Equestrianism: The princess & the pauper

Veronica Lee meets the Traveller who is taking on Royalty
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As they move around the course at the Badminton horse trials this week it will be hard to distinguish between them. Both have natural gifts as horsewomen and the will to win for Britain. But when they pack up to go home, the gulf between the two will be all too obvious. While Zara Phillips loads her mounts into a £250,000 horsebox and heads home to 800 acres in Gloucestershire, Phoebe Buckley's horse, Frostie, will be packed into a second-hand horsebox before she goes home to a log cabin built by her dad on a Travellers' site.

It is safe to assume that Buckley is unique among competitors in the 60-year history of the Badminton horse trials. Most of her fellow riders come from well-off families who underwrite their careers. Buckley has had to combine competing with earning a living. The engaging 24-year-old is at pains to say how unstuffy her fellow competitors are. She is unfazed by instances of snootiness in the past: "Then again, I'm quite good at not hearing what I don't want to hear."

She even has some sympathy for Phillips. "She's under a lot more pressure. If she does well, then people say it's because she's rich, and if she doesn't do well they'll say, 'Why isn't she winning with all that backing she has?' But horses are great levellers; they don't care whether they have come out of a quarter-million-pound lorry or a trailer. If they get injured, no amount of money can replace them there and then."

Buckley has overcome a different set of assumptions. "I don't see it as pressure, but if I do well, maybe it can change the way people think about Travellers. It's like with those who instantly assume that trouble with gangs or guns involves black people – we're so often portrayed in a negative light and it's just another form of racism."

Buckley is a natural horsewoman who came to riding relatively late, at the age of 11. "It was watching If Wishes Were Horses on TV that did it." She started out on horses (which she rode bareback) on the site in Willingham in Cambridgeshire, where her parents settled after a life on the road. Only recently did they get permanent status and Buckley's father built a log-cabin home, where Buckley lives with her parents.

"It took 18 years to be allowed to build a more permanent dwelling," she said. "On one hand, people don't want Travellers travelling around, but on the other, they don't want to allow them to live somewhere properly."

Buckley's parents support her as much as they can but cannot afford to underwrite her costs. In the past she received Lottery funding for young riders, but is currently not on the scheme. "It's a very complicated process, which involves not just your riding and results, but interviews and such. I might get funding in the future, who knows?"

Her achievement is all the more remarkable as she started doing formal training only a few years ago. But in a sport where riders usually reach their peak in their thirties, this is already her fourth Badminton and she hopes for a top-20 finish.