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    Anneli Drummond-Hay: The Story and Success of a Legendary Horsewoman
Anneli Drummond-Hay: The Story and Success of a Legendary Horsewoman
Anneli Drummond-Hay. Source: Horse & Hound

Anneli Drummond-Hay: The Story and Success of a Legendary Horsewoman

The accomplished equestrian achieved great success after winning at Badminton and went on to excel in showjumping. She was also considered for the Olympics in all three disciplines, showcasing her versatility and skill.

This CV is genuinely outstanding. Picture a scenario where a highly accomplished event rider achieves remarkable triumphs at prestigious events like Badminton and Burghley and then decides to channel their skills towards the realm of international showjumping. They go on to amass numerous grand prix victories, secure a European Championship title, conquer seven Derbies, and even set a new record in the high jump. When it comes to accomplishments, Anneli Drummond-Hay's list is truly unparalleled, surpassing those of any other era.

Her exceptional equine companion Merely-A-Monarch, and her extravagant adventures in the company of a dazzling social circle during a period when equestrian sports took a backseat to football on television, suggest a privileged upbringing. However, the remarkable story of Anneli's rise to become one of the sport's most prominent and long-lasting figures - the pioneer of securing commercial sponsorship and the sole rider to be considered for the Olympics in all three disciplines - is much more raw and intense.

This is a tale of resilience, of embracing the potential in exceptional and average horses, of the importance of triumphing solely to make a living. And now, in her ninth decade, she continues to derive immense pleasure from engaging in precisely that activity.

Anneli was born in 1937, and her early years were marked by the hardships commonly experienced during the 1940s. Despite her mother's aristocratic lineage and her father's noble background, the family's wealth disappeared. However, they still had a chilly Scottish castle without electricity on her father's side and a rather impressive polo facility managed by her mother, Lady Margaret.

When the conflict erupted, the army took possession of nearly all her polo ponies, except for one named Independenza, who was deemed too advanced in years.

"From the moment my mother had the chance, she introduced me to 'Indy', who became my trusted caretaker," recalls Anneli. The ponies were taught to neck-rein using a device known as a bocado - a leather strap connected to your hand that was fastened around their jaw. I galloped freely, embracing the spirit of a Wild West rider.

The unconventional approach yielded significant benefits. This formed the foundation of my riding style: without a saddle and minimal physical connection. She acknowledges that it wasn't traditional, but she recognises its positive qualities. "The horses were incredibly responsive, making it impossible to rely on their mouths for balance. Instead, you had to cultivate a completely independent seat."

Fortuitously, Pat Smythe, who was nine years older than Anneli, resided with the Drummond-Hays family during that period and also acquired the skill of horseback riding on these polo ponies. She participated in a single event, Finality, as a member of the British team.

Anneli's initial foray into the world of competition was on Spider. The piebald horse's sire was a purebred polo pony named Miss Muffet, and its dam was a Shetland pony named Miss Muffet. They participated in gymkhana, jumping, and even unconventional races.

"Spider was absolutely amazing," fondly recalls Anneli of her incredible 12.2hh Pony Club sensation. "My mother would have been furious if she had found out, but we used to compete in speedy laps on cinder tracks for the Glaswegian miners, who would place wagers. Although it was against the law, the payout for the victor was quite substantial at £3. The Spider was tiny, allowing me a slight advantage, but its incredible speed often led to its victory."

Spider also brought Anneli to the Pony Club interbranch finals, which required a train trip from Perthshire to Newmarket. In the initial iteration of the Pony Club championships, participants were required to perform a dressage test, navigate six show jumps throughout the arena, engage in a high-speed gallop, and conclude with a halt and the release of the reins. They came in second place.

In addition to introducing Anneli to the wonders of travelling the world, Spider was a kindred spirit during their unconventional upbringing. At the age of 11, Anneli made the bold choice to leave home following a disagreement with her mother.

"I grabbed a sack of apples from the orchard, hopped on Spider and headed towards the hills," she recounted. We camped outdoors for a duration of two nights. However, nobody realised my absence!

Anneli Drummond-Hay. Source: Amazon
Anneli Drummond-Hay. Source: Amazon

Contrary to What Is Usual

Despite Anneli's impressive achievements with ponies, pursuing a career in equestrianism was never considered an option due to societal expectations. However, in 1955, she had the opportunity to participate in the European Championships as a substitute rider, which offered a welcome distraction from her imminent music degree.

Jane, the eldest sister, was invited to participate in the Windsor Europeans. However, her plans were disrupted due to her upcoming wedding. When Anneli's cousin couldn't provide a ride, she received the call to step in and help out.

"I eagerly seized the opportunity, although looking back, it was quite daring considering my limited experience in Pony Club," she remarks. Then I realised that I needed to be 18, so I decided not to mention my actual age.

"Anneli describes Freya as a daring horse, but unfortunately, she had some ongoing health issues that prevented her from being able to participate in rigorous training or perform at high speeds. I used to take her on long walks for four or five hours every day."

"Unawareness brings contentment. The course was enormous, and Robert Hall – the one in charge of the horse – advised against walking it since Freya might get injured during the steeplechase. However, in my youthful naivety, I failed to recognise the horse's remarkable spirit. Out of 80 competitors, I ended up in 16th place, even though only three horses managed to jump clear."

