Posted by Catherine Austen ● 22 January 2020
EquiRatings Hall of Fame: #1 Ginny Elliot
Listen to the full interview here on the EquiRatings Eventing Podcast:
Sometimes the concept of a hall of fame feels a bit gratuitous. Why would it be important that we seek to select certain people, why not just recognise lots of people as being different and great. I guess that is exactly why we wanted to do this project. Catherine writing and Nicole interviewing - we wanted to ensure that the stories of what came before are told again. It is our long running joke at this stage of 'Eventing started in 2010.....' or how on EquiRatings stats we have to put 'since we began to collect this data/number'. But of course, A LOT came before.
What this project was about was recognising that in the last 5 years of EquiRatings, we have sought to shine a light on some incredible achievements in the sport - we talk about the Michael Jung Olympics not just as a winner but also as the only person to ever FOD, and then to repeat the trick on his second medal in 2016. We talk about the Cillnabradden Evo Badminton test not just as the only sub-20 dressage test seen at Badminton but as the test which moved him past Andrew Hoy and the twenty year record of Darian Powers. We talk about the modern greats, horses and riders. But we are acutely aware of that Isaac Newton quote which is over three hundred years old: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
The EquiRatings Hall of Fame is about recognising some of these giants. Not just telling the story of that person but of showing how the sport which we know would not have developed in the way it did without them. We want to talk about the great achievements of different eras. People can make their own mind up about how to draw a comparison (we would argue whether one should be drawn at all). Without some of the giants, there is no doubt that the sport would have been different. The EquiRatings Hall of Fame will never be a complete list but it is a starting point.
We have talked a lot about this era of 'professional' eventing, of social media, and of sponsorship. That is why we are starting here. One of the first great professionals. Doing her own social media with printed postcards and sponsor names. Seeking out information from other disciplines and applying it. A list of achievements and a legacy that very few have come close to since.
The first person we needed to talk to was Ginny. DB
‘More bites of the cherry’
Sitting in the Oxfordshire farmhouse where she and her husband Mikey live, Ginny smiles when I ask her to compare her era – the early 1980s to the mid-1990s – to the current epoch.
"It’s difficult to compare records being held now compared to the early 80s or 90s, because of the long format [with roads and tracks and steeplechase]. You could only run horses in those twice a year, whereas the short format means you can probably do three on the same horse — three bites of the cherry as opposed to two, which makes the stats difficult."
"So much has changed. Take social media. We wrote postcards back to sweet fans who wrote letters to us!"
Ginny makes the point that during her entire career, her horses had to carry the minimum weight of 11 stones 11 pounds — she is tiny, and that meant she was always carrying a lot of lead.
"It made a huge difference, especially to little people like my first horse, Dubonnet who was 15.2hh. He had to carry nearly two stone dead weight. Many people acted as inspirations in the early part of my career, such as Mary Gordon-Watson and Lucinda Green, but another was Jane Bullen [now Holderness-Roddam] – she won Badminton aged 19 on a little horse called Our Nobby, who was in fact barely 15hh, if that; it showed that small horses really could do it."
Dubonnet, with whom Ginny won individual and team gold medals at the 1973 Junior European Championships at Pompadour in France, cost £35 at Five Lanes cattle market in Cornwall.
“He was my very first horse. I managed to eliminate the whole Pony Club at the championships by going before the bell when we were in the lead! He managed to scrape around my first Badminton when I was 19, then we bought Priceless and Nightcap II, both as four-year-olds for £900 apiece.”
These two very different characters, both by Ben Faerie, brought Ginny much of her great success and they are the horses most associated with her. Priceless, famous for never having a cross-country fault and whom she once described as “the most intelligent horse that has ever looked through a bridle”, won her her first European title in 1985, Badminton in 1985, Burghley in 1983 and 1985, team silver and individual bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He took her to her first senior Europeans in 1981 and to her first Worlds the following year, and was part of the gold medal-winning team on both occasions.
Those two World Championships
In 1986 – the year that there were two World Championships, one in Gawler, Australia, and another, because not every country could send representatives to the other side of the world, at Bialy Bor in Poland – Priceless flew to Australia and came home with the gold.
