The British supermodel takes us inside her life as a fearless event rider and talks consciously uncoupling with horses – and her ambition to go all the way to Burghley and Badminton.
TEXT Jack Sunnucks PHOTOGRAPHY Lea Colombo
Taken from the AW16 issue of The Horse Rider’s Journal
When we talk, Edie Campbell has just finished having her hair done in a bathroom at the headquarters of Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. It’s the eve of the house’s new creative director Anthony Vaccarello’s debut, and Campbell has been flown in to walk the show. At 26, Edie is an industry veteran, beloved by Vogue and the world’s top photographers, stylists and brands, but she still seems to epitomise the new, perhaps due to her ever-changing mop of hair. It’s cliché to say good models have a chameleon nature, but Campbell really does, as much at ease sulking in conceptual fashions as modelling Tiffany jewellery with a winning smile. In fact, only days before, she had opened the Versace show in Milan in a “fierce” jumpsuit and bleach-blonde hair. Hence the new hairdo in the bathroom just now.
Off camera (if such a thing exists any more), Campbell is also a keen equestrian, and a very good one at that. An accomplished event rider, she tackles dressage arenas, cross-country tracks and showjumping courses, competing at intermediate and two-star levels. She also owns four horses, which is not for the faint of heart. Amazingly, seeing as she’s often in several different countries a week for work, she usually manages to ride her animals three times a week, which means she has to leave her London home before 6am. It’s the sort of wildly impressive double life that leaves you wondering what on earth you’ve been filling your time with.
Equine types generally inherit their passion, but this was not the case for Campbell. “I did not grow up in a horsey family,” she laughs. “No one in my family rides. They don’t understand which end bites and which end kicks.” After her mother, the architect Sophie Hicks, observed her “lumbering” about in ballet class (which is hard to imagine now, given the elegant way she glides down the runway), she decided instead to plonk her daughter on a pony, thus igniting a life-long passion. Edie enjoyed the responsibility, she explains, but also “I really hated being a child. When people treated me like a child, I’d be like, ‘Why are you talking to me like I’m an idiot? I may be four but I know exactly what I’m talking about’” – she does a sort of Violet Beauregarde voice. “So I quite liked the responsibility of ‘this is my pony and it’s really well looked after’.” She cackles at how prim this sounds.
Since that point she’s been riding non-stop. “I haven’t progressed at all in the last 20 years. Maybe it’s a good thing, and maybe it’s a bad thing!” She started out riding “some dodgy old knackered pony. Who was a raging lunatic.” Nevertheless, Campbell believes falling off demonic pack beasts was good practice for adult life. “It’s a lesson that, however hard you try, shit might not go your way, and you have to suck that up and get up and carry on. Also, having been at quite a high-achieving school, where it’s like ‘you can be anything you want’, it’s quite a good lesson to learn that you can try, but it’s just not going to happen.” Except for Edie, it did. Both in riding, and modelling, “once you’ve committed to it, you have to put in the hours and the work”.
Weirdly, the two worlds go very well together. “It’s kind of the working-all-hours element of it. If I’m competing in Yorkshire and I need to be there on my horse ready to compete at 8.30am, then I need to leave Warwickshire at 3.30am. It’s that thing of ‘this is what I want to do and it’s not going to be nine to five’. It’s not going to slot into everybody else’s lifestyle and I’m not going to make it to every friend’s birthday party. But it’s a decision I made.”
That decision had led to her being responsible for a lively stable of four. Her first horse, Dolly, “is obviously number-one beast – she’s very special”. This statement makes her chuckle and she very gingerly admits, “I’ve actually had to give her to someone else: we’ve consciously uncoupled. She turned into a psychopath, so it’s better she has an easier life with no pressure.” That’s the reality of training horses: you just have to accept when the horse isn’t into it. Edie admits she has become desensitised to this sort of thing, more pragmatic. “That’s why I haven’t had a feeling since 2002,” she laughs. Luckily, she still has Armani, on whom she competes at two-star level, although he’s currently got two of his legs in bandages. There’s also Tinkerbell (“clever”) and Phil (“stupid”), her younger charges who she’s training up.
The training is what really gets her going. “I love the process of watching them learn, when you teach them a new dressage movement or a new cross-country jump, and they have to work out what it’s all about. When you feel them remember a lesson you taught them in training and then apply it when you’re competing, that’s quite gratifying.” It’s what helps her get out of bed pre-6am, when it’s pissing down with rain and she has a bunch of grumpy horses to contend with. “I think having that ambition [to compete at four-star level], that’s the level you’re training for and the level of accuracy you want… What’s also quite wonderful about competing is, most of the time I’m competing against people who are on Olympic teams. That’s their life, it’s amazing. You don’t just feel like small fry playing around on university hockey teams. And men and women compete against each other on equal footing, which as a feminist always rings true.”
Jumping, Campbell clears 1.75m fences, a respectably terrifying height. It’s not something that scares her, however. “You do all the training and quietly put the foundations in place so you don’t try to do something you can’t do. Mistakes are made, and it’s one of the most dangerous sports.” It seems like relying on a horse to make the decisions would be frightening, but Campbell explains her relationship with her horses, the bond and the training, quite brilliantly. “You’re hoping you’ve made educated decisions, that the horse knows its job, that you’ve given the horse every possible tool physically and mentally to succeed. Ultimately though you have to make difficult decisions. I had to say goodbye to Dolly because she didn’t want to event any more – they just go, ‘I don’t want to do this any more.’ It’s a mental thing. You feel their brains switch off and not want to be challenged in that way.” She pauses. “Like humans.”
Campbell would like to progress to a level beyond it being a hobby, where she becomes notable as a rider. “I don’t want it to be in my comfort zone. I want to go up the levels to where it becomes quite serious and tough and a real challenge.” She describes the mentality as a path. “I’m going to get there. Armani’s injured, so it’s not happening right now. Not 2017. The 2018 season he will. I’m always thinking in two- or three-year plans.” This is where horse riding might differ most from fashion, where seasons aren’t even six months long any more. “It’s really nice that fashion is so fast and fickle, and everything changes so quickly. And then it’s really nice to go somewhere where I’ve got a two-year plan, and I’m slowly going to make changes in my horse and the way it performs, and won’t reap the benefits for six or eight months.” This seems an almost glacial pace compared to a job that Campbell describes, with a faux wail, as someone ringing up and screaming, “Honey, you’ve got to bleach your hair and open Versace, now!”
“Also, with modelling, you’re thinking about yourself all the fucking time,” she finishes. “Not necessarily in a narcissistic sense, but you’re on set in front of a camera, and you’re thinking, ‘How does my body look from this angle, how does my face look, where is the light coming from?’ When you’re on a horse, you’re not thinking about yourself. You’re thinking about how the horse is moving and responding. Did it do a good job? Then you reward it.” It must be nice that horses don’t have a clue what fashion is. “Do they not?” she asks primly, and bursts into another raucous peel of laughter. Whether in horse-riding seasons or fashion ones, it’s only a matter of time before the force of nature that is Edie Campbell is riding at the very top. •