Friday, Jun. 01, 2012

All the Queen's Horses: Her Life in the Saddle

Queen Elizabeth II is not a known sprinter. But in a video of her at the Epsom Derby in 1991, she makes a very quick hustle to the royal box balcony, arms chugging and lavender coat flapping. What could have prompted this rather un-queenly behavior? The end of a horse race, of course. The video clip, which is available on YouTube, reveals much about Elizabeth's love of horses. As the race begins, she stands inside, watching the TV with rapt attention as the racers burst through their gates. "They're off!" she yells to no one in particular, her eyes locked on the screen. "You're on the wrong leg! Look, it's on the wrong leg, no wonder it can't go round the corner!" she says, biting her lower lip. For a moment, she looks less like a Queen than an excited little girl.

Elizabeth's love of horses began, of course, when she was just a little girl. (At age 4, she and her sister Margaret received a Shetland pony named Peggy from her father, King George VI.) Today, it infuses almost every aspect of the Queen's life. "She's an out-and-out horse addict," says Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound, the oldest equestrian magazine in the United Kingdom. That love will be on full display at this weekend's Jubilee celebrations commemorating her 60 years on the throne. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any land-based Jubilee activity — from the Epsom Derby to the Royal Procession — that doesn't involve the Queen's favorite hooved creatures.

On Saturday, the Queen will burst out of the starting gates with a visit to the Epsom Derby, one of the three horse events she attends every year without fail (the other two are Royal Ascot and the Royal Windsor Horse Show). On Tuesday, Windsor Grey and Cleveland Bay horses from the Royal Mews will pull the Royal Procession through London. Then there's the Trooping the Color, a ceremony performed by British cavalry regiments, outside the Horse Guards Parade in London on Saturday, the Queens Cup polo match at Windsor Park on Sunday, and then the Royal Ascot races on the following Tuesday, where the Queen has traditionally presented the Gold Cup trophy for decades.

Horses, horses everywhere. And really it's no wonder, given the long-standing role of horses as a symbol of royal prestige. (Where would Van Dyke have been if he couldn't paint the reedy Charles I on a massive charger?) Certainly equestrianism has been a mainstay of the British aristocracy for centuries — it shapes their dress, their pastimes, and even, some would say, their looks. (Hence the stereotypical "horsey" posh girl: big-nosed and toothy.) The British royal family — the most aristocratic of all — is certainly not any different: the Queen's late mother was crazy for National Hunt racing, her daughter Princess Anne and granddaughter Zara Phillips both became world-class event riders, and her grandsons William and Harry are masters on the polo pitch. If you don't love horses, the wisdom goes, you're not a true blue blood. (A funny coincidence, then, that the "common" Kate Middleton is rumored to be allergic.)

Yet, as great a role as horses play in the Queen's public life, they serve an even more important function for her personally. "She rides for pleasure," says Higginson, noting her famous riding quirk — her refusal to wear a helmet, preferring a silk scarf. Since the stout little Peggy, the Queen has had a succession of favorite riding horses. In the 1950s, it was a ticklish mare called Betsy. In the 1970s and '80s, it was Burmese, a gift from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whom she rode in 18 consecutive Trooping the Color ceremonies and, famously, on a ride with then-President Ronald Regan in 1982. Her last riding horse was Sanction — the two had such a bond she claimed he was near-telepathic and buried him in the grounds at Windsor in 2002. Since then, the Queen has switched to ponies, and currently rides a Highland named Melody and a Fell pony named Carltonlima Emma.

Alongside her personal riding horses, the Queen owns 25 to 30 racing horses, as well as countless others that have been given to her as gifts, including two elegant Haflingers from Austria in 1969 and a rare white Lipizzaner stallion presented to her by Slovenia in 2008. She also, unsurprisingly, is intensely preoccupied with breeding. "She is fascinated with bloodlines," says Higginson, noting that she meticulously pairs thoroughbreds at the Royal Stud at Sandringham, Shetland ponies at Balmoral in Scotland, and Fell ponies at Hampton Court. "The pleasure for her is in producing a beautiful animal." Her racing thoroughbreds are broken by American Monty Roberts whom she invited to work for her in 1989. Since then, he makes at least five visits to the U.K. every year to oversee the Queen's training operations, chatting with Her Majesty every evening about the animals' progress. She keeps a hand in with all her trainers, in fact: Henrietta Knight, who trains the Queen's National Hunt racers, said the Queen was in touch often. "We would talk about them a lot. I'd write her a lot of letters and she would reply with such lovely letters."

The Queen loves to see her racehorses compete, and was once a major player in British racing, with victories at all the country's major races (known as classics) except the Epsom Derby. In recent years, however, she's been eclipsed by the might of wealthy horse enthusiasts from the Middle East, who now own most of the studs in England. (Despite her horse Carleton House running in the Derby last year, the Queen will not have a horse in the race this Saturday. Instead, she will spend the day touring the paddock and chatting with trainers before watching the race.)

It's clear, however, that the Queen isn't in it just to win. Racing, breeding and riding let her forget she's different for a moment. "I suppose that had she not been Queen she'd liked to have been a nice horsey lady with lots of dogs and horses," says Higginson. "She's got so much else in her life to concentrate on I think this is her way of being a bit normal." It's a funny world to inhabit where owning animals worth thousands of pounds is a way of achieving normalcy. But Higginson says for wealthy Brits, it's a way of fitting in. "If you're English and well-heeled it's an incredibly normal thing to do with your spare time."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that horse trainer Monty Roberts was widely known as the inspiration for The Horse Whisperer.