Fancy that... show jumping stars in comical attire

Growing up as a pony mad child the most exciting thing about Christmas was Olympia. Watching the highlights on an evening with its prime time BBC slot was always a treat, if I behaved myself and sat very quietly pretending not to be there I might be lucky enough to see it through to the end before being sent up to bed.

We didn’t have a video so if you missed it your chance was gone. I was desperate to watch my heroes in action. It was where my dream, and those of many other girls, began.

When I got a little older my mother treated me to a day trip to London. The highlight would be getting to watch the big names of show jumping in action in the festive jovial atmosphere that only Olympia captures. I would wait near the collecting ring entrance, grasping my autograph book and pony pen, desperate for someone... anyone in breeches to walk passed and sign it. If it was someone I recognised like Caroline Bradley or the dashing star Peter Murphy I was in seventh heaven.

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My parents may well look back and rue the day they treated me to that first trip south but from my initial visit to the grand arena my mind was made up. I wanted to jump horses for a living, and win. On my bedroom wall were posters of David Broome, Ryan’s Son and, of course, Harvey Smith flicking his infamous V sign.

We cheered at the Shetland pony Grand National, gasped at the puissance competition and thrilled at the pony jumping and there was always Santa on his sleigh to round up the day’s events. It was, and still is, a very special experience.

The most entertaining competition of all was the fancy dress pairs relay. It was the highlight of the week and as tickets were at a premium I would be watching closely on TV. It was brilliant to see the usually serious riders dress up in ridiculous costumes and act out riotous comedy sketches to entertain the crowd. During the 80s and 90s John Whitaker in particular took it upon himself to appear annually as some well-known buxom babe donning a dress, fishnets and full make-up if he could get away with it. His personal take on Madonna even included conical boobs.

Given a chance to show their fun side turned the riders in to celebrities at a time when the sport was still at its peak. Every man in the street knew of Harvey Smith (and still does). How many non-horsey folk would be capable of naming one show jumper in the top 100 today I wonder? The day of the show jumping celebrity has long since passed and the sport is supported by a minority of hardcore followers. It would be wonderful if the class were to be reintroduced allowing the next generation of pony mad children the chance to see our sombre faced heroes light hearted side. Olympia can still be viewed on terrestrial TV (via the red button). Whilst searching for my favourite past clips on the internet recently I came across a wonderful old film on You Tube from the 1960’s about keeping a horse which followed the great Douglas Bunn and Beethoven. Their immaculate attire and simple tack were without a single fancy gadget, showing us up to be somewhat shallowly driven by fad or fashion in today’s world.

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