One of the most remarkable things about Mary King is the strength of her enduring popularity. Eventing fans genuinely love her, and it makes no difference to them that she is no longer the mainstay of British teams that she once was, or that her last CCI5* win was nine years ago.
Part of that appeal has to be the smile. Good day, bad day, indifferent day, whenever you see Mary, she is smiling. There are no scowls and tantrums.
She explains: “My dear mother, who was a huge support to me, always told me I must smile, whether I won or lost – it would help me put the mistake behind me. She made me smile and it became second nature. If you smile, it makes things seem not so bad. Smile, think positive, work out what you could do better, and think of how lucky we are to be doing this.
“It’s something I’ve tried to pass on to my daughter Emily, because there’s nothing worse than seeing riders come out of the ring yanking their horses and all cross when they don’t get the result they wanted. Whenever I leave the start box, I remind myself to enjoy the ride and to try to be positive. I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do this sport.”
Mary’s good manners, kindness, politeness and charm do, in some way, belie the fact that she was – and still is, to a degree – an utterly focused and driven competitor. She has smiled her way to victories at Badminton (twice), Burghley and Kentucky, to at least 12 other three-day event wins, to 11 medals for her country at Olympics, World Championships and Europeans and the world number one spot. Tough and brave, she proves that it is when talent, dedication and success are accompanied by high standards of conduct and behavior that sportsmen and women become heroes.
On the bare face of it, a childhood in rural Devon might sound idyllic. But Mary’s early life wasn’t easy; her father Michael Thomson, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, was left with severe head injuries after a motorcycle accident six months before Mary’s birth in June 1961. His subsequent personality changes and need for complete peace and quiet had a profound effect on family life. They had very little money, and lived in a tiny, damp cottage.
Mary was instinctively drawn to horses and ponies, however, and was utterly determined to ride. She rode any pony that anyone would let her sit on, and even the odd dairy cow and donkey. She bicycled to Axe Vale branch of the Pony Club rallies, hoping there might be something she might ride when she got there. Finally, when Mary was 12, her grandfather left them the money in his will to buy her a pony, and five-year-old Butterboy, with whom she got her first taste for the thrill of competition, arrived.
It was with the Axe Vale branch of the Pony Club that the desire in Mary to ride at Badminton was first sparked. She went there on a Pony Club coach trip when she was 10 or 11: “Suddenly I realised there was a whole other world and level of riding out there,” she said.
“I was fascinated. I couldn’t understand how people could be so brave, to jump these huge fences. I was in awe of them. But they all seemed to be so rich; both the riders and the horses looked amazingly smart and sleek. It seemed impossible that I could ever be there with them, but I knew then that that is what I should be aiming at. From then on, that was it – when anyone asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to be an event rider and to ride at Badminton.”
Mary was bright at school, but was determined to leave at 16 to pursue that Badminton dream. Her mother was supportive, and a friend’s mother told her she ought to go and work for Sheila Willcox.
“I wrote to her and she invited me for an interview at her yard in the Cotswolds. She couldn’t compete anymore, having broken her back badly. I think she felt that through me should could continue her eventing career, to an extent – that she could model me into being a good enough rider to go on.
“The day before I arrived, a horse had come over backwards on her head girl and had broken her pelvis, so Sheila was short of a rider, which was a huge opportunity for me – otherwise it would probably have been months and months of mucking out before I had the chance to ride much,” she said. “I thought I was quite good – I had won quite a bit with my pony – but it took me a whole week to learn to ride a 20-metre circle in trot and get it the way that Sheila wanted it. That really brought me back down to earth, and I realised I had a huge amount to learn.”
Mary spent two and a half years working for Sheila, and credits that time with giving her a wide base of knowledge on which to build her career.
“I do feel that a lot of young riders now lack that – they look amazing, but they don’t seem to be able to keep going up to the very top level, as though their base of knowledge isn’t broad enough and they reach the peak of their ability before they get to a high enough level. At Sheila’s I learnt so much – she bought and sold horses, I rode some very tricky ones, many, many horses, and learnt how to produce them, and how to gain the trust of a horse which was using all its energy against me and getting it to use its energy to work with me, not against me. Her stable management was of such a high standard, as was her flatwork.”
But there weren’t that many opportunities to compete – Sheila tended to put much more experienced riders, such as Mark Phillips and Richard Walker, on the horses to compete them, and after two and a half years Mary left because she felt ready to take her career to the next stage.
“I had very little money – just the money I had sold my pony for, £1,500 – to start with. I found one horse at Clarissa Strachan’s yard, which was £1,200 – a scatty five-year-old thoroughbred, and I bought it, produced it for three months and sold it for £3,000. That for me was great!”
