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Jane Holderness-Roddam: Eventing’s Golden Girl


Eventer Jane Holderness-Roddam jumping a fence on her horse

Jane Holderness-Roddam describes herself as a “fair-weather rider,” something that might be an apt description of many of us during the cold, winter months, but Jane isn’t your typical member of the ‘many of us’ – she’s a gold-medal-winning former Olympian who also brought home the red ribbon from Burghley and Badminton (twice).


Without any need to exaggerate, Jane has been there, done that, and polished the silverware. Now aged 75, she has nothing more to prove. She rides when she wants to, and she chooses the horses she wants to ride.


“I definitely like to ride a safe horse,” Jane tells MumsHaynet. “Having said that, horses are very unpredictable creatures, so even the safest one can have a spook or a shy or they slip, so you never quite know, but these days I tend to go as a chaperone to somebody else on a younger horse, and I’ll ride the older one.”

Jane is a softly-spoken woman who looks a good decade younger than her 75 years. Employing a natural graciousness to questions she must have heard a thousand times before, there is no hint of of ego as she gamely rattles off her incredible achievements. And though she might be as close as it gets to riding royalty in the UK, there is no sense of entitlement about her, rather an underlying feeling that she can’t quite believe her luck at how well things turned out.


Jane Holderness-Roddam riding and competing horses as a toddler

“I started riding before I could walk because I was so lazy as a baby,” Jane admits. “I think my mother got fed up with me not doing anything, so she got a basket chair, put it on a saddle and plonked it on a pony, and I used to wobble about in that from the age of six months. I've ridden ever since.

“As soon as I could move about, I was on a pony and then eventually I moved onto a horse and ended up winning Badminton Horse Trials, one of the biggest three-day events in the world.

“Luckily, I won Badminton in the year of the Olympics in Mexico, in 1968, and I went on to be part of the gold medal team that won the team event. I was very lucky to do that. Later on, I also won Burghley Horse Trials and Badminton for a second time. So, those are my career highlights, really.”


Olympic Gold Medalist Jane Holderness-Roddam on the podium

Of course, Jane didn’t only win gold at Mexico, she also made sporting history as the first woman Olympian in three-day eventing. Women were banned from competing in the sport until 1964. Again, it’s a fact that Jane lightly dusts over. Despite all the accolades, she doesn’t, and never has, taken herself too seriously. As she tells it, no one else took her too seriously either.


“We were considered a bit of a joke team,” Jane recalls, quietly laughing. “Nobody really thought that we would do any good, but I was so excited to be going to the Olympics.


“I was a 20-year-old student nurse at the time so I was called The Galloping Nurse. The whole team had nicknames: Reuben Jones was known as The Galloping Sergeant; Derek Allhusen, who was 56 years old, was called The Galloping Grandfather; and Richard Meade, who also went on to win team and individual golds at the next Olympics, was known as Golden Wonder.”


As Jane remembers those headline-making days, she speaks of her fellow Olympians with real affection, saying, “I was very lucky, being looked after so well by the three male members.”  It’s a reflection that becomes even more poignant when you learn that her parents were not around to witness one of the greatest sporting achievements of her life, or indeed, anyone’s life.


“I lost both my parents before I was 18,” she says. “My mum died when I was 15, and my dad when I was 18. So, sadly, they never saw any of my successes.”

 

Disaster

 

It was perhaps inevitable that after hitting such extreme highs early on in her career, it would be difficult to maintain that level of dominance in the sport. However, in keeping with her general belief that she is lucky to have had the opportunities life has afforded her, Jane has been able to find the positives in even the biggest setbacks.     


“In 1978, I failed to get round the World Championships in Kentucky because of the heat and humidity. It absolutely exhausted the horses. My own horse Warrior was a slightly heavier horse and those conditions completely finished him. He was a brilliant jumper, but you literally felt the lights go out. I think that was the worst moment in my career; knowing that I was part of a team, in which one member had already failed to get round, making it imperative that I got round to keep the team in contention. But it didn't happen, and yes, that made you feel awful.”


Awful as it was, Jane said a lot of good came out of that experience – in terms of horse welfare in sport and also her own understanding of a horse’s mental and physical needs.


“I didn't realise until then that animals get affected mentally, just as we do,” she admits. “Kentucky taught me a lot, unfortunate as it was at the time.


“After starting brilliantly, Warrior was suddenly exhausted and he collapsed. He had become dehydrated in the conditions and we simply didn't realise this at the time. Somebody actually said to me before I started, ‘look, he's not even sweating’. In those days, we didn’t know so much, but of course we now know he was so dehydrated the sweat had dried on him, so he was already dehydrated before we even started.

“However, because of that, good things came out of that competition and there were definite changes to the sport, as to how it is run and under what conditions it is allowed to be run in. Now, if there’s a certain heat and humidity ratio, the competition will be stopped, and horses are managed so that they never get to that state of exhaustion.


“It was all a learning curve, and it was terrible at the time, but thank God it happened, in a way, because we learned so much from that event, and modern competitions will never see those conditions again.


“Another thing I learned, was how much horses can be affected by events. Warrior was very affected. He was such a showman and he just loved playing to the crowds, so it was interesting to see how this experience totally demoralised him, mentally.


“When we got home, it was clear he wasn't really thriving, although he recovered physically, but mentally it was hard because he’d never been beaten before, not in the way where he simply couldn't complete.”


