It has been a difficult day already for Pippa Funnell, one of Britain’s most successful three-day event riders. I’ve arrived at her Surrey stables for a dressage masterclass, only to discover that Supreme Rock, a horse that she rode to equestrian stardom, has had to be put to sleep. After an early morning ride to shed her tears in private, Funnell has composed herself and is ready to greet me.
“I’m not going to cry again. He lived to be 25 and had an amazing life – no other horse achieved what he did in 2003,” says Funnell. Ten years ago, Supreme Rock was one of the horses she rode to victory at Badminton, Burghley and Kentucky horse trials in the same year, and she became the only person ever to win the sport’s most prestigious prize, the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing. It’s a feat that William Fox-Pitt will try to match when he competes at Badminton next month for $350,000 in prize money. Funnell will be there too, hoping to win her fourth Badminton title.
Eventing consists of three disciplines – showjumping, cross-country and dressage. Today, Funnell has invited me to try dressage on Billy Beware. The nine-year-old gelding could be the horse she rides at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, if she is selected for the British team. Funnell looked a certainty for the 2012 Olympics, until ill-timed injury to her horses forced withdrawal. “I didn’t think I would be able to watch in London because I was so gutted but, of course, I did. The team performed incredibly well to win silver but it didn’t ease the pain of not being with them.”
It’s early April and snow has started to fall at Funnell’s stables. A bitter wind is driving flakes across the dressage arena, which has spooked Billy Beware, who is living up to his name. I’ve ridden before but never dressage, where I’m about to discover that the horses are set on a hair trigger that can be set off by the slightest of movements. Slipping on to the saddle, I casually slide a leg backwards so that Funnell can adjust the stirrup length, inadvertently giving the horse a signal to set off.
Fortunately, Funnell also has a grip of the reins and I manage to jump off, without falling face first into the sand. “What you did wrong was tap his side with your heel. In dressage, movement by the rider is kept to the barest minimum – so the slightest pressure on his flank tells the horse that you want him to move off. This isn’t a trekking pony, it’s the Formula One of equestrian. Every touch you make will have an input on what the horse does next.”
We transfer into a smaller ring, where Funnell can keep Billy Beware on a long rein as I try to maintain control. I’m working to keep shoulders, knees and feet in a straight, vertical line, which gives me better balance and stability. Walking the horse at a good pace and maintaining my posture is easy but it all goes wrong when I trot and Billy Beware suddenly breaks into a full-on canter.
“Don’t grip him so hard with your legs because that’s like pressing the accelerator. Loosen up on the reins – the horse is confused because you are asking him to go with your feet but also telling him to stop by pulling the reins,” says Funnell. Far from being the gentle trot around an arena that I had envisaged, dressage is the hardest form of riding I’ve ever done.
Funnell, who is 44, has a lifetime’s experience behind her. At 16, she persuaded her parents to let her leave school and join Ruth McMullen’s stables in Norfolk. She spent eight years with the celebrated trainer, often riding 10 horses a day and winning European Young Rider of the Year when she was 19. She was crowned European Champion in 1999 and again in 2001, both times on Supreme Rock. Then she was part of the GB team that won silver at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and again at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
“Dressage is all about self-discipline and that comes with years of experience,” Funnell tells me as we take a break in the ring. “I enjoy the challenge of training a young horse to a high standard but of the three eventing disciplines, it’s the one I enjoy the least. I much prefer to be pushing a horse to its limits cross-country, or clearing showjumps. That’s what makes the sport so thrilling and difficult – combining the gung-ho riding with the delicate nature of dressage.”
In 2005 Funnell was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours. She and her husband, international rider William Funnell, now run one of Britain’s largest studs for sports horses. “All the trophies don’t make any difference to my daily routine. I spent my Rolex Grand Slam winnings on a new horse box and I’m still out riding in all weathers because I love it.”
With Funnell holding the long rein, we set off slowly again around the ring. My balance feels perfect and I gently nudge Billy Beware’s flank to up the pace. Trying to follow Funnell’s instructions, I tap harder with my heel to signal a trot, provoking an instant response from the horse. His trot develops quickly into a slow-motion canter that again has me scrambling for grip. Funnell tries to control the horse with the rein but I can feel myself falling forward as I career towards the side barrier.
To stop myself falling, I have Billy Beware in a full neck embrace that at least prevents an embarrassing tumble. It’s not the horse’s fault, of course; he’s used to an experienced rider who can pass on the correct instruction with the deftest of touches. That isn’t me.
Sipping tea in the warmth of her farmhouse kitchen, Funnell explains why dressage is so misunderstood. “A lot of people think the horse is trained to dance to the music in a dressage arena. They honestly believe that the rider just sits there and does nothing. You’ve seen today how wrong that is, it’s horse and rider working in perfect harmony. It’s a lifetime of dedication.”
Funnell politely praises my efforts but she and the horse know one thing for certain – I haven’t ridden dressage before and never will again.
Badminton Horse Trials, Gloucestershire, May 2-6; www.badminton-horse.co.uk