After spending a few months doing a cordon bleu cooking course – in which she got a distinction – and a ski season in Zermatt, Mary set up her own small yard. She did well with her first couple of horses, and then came along the first real star.
She spotted 17.2hh Divers Rock in an advertisement in Horse & Hound.
Mary says: “He had been a top show horse with Roger Stack, then had gone on to do pure dressage with Jennie Loriston-Clarke, but didn’t have the ability or perhaps the mind to go on to do piaffe and passage, and someone had tried to jump him and hadn’t got on very well.”
He cost £3,000 – so was affordable for Mary. It took a lot of time and patience to teach him to jump well, but, she says: “Once he started eventing he was a natural – very brave and although I was a novice rider, he always wanted to get to the other side of the fence.”
He gave Mary her first taste of international eventing, at Boekelo in 1984, where they finished sixth, and were on the winning British team in the informal team competition.
Eventually, the pair went to Badminton in 1985. “I couldn’t believe it – I was there! I really relished it. I wasn’t nervous, just so excited to be there.”
Mary credits her two fellow members of the EquiRatings Hall of Fame, Ginny Elliot and Bruce Davidson, with helping her enormously at that first Badminton.
“I arrived there, and Bruce knew it was my first time. He was so helpful. He said, ‘Mary, this is an event like no other. You must not think at all backwards across country; attack and ride forwards at every fence.’ And Ginny and Lucinda [Green] were my heroines growing up. Seeing them there and watching what they were doing was fantastic. Lucinda came up to me on the last day, after the showjumping, and said, ‘Well done, Frances, your cross-country round was fantastic!’ I didn’t care at all that she had called me by the wrong name – the fact that she had spoken to me was so wonderful!”
Mary and Divers Rock finished seventh on their top-level debut with a barnstorming cross-country round. They caught the eyes of the British team selectors, and were long-listed for that year’s European Championships. Sadly, however, Divers Rock was discovered to be suffering from navicular, and never actually competed again after Badminton.
“That was the first of many highs and lows in eventing,” said Mary. “We tried hard to get him back on the road, but he was too far gone. It was a learning experience, but it was the end of that chance of riding at a championship.”
It took her a further six years, to 1991, before she made it that final step up the ladder. In between came plenty of success – King Boris, the first horse that she bought with the man she was to marry, David King, finished second at Badminton in 1989 and third in 1990, winning the British Open Championships at Gatcombe that year and also taking second at Burghley. King Arthur and King Max gave her her first three-day event wins, at Windsor, Osberton and Breda; King Cuthbert won Bramham and finished fourth at Burghley.
Then started the era of King William, the horse with whom Mary is possibly best associated, a “naturally brilliant cross-country horse.”
She bought him as a five-year-old: “A beautiful, striking, big, dark bay horse with a white blaze who looked so alert, purposeful and light on his feet.”
Aged seven, he was seventh at Bramham and fourth at Blenheim, then competed at Badminton the following year – 1991. The conditions were horrendously wet, and unfortunately they slipped up on the turn between Huntsman’s Close and the trakehner. They completed the course clear, but their slip-up was within the penalty zones that existed around each fence in those days. But the selectors were suitably impressed, and after taking Mary’s second British Open title that summer, the pair went to the European Championships at Punchestown that autumn.
They led the dressage, and the British team held the gold medal position at that stage, but fell in the water.
“William literally cantered off the edge of the drop and landed splat in the water – I can’t believe I didn’t come back to trot and let him lower his head to see where he was going,” says Mary ruefully.
The team still won gold – and all three individual medals – but, for Mary, standing on that podium was a hollow victory.
But the following year, Mary and King William won Badminton.
“I still feel that was the best moment of my life; it was the event I had dreamed of winning as a child but felt was an impossibility. Winning Badminton is in a league of its own, and I was in a complete daze afterwards,” she says.
It did have one negative affect, however; the prize-giving unsettled sensitive King William to the extent that he found it difficult to cope with crowds, which made him very strong across country on occasion and didn’t help his showjumping on the final day. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 he had six fences down, and at Badminton in 1993 and 1994 he hit five fences. With help from Lars Sederholm, who worked on Mary’s upper body position, the showjumping improved somewhat, but he was never utterly reliable in that phase.
“He was a funny horse – quite sharp and nervy – and the fences were nothing to him; he had a lot of scope, but his mind was always slightly distracted by the crowds and the photographers. Saying that, he jumped a lot of clear rounds – he’s one of the highest points-winning horses of all time – particularly at one-day events. It was the major three-day events that it became very difficult,” says Mary.
