Equestrian athlete Zara Tindall on the inspiring women and horses in her life

The Olympian reflects on her successful career as an equestrian athlete, her once-in-a-lifetime horse, Toytown, and the women she looks up to

Zara Tindall at Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Courtesy Rolex
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Even members of the sporting elite need role models. And for Zara Tindall, one of Britain’s top equestrian athletes, that role model was Pat Smythe. “I can remember reading about Pat Smythe when I was a child,” Tindall recalls. “She was highly regarded in Britain, and the inspiration for a lot of young women who went on to become top riders. She was one of the first to establish a path for women in the sport, and to prove that equestrianism had the global popularity to be massively successful.”

Smythe was the first woman to travel the world competing internationally, winning major Grand Prix events on her own horses in more countries than any man or woman had ever done before. In 1956, she became the first woman to ride in an Olympic showjumping event and the first to win a medal. In addition to blazing a trail for female athletes, in 1957, Smythe also became the first equestrian Rolex Testimonee – a further mark of her success. The concept of Testimonees came about in 1927, when Mercedes Gleitze crossed the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster, the world's first waterproof wristwatch. Since then, Rolex has championed athletes across a range of sporting disciplines.  

There is a neat symmetry in the fact that Tindall went on to also become a Rolex Testimonee, in 2006, the same year that she won an individual gold and team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen.

Zara Phillips, professional rider. She is wearing the Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust. Rolex/Reto Albertalli

One of the other unarguable highlights of Tindall's career was winning a team silver at the 2012 London Olympics. In this, she followed in the footsteps of not only her idol Smythe, but of her own parents as well. Her father, Captain Mark Phillips, won team gold at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, while her mother, Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, rode for Team Great Britain at the 1976 Olympics, becoming the first member of the British royal family to compete in the Olympic Games.

“Riding in London was very special for me – especially in front of a home crowd,” Tindall recalls. “Great Britain won team silver, and I was presented with the medal by my mother, due to her role as president of the British Olympic Association.”

Given her pedigree, Tindall’s chosen career path is hardly surprising, she admits. “With my parents excelling in equestrian sport, it was probably inevitable that I would end up involved one day.”

She first came to the attention of the eventing world with victory as a junior rider at the Under-25 Championship and an individual silver medal at the European Young Riders Championship. In June 2003, at the age of just 22, she finished as runner-up at the Burghley Horse Trials in the United Kingdom.

As with many leading equestrians, Tindall attributes much of her early success to her horse at the time, a handsome chestnut gelding called Toytown. "I think the best advice I was given was to try and build a strong bond with your horse. Over the years, this has helped in my career, and it is still relevant today.

“Toytown was a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” she continues. “He wasn’t the most natural eventer at the start, but as our relationship grew, success followed. You ride horses and hope they have the potential to make it – Toytown just excelled in every area and we went from strength to strength.”

Of course, as with any sporting career, there have been as many lows as there have been highs – most notably in 2008, when Tindall was selected to ride for Great Britain at the Beijing Olympic Games, but was forced to withdraw when Toytown suffered a training injury. "There are more low points than highs with horses, so it makes the high points even more special. Injuries happen all the time and there's very little you can do about it," she says.

Toytown was retired in 2011, leaving Tindall to ride a new horse, High Kingdom, in the 2012 Olympic Games. The duo went on to win team silver at the World Equestrian Games in August 2014 – a particularly impressive achievement given that Tindall's daughter, Mia, was born in January, just seven months before the games.

“What surprised me about having a baby is losing all your fitness, and how tough it is to get it back to a high level again. I do have help with Mia, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to ride. Eventing is physically demanding, but I try to do extra exercise, like swimming and cycling, to stay fit.

“The eventing circuit is great for children and families, so I expect Mia will grow up with horses around her – just like her mum.”


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