Knowing she had to find a way to switch the lights back on and help Warrior regain the joyful spirit that was his hallmark, Jane took him to a small, local show.


“I took him around the course very slowly and just let him enjoy himself,” she explained. “I had taken a rosette with me that I pinned on at the end, and it was from that moment on that he started to thrive again.


“This really brought it home to me how horses are very like us in that they can also get very depressed. Thankfully, from that moment onwards, Warrior was absolutely fine. He started to put on weight and he became his cocky old self again. I have to say, he was very pleased with his rosette, which I left on him all the way back in the horsebox.”

 

Retirement

 

Despite having more impressive outings in the coming years, Jane quietly retired from top level equestrian sports in 1992, preferring instead to enjoy her riding rather than push herself to be ever braver.


“I did my last big competition in 1992, which was Badminton,” she says. “Although I went on to do veteran’s classes and classes at the lower levels for a few years, including in 2015 to raise funds for Brooke and World Horse Welfare


“Of course, people do go on much longer nowadays, but the competitions are also shorter, so from an endurance point of view, they are totally different because they're shorter in distance, but it is also so much more technical in the way that both horses and riders have to participate.


“Where we used to gallop over long distances with relatively straightforward fences, nowadays you've got to be so mentally alert, and the horses so mentally and physically well trained, to do what they're expected to do.


“In some ways, I think it's progress and good, but in other ways, I wonder how much further we can expect horses and riders to go; to have these two living beings actually communicate enough to do the technicality required of some of these very technical fences they are expected to jump.”


As well as having to juggle the increasingly technical aspect of three-day eventing, Jane believes successful riders need to have a hunger for winning, something that gradually left her as she grew older.


“You become much more self-protective as you age, and you have to accept that,” she says. “You’re just not as brave as you once were, and if you want to win, you've got to be brave and you’ve got to go for it because somebody else will, and they will beat you.


“I was very competitive in my youth, but I got less competitive as I grew older. I enjoyed competing for a bit, but then I realised I wasn't doing myself or the horses any good because if you are going to compete at the top level, you've got to be very competitive, you've got to be forward thinking, you've got to kick on, and I wasn’t kicking on in the same way that I had been.


“Once you start losing that competitive edge it is time to do something less strenuous or drop down to a level where you feel comfortable and where you can still be competitive.”


Jane Holderness-Roddam accepting her trophy from horse-loving Queen Elizabeth II

Growing ‘self-protective’ with age will be a concept familiar to most equestrians, but in Jane’s case she also has a lot of physical reminders to keep her on track – including a back that was broken in two places after a fall at the Olympics.


“I have all sorts of aches and pains,” she admits, “but I’ve also had a few falls. I’ve done five collar bones, a bit of concussion, and broken ribs. I’ve never actually broken an arm or a leg, but I broke my back at the Olympics, without realising it at the time. I cracked it in two places, but it wasn’t until I was nursing and a 25-stone lady collapsed on top of me that I dislodged what was already cracked. That’s when I finally realised what I’d done. So, I spent six weeks in one of these awful turning beds, that they used to have 60 years ago, where you spend a few hours of the day looking at the floor. It's just one of those occupational hazards.”

 

Rewarding


While Jane is still very much involved with horses, and owns her own stables in Wiltshire, she also devotes her energies to helping young riders and promoting horse welfare. Today, she is a trustee of Brooke, an international charity that promotes the welfare of working donkeys, horses and mules in some of the poorest nations on earth.   


“I enjoy trying to help young riders and young people coming into the sport,” she says. “I try to give them a few tips, but of course, with every generation, it moves on a bit. That’s why I feel very lucky to have been involved in the horse world from such a young age because I was able to change my focus to helping with various charities.


“In the early days, I was involved with Riding for the Disabled and then World Horse Welfare and, today, with Brooke, all of which has been very rewarding.”


And of course, Jane still rides – perhaps not as fast as she used to and only when the weather is good – but after a lifetime of horses the magic remains.


“As you get older, you have to accept that you are not going to be able to do things in the same way as you did previously. So, just enjoy it for the moment and enjoy the fact that you can keep on riding.


“I no longer ride every day, and what I do is pretty basic, but I do creak a bit. I’ve had a new hip, and I’ve had two realigned knees and four operations on my feet, so I’ve learned to accept my limitations because it’s fairer to the horse to do that as well. If you're too stiff, or too worried, you're going to restrict their movement, and that's not doing right by the horse. You have to look at it from the horse's angle as well, and what you can do rather than what you can't do.”


And therein lies the essence of Jane’s luck – her horses are not a means to an end; they are her everything.


Jane Holderness-Roddam with one of her horses

“Horses have totally dominated my life,” she admits. “If it hadn’t been for horses, I would never have done any of the things that I have been able to do such as go to the Olympics and win Badminton and Burghley and meet all the people that I've met and helped all the charities that I’ve helped with.


“I remember very much the first thing I did when my parents died; I went to talk to my horses and we had a ride and I just generally had a howl with them. There's nothing more understanding or non-judgmental than a horse, which is the great thing about them, and they're great companions. Yes, they can be difficult at times, and I suspect I am too, but I think they are wonderful and they have done so much for so many people. It’s certainly true in my case.”


Photos courtesy of Jane Holderness-Roddam

 

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