Nightcap II, “the perfect gentleman”, won the Polish leg to give Ginny a unique World Championship double in 1986. He also took the European title the following year, and had won Burghley in 1984.
“We didn’t go to Badminton with Priceless because we had to go to Gawler at the end of May for six weeks. They put on a competition in Gawler about two weeks before the Worlds, so we could have a run, but I said the ground was too hard and didn’t run. He was nearly – not quite but nearly – over the top after such a long time without a run, and on the day itself he nearly fell at the first fence.
“He was number four to go in the team and this water jump had caused chaos. Everyone was falling – even Mark Todd and Charisma. It was one stride off a step, drop, then bounce over two rails. Logically, how can a horse physically jump down a drop in to water and then asked to do a bounce?! So I’d watched this on the monitor and thought, ‘this doesn’t work for me’. The long route was too long, so I decided I would come on the angle, fit two strides in on the bank and somehow by some miracle fit one in the bounce.
“I knew he was very tidy and he never had a stop in his life and unless I did something really stupid he would have a go, and I was thinking about, stupidly, the water as we set off down the hill to number one. He wasn’t quite going, so I gave him a tap. He bucked, three or four times, nearly getting underneath the first fence. He then said, ‘oh shit, there’s a fence’, banked it, and then off we went! It wasn’t a great start. But he managed to do two and one at the water. Lucky me, as another horse wouldn’t have been that neat.”
Legendary attention to detail
This example illustrates several things. Ginny was a very brave cross-country rider, but she was also an extremely accurate one who left absolutely nothing to chance. Her approach to the sport was extremely professional. We talk about her at EquiRatings HQ as being one of the first real professionals. No disrespect to those that came before but from media to training, planning and measuring - Ginny is the first we have heard constantly reference it. Her attention to detail was legendary. She built an outstanding team around her, of which the principal players were her mother, Heather Holgate, and Dot Willis.
“Dot and Mum would probably say I was a bit paranoid and over-the-top, but that’s how I was – I tried to do everything as well as I possibly could,” explains Ginny. “You would see me walking the showjumping four times instead of three, the cross-country four times instead of two.
“Lady Hugh Russell [the famous cross-country trainer] used to put dots on all the cross-country schooling fences, and if you didn’t jump the dot, you may as well have kept galloping to Bristol because she would give you such a telling-off. So my accuracy came from her, 100%, and the change of gears, for certain types of fences, definitely came from her. She was my mentor, really, for cross-country. I think my forte was accuracy and rhythm, and smoothness for me came from Lady Hugh because Priceless wasn’t thoroughbred and he struggled to get the time in the early days. He was sixth at his first Burghley, and I remember hearing a comment from one of the selectors: ‘He’ll never make a championship, he’s going to be too slow.’ I thought, ‘We will see about that.’
“I then rang [racehorse trainer] Michael Dickinson and I said, ‘I really want to know how you get your horses fit.’ He said, ‘Hmmm… in lieu of what?’ I said, ‘I will help you with jumping.’
“ I went to Yorkshire and spent two days with him., I learnt all about getting racehorses fit, and I started the programme of exactly how he got his horses fit. It was top secret, I promised him I would never share his secret, and I helped him with gridwork with his horses, and drew diagrams for him and things.
“From that day forwards every one of them was absolutely 100% fit and Priceless always got the time. So I guess I’m not very good at ‘no, it can’t be done’.”
“But I was always a huge overanalyser. I was a real head-beater; I beat myself up a lot. If I had a stop it was the end of the world, at novice level, let alone anything else,” she says. “There would be ‘why did that happen’ all the way back in the lorry, and at the end of the day the only answer is that it is basically your fault. It’s your fault - you either have wrong studs in, the wrong bit, you haven’t trained it properly - it is your fault. It is up to you to change it.
“I didn’t want my horses hitting fences across country, I wanted them to last, so I had to find a way to make them not hit fences and, touch wood, they very rarely touched a fence. I think that is to do with the balance of speed, the technique of the jump that you improve, and your ability to assess fences, how they should be jumped, what speed they should be jumped.”
