Pippa Funnell on eventing, hacking in the Surrey Hills and Olympic dreams

Equestrian champion Pippa Funnell is back on the British eventing squad after five years’ absence and is being cited as a serious contender for the Olympics. But don’t assume she’s been idle away from the spotlight. She’s been working on a major breeding programme to produce top-class sports horses and has even become a best-selling children’s author. Here, she chats to Angela Wintle from her home in Forest Green, near Dorking

Pippa Funnell felt a curious mix of emotions when she won eventing’s most coveted prize – the Rolex Grand Slam – in 2003. The competition, in which she achieved consecutive wins at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley in dressage, cross-country and showjumping, is considered the toughest three-day eventing slam in the sporting world, and Pippa became the first and currently only person to win it.

“It may sound extraordinary, but relief was my overwhelming feeling that day because so much had been riding on it,” she says. “I was bowled over really, and everything became a bit of a blur.”

Not surprisingly, she found herself the toast of the equestrian world. She was voted Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year, nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and later awarded an MBE. She even finished 2003 as the number one ranked rider in the world.

Everybody wanted a piece of the action. She put her name to a range of computer games, designed Toggi equestrian wear and accessories, became an ambassador for Rolex and wrote her autobiography at the tender age of 35.

But success brought its own pressures. “I beat myself up more after the Grand Slam than at any other time,” she says. “It was such an exceptional year that I thought: ‘No matter what happens from now on – however well I ride – I will never have a year like that one again.’”


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At home in Surrey

Pippa, 42, is chatting to me at her home in Forest Green, near Dorking, which she shares with her international showjumping husband, William Funnell. “Until I came to live here, I never realised how beautiful the county was,” she says. “Our home, which also comprises a barn and 36 stables, nestles between Holmbury Hill and Leith Hill, and we are surrounded by fantastic hacking country.

“Surrey is perfect for us because we’re very close to a major network of motorways, but far enough away to be out of the rat race. And our village is very special. I’d hate to move away because it’s such a wonderful community – from the dustman to the postman to the plumber.”

Pippa has been absent from the top level since 2005 when she won Badminton on Primmore’s Pride, but snorts with derision when I ask whether she’s been taking it easy. She assures me that she’s been busier than ever, working with the Billy Stud, one of the UK’s largest producers of sports horses, which William and his close friend Donal Barnwell started 13 years ago.

“It’s just got bigger and bigger, and I’ve become increasingly involved. Donal does the stud work; William and I, with the help of our dedicated team, do all the producing – from three years of age upwards. Our aim is to produce top-class sports horses for showjumping and eventing.”

She has also been working on an enviable string of young event horses – of which Redesigned and Mirage d’Elle are two – and they have placed her firmly back in the spotlight. In June, she re-emerged in eventing after winning the Bramham International Horse Trials on Redesigned, while pursuing a parallel career in international showjumping. The following month, she was picked to represent GB in Aachen, Germany, with Mirage d’Elle.

When it was later announced that she would be back on the GB squad for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky this autumn, she found herself on the cover of Horse & Hound for the second time in six weeks. She is also being cited as a serious contender for the 2012 Olympics. “I was very surprised. I thought I’d be on the reserve list, but it didn’t enter my head at the start of the season that I’d be going to the world championships,” she says.

I ask if she ever worried that her international career might be over. “No, because I’d already done far more than I ever set out to achieve. And I carried on because of my sheer day-to-day love of training young horses – hoping that one of them might come through.”


Overcoming nerves

Pippa grew up in Sussex and inherited her love of horses from her mother. “We were friendly with the Brooks-Wards (the late BBC commentator Raymond Brooks-Ward was her godfather) and I started on their pony. Then, at 16, I went to work for an amazing lady, the celebrated riding teacher Ruth McMullen, in Norfolk. I spent eight years with her, riding nine or ten horses a day – the best possible grounding.”

Despite a successful career as a junior, she initially struggled to establish herself at senior international level. Too often, she would put up a dazzling performance in the dressage phase and then throw it away with mistakes on the cross-country course. She suffered from nerves that were threatening to ruin her career until help from sports psychologist Nicky Heath produced a dramatic change.

In 1999, she became European Champion at Luhmuhlen in Germany riding Supreme Rock, and again on the same horse in 2001 at Pau in France. She was a member of the British teams that won silver at both the Sydney and Athens Olympics in 2000 and 2004, as well as bronze at the World Equestrian Games in 2002. She also got the individual bronze in Athens. In 2002, 2003 and 2005, she won the Badminton Horse Trials, and has won the Blenheim and Windsor Horse Trials four times as well – the only rider yet to do so.

She believes the relationship she has built up with her horses accounts for much of her success, but the threat of serious injury – for both rider and horse – is ever-present. Pippa has always found it hard to come to terms with the fragility of the sport.

“It’s emotionally shattering. You can put years into your horses, then they’ll have a minor knock that will put them out for a week and snuff all your dreams in one go. I’ll never forget riding Bits and Pieces early in my career. He was my first top-class horse and I’d had some really good results on him, but he ruptured his front tendons at Badminton and was never ridden again.”

One of the key issues in the sport is the continuous debate over the welfare of the horses and what is reasonable to be asked of the animals. Does she think the balance is right?

“I’m a trustee of World Horse Welfare, an international charity dedicated to caring for horses, so the horse’s welfare is always paramount. Some people might see it as an extreme sport, but they don’t see the care and attention we shower on our horses. If I get a cold, I just keep suffering, whereas the slightest sniffle with a horse and they are taken back to the stables.”


A second career

But Pippa doesn’t spend all her time on horseback and has just penned her ninth novel for children, part of a series of best-selling books called Tilly’s Pony Tails, which centre on a pony-mad young girl and the bond she forges with the horses at Silver Shoe Farm. Fully illustrated throughout, they are packed with top tips for budding equestrians on everything from riding and horse management to road safety.

But she’s not planning to quit the saddle just yet. I ask how long she hopes to compete at the top level. “I don’t know. I’m pretty fit. I think I’ll know when to retire from eventing, but I’ll still be very much involved with the breeding programme.”

And what would she like the future to hold – one more Olympics perhaps?

“Yes, in a dream world. I would love to be at London if I had a horse good enough. But I also adore being here in Surrey. I love competing, but it’s so nice to come home.”


My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: Bryce’s restaurant in Ockley. They serve wonderful fresh fish and seafood.

Places to shop: Hazelbank Country Stores in Ewhurst, near Cranleigh. It’s our village shop and very convenient because it opens late and sells all the essentials. I also like Notcutts Garden Centre in Cranleigh, where I buy plants and bird food.

View: The top of Holmbury Hill, which offers fine views over the south of Surrey and Sussex. It’s the middle peak in a range of three hills affectionately known as Surrey’s Little Switzerland.

Place to chill:  At home in my garden. I love flowers, particularly roses. I also have hanging baskets and pots in the stable yard.

Place to visit: The Parrot Inn, which overlooks the village green in Forest Green. It’s the hub of village life and we’ve made many friends there. It’s a traditional pub with low-beamed ceilings and they specialise in delicious locally-produced food in their bar and restaurant.