16 November 2003

Grand Slam-winning eventer reflects on a year to remember

It gets to her. “People have no understanding of the emotional bond between us and our horses,” says Pippa Funnell. “After a big event the thing that gets me most emotional is when I have a quiet few minutes with them on my own. The sense of gratitude is overwhelming. They have given their all. I may sound completely pathetic …” The voice trails off. For a moment the eyes are full of tears.

Pippa is not an actress, at 35 she is the world’s leading three-day event rider who last week was looking back on a unique season when she became the first rider to win the Rolex Grand Slam, the international four-star treble at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley. Her voice has the crisp horseyness which may have to make itself heard at the other end of the yard.

Her Surrey kitchen is as big and scrubbed-pine functional as her success deserves. Yet when she talks, the sense is of concern not conceit, a reminder that this is the closest team sport of them all.

“I really believe that the most important thing is the partnership,” she says, “that you have to understand them and care for them. If I don’t do everything in my power to help and prepare them for what is a physically demanding sport, why should they get me out of trouble when the going gets tough?”

On Friday Pippa and other members of the British three-day event team were at Cheltenham as part of a fund-raising drive to back the Olympic squad’s pitch for gold at Athens next August. Such begging bowl solicitations might ring a bit hollow in a sport whose polished boot images and stately home venues can give the impression of the gentry at play. But then you spend a day at the Funnell’s unflash horse-hive of a stable looking out towards the North Downs and you wonder how other athletes have it so easy.

“If we have to go to an event in the South of France,” says Pippa, “it would be us in the lorry driving them down. Before the horses flew to Spain for the World Equestrian Games last year, we stayed up through the night at the airport to make sure that they were all right. It’s part of the deal, part of what we give to them. For they give so much to us.”

Out of the window the disembodied heads of her husband and an assistant whirl around the eye line as they take horses through the show-jumping routines which have taken William Funnell to international honours and added a bedrock of technical discipline to Pippa’s accomplishments.

The `Grand Slam’ stars, Supreme Rock and Primmore’s Pride, are out in the field on winter vacation with the other main contenders, but all morning their partner has been giving kindergarten-style instruction to three huge, still goofy-looking three-year-olds who may one day develop into the blend of muscle, power and precision which required to them through the human equivalent of ballet, mountaineering and gymnastics in one competition.

Pippa’s face is the giveaway. The chin has the rounded stubbornness you would expect from the pony-mad school lacrosse captain who, at 16, went to her family friend and mentor, Ruth McMullen, in Norfolk and within three years had won individual gold at the European Young Riders Championship in Bialy Bor, Poland, on a little roan cracker called Sir Barnaby. But the blue eyes and angled nose tilt elegantly upwards with a sensitivity which even last season was riddled with self-doubt and which makes sports psychologist Nikki Heath an equally essential part of the team.

“Before Burghley everything was getting to me,” says Pippa, “I went back to Nikki and we talked through our routines. I first went to her nearly 10 years ago. There was a long period from about 1992 when Sir Barnaby retired when I had very good results at two and three-star events but always cocked it up at the top level. Because of Ruth’s grounding I would do well in the dressage, but people would say `oh no, she won’t be there tomorrow’. I had always been ambitious but wondered whether I would ever be a top-class rider. Nikki got me believing in myself. Then Supreme Rock was sixth at Badminton and won Team Gold in the European Championships at Luhmuhlen.”

A splendid, if somewhat unimaginatively-titled video, `Road to the Top’ ( chronicles the progress from the all-action pony-club style kicker, who crammed the canny Sir Barnaby round to the poised and precise centaur who, at only 5ft 6ins, can make the huge and almost galumphing Supreme Rock into the nimble giant who skipped triumphantly round Badminton for a second time in April. “He took a long time to get himself organised,” says Pippa. “Before the 1999 Badminton I told the owner if things didn’t work out she should try a man on him. He still takes a bit of setting up but he really understands.”

The characters of her four-legged partners come crowding in. Primmore’s Pride, who did the Lexington-Burghley double and who has top-class potential – “he can be a little bit ruder; sometimes he won’t come back for a few strides when I tell him but, even as a 10-year-old, he is still relatively inexperienced at top level”. There’s Walk On Star, who, as a late substitute, went to the European Championships in September to add a team gold and an individual bronze to the two team and individual golds Pippa had won with Supreme Rock in 1999 and 2001. “I have had him as a two-year-old and he never gives you any `wow’ feel,” she says. “But every time we go up a level he matches it.”

There is Cornerman, Viceroy and Jurassic Rising. “Deciding which one goes to Athens will be difficult,” says Olympic coach Yogi Breisner. “But Pippa is a perfect mixture of competitiveness and absolute attention to detail. She is more in the meticulous mould of Ginny Leng than the panache of Lucinda Green, but what she has become is remarkable.”

We all assume that the truly wonderful Paula Radcliffe is already past the post in any race for Sportswoman of the Year. But when you consider the hours, sweat, courage and devotion that has got Pippa through the last 12 months, the issue is not so clear-cut.

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