Zara Tindall: “You feel like you can get lost in the valleys of Gatcombe for hours”
- Credit: © Kit Houghton
The Magic Millions Festival of British Eventing is in the DNA of Zara Tindall. Now, as brother Peter has taken over the reins at Gatcombe, its all about future-proofing the festival
There can't be many people twinned with a festival. Who took their first tentative steps together; who grew, over the same years, into popular and respected icons; who - entirely thanks to their own merits - gained international recognition for (quite simply) doing things exceptionally well.
But Zara Tindall and the Magic Millions Festival of British Eventing are joined at the hip. A year in age between them (though we're too polite to say who's the elder). An extraordinary partnership - when you think about it - where each encouraged and enhanced the other.
When the Princess Royal and Captain Mark Phillips moved into the Gatcombe Estate in 1977 - a wedding gift from the Queen - Minchinhampton became famous. The postmistress of this sleepy Cotswold town was even quoted in the nationals.
When the initial flurry had died away, one thing was clear. This was a family looking for space and normality. Eschewing titles for their children - Peter and Zara - they began to forge new lives on this hidden, 730-acre gem of a Cotswold estate with its prettiest of 18th century manor houses.
Five years later, the Princess and Captain Phillips decided to open their grounds each summer for a new horse trials. The reason they founded what is now the huge Magic Millions Festival of British Eventing, they explained, was simply to give something back to the sport they loved.
And - as always with the Princess - that meant everyone pitching in.
"All of us got involved," Zara recalls. "The whole build-up was everyone helping out. We all painted the fences and the white posts - and ended up painting each other as well!"
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Sir Jackie Stewart, the 'Flying Scot' (and, more significantly, close family friend), took things one stage further. He instituted the Menial Task Division - still in existence to this day - which doled out essential hard-work jobs: banging in posts and hanging fence-ropes, without the slightest pretence at glamour.
"Jackie loves organising things and being very efficient. He gave us all t-shirts; he was our leader and we all followed him. All my mother and father's friends got involved in the horse trials, back in those days."
So… invited down for a country weekend, only to find themselves with mallet in hand!
"I know," Zara laughs. "They were invited down to stay and then everyone helped in any way they could."
Of course, horses were in the blood for young Zara Phillips. Both her parents had represented Britain in the Olympics, her father part of the three-day event team that won gold in Munich in the summer of 72.
But there must have been plenty of extra inspiration, too, at home each summer, as headline equestrian names - David Green, Lucinda Green, Mark Todd, Bruce Davidson, Ginny Leng, among many others - skilfully pounded round courses devised by the Captain himself.
"My memories of people riding round it were [particularly] when they used to go all the way up to the top; up to the far side of the Park on the house side - right at the top! - and there was a sort of ski-jump step. They'd go straight down the hill - which is really steep - all the way down to the water, and then jump in the water. I thought that was incredible... Slightly crazy as well."
No wonder Zara was champing at the bit to make her own Gatcombe début. Yet competing on home turf is far from the advantage you might imagine.
"Yes," Zara grins in agreement. "Makes it a lot worse. When I was based at Gatcombe, we trained the horses round there. Then this event shows up in the horses' back garden, so it's kind of strange for them to figure it out. Normally, they go out to events; but, when they're in their home environment and they hear all these speakers, it's very difficult for them to understand that this is an event but it happens to be in their back garden. And getting them to concentrate properly, 100 percent, is quite tricky."
Not just tricky for the horses, of course.
"My biggest fear - especially when I first started competing and still helping out - was that I was going to jump the wrong fence on the wrong part of the course because I'd worked on all the fences, if you know what I mean, going the wrong way!"
Zara's own equestrian career has been stellar. In her first ever four-star event, back in 2003, she was just pipped to the post at Burghley, finishing second to Pippa Funnell. From that incredibly impressive start, highlights included European and World championships; riding in the London 2012 Olympics for the British team that won silver; and - after giving birth to her first daughter, Mia - winning team silver at the 2014 World Equestrian Games.
