The Queen’s face was split into the most enormous grin, her hands clasped at her chest in a gesture of pure unbridled joy as she sat in the Royal Box, wrapped in her elegant sparkling dove grey shawl at the Platinum Jubilee event, ‘A Gallop Through History’ at The Royal Windsor Horse Show earlier this month. But it wasn’t the surprise suave black-tie appearance of Hollywood smoothie, Tom Cruise that set Her Majesty’s eyes alight that evening. Oh no, it was the sight of over 500 magnificent horses taking centre stage at the event which traced British history through its two famous monarchs – from Elizabeth I to our 96-year-old monarch - that so clearly delighted and visibly moved Her Majesty to tears.
And I don’t blame her! The Queen, whose lifelong passion for horses is well-known, had her first riding lesson at the age of three and was given her first pony, a Shetland mare, by her grandfather, King George V when she turned four. And her latest official birthday portrait, at the age of 96 shows her flanked by two of her beloved grey Fell ponies, Bybeck Nightingale and Bybeck Katie with flowing white manes, against a backdrop of flowering magnolia. She’s personally bred racehorses, carriage horses, hunters, sports, and riding horses, and polo ponies, when back in the day, The Duke of Edinburgh played at a very high level. She’s been ranked as among the top breeders in the UK, and until only very recently has been spotted out and about in Windsor Great Park on her fabulously hairy black Fell pony, Carltonlima Emma. It’s been said that the races at Royal Ascot are the first engagement to go in her diary at the start of every year to ensure nothing clashes. And believe it or not, she used to race at Ascot as well – as members of the Royal Family used to compete on its track prior to the official races! When she was younger, the Queen used to join the Trooping the Colour military parade on horseback, wearing ceremonial uniform as she rode side-saddle. For 18 years straight, she most famously rode her beloved stunning black mare, Burmese, who was presented to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1969 - who is now buried in the grounds at Windsor – a most unusual and touching honour. She looks her happiest and relaxed best when she’s pictured beside a horse – any horse - with one of her famous silk head scarves knotted beneath her chin and a pair of sturdy unpretentious leather shoes on her feet.
Horses and ponies wove their equine magic on me as a young girl too. My sister and I would ride our scruffy ponies for miles around the Devon countryside together, taking off for hours, exploring hidden farm tracks. We’d drag old moss-covered logs from the hedgerows and jump them, carefree and whooping aloud. And to this day there is nothing more joyous than clip-clopping down a country lane, a pair of pricked ears providing the perfect aperture for the banks of nodding, blousy cow parsley, peppered with buttery cowslips, and fuchsia pink campion blooms. A visceral connection to nature is even more pronounced on horseback. The other day, when out on a hack, with the scent of crushed wild garlic underfoot, I came across a young lone deer grazing in a clearing. She raised her head and calmly watched us with enormous chocolate puddled eyes, her satellite dish ears flickering gently. To her, I was simply another animal. Had I been on foot, she would have leapt away, white tail bobbing in panic. It was a beautiful moment. Even the smell of a horse is intoxicating. To me, they smell like a glorious concoction of sunshine, fresh grass, earth, dust, and polished leather.
The Queen’s enduring love of horses has remained a constant throughout her 70-year reign – a reign that has seen so much change, both here and around the world. The British Empire still had colonies, and the World Wide Web would not be invented for decades after her coronation. There had never been a female prime minister, and all the countries in Europe still had their own forms of currency! And yet, her steadfast connection to horses has remained firm and true to this day.
Tula Goodwin lives in Wiltshire. She is a PR Consultant, writer & mother to three daughters and a lover of horses.