Piggy’s old flame, Oliver Townend, took the title – making it a male winner for the seventh successive year.
It’s interesting. Here is a sport proud of the fact that men and women compete on absolutely equal terms. Indeed, Britain came home triumphant from the European Eventing Championships last month with four women and Mr Townend on the team. But recent history at Burghley has favoured the male with nine winners in the last 10 years. Badminton – same. The last nine winners: male. It’s a complete role reversal from the 1970s and 1980s when Lucinda Green and Ginny Holgate held a gripping sway over the sport.
Simple question – why? What changed? Has it changed given that most riders reckon they only have a 20 per cent influence on the outcome – the rest being down to horse and that other most tantalising of beasts, pure luck?
The international eventer, Izzy Taylor, whose great aunt Anneli Drummond-Hay saw off all the men when she won the first Burghley in 1961, can’t think why the pendulum has visibly swung. She doesn’t necessarily believe it has.
“I don’t know. Men are stronger, but then it’s each to their own. That’s the great thing about riding and eventing. It’s about the relationship between you and your horse. They’re helping you when you can’t and you’re helping them when they can’t.
“Anything’s possible in this sport and we’re very lucky we compete equally. It’s very exciting and it’s something I personally feel we need to highlight and build on. There is in my opinion no advantage and no disadvantage.”
A few theories have cantered into the arena. They sound logical but you could pretty much torpedo any of them with exceptions. If this was the Elizabethan age when Burghley House was largely built by William Cecil, the Lord High Treasurer, you could probably point to muscle, competitiveness and risk-taking being solely part of the male package. Although not in the hearing of Her Majesty.
But since gender stereotyping is under pressure as never before, and Piggy French was among the glaring examples going round the cross-country course in a thunder of hooves and ferocious concentration, that kind of thinking is bunkum.
Perhaps, given the crucial ingredient of horse power, the apparent male dominance is entirely down to the whim and preference of the all-important owners.
The courageousness of both sexes is a given. To the casual spectator the whole business is like Mission Impossible on four thin fetlocks. The sort of extreme activity that Tom Cruise would leave to his stuntman. Yet French maintained that the principle thought in her head out on the course was: “Come on, old girl, we’ve got to get going.” And she didn’t mean her sprightly mare.
She has returned to the sport after a year-long break to have her baby boy, Max, but also to re-evaluate the sport from which she seriously considered retiring. Not one, but two of her best horses sustained injury just before the London Olympics resulting in her missing the event of a lifetime. And then like a gambler chasing her losses, her fortunes seemed to dwindle further.
“I used to think my whole life depended on it. I’m very tough on myself, but I think you have to be. You have to be a critical realistic and yet you’ve still got to enjoy it. Put it in perspective. I think I hadn’t. I was quite low. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets. Then you’re out of your comfort zone. It feels like you’re banging your head on the wall. As much as Max was a surprise [with her partner and fellow eventer, Tom March], it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“So this time I just wanted a good experience. To finish in the top 10. But she was just out of this world. We had a little bit of ooh and ahh, and I’ve quite often eaten the Burghley dirt, but to finish second was fantastic.”
She was speaking on behalf, not of womankind in that moment, but as one half of a tight-knit and mutually trusting twosome. Perhaps that’s the only way to look at a sport with so many imponderable elements and obstacles. If Andrew Nicolson, one of the greatest riders of the modern era, could up-end himself over a log at a fence called Storm Doris (so named after the devastating storm earlier this year that felled three huge poplars on the course) then the true challenge lies in the extraordinarily demanding and varied questions posed by the sport.
Footnote: Female riders filled five of the top ten places at Burghley 2017. So if we’re being statistical, as well as philosophical, it’s still a pretty equal place to be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles