As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her 90th birthday, we look back on the monarch’s lifelong relationship with horses, from her racetrack winners to her pivotal role in the career of horse whisperer Monty Roberts.
Text Susanne Madsen
Of all the ways one could illustrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s passion for horses (not to mention her legendary dry sense of humour), nothing seems more apt than the speech the monarch gave at the wedding of her son Prince Charles to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in 2005. The wedding took place on the same day as the Grand National – an equestrian highlight for the Queen, who would normally never miss a chance to see the horses come flying over the perilous Becher’s Brook fence. “I have two things to announce to you of the greatest importance,” announced the Queen to the newlyweds. “The first is that the Grand National was won by Hedgehunter. The second is to say to you that, despite Becher’s Brook and The Chair and all kinds of other terrible obstacles, my son has come through and I’m very proud and wish them well.”
The speech said much about a woman who has spent her entire life surrounded by horses. Not only do horses play a central role in numerous royal duties and parades, but they have also been her greatest means of escape from the public eye. And today, at the grand age of 90, the Queen remains as horse-mad as ever.
From the moment young Princess Elizabeth was placed atop her first pony – a Shetland named Peggy, given to her by her grandfather King George V for her fourth birthday – she has dedicated a huge part of her life to horses.
She was barely five when the London Evening Standard was already reporting on her skills in the saddle, and at the age of 12 she told her riding teacher that had she not been born into the role of queen, she would “like to be a lady, living in the country with lots of horses and dogs”. And while the rest of the Royal Family tend to prefer their equestrian activities to involve a polo mullet and a fast-paced chukka, the Queen has always had a penchant for hacking and horse racing – even if she likes to observe the latter from the sidelines rather than in the saddle. She has attended every Ascot meet since her first visit to the famous racecourse in 1945, and over the years she has had an impressive 19 Ascot winners.
There have been less than stellar performances as well: in 1952, her horse Choir Boy barely managed to finish the race, causing the Queen – ever a good sport – to laugh heartily from her box, binoculars in hand. Her career as a steeplechase owner, however, was short-lived: ever since her Irish jumper Monaveen tragically broke its leg on the racecourse in 1950 and was put down, the Queen has focused on owning horses for flat racing. And while the British Royal Family is famously traditional, the Queen has always approached horses with a modern frame of mind. In the 1980s, she was one of the first to employ the services of famous ‘horse whisperer’ Monty Roberts, who was working on a new method for breaking in racehorses in the States. Roberts flew to England to demonstrate his Join-Up method to the Queen and her staff, immediately prompting the Queen to suggest to Roberts he should write a book about his unique ideas. He did. The book became The Man Who Listens to Horses, which has sold more than five million copies worldwide.
The Queen herself is no stranger to the art of horse whispering. When she rode her favourite mare, Burmese, in the 1981 Trooping the Colour – a ceremony that marks the reigning monarch’s official birthday – the horse spooked and tried to bolt when a youth fired six blank shots at the Queen. Despite sitting side-saddle, the Queen got her horse under control in a few strides of canter – a rather impressive feat, especially considering many long-serving Household Cavalry riders take a tumble during the horse parades, including the one at last year’s Royal Wedding. And because some horse-and-rider relationships are once in a lifetime, the Queen decided to switch to riding in a carriage when Burmese retired to a life of leisure in Windsor Castle Park in 1986. •