BOOK OF THE WEEK; Bruising tales of a resilient rider

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The Independent Online
All The Kings' Horses Mary King and Annie Collings with Debbie Sly (David and Charles, hardback, pounds 15.99)

Back in 1960 three-day eventing was thought to be too tough for women to compete in the Olympic Games. How could a chef d'equipe (so the argument went) tell a woman to get back in the saddle after a heavy fall and carry on? Reading All The Kings' Horses you begin to wonder how anyone would have had the temerity to stop them.

At Badminton in 1986 Mary Thompson (now Mrs King and with her husband, David, bearing the name referred to in the title) was knocked out cold for 20 minutes after a fall at the Normandy Bank. When she regained consciousness she took it for granted that she would ride her other horse, King Cuthbert, over the same course later that day. Fortunately, the powers-that-be did stop her on that occasion.

Many other triumphs of hope over experience are chronicled in this enjoyable tribute to the Kings' horses, past and present. Mary's perseverance with Star Appeal, the horse she will be riding in the Badminton Horse Trials which begin on Thursday, is a case in point. Last year "Apple" (as he is known in his stable) gave King two heavy falls. At Badminton he clobbered the very first fence and she was "torpedoed into the ground"; at Bramham he ran away with her.

"Any influence I might have had over him quickly vanished, and finally he was just running through the bridle and getting stronger and faster the further he went," King recalls of her Bramham ride. Eventually her horse ran "so fast and flat" into an upright gate "that he simply didn't get high enough to clear it... he stayed on his feet but I was somersaulted through the air."

A few months later - with a combination noseband and Dutch gag with Waterford mouthpiece to give her more effective brakes - King rode Star Appeal to victory at Burghley. "I was so thrilled for him; he has had so many false starts in his career, but this time it all came together," King told Debbie Sly, who wrote the book with the help of the Kings' head groom, Annie Collings, as well as Mary herself. Gill Robinson, part-owner of most of the horses, also has her say.

Emily, with whom King was five months pregnant when she rode on the winning team for the 1995 European Open Championships, naturally appears in a few of the photographs with her smiling and courteous mother. King says that motherhood has done nothing to diminish her competitive spirit; her sights are already "set firmly on the Sydney Olympics in 2000".

In the meantime, King has an important date at Badminton this week and a chance to add to her remarkable run of three-day event victories, which include Burghley and Blenheim last autumn and Saumur last month. The Kings' horses are now looking for yet another crown.