“They thought I was mad” – Five-star eventer, Phoebe Buckley

Phoebe Buckley riding Tiger Mail in the 3* long at Tattersalls . Photo credit: Radka Preislerova

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“They thought I was mad” – Five-star eventer, Phoebe Buckley

They say that every good horse has a good story, and the same is surely true of riders also. Phoebe Buckley is a veteran of many 5* events, and her career achievements make for impressive reading. An excellent trainer of both horses and riders, Phoebe has a unique ability to instill belief in those who lack it, and to turn the improbable into the achievable.

Phoebe lives in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. She is a Romany gypsy. Phoebe’s parents Susan and Tom settled when their daughter was four years old in order to provide stability, and to allow Phoebe attend school. Horses were always on the periphery, and after watching a television series called ‘If Wishes Were Horses’, Phoebe was confident that horse riding was a simple enough process. She attended a riding school at 11 years of age, and requested she be put into the novice class. After several falls, reality dawned-however, Phoebe was undeterred. After a few lessons, Phoebe and her father Tom headed off to Cambridge horse and cattle market. They purchased an 11.2hh grey Welsh pony, who was delivered in the back of a Transit Van. The pony wasn’t the easiest, so six months later-after some more lessons-Tom bought a New Forest mare for Phoebe, who was called Spice. The pony’s roach back and ewe neck were no impediment, and Spice proved to be amazing.

Phoebe’s ambition was to become a show jumper, but a chance encounter with event riders Mark and Tanya Kyle changed the course of her life-

“I thought that they must be pretty rubbish if they needed all that tack and equipment on their horses! Luckily, they saw potential in me-they invited me to go up to their yard with my pony, and then I started to grow an interest in Eventing.”

Phoebe eventually outgrew Spice, so herself and Tom headed back to the sales. They picked up a 15hh horse called Conor, who Phoebe produced and sold. Through Tanya Kyle, Phoebe was introduced to Sarah Jewson-owner of Pippa Funnell”s legendary colored horse, Bits And Pieces. Sarah had a half brother to Bits And Pieces, called Twice Bitten. Phoebe began Eventing him, and together they competed up to Intermediate level. Phoebe also competed in the Pony Club, and it was at this time that she met Val Gingell. Neither side could have known it at the time, but this encounter would go on to provide them both with some truly exceptional days, at the highest level of the sport of Eventing. Twice Bitten was retired at 17, and returned to his owner. Phoebe was left with nothing to ride, so she spent a year riding out racehorses in Newmarket, and started a couple of youngsters for Val.

Phoebe coaching a clinic in Ireland.

At that time, Val owned a horse called The One and Only, who was ridden by Gary Parsonage. The horse suffered a leg injury, and Phoebe was asked to do the fitness work when the horse had recovered. They went show jumping, and then Val suggested they try an event. The pair went on to turn in a double clear at the Under 21 National Championships at Weston Park. The following season saw the horse’s injury resurface, and Phoebe was once again left with nothing to compete. She didn’t mind too much-

“I never had any ambition of making it onto a British team. I just wanted to enjoy life, whatever came my way. I got busy riding some young horses for Val, and I worked in a restaurant to fund myself. I was happy enough.”

At around this time, British rider Jeanette Brakewell had been competing a horse called The Busker, who belonged to Jo Smythe. The horse had finished eighth at Burghley in 2003, before suffering a leg injury. When the horse had recovered, Val took him on a permanent loan basis for Phoebe to ride. Val’s expertise in injury rehabilitation and fittening paid dividends, and opened the door for a whirlwind of achievement and fun. Phoebe and The Busker went on to forge a very solid partnership, and in 2005 the pair won an Advanced Intermediate competition. They also returned a double clear in the Advanced class at Belton Park. Next stop was Bramham, which culminated in a win in the prestigious under 25 class. From here, Phoebe and The Busker went on to achieve individual 4th place and won a team gold medal at the Young Rider European Championships in Sweden.

During this time, Phoebe had begun competing a funny little white mare who was bred by Val, and owned by Polly Taylor. Quirky as could be but with plenty of heart, the diminutive mare-who went by the name of Little Tiger-kept doing just enough to get the job done. Barely 15hh in her shoes, Little Tiger put in a convincing performance around the 2* events at Windsor and Hartpury in 2005. The following season saw The Busker and Phoebe take on Badminton and Burghley. Little Tiger upgraded to 3* level, and placed at Blair Castle. However, the year was a difficult one filled with setbacks, and Phoebe felt the pinch-

“I had had a few bad runs early in the season, and I felt a bit deserted. I had somehow gone from being the golden child, to being a no one. It taught me that really, we are all on our own and we must learn to be good on our own. You have to be ok with you.”