This sparked Anneli's remarkable professional journey. Primarily self-taught, she began creating numerous horses, the majority of which were relatively average. However, due to financial constraints, every horse had to be successful in order for her to sustain herself. She expresses how it fueled her drive to excel. One of the more impressive rides was her sister's Trident, with which she achieved a sixth-place finish at Badminton in 1956. Her brother-in-law's hunting companion, Pluto, secured her a third position in that event in 1958 before Perhaps - a horse she acquired for a mere £15 as a three-year-old that was initially meant for the abattoir - came very close to winning the race in 1960.

"He should have been the winner, but unfortunately, there was an unexpected obstacle in the showjumping course. Due to a water jump that he was not prepared for, he accidentally made contact with the tape," explains Anneli. "The two competitors who outperformed us went on to achieve the highest and second-highest honours at the Rome Olympics."


At this particular moment, the formidable Merely-A-Monarch made their grand entrance. Anneli received over 100 responses to her advertisement in H&H for a four-year-old, but one of them included a picture of a two-year-old, which she declined because it didn't meet her age requirement.

"By a stroke of luck, the photo happened to end up in a suitcase. And wouldn't you know it, six months down the line, as I was getting ready for an event, I stumbled upon it," recalls Anneli. I came across the horse's stable while I was competing, so I decided to visit him.

The young horse, sired by the purebred Happy Monarch and from a mother with Fell lineage, was situated in a fenced area "enclosed by sharp wire and discarded glass containers, yet exuding a regal and powerful aura."

At a price of three hundred pounds, it initially appeared to be quite costly. However, right from his debut performance, Anneli was inundated with offers of substantial amounts of money, some even coming in the form of blank cheques. One notable offer came from a prominent National Hunt trainer who, after witnessing Anneli effortlessly outpace the renowned chaser Flame Gun during training, believed that he would secure victory in the prestigious Grand National race.

"It was purely fortuitous," remarks Anneli. "Merely-A-Monarch stood out as superior to any horse I had ever ridden, a true standout from the very beginning. However, he displayed quite mischievous behaviour and proved to be quite a challenge to handle. His exceptional skills and immense strength, combined with his infectious zest for life, would cause him to change direction, sending me soaring through the air abruptly.

At the tender age of six, Merely-A-Monarch made a remarkable debut at the prestigious Burghley event, securing a victory with an unprecedented margin."

"I was selected last, and my sources informed me that the cross-country race was highly challenging; numerous participants had already stumbled. Cliffs were adorned with rails while horses gracefully manoeuvred through ravines. I was filled with anticipation as I embarked on my journey with my exceptional young horse. With utmost caution, we navigated the course, and he effortlessly cleared every obstacle. I was never adventurous, but I believe I encouraged my horses to be courageous."

He proceeded to dominate the competition at the subsequent Badminton in 1962, which Anneli had already decided would be their final event. After achieving success in the top two horse trials worldwide and realising that there was no chance for women to compete in the Olympics at that level, Anneli decided to pursue a fresh and exciting endeavour.

"I don't mean to sound nonchalant, but after reaching the pinnacle of eventing, I made the decision to transition to showjumping," she explains. "Merely-A-Monarch was an invaluable, exceptional occurrence. He was already performing at an excellent level, but I needed help with navigating significant leaps, which presented a unique challenge. A skilled showjumper would be able to navigate the Badminton course, but the reverse would not be accurate."

David Broome, Anneli's competitor and colleague, describes this comparison as "extremely kind."

"In the past, there was a showjumping class that took place before the Badminton cross-country event. Afterwards, Harvey Smith and I would leisurely ride around the track," he recalls. "I recall believing that one would need to be quite daring to leap over those barriers. Their courage is truly admirable."

Anneli showcased her exceptional equine companion in the highest levels of competition at the prestigious Royal International event, a mere two months following their impressive performance at Badminton.

"I had everyone in awe as I gracefully manoeuvred through the eventing course, effortlessly adjusting my position and taking longer strides," she recalls. "My horse possessed such remarkable talent that I managed to escape any consequences."

1963 was an exceptional year, even among a wide range of well-known figures - Pessoa, Smith, Broome, and others. The stage was prepared for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics when women were finally allowed to compete in eventing. Anneli excelled in all three disciplines, with Merely-A-Monarch proving unbeatable in the arena. While this dynamic duo would have been the top contenders for eventing gold, Anneli was drawn to the elegance and precision of jumping.

"It would have been a regressive move," she states, "and Merely-A-Monarch was far too gifted to take a chance on."

At this point, Anneli was unable to stop the influx of interested buyers and ended up selling Merely-A-Monarch on the condition that she could still keep the ride. 

However, the situation took a turn for the worse when Merely-A-Monarch began to decline, causing the owner to take him away one evening and send him to David Broome. He leapt even more poorly for David, who later expressed regret to Anneli. After some time, veterinarians found an abscess in the horse's groyne. Lady Margaret successfully obtained a court injunction to regain possession of the horse, and they both made a remarkable recovery. However, their initial Olympic aspiration had been crushed, and this unfortunate pattern would continue.

