Sooz Kempner reflects on a life of pink satin tailcoats, horses called Fancy and the woman who introduced her to “the most feminist sport of all”.
An 18-month-old Sooz on Ollie the horse
I was brought up with horses and, yes, it was as weird as it sounds. Well, nearly. I don’t remember the ﬁrst time I sat on a horse because I hadn’t yet walked or formed my ﬁrst sentence.
When I was six I performed a solo dressage display at a charity exhibition to the music from The Pink Panther while dressed in a pink satin tailcoat. It was my ﬁrst foray into show business and I’m disappointed that no footage of it exists because I have a feeling things peaked for me there.
Equestrianism ran in the family. My mum is a professional dressage rider. She’s competed nationally (in 1992 she was Fry’s national champion) and I’m certain she loves her current horse, a gigantic chestnut mare, at LEAST as much as she loves me.
Weekends usually saw me accompanying Mum to a horse show. When we weren’t at an event we’d be scouring the TV schedules for whatever showjumping, eventing or dressage we could find (pre-internet it was all about the Eurosport channel). My heroes weren’t pop stars or actors but British Olympic medallists Mary King and Pippa Funnell and I had childish dreams of Olympic medals of my own (I’m over it now [I’m not]).
I soon became aware of another brilliant aspect of equestrianism: here was a sport that treated women and men as equals. Imagine! I grew up seeing Mum compete against men (and often win) in the arena.
In the Olympics, the equestrian events are the only ones in which men and women compete together. The women don’t jump smaller fences than the men. They don’t have longer time limits to complete the cross-country course. There aren’t lower score requirements for women to qualify for the dressage. There aren’t separate medals for men and women. How inspiring is that?
The answer, for an increasing number of people, is “very”.
Just before the London Olympics, Clare Balding was asked which of the more niche sports was going to capture the public’s imagination. “Dressage”, she insisted. Even I, as a life-long fan and occasional competitor, thought “naahhh”. But when Great Britain’s dressage team, for the very ﬁrst time, took team gold, Twitter was abuzz with comments ranging from “This is amazing!” to “WTF…why are these horses dancing?”
When Great Britain’s dressage team, for the very ﬁrst time, took team gold, Twitter was abuzz with comments ranging from “This is amazing!” to “WTF…why are these horses dancing?”
I can see how the sight of a shiny horse moving forwards, backwards, sideways and in circles to music would be baffling to someone who hasn’t come across it before. GB’s own Laura Tomlinson, for example, won individual bronze on her horse with a routine to music from The Lion King.
Seriously. But I would challenge those who insist it isn’t a real sport to spend just 15 minutes in the saddle being instructed by one of our Olympic team. If you’re able to walk the next day I will give you £1000 (I won’t, but you know what I mean). It’s TOUGH.
I asked Mum how she would describe the sport to novices. “It’s ballet with horses,” she says. “It’s all about controlled performance. You have to get the horse to perform without dominating them. It’s essential that the horse enjoys what it’s doing. It takes years for a partnership to reach the highest level.” When dear old Mama Kempner hears cries of “But the rider isn’t doing anything,” she takes it as a compliment.
Equestrianism has always been Mum’s number one passion, which is something I really respect: none of this “children come ﬁrst” nonsense. She was riding until a month before she had me and was back in the saddle less than a month afterwards. “I used to put you in the corner of the arena in your pram while I rode,” she tells me. Gee, thanks Mum! “You were asleep, you were fine,” she laughs.
I competed frequently into my teens, rode a mad and brilliant old horse called Fancy, and was always known as “Anna Kempner’s daughter” (Mum is quite the diva so she probably loved that).
Still, even now there’s a wistful bit of me that thinks I could retake the reins at any moment. Could I? Probