Equestrianism: Riding to gold remains the bottom line

This Swedish coach can lead the nation to glory. Alan Hubbard meets the main eventers
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The Independent Online

Regular readers of Britain's leading equestrian magazine are more used to seeing colour photographs of the rear end of a horse than that of an attractive blonde bending over to display Union Jack panties and the sort of saucy smile more commonly featured on page three of the Sun rather than page 20 of Horse and Hound.

Regular readers of Britain's leading equestrian magazine are more used to seeing colour photographs of the rear end of a horse than that of an attractive blonde bending over to display Union Jack panties and the sort of saucy smile more commonly featured on page three of the Sun rather than page 20 of Horse and Hound.

It just goes to show that no sport is safe from a bit of sexing up these days when there is something to sell. In Sarah Cutteridge's case, the bottom line is to muster support for the British eventing team soon to head for the Olympic Games in Athens and of which she is a member.

Things have certainly galloped on apace since a rather po-faced Princess Anne was the horsey world's pin-up girl of the Games in Montreal 28 years ago.

Cutteridge's cheeky pose has certainly helped put a more populist slant on one of the most demanding of sports, for both horse and rider, in which Britain traditionally does rather well.

The public conception may be that it is all jolly jodhpurs and Jilly Cooper, but hopes are certainly high that 30-year-old Cutteridge and Co. will improve on the team silver medal acquired in Sydney. There may be gold in the Athenian hills, but as far as Britain is concerned it is going to take a lot of excavating. At least on current form the three-day-eventers are genuine medal prospects.

Like the England football team, they happen to have a Swedish head coach. By coincidence, Yogi Breisner was quietly appointed on the same day as Sven Goran Eriksson, but he is a far more flamboyant character than his counterpart, and it can be argued, somewhat more successful, in that that under him his team have actually won when it matters; in the last three years the seniors have won two European championships, with individual gold and bronze medals, and a silver medal at the World Equestrian Games.

If their horses remain fit, all five riders have podium potential, including newcomer Cutteridge, who once harboured ambitions to be a stuntwoman; dairy farmer's daughter Jeanette Brakewell, who is Lottery-funded; the renowned William Fox-Pitt, so tall, tanned and debonair he might have stepped straight from the pages of Riders; and the brilliant and personable Pippa Funnell, currently the world No 1.

Then there's Leslie Law, winner of the individual silver in Sydney, who also believes he has unfinished business in Athens. As an eventer, he has an untypical background. He was brought up in a terraced council house near the Welsh border in Herefordshire, and began riding as a 10-year-old with the local Pony Club.

"When I look back, I had a great childhood," he says. "You went where you wanted, when you wanted. There were no worries of abduction or anything like you have today. You climbed trees and did the usual things that kids do."

His father drove for a transport company, which he eventually bought with his savings. Neither his father nor his mother actually rode, but he learned a sense of ambition and competition from them.

He says it was the cross- country element of eventing that attracted him initially, rather than the showjumping or dressage.

"It was a bit more exciting, a bit more thrilling," he says. "But coming from a council-house situation, I never really had any Olympic aspirations. It wasn't the sort of thing you thought was achievable. But I was lucky in having some great leg-ups along the way."

An early benefactor was an American businesswoman, Revel Guest. "She taught me how to go about meeting people, vetting owners and things like that. I worked for her and she supplied the horses. Her energy was incredible. She made me realise who's out there and what is possible." Eventing, he says, "has given me the sort of life I could only have dreamed of".

Law, 38, believes the Brits have "a really good chance" of Olympic gold. "We are fortunate to have such a strong team, great depth of horses and riders," he says. "Sometimes you have the quality of riders but you don't have the horses at the time. Obviously there are other strong nations, and you need luck on the day, but I think we can be confident without being too complacent."

He has walked the cross-country course at the new Markopoulo Equestrian Centre in Athens, which he thinks is excellent. One of the biggest obstacles, besides the fences, will be the heat. To acclimatise the horses they are now being ridden at the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, instead of the traditional early morning. The horses also wear a fleece-type rug to raise the temperature and body heat. Law has also been using a heat chamber at Gloucester University to get himself "warmed up".

"In Athens, any one of six nations could walk away with the gold, more in the individual events" he says. "In the end it's about riding skill, communication with the horse and the trust you build with it." His own Olympic horse, Shear L'Eau, is now 12. He has had him since he was five and it was his full brother, Shear H2O, that he rode in Sydney.

Eventing may seem a somewhat élitist world, but its current crop are all friendly, down-to-earth folk, who might well help save Britain's blushes should the bigger, more publicised pursuits not do the business. While Cutteridge's pose may be eye-catching, there actually isn't a real poseur among them.

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