The news of the passing of HRH Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 at the age of 96 reverberated around the globe. The much-loved and respected monarch was the epitome of grace, steadfastness, and hard work, having served 70 years and 214 days as the longest sitting sovereign in British history, and who marked her Platinum Jubilee this year.
As countless tributes pour in from politicians, celebrities, members of the public, and those who worked at one of her numerous charitable endeavours, another aspect of Queen Elizabeth’s life has also garnered its share of media attention: her passion for horses.
According to various accounts, the Queen was believed to have begun riding at the age of three and was given her first pony when she was four. The pony was named Peggy, a gift from her father, King George V. It’s also been documented that when Princess Elizabeth was 12, she and her sister Princess Margaret were having two riding lessons a week. One source quotes her riding coach, a gentleman by the name of Horace Smith, as saying of the young woman he knew would one day be Queen, “had she not been who she was, she would like to be a lady living in the country with lots of horses and dogs.”
Her particular passion was for thoroughbred horse racing and breeding, and in this she proved to have great success with over 1,600 winners coming from the Royal Mews at such iconic racetracks as Royal Ascot and Newmarket.
Closer to home we have the Queen’s Plate, run every year at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto. The storied race was born out of the Toronto Turf Club lobbying Queen Victoria for a gift or prize for an annual race to improve the thoroughbred stock in Ontario. Her Majesty donated a plate and 50 guineas for the 1 ¼-mile race, which was first run in 1860. In 1901 it became known as the King’s Plate, and was changed once Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952 and has remained the Queen’s Plate since. Her Majesty has attended the race on the few occasions she was in Canada for official duties, including in 1973 (see video below). We assume the historic race may be reverted back to The King’s Plate in 2023, but no official word has been announced.
Queen Elizabeth II attending the Queen’s Plate horse race in 1973. Named now as the King’s Plate. pic.twitter.com/lLHaPiYAnr
— Old Toronto Series (@oldTOseries) September 8, 2022
The Queen also loved horse shows and was seen during her Platinum Jubilee earlier this year at Royal Windsor Horse Show watching her own Fell pony win a class, as well as her granddaughter, Lady Louise Windsor, in a driving class. The Royal Windsor Horse Show has been held since 1943 and the Queen has never missed one. During the same month, where her ongoing mobility issues and health restraints curbed her public appearances, she managed to be present to accept a Karabakh horse from Azerbaijan, a breed used in endurance races. In both these instants one could see the pure joy on Her Majesty’s face simply by being around the animals she’d loved her whole life.
One horse, however, became her special mount and whenever the Queen was asked if she had a favorite horse, she would say, “Burmese.” Burmese, who was foaled in Saskatchewan, was given to the Queen in 1969 as a gift from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Queen rode the stunning black mare during 18 Trooping the Colour parades, including during the infamous ‘assassination attempt’ where blanks were fired at her. Both the Queen and Burmese handled the incident with skill and grace.
The horse passed away in 1990 and so loved was the mare that the Queen made the unusual decision to bury the horse on the grounds of Windsor Park. To further commemorate the bond she shared with the animal, the Queen gifted a handcrafted rocking horse dedicated to Burmese to the RCMP as part of her 90th birthday celebration. There is also a bronze statue of Burmese and the Queen in Regina, SK, that her Majesty unveiled during an official visit in 2005.
The Queen also was interested in alternative training methods and over the years she befriended famed American cowboy trainer Monty Roberts. He first demonstrated his training on the Queen’s horses in 1989. According to an interview Roberts gave the New York Times a few days following the Queen’s passing, he recalled how following this demonstration, when he was back home in California, his phone rang at 2:30 am. It was Her Majesty calling to ask Roberts to recommend a horse trainer in the UK who used his methods. Terry Pendry was the name given, and he was hired by the Queen immediately.
In the NYT article, Roberts says he then traveled to England several times a year, always having an audience with the Queen to advise her on the training of her horses. But their chats extended sometimes to the issues she was having with her famous corgi dogs. Anytime Queen Elizabeth was around horses, she came under a sense of calm, even grooming the horses herself, Roberts told the NY Times, “When the queen was with horses, she was a horse person,” Roberts said. “She didn’t want to be the Queen.”
In 2011, Monty Roberts was made an honorary member of the Royal Victorian Order for his service to the royals and the family racing business.
The Queen was married to the love of her life, Prince Philip, for 74 years through thick and thin, success and scandal. Perhaps one key to their marital longevity was a shared love of horses. Prince Philip, who died in 2021 at the age of 99, was himself an expert horseman and was the longest-serving president of the FEI (1964-1986). His own passion was in competing in, and developing, the sport of driving, which according to the FEI, the Prince was instrumental in bringing into the organization. He was also part of the gold-medal winning team at the 1980 World Driving Championship as well as being part of the team which took bronze in 1978, 1982 and 1984. His highest rank was an individual sixth place in 1982. Prince Philip also was a big supporter of FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series and helped create the FEI World Equestrian Games™. His role at the FEI was taken up by his daughter Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, for another eight years after he stepped down.
Naturally, given the equestrian pursuits of the Queen and Prince Philip, it only stood to reason that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, or mounting block as it were. Princess Anne rode for Team Britain at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal in the three-day-event, where her family cheered her on. Anne’s daughter, and purported favourite granddaughter of the Queen, Zara Tindall (Phillips), carries on the equestrian tradition and is a World Champion in the three-day-event. King Charles and his sons, the Prince of Wales and Prince Harry, were all avid polo players. And as mentioned earlier, Lady Louise Windsor, the daughter of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, has inherited the carriages and carriage horses of her late grandfather.
Since her passing, many members of the public have asked what will become of all the Queen’s horses now? It is said she owned approximately 100 horses at the time of her death. The UK press have quoted several sources including royal author Claudia Joseph who said, “It is likely that the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, and [Anne’s] daughter, Zara, who were both Olympic equestrians and well-known horse lovers, are likely to be involved in what happens next to the queen’s animals.”
Whether that means the stable stays put, or a Royal horse auction occurs, remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: the Queen has left behind a lasting legacy in the horse world.