A decade has passed since Great Britain’s Georgina ‘Piggy’ French made her international breakthrough in the senior sport by winning the individual silver medal at the European Eventing Championships in Fontainebleau. It is appropriate therefore that the 38-year-old mother of one should celebrate this anniversary by winning her first-ever five-star after 25 attempts. She hoisted the iconic silverware and pocketed the £100,000 prize money offered by the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials in May after a clear show jumping round on Vanir Kamira, beating ex-boyfriend Oliver Townend by the perilous margin of 0.3 penalties. Piggy now finds herself a hot contender for eventing’s £270,000 Rolex Grand Slam, a prize won only twice since it was created in 1998.
Rewind to 2012 when Piggy was considered her country’s best hope of individual glory at the London Olympics – until her two best horses incurred last-minute injuries, robbing her of her dream and self-belief. It was a long haul back, but she has proven that the best efforts reap the best results.
What’s your daily routine like?
My alarm goes off at 6:30 on a normal day. I get up and have a coffee with a few rich tea biscuits, make a work list for the horses if I haven’t done so already, and then start riding. Sometimes I will get my son Max up and give him his breakfast, depending on what I’ve got on. I then ride until I’ve finished everything on my list and then go in to spend a bit of time with Max and do the other things like entries and speaking to owners. We usually have around 25 horses in work, so it’s a busy place and it’s really important that every horse gets the best possible care. I have a great team around me with some super riders who can keep the horses fit and well and working correctly when I’m not riding them.
How many generations of your family have been horse people?
Both my mother and grandmother were very into horses, so it has always been something I’ve had around me. My grandmother was married to the racehorse trainer Jim Powell. We had ponies at home, so I started very young and always enjoyed it and kept going. My mother was fairly fierce, so we were pretty well-drilled from the beginning!
Can you identify a turning point in your career?
Not really, to be honest. I was completely hopeless at school and always obsessed with eventing, so it was what I wanted to do. I really love working with the horses and trying to make them the best they can possibly be, so in doing that I suppose it gradually became more and more of a business until I got to where I am today.
Were sacrifices made along the way?
Again, not really for me. Eventing was really a passion of mine from a very young age and all I wanted to do. You have to work very hard to make it a successful business, but the hard work was fine as I enjoyed what I was doing. You make small sacrifices the whole time, like not being at home at weekends from March to October when everyone else who has a normal job does other stuff, but I love working with the horses, so I don’t think of it as a sacrifice.
Tell us something about yourself that would surprise people.
I hate spiders and I have a false tooth!
If you could relive a period of your life, when would that be?
I would love to go back to 2012 before the London Olympics and have the same two horses in the same form. Both Jakata and DHI Topper W felt fantastic and I really felt I could go there and win a medal for my country at a home Olympic Games, the biggest stage possible. To have that opportunity taken away from me was very hard.
Horsepower aside, is there another ingredient that gives you a competitive edge?
I think the big thing with eventing is to get to the point where your horses have complete trust in you. You see people getting cross with horses all the time when they get frustrated, but it’s not the horse’s fault. If they’re misbehaving they need telling, but it’s about building a partnership together. That takes time, a lot of work, and understanding your horse. I am very competitive by nature, but what motivates me more than that is getting the very best from a horse.
How would you describe yourself?
Anti-social but friendly? I’m not a big party person or anything, but enjoy seeing my friends. I’m naturally quite self-critical, which can be helpful as you’re always looking for things to improve, but I’m careful not to go over the top, because you have to have the self-belief that you can go and do it at the same time.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, is there another profession that would have enticed you?
No! I was eventing-mad from very young and absolutely useless at anything else, so this was the only profession for me.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Home. One of the hardest things about the sport is the travelling. It can be tiring being on the road so much. I’m a home bird at heart, though.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
The Maldives look amazing and I would love to go there just once in my life. I’d also love to do a safari in Africa when Max is a little bit older and can really appreciate it.
When and where did you last go on vacation?
I went to Spain last summer with my partner Tom, son Max, and a few friends and family. An owner has a small villa over there near Valencia, which was great. I don’t need or want ages away from the yard, but it can be nice to get a short break during the season if we have a few quiet days.
Do you have a health and fitness regimen?
Yes, but I really hate it! I have a lady called Ali Cooper who comes to the yard once a week. She’s in my phone as Ali Torture, which tells you all you need to know about what I think of it! It’s not something I enjoy, but I make the effort to do it, as I’ve definitely noticed a difference. We all spend so long worrying about whether our horses are fit enough that our own fitness can be forgotten. However, it’s a simple fact that if you’re not fit enough, then you won’t perform at your best – which means your horse can’t, either.
Can you recommend a book or movie you’ve read or seen lately?
To be honest I don’t get a chance to read or watch much. An owner of mine, Jayne McGivern, has been recommended The Jumping Game by Henrietta Knight, who visits lots of different racehorse trainers and writes about their different systems. I’m really looking forward to reading it and learning a bit about what they do and why.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I have lots! I love food, so probably chocolate, but I also love a lager and lime of an evening.
If you had a life lesson to share, what would it be?
Work hard, but remember why you started in the first place: because you love horses and working with them. You have to put the work in, but work with your horse at the same time to get the best from them. It can’t be forced.
If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?
We’re lucky to have an amazing facility for training event horses at Maidwell, but we do get some windy and wet weather in the winter, so number one, an indoor school – even a small one – would be fantastic. Number two, Tom and I would one day love to have our own farm, so that’s always something we are working towards. Tom has just started doing some breeding for show jumping through a company called March Stud, so it would be great to have the space and facilities to run that operation from home as well. Three, and most importantly, health and happiness for all my friends and family.
If you were having a dinner party and could invite four celebrity guests, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
Doing what I do and being away competing so much at weekends means seeing your own friends can be hard work. A dinner party with just my best friends with time to enjoy it and no early start the following morning would be great!
Money or medals – which is more important to you?
It must be medals, because if it was money I’d be doing something else by now!
What’s on the horizon for you in 2019?
Winning Badminton this year was a massive thing for me and I do feel like it has taken some of the pressure off. I’d been so close before, but felt like big competitions kept slipping away from me for reasons outside my control, so getting a big one under my belt has given me confidence going forward. I’d love to take Quarrycrest Echo to the Europeans if I’m selected, as representing my country is always a massive honour. Then I would plan to take Vanir Kamira back to Burghley where she’s been second and fifth the last two years and try to win that. I’m fortunate to have a lovely string of horses coming up through the grades, so it’s just a case of working with them and making them the best they can be.
Do you have a burning ambition?
I would love to go to an Olympics with a horse at the top of their game and feeling like I could win a medal. I have been very fortunate to win medals at both World and European Championships, but to go to an Olympic Games to represent Team GB would be a huge honour. It’s definitely something I have in my mind with Tokyo 2020 looming, so I will continue working hard to have myself and horses in the best possible form and hope that we get the opportunity to go. If not then, maybe Paris in 2024, but I might be getting too old after that!