After four years, the selectors were preparing Anneli and other athletes for Mexico. They emphasised the importance of competing in specific, challenging events, which had a significant impact on their performance. Despite Merely-A-Monarch's return to victory, he was overshadowed by Marion Mould's Stroller.

"It was irritating, but I had the mindset to understand that it was a fiercely competitive environment," Anneli says.

She faced a significant obstacle as a new regulation dashed the hopes of another potential Olympian. In 1965, Anneli achieved a remarkable feat by securing a significant sponsorship from Ford Motor Company. This generous support provided her with a substantial sum of £20,000, enabling her to acquire a horse and prepare it for the Olympics in a mere two years.

She discovered the B-grade Killenaule, which was later rebranded as Sporting Ford. Unfortunately, the Olympic committee made a decision that prevented any horse with a brand name from participating, thus crushing the hopes of Olympic glory and potential sponsorship opportunities.

"I missed out on the Olympics three times," she laments. "However, I always focus on moving forward; the past is in the past."

On the other hand, Ford achieved a remarkable feat by surpassing the British high jump record at an impressive height of 2.37m. "It was absolutely dreadful, and I would never consider doing it again; I strongly believe that repeatedly requesting such actions is detrimental to the well-being of the horse," Anneli says. "Although there was no official record keeper present, this achievement is undoubtedly unparalleled and unmatched."

Anneli Drummond-Hay. Source: South African Equestrian
Anneli Drummond-Hay. Source: South African Equestrian

Settling in South Africa

An opportunity to participate in a competition in South Africa led to a marriage and relocation in 1971. "I was getting up there in age, around 33!" Anneli says with a smile. "I decided it was time to stop participating in competitions. Individuals should have continued to excel in sports as they currently do."

She could never have fathomed that she would remain fiercely competitive even after half a century. Due to her penchant for acquiring horses, she has consistently maintained a collection, primarily consisting of thoroughbreds purchased at a low cost from the racecourse.

Her relationship ended, and, similar to her early experiences in England, she struggled to make ends meet. However, she managed to achieve remarkable success in her new homeland, which included claiming victory in two South African Derbies and earning the title of South African sportswoman of the year on eight separate occasions.

Two exceptional horses emerge from that era. Seville dominated all the major grand prix events during the year I had him.

"He was unbeatable," she declares. "He was my favourite horse since Merely-A-Monarch, but I unintentionally caused his demise by being overly caring. It was a truly heartbreaking experience."

The horse's anaemia was being treated with intramuscular iron injections. Unfortunately, shortly after the vet administered the injection, Seville tragically passed away. This incredible medication was removed from circulation.

When Nelson Mandela assumed leadership in the mid-'90s, the restriction on African horses' mobility was lifted. This presented Anneli with an enticing opportunity to make one final attempt at achieving global recognition.

She proudly mentions that she purchased Olympian for £200. By the age of six, he had already achieved top marks and emerged victorious in the South African Championships. Everyone insisted that attending the World Championships in the Hague was a must.

Anneli recounts how the Olympian endured a gruelling three-month quarantine in America before finally making the journey to Europe. The experience was far from pleasant, as he received inadequate care and emerged with a dishevelled appearance, wearing the same worn-out shoes he had left South Africa with.

An Olympian failed to fully recover in time, both physically and mentally, for the championships, and despite finishing, it fell far short of the exceptional level that Anneli was used to. Always the equestrian, she holds herself responsible.

"It was a risk to bring him in, but the period of isolation was extremely challenging, and I believe it had a detrimental impact on him," she remarks. His performance in South Africa was unmatched. The brilliance had faded away.

After spending ten years in Europe, Anneli and her husband, Trevor Bern, came back to her home country of South Africa with a few horses in tow. One of these horses, a 20-year-old named Apollo, continues to compete in events up to 1.30m. At the age of 83, she is involved in the production of former racehorses and provides training to other riders, serving as a constant source of inspiration for people all around the globe. 

"I couldn't imagine not riding; it's a part of my daily routine, just like brushing my teeth," she states. And it brings me great pleasure. It would be similar to declaring, "I will never indulge in chocolate ever again."

Anneli on Training

"When it comes to training, my approach is all about fostering independent thinking in my horse while maintaining a solid connection with me. I've never experienced a single fall, even though I've ridden over 40 horses, and some of them had quite an unappealing style!"

"I've been pondering why riders falling off their horses during rotational events have become more frequent in recent times. However, numerous equestrians who have experienced unfortunate accidents have unintentionally transformed their horses into mechanical beings. The horses have lost their drive, making it difficult for them to adjust their takeoff distance."

"There has been an excessive focus on obedience. When it comes to cross-country riding, horses must possess independent thinking skills, especially when faced with different terrains and distances."

"It would never bother me if I couldn't transform my horse into a machine. Indeed, it is crucial to move ahead at your command while maintaining control and avoiding any excessive behaviour. However, there are certain areas where you can yield, allowing the situation to take care of itself."

"I may be mistaken; acquiring expertise in horse training requires an immense amount of time."

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