The Olympic cycling champion on finding the courage for her new jump racing career, gender equality in riding and how sport can change the world.
Text SUSANNE MADSEN Photography WENN & REX / ALL OVER PRESS
If you’re ever nervous or think you can’t do something on a horse, channel some of Victoria Pendleton’s badass determination. Before February last year, the lightening-fast cyclist and Olympic gold and silver medallist had never been on a horse. Just over a year later, she came fifth in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham with Pacha Du Polder and the pair won at Wincanton by 29 lengths, all brought on by an invitation-slash-dare by Betfair to switch saddles after retiring from cycling. Pendleton will tell you that her horse is a legend, that anyone could ride him around Cheltenham and that she’s had help from some of the best brains (Team GB’s event performance manager Yogi Breisner, trainers Lawney and Alan Hill), but it’s obvious that she’s put in the work and picked up a difficult and dangerous sport with great talent and guts.
Since Pendleton’s first riding lesson, the critics have been out in force to dismiss her change of saddle as an irresponsible publicity stunt, but what they didn’t count on was that she would not only do really well but also fall completely in love with horses and her new discipline. So much so that she’s now a racehorse owner and plans to get a couple more – and she’s tried her hand at polo, too. Along the way, she’s brought a lot of excitement and attention to a sport that struggles at times to fill its grandstands and surely that’s a good thing. “One of the biggest things that really struck me is that a lot of it is just to do with courage,” Pendleton says of taking up jump racing. “Everybody has access to courage, which is a really cool thing. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it, you don’t have to be born with it but it’s there. I think we underestimate ourselves as human beings on so many levels and I don’t really know why because – without sounding full of clichés – the possibilities are endless.”
Finding your inner strength and gaining confidence through sport is something that goes hand in hand with Pendleton’s latest role as ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. The foundation helps vulnerable and disadvantaged young people across the world, using sport to prevent them from getting into gangs and uniting young people from divided areas, and for the last ten years Swiss luxury watchmakers IWC Schaffhausen have been supporting the charity. This year, a limited edition Portofino Automatic Moon Phase 37 edition timepiece in Laureus blue with twelve diamonds and an alligator strap has been produced to aid global Laureus projects, and on the back is an engraved drawing by the winner of the annual Laureus drawing competition: 16-year-old Eleni Partakki from PeacePlayers International Cyprus, where kids from Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities come together to play basketball.
Pendleton has already visited some of the project’s sports facilities in the favelas in Rio and seen firsthand what a difference the foundation makes and the hope it instils in young people. “Feeling a sense of a common purpose breaks boundaries. Sport is a wonderful thing to have in common with other people,” she said at the launch of the IWS Schaffhausen and Laureus Portofino. “I was incredibly shy growing up and sport was the one thing that really allowed me to express myself.” The incredible control of power she has been able to harness in her cycling has now been transferred to her riding. “Over the last twelve months I’ve really been working on trying to calm my thoughts, my emotions, my body, my heart rate,” she said, adding: “You just focus on each fence as it comes. Like, let the fences come to you, just relax.” Here, Pendleton discusses all things ponies with us – and what her next discipline might be.
What’s been more challenging in terms of switching saddles: the technical part of riding or the mental side of it?
I think it’s probably more the mental side of it. Because you’ve got to overcome the fact that you have a 600-ish kilo animal who has a brain, and you’re putting your faith in him or her and they’re putting their faith in you and that’s a very unique relationship. Because you can’t necessarily communicate as clearly as you’d like to all the time, especially as a novice. But having trust and faith and conviction in what you do – you know, you’re approaching a fence and your horse is having a little look and you’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re in this, come on,’ and it works and it’s quite a special thing to go up to a horse and go, ‘I trust you, let’s be a partnership’. I think I probably underestimated going into the challenge how special that sort of partnership and relationship is. It’s quite magical. And I’m totally in love. I’m besotted with horses.
And what is it you’ve come to love about horses?
I mean, you can’t stand next to a horse – a racehorse in particular – and not be impressed by how magnificent they are aesthetically. How they look, how they move, how they feel, how their personalities are and their habits and their little ways. It’s very special. And the fact that they accept you. You stand in a stable and ignore one and they’ll walk over and go, ‘hi’ and rest their muzzle on your shoulder and just let their weight go. It’s such a nice feeling and then you have to thank them for everything they’ve done for us over history. I won’t mention the brand because I probably shouldn’t, but there’s a certain commercial on television for a banking firm that practically makes me cry every time I watch it.
You have spoken to the Telegraph about how you felt about gender inequality in cycling. Coming into the horse world, what’s that side of things been like for you?
I think the great thing about equestrian sport is that because there’s a horse involved there’s not necessarily an age or a gender discrimination going on. You can have a 60-year-old female on the team and a 20-something man and they’re competing on a level playing field and that’s something really beautiful about equestrian sport. I can race with men and there’s no difference. We compete at the same races and we compete at the same level, all the way to the top. Whether you get a number of rides really depends on how much you want to pursue that. And I think it is probably more difficult for women to get rides in jump racing in particular because there are less women willing to do it. Because it is quite dangerous. In flat racing terms you only have to look at the result of the Melbourne Cup. That’s quite remarkable. That’s the beauty of equestrian sport I think.
Would you try any other disciplines? Dressage maybe?
I was thinking more boxing, actually! I’ve been to Moss Side Fire Station Boxing Club so why not. I’m definitely going to have some dressage lessons, just to learn a different side of it, different skills, and I’ve got some polo lessons lined up as well. I quite like the feeling of having something to work towards, standing on the edge going, ‘Can I, can’t I, can I, yeah, I think I can’. It’s a good feeling.
For further details on the Portofino watch, please visit IWC Schaffhausen’s website here