Pamela Carruthers: Show jumping course designer

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The Independent Online

Pamela Carruthers had a profound influence on show jumping courses in many parts of the world. Having started through the usual route of designing for novice horses, she had caught the attention of the late Douglas Bunn when he was preparing to open the All England Show Jumping Course at Hickstead in West Sussex and she readily accepted his invitation to help design the fences for this bold concept. Together they designed the fences (both permanent and moveable) as well as the course for the inaugural British Jumping Derby in 1961. Carruthers was there when Hickstead opened in 1960 and she remained as senior course designer for almost 30 years.

The reputation she established through her work at Hickstead soon brought Carruthers invitations from other parts of the world. She was in particular demand at major venues in the United States, where she became the first non-resident to be elected to the American Show Jumping Hall of Fame. She also helped to establish the permanent show ground at Calgary in Canada, where Ron Southern was inspired to set up the wonderful facilities at Spruce Meadows in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Southern had conceived the idea after seeing Bunn's venture in action at Hickstead.

Pamela Carruthers was born in Edinburgh in 1916, three months before her father (an officer in the Indian army) was killed in action on the Western Front. She took to riding at an early age – so much so that her mother was hoping that she would forget horses when she was sent to a finishing school in Paris. Fortunately for the show jumping world, her mother's plans backfired.

While she was in France, Pamela Torrie (as she then was) managed to secure a place on a riding course at the renowned Cavalry School of Equitation at Saumur. When her mother sent her money to buy a fur coat, she used it to purchase a horse instead. She also took mental note of the show jumping courses in France, which were far more subtle and imaginative than those in Britain. This was to stand her in good stead in future years.

She opened a riding school in Dumfriesshire after her return home before marrying RAF officer Huw Carruthers in 1939 and moving south to Wiltshire, where the couple bought a farm. By then, the young Mrs Carruthers was beginning to enjoy success in showing classes, which were to provide one of the highlights of her life when her cob, Benjamin, won the 1947 Supreme Riding Horse Championship at the Royal International Horse Show at White City. A significant low point was to follow when the horse was found to be poisoned. Carruthers assumed that it had been done by a jealous rival, but the culprit was never found.

Though the cob survived, the incident left a sour taste. She decided to quit showing and concentrate instead on jumping. Carruthers, who was runner-up to Ireland's Iris Kellett in the 1949 Queen's Cup at White City, competed internationally for a couple of years. But she was thwarted by the rule that debarred women riders from Nations Cup competitions. It meant that she often had to lend her good young horse to a male member of the British team, which irked her. So she abandoned the international scene and turned her attention to novice horses. The good young horse was Galway Boy, who went on to achieve further success with Irishman Seamus Hayes (winner of the inaugural British Jumping Derby at Hickstead) and later with Britain's Alan Oliver.

Carruthers was to find that many of the courses built for novices were simply dreadful. The discovery naturally led this feisty lady into designing them herself. She proved strong enough to follow her own convictions, but humble enough to learn by her mistakes.

"We all make mistakes sometimes," she said back in the 1970s. "They are particularly painful for those of us who design show jumping courses, because we then have to suffer through the entire competition. The worst kind of mistake is when a problem fence proves more troublesome than you had anticipated. We have to be prepared to learn all the time."

She also had to learn how to cope on limited finance after the farm – and her marriage – floundered, leaving her with two sons to bring up on a limited budget. Fortunately her course- designing work was expanding, with invitations from all corners of the world beginning to arrive at her home near Castle Combe in Wiltshire. In later years she could be seen striding around some of the finest arenas in the world with a cheerful demeanour, measuring stick in hand. She was assistant course designer for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and was technical delegate (with the responsibility of approving the show jumping courses) in Seoul 12 years later.

Three of the course designers who are qualified to officiate at the Olympics – two Britons, Jon Doney and Richard Jeffery, plus Linda Allen of the United States – were trained by Carruthers. Doney has since passed his knowledge on to Bob Ellis, the only other Briton on that exclusive list. The Carruthers influence lives on.

Genevieve Murphy

Pamela Isobel Torrie, show jumping course designer: born Edinburgh 11 August 1916; married 1939 Hew Carruthers (marriage dissolved, two sons); died 23 September 2009.