Technicality of courses
“Priceless was extraordinary and he would do quick routes that people didn’t think were possible, he was so accurate and smooth. Remember Tom Smith’s Walls at Badminton - angled wall to angled wall to corner on three or four strides - and they say it wasn’t technical back then! I think I enjoyed the challenge of quick routes and angles and corners, so I trained my horses all to do it well.
“And I think unfortunately the skinny fences nowadays, which are technical and difficult, without question, have led everyone to believe that this is the only technical type of cross-country. I can quite understand and I think the courses are technical, but a lot of them now are portable fences. There aren’t many rails, and that is a bit of a sadness, because you can make fantastically difficult angles out of rails, corners, rails but I think it’s expensive; it is easier to do portables. It is just different, very different. They were challenging fences - we would go to bed the night before thinking, ‘That can’t be jumped.’ In your head, it just didn’t work. But course-designers like Frank Weldon were geniuses and it did work - if you rode it properly.”
She also gives great credit to her vet, Don Attenborough, to Pat Burgess, her showjumping coach, and Pat Manning, who trained her on the flat, as well as her mother and Dot.
Bringing in sponsors
The Holgate family were not at all rich. Ginny’s father died when she was young, and it was hard to make ends meet.
“When Nightcap and Priceless first started getting some results, I went up to London on the train every week for six months with my portfolio, and worked bloody hard, literally knocking on doors. Eventually I got British National Insurance to sponsor me,” she says.
The company was taken over by Citibank: “I did 22 corporate days a year for them, and at places like Badminton, if I was riding two horses, I’d go and talk to them and their guests in between rides. I had postcards printed with Nightcap and Priceless on the front and “Citibank sponsors Nightcap and Priceless” and the company address on the back. It was amazing how much business that got them,” she says.
“We couldn’t afford grooms, and we always had working pupils instead. We had seven horses, we thought that was our max – three or four for me to compete and the rest to be sold. We got them to intermediate or advanced and sold them. No one ever bought a horse for me to ride – I bought them all myself.”
A much smaller team of horses than any of today’s top riders would consider viable allowed her to spend far more time with each horse than is possible for most people today.
“I do fear that people don’t spend enough time with their horses. And I don’t think horses are as fit as they used to be,” she says. “How can they be? The riders are always at competitions; they must have fantastic back-up teams at home.”
A seven-year-old Burghley winner?
She notes that nowadays 10-year-old horses are deemed to be “young”. The much more stringent qualifications and MER system is partly to blame for this, but she says:
“Master Craftsman was eight when he went to the Olympics, having been third at Badminton earlier that year; Murphy Himself won Burghley when he was only seven. Because of the long format, you couldn’t waste your time waiting until the horse was 10; if it was ready, it was ready, and your instinct told if it was or not.”
Master Craftsman was the beautiful, elegant dark bay with whom she won Badminton, Burghley (that year’s European Championships) in 1989 when the horse was nine. The one thing Ginny’s glittering career lacks is that individual Olympic gold medal – and if things had been slightly different, it could have been “Craft” who gave it to her.
“It was tragic; he was 12, and en route to the Barcelona Olympics. We had to go to a different gallop [to ones she normally used] under team instructions. I unfortunately hit a damp spot on the gallop, he knocked himself and the next day he was unlevel but not lame. The day after that, he was marginally better but they were flying the next day and the reserve was waiting in the wings. “There was a week or 10 days until the competition started and you were thinking, ‘how am I going to feel if I get there and he doesn’t pass the third day?’ So we decided we couldn’t go; we couldn’t risk letting anyone down.”
Ginny, famously, sold the tearaway grey Murphy Himself to Ian Stark, with whom he was on numerous medal-winning teams for Britain. But she had already won Burghley in 1986 on Murphy, when he was seven.
“I have two regrets, and one of them was selling him,” she says. “But he was a lunatic, no questions about it. I remember getting off him in the middle of a competition, as a novice, and moving the bit back to where it should have been as I had had two hands on one rein. He caused so much stress, worry and angst. You couldn’t use a stick on him. I had a special tiny one made to give him a tap on the shoulder if I had to, but he wouldn’t have that and went upwards and sideways and backwards rather than forwards.
“The spring after he won Burghley, I took him to Badminton. He did the most stupid thing and tried to jump all the way from the top of the Ski Jump right to the bottom, and I fell off and injured my ankle. I showjumped Master Craftsman the next day, but the ankle was actually broken.”