The 2007 season began with yet further difficulties, when The Busker suffered a recurrence of his old injury and was retired. Phoebe decided to enter Little Tiger for Badminton, much to the horror of those nearest to her-“They thought I was mad!”. The tiny mare set out on the course, and jumped very badly over the first two fences. Suddenly, Little Tiger seemed to get it together and flew over every fence thereafter. A rare mishap three from home saw Phoebe having to remount, but together they had completed their first 4*. The rest of the season saw people begin to sit up and take notice of this gutsy little mare, and her fan club grew. Critics doubted Little Tiger’s ability to prove her worth at 4* level, but it merely made Phoebe more determined than ever. The combination went on to contest Badminton four times-jumping a double clear in 2010-as well as Burghley and Luhmuhlen.

In 2008, Polly had some embryos taken from Little Tiger. The dream of continuing the story with Little Tiger’s progeny was to become reality later on, but the road ahead was to prove bumpy for Phoebe. Following Little Tiger’s retirement from competition in 2010, and the sale of Phoebe’s next team prospect-a horse called Flash Gordon-life became eerily quiet. Phoebe found herself with limited funds, a distinct lack of horsepower and in a difficult mindset-

“I gave up a bit. I briefly moved to Wales before realizing how great home really was, so I moved back to Cambridge. I went racing and point to pointing, and decided to enjoy life for a bit.”

In Phoebe’s absence, Val had bought a three year old bay gelding. The son of Jaguar Mail was out of Little Tiger, as a result of that 2008 embryo transfer. Phoebe got the horse-called Tiger Mail-broken, and steadily began to make progress with him-

“He was quite an insecure horse early on in his career. He was a late foal, and he felt immature for a long time. He spent a full season at BE100 to build his confidence, and didn’t contest a novice level event until he was 6. He was almost a bit shy in the Showjumping arena, and initially I questioned his mental strength. I’m so lucky with Val-she is so loyal to me ,and so prepared to give the horses the time they need, so I didn’t feel under pressure to push Tiger Mail until he was ready.”

 


 

The 2019 season saw Tiger Mail start his campaign full of confidence. It has been a learning curve for Phoebe, as the 15.2hh bay gelding has showed that he can be a little less than straightforward at times-a cheeky 20 penalties across country at the first event of the year proved informative. A little more work and plenty of schooling soon had the horse back on the straight and narrow, and then he went to Tattersalls International for the 3* Long with several good results behind him. The future looks bright for this combination.

Photo credit: Radka Preislerova

On the surface, this story is the stuff of dreams for young, aspiring riders. However, the subplot for Phoebe has frequently proven to be an absolute living nightmare. Her ethnicity had gone largely unknown, unnoticed and unquestioned until her prominent rise to success with Little Tiger-

“At our second Badminton together, I received a phone call from the press office and was asked to make my way there. I thought it was a bit odd, but I went anyway. The paparazzi had learned of my Romany heritage, and suddenly I was big news. They painted me as the poor gypsy against the rich elite, in the sport of Eventing. The press just would not let it go, and it proved very difficult-particularly for my parents. I am neither proud nor ashamed of who I am. I am JUST Phoebe. That’s all. When the story broke, I became painfully aware of the shift in attitude towards me by some people within the sport. Some of the reactions were shocking. A lot of people are very anti Traveller and anti Gypsy, and many of us wonder what it is we have to do to be accepted as a whole, and not judged on the actions of others. It is hard for me to listen to people criticizing and condemning the Gypsy and Traveller community, especially if they are unaware of my own ethnicity. I have represented my country and won a gold medal, yet I am judged on my background, and not on who I am or by my ability. The middle years of my career were very difficult, but it taught me a lot about myself, and about others. Things have improved and I know who I am. I know my own worth, and I’m ok with me.”

In recent times, Phoebe’s resolve was yet again tested when she found herself the victim of an online bullying campaign. Phoebe approached British Eventing and also The British Equestrian Federation, in the hope of highlighting the dangers of social media-

“Social media bullying ends lives, and it is dangerous-especially within the insular equestrian industry. Professional riders should be looking out for eachother. When one professional rider attacks another on line, it sets a very bad precedent and is extremely damaging to the sport. It also serves as a poor example of appropriate conduct to the younger riders within the sport. This bullying incident got under my skin. It made me wary, and I was living in dread of what might be posted next. I no longer wanted to event. Bullies don’t care about the consequences of their actions, they don’t stop to think, “Why am I bullying this person”. Do they feel better for making another feel worse? I have been made to feel bad for talking about bullying. I have been made to feel wrong for speaking out, and for taking action. I am very disappointed with the current situation, but someone must stand up for what is right-even if they stand alone.”

That’s a philosophy we can all support.

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