They did, however, keep enough showjumps up to help Britain to win team gold at the World Equestrian Games at The Hague in 1994 – a gold medal that Mary felt she deserved, this time.
In 1995 Mary and David got married, and she was five and a half months pregnant with their first child, Emily, when she was part of the British team that took gold at the Pratoni European Championships that autumn. Mary also won her first individual medal – bronze – there.
King William took Mary to a second Olympics, Atlanta in 1996, where they led the dressage with a brilliant performance, but had a heart-breaking stop across country the following day and then hit eight showjumps.
“He had jumped the first fence in an encouragingly round shape, but then he saw a group of photographers, stuck his head up into the giraffe position, and bashed through the second fence. I tried everything, even supporting him with my hand in an effort to hold him off the fence, but his back hollowed and he hit the fences with his back legs. If I softened my hands, he ran at the fences and hit them with his front legs,” wrote Mary in her autobiography.
King William was so famous that he rather overshadowed other top horses that Mary had, including Star Appeal, a seven-eighths thoroughbred with a dash of Irish hunter blood. He won Punchestown in 1995, Burghley in 1996 and Badminton in 2000, was on the gold medal-winning team at the 1997 European Championships at Burghley and was Mary’s ride at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
“He wasn’t as beautiful as King William, but he tried his hardest, which is why he had so much success. You could be so accurate on him, he was brave and a very good showjumping horse,” she says.
King Solomon had several major wins of his own, and took Mary to the 2004 Athens Olympics, where they won team silver, having gone out as reserve and getting the call-up at the last minute when Sarah Cohen’s The Wexford Lady went lame.
At the end of 2004, Mary acquired a new ride in Call Again Cavalier – the horse that Caroline Pratt had ridden round Burghley a couple of hours before she was tragically killed in a fall with her second horse, Primitive Streak. The new partnership finished fourth at Burghley in 2005 and went to both the Aachen World Equestrian Games in 2006 and the Europeans at Pratoni in 2007, winning team gold and individual silver at the latter. A couple of years later Sue and Eddie Davies and their daughter Janette Chin, who had bought Call Again Cavalier for Mary to ride, purchased Imperial Cavalier.
Both horses had been beautifully produced by Vicky Brake, and a month after he arrived Imperial Cavalier finished second at the French CCI5*, Pau. Call Again Cavalier was Mary’s ride for her fifth Olympics in 2008, taking team bronze, while it was Imperial Cavalier’s turn in 2012, when they won team silver in front of a huge, excited home crowd in London.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go to six Olympic Games – I can’t really believe it, even now. I thought nothing would beat Sydney – it was wonderful, and we got a tremendous welcome from the Australian people, who are such a sporting nation – and I thought London, only a few hours’ drive away, might not be so exciting. But the tremendous support we got from our nation and everything that went with it means it was my favourite.
“What I hadn’t appreciated beforehand was that I couldn’t hear my stopwatch beeping at each minute because the roar from the crowd, like a Mexican wave, was so loud on the cross-country. I couldn’t tell whether I was going the right speed or not! As it turned out a rider ahead of me had a fall and I was held; it all worked out alright in the end, although it was a bit nerve-racking.”
It is well-known that Mary won the 2011 Kentucky CCI5* on the homebred King’s Temptress, and her forays into the breeding world started when The King’s Mistress (Lily) badly damaged a tendon in the field in the winter of 1996. Mary decided to breed from her, sent her to the Rock King, and bred first King’s Fancy, then King’s Gem. Both of those mares had foals themselves, and a dynasty was sparked.
“I was very fortunate with the breeding; Kings Temptress was the third horse I bred, and all the first three got to CCI5* level, which was amazing.
“I took two horses to Kentucky – the other one was Fernhill Urco. Kings Temptress wasn’t incredibly talented, but she had a big heart and she learned to trust me. She wasn’t very good at showjumping as a young horse, but she learnt, and she did jump clear rounds. I was first with her and second with Fernhill Urco in Kentucky, which was incredible. They were very exciting times.”
Now Mary’s career operates at a slower pace; she rides a handful of mostly homebred horses, which she looks after herself at home. She still has ambitions to ride at CCI5* again, however – alongside her daughter Emily, also a very talented and determined event rider.
“She’s still only 24 and is way more knowledgeable and experienced than I was at her age,” Mary says. “She’s had some ups and downs and some heavy falls, but she still really wants to do it and is desperate to have some success at Badminton and so on. Good luck to her – she knows the highs and lows and how philosophical you have to be about them.
“The complete dream would be to ride with Emily at Badminton – I think I’m right in saying that no mother and daughter have ridden together at the same CCI5* event. As long as I beat her, that is!”