She swapped him for a horse called Griffin with Ian Stark, who was much taller and stronger than Ginny, and that decision still niggles.
“I still think I could have trained him to be more manageable,” she says.
Disaster at Achselschwang
Ginny’s other regret was the extraordinary stop at a steeplechase fence at the 1993 European Championships at Achselschwang on Welton Houdini, with whom she had won her third Badminton title earlier that year.
“Welton Houdini was a timid child; not particularly brave,” she says. “I nearly sold him on as an intermediate as he didn’t quite have enough guts, and then we took him to Badminton that very wet year  and he had a horrible fall. In those days you got back on, if you were still alive! He finished the course clear, well done him, brave pony, but he had really lost it.
“I took him hunting, to the Cotswold, Quorn, Beaufort and Heythrop and it made him a man. He always liked to carry his head quite high in to jumps, and very weirdly, before we started hunting him, he stopped in the practice ring and I thought ‘hell’s fire, what’s going on?’ I went off for a walk on my own and thought about it. I took the martingale off, cantered him about and let him go in to the fence with his head in my face. He jumped it beautifully, so that was it, that was how he jumps. His head was right up in the air and I don’t know how he saw the fences, but that and hunting transformed him and we won Badminton the next year.
“In Achselswang he led the dressage by miles, but in the dressage warm-up, a photographer leapt out of the laurels and he went bonkers – not terribly helpful just before your dressage - and he was very odd after that, he kept spooking and being ridiculous. One of the steeplechase fences was next to a grandstand and I came around the corner and the people in it stood up and started clapping. He just pissed off left and went past the fence, despite me grabbing one rein with both hands. I came around again and gave him a bloody good kick, and he went, and then he jumped clear inside the time across country. It wasn’t to be and that’s sport, but I would have much rather he had a stop on the cross-country than had had that ridiculous run-out on the steeplechase.”
That proved to be a rather ignominious end to her team career and, a couple of years later, she had a bad accident on the gallops. A young horse tripped while going “at full tilt”.
“I shot out the saddle, did a double somersault and landed on my feet, and pushed the bottom bone in to my top bone and smashed my knee very badly. I was non-weight-bearing on it for three months and wasn’t allowed to get on a horse for three more months after that. I just thought, ‘do you know, I’ve done this, it’s time to stop’.
“I missed it terribly for seven years, but I think it was the right thing to do. It is not the most social thing to do as a sport, Mikey isn’t really interested in eventing and it was the right time. Not an easy decision, but at least I went out more or less at the top.”
Her involvement with eventing since has included a spell training the Irish team, and she is now chairman of the Horse Trials Support Group.
Kate Green, deputy editor of Country Life and former editor of Eventing magazine, wrote about many of Ginny’s great triumphs.
She says: “Ginny was a bit like Michael Jung in that she was always beautifully prepared - nothing ever looked like a rehearsal or an experiment – but on the rare occasions when it went dramatically wrong, she never gave up and she never let anyone down.
“By the time she went across country at the Achselschwang Europeans in 1993, all was lost - the team medal and her own prospects of a record 4th title - and the ground conditions were horrendous, but, as I wrote at the time, her round, still competitive, still perfectly judged, should have been videoed as the ultimate lesson in horsemanship and grace in defeat.
“Her back-up team was certainly a well-oiled machine, but they wouldn't have had the success they did if Ginny hadn't been as brave as she was stylish. Like Jung, she was so was exhilarating to watch, whether it was on the ponyish Priceless, the mighty Murphy Himself or the classy Master Craftsman, that you never got bored of her winning.”
Welcome to the Hall of Fame Ginny
Firstly the achievements. In a time with less top level competitions about, she managed to win ten of them - no female rider has won more and only Fox-Pitt, Jung and Todd are ahead of her. But way beyond the on-the-field success, Ginny paved the way for many of the things which were to follow. Her social media was on postcards, she was wearing headcams in the seventies, she was sponsored by a global brand and entertaining their clients at major events. Diarm has spent years eulogising the achievements of Ingrid - but it was Ginny who paved the way. This is what the Hall of Fame is all about. Standing on the shoulders of giants.