But amongst all the challenges, there's still nothing quite like the terrain at Gatcombe Park: an amphitheatre shaped by nature. When the land is quiet, "You feel like you can get lost in the valleys for hours," Zara says.
And when the crowds pack in in their thousands, that natural amphitheatre tests four-legged competitors to their exciting limits.
"I always feel you need the horses to be fitter than for your normal, average, one-day event. The hills really take their toll on the horse: the terrain; where all the fences are placed. Each time you jump out there, it's eating a little bit more energy out of the horse. So, you need to make sure you make it the most efficient round that you can so the horse can cope with everything you're asking them to do.
"You almost have to think a lot quicker than you would in the normal one-day event - it's challenging mentally, physically; so, as a partnership you really need to work as one."
Let's talk about that partnership for a moment.
About Toytown, the distinctive chestnut gelding, who shared with Zara some of her career highs before his death, at the age of 24, June two years ago. "He looked like a bit of a hat-rack when I first saw him. He was very weak muscularly but an amazing mover," Zara recalled. But it led to a legendary partnership, as well as a deep love.
"They've all got personalities and you've got to create a relationship. You can't just expect an animal to do what you want when you want - that's not how they work. You've got to train them; you've got to get to know them. You've got to make sure that, on competition day, you're both on the same page; and, to get your best performance, work with each other's temperament and characteristics and strengths."
Toytown was, she says, the horse of a lifetime.
"And my other - High Kingdom, who went to the Olympics - he's 18 this year. So, again, we've got to try and find another horse that's as good as those two boys. I was very lucky to have them in my career and they've made my career. Very special partnership."
While Zara won't be competing at The Festival herself this year, she has some nice younger horses coming up.
Another Olympics? Another championships? She'd love that.
The pressure's on. She welcomes it. But - I venture - it's not just the pressure of competing. For her, the added press focus must make her job that little bit harder?
"Yes," she says. "Again, it's with the horses. Especially if you've got one that is a bit anxious; that is a bit sharp. You know, they [the press] don't always think about that. We already have to work on being able to get the horses as relaxed as possible and able to do their job. So when there are people in the way, creating more of an atmosphere for the horses, it's really hard on them."
But then she laughs and relents.
"To be fair, the guys that follow me round still, they do actually get it. And when I ask, 'Can you get out of the way because this one isn't going to like you guys!', they do understand."
It's a family affair, The Festival. Always has been; always will be.
And that's exactly what it is to Zara.
Everyday life, on the other hand: "It's about putting the work in.
"'Working with horses, especially, is not an easy win. Everyone has to work as hard as the next person. So that's what I love about being part of the sport. Everyone has bad days; everyone has good days. It's really humbling. At the end of the day, we all do it because of our love of horses and competition; trying to get to the top, trying to be at the top. But that partnership you have with the horse is the main reason."
Those partnerships started with Smoky, the little Shetland - "being pulled in a sledge by him in the snow when we were tiny" - and continues with her own children's enjoyment of animals. Five-year-old Mia, and Lena aged just one, are frequently pictured along with dad, Mike Tindall, supporting their mum at events.
"Mia does like horses. She rides a bit; and they've both been on ponies. But, again, it's more about giving them that experience; that relationship. The experience that we had when we were young: being with an animal; learning how to treat an animal; learning how to look after an animal. All those things that are great for them as they're growing up. Being outside, too. All those life-skills."
I don't want to keep her from the important things in life. But I do have one more question. It's something Peter, her brother, once said to me. Peter, of course, has taken over The Festival reins from the Captain, his father. He's now successfully running this top event; helping to future-proof it for years to come.
And Zara couldn't be more pleased.
"He does a great job at organising everything. His two [Savannah and Isla] help out already. The girls - the three of our girls - love the horse trials coming around; and they're getting to that age where they can enjoy what we enjoyed when we were young."
The Magic Millions Festival of British Eventing is held at Gatcombe Park, Minchinhampton; for more information and to buy tickets, visit festivalofbritisheventing.com.