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Winston's gallop to glory

Sunday Times, 8 October 2017

Young Winston thought he was too feeble at Sandhurst until his horsemanship launched him into a life of military and political adventure, writes Brough Scott.

One of the forgotten facts about Winston Churchill is how much he was involved with riding and horses. It helped to shape his life, it certainly saved his life on at least two occasions and, since it was a bumpy pony-trap trip back from a Blenheim park shooting party that brought on Jennie Churchill’s premature labour on November 30, 1874, we can even say it started his life. 

His first letter to his mother says proudly of his pony: “I rode Robroy today round the park and rode him all by myself in the school.” He rode more extensively than any prime minister before or since. He rode in England, Ireland, France, Spain, Moravia, Malta, India, the North West Frontier, South Africa, Cuba and Canada. He rode in a steeplechase at Tweseldown, Hampshire, in the hunting field, on the polo ground and most famously, in 1898, in a full-on, 400-horse, blood and sword and bullets cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan. Horses were his escape in childhood, his challenge in youth, his triumph in sport, his transport in war and his diversion in dotage. 

For Churchill this was much more than the standard occupation of the young aristocrats of an era when the first motorcar would not be seen on a British highway until 1894. Horses and riding offered him the chance to prove his courage and to strengthen his fairly puny physique. When he arrived at Sandhurst he measured 5ft 6¾in and had a weedy 31in chest. “I am cursed with so feeble a frame,” he wrote to his mother within a fortnight of enrolment, “that I can hardly support the fatigues of the day” and indeed a month later he was carried off the parade ground after collapsing under his equipment.

His plan was clear. By excelling at riding he would ensure his place in the cavalry where he would have a chance at the sort of glory that could gain him medals and fame for a future political career. To that end he buckled down to his riding lessons to such an extent that he passed out second of 127 cadets in Sandhurst’s all-day final riding exam, by far his best placing in any subject. “I am awfully pleased with the result,” he wrote to his ailing father.

Armed with this growing equestrian confidence and with his own quite astonishing energy and chutzpah, nothing seemed beyond the young Winston. He not only worked his way into a place in the 4th Hussars polo team but also got himself seconded to theatres of war for both action and newspaper reporting in Cuba, the Hindu Kush and Sudan. By the time he was posted to South Africa he was the highest-paid reporter on the campaign. There he escaped death by vaulting up behind the saddle of a rescuer near Dewetsdorp and trekking 400 miles with General Hamilton from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg.

His polo career continued until he was 50. He was still playing when he was made chancellor of the exchequer. Mind you, this is the same man who, as home secretary in 1911, led a 1,200-horse gallop of Oxfordshire Yeomanry past a reviewing general in Blenheim park. As for the chase, he was at one stage so keen on foxhunting that he kept four hunters for himself to ride and got ticked off by his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, who wrote: “I consider your arrangements needlessly expensive.”

Churchill’s ever-fragile finances soon clipped those particular wings but for a long time he liked nothing better than a trip to hunt wild boar near Dieppe at the Château de Saint-Saëns as guest of his friend the Duke of Westminster where fellow riders could include Coco Chanel and Charlie Chaplin. In December 1936 Winston even suggested that the newly abdicated Edward VIII might give it a try. “I do not know if your RH has ever hunted the boar,” Churchill wrote. “It is pretty good sport, and I like it because although there is a great deal of rough and tricky riding through woodland and up and down hill, there are no fences to jump.”

During the war years, understandably, the saddles were of a different kind but in October 1946 a circus owner brought two white Lipizzaners round to Chartwell and after taking a quick canter a beaming Churchill said: “I am still the man I was.” In November 1947 he proved it by hiring a fine-looking horse called Geronimo and going out with the Old Surrey and Burstow Hunt in solidarity with protests against the first anti-field sports bill. At that time he was leader of the opposition. It wouldn’t happen now.

On his 90th birthday a family group gathered to drink champagne and when they brought in the birthday cake it was in his chocolate and pink racing colours. I like to think of him looking at it and remembering when he watched his father’s similar silks flashing across the turf.

There were, of course, rather more important events in the life of Winston Churchill. But it would be unwise to forget how important horses were too.

Churchill at the Gallop by Brough Scott will be published on Friday by Racing Post Books at £25