Remember the Good Old Days when show jumping was one of the most popular sports on TV? How many other elderly ladies, I wonder, remember fondly those black-and-white scenes when Pat Smythe and Tosca thrilled us at the Royal International Horse Show and the Horse of the Year Show. With the help of commentator Dorian Williams, we knew as much about the horses and riders as we did our own families.
I was 11 when the 1952 Olympic Games were held in Helsinki. Ponyless, passionate about riding, and devouring every word of Pony and Riding magazines, I immersed myself in the story of Colonel Llewellyn and Foxhunter and how he won us our only gold medal (in the team show jumping) that year. On the last day, I believe.
1956, I remember, was a strange Olympics since the equestrian events were held in Stockholm while the main Games were in Australia. Pat Smythe rode in that one (Flanagan), and Wilf White on Nizefella who delighted audiences with his extravagant kick-back as he cleared each fence. But the horse I remember best is Halla, who won the gold medal for Germany. I know more about Halla and Hans Günter Winkler than the bronze-medal winners from Britain because I went to stay with my German pen friend the following year and her mother gave me Winkler’s book Meine Pferde und Ich. I then learnedjust what an achievement that gold medal had been. Winkler pulled a muscle in the first round and in the all-important second round could only steer Halla round the course, screaming with pain at each jump. The mare jumped a perfect clear round.
1960 and Rome was memorable for Sunsalve. Did he or didn’t he have a foot in the water? My horse magazines kept up the discussion for weeks. In those days, I think, there was just a tape at the edge of the water jump, not plastecine, and judging was done by eye. We so wanted David Broome to have ridden him to a clear. He was a crazy horse, head held irresponsibly high and always seeming on the verge of running away, but a brilliant jumper. The d’Inzeo brothers won gold and silver (remember that beautiful grey, The Rock?); David got the bronze.
I remember nothing about 1964 (although records show that Peter Robeson won the bronze medal on Firecrest) but 1968 was something else — I was there! Not only did I go to Mexico for the Olympic Games but I had a ticket for the eventing, where the British team won a gold medal in torrential rain. But I hadn’t been successful in getting a ticket for show jumping and was desperate. I went to the stadium and somehow managed to talk my way in (or to be accurate, a Spanish-speaking friend did the talking – I just hovered). We got in, ticketless, and sat down in the best seats in the arena. A posh English group advanced on ‘our’ seats and said: ‘Oh, I thought we were sitting there. Never mind, we’ll take these ones.’ It’s one of the wickedest – and best – things I’ve done in my life. Because this was the year that a pony competed in the top test of show jumping in the world – and won a silver medal! Stroller was only 14.2hh. Think about it – that’s literally a pony and a good hand smaller than horses considered tiny in these days of massive stallions. I get quite teary thinking about it even now, remembering how tiny Stroller looked behind those enormous jumps, and the skill with which Marion Coakes got him round. Silver is not gold, but what an achievement! And David Broome on Mr Softee got bronze.
Until this year no other Olympic equestrian event lived up to that day in Mexico. How lucky I was to be there, and how wonderful in London to see the British team back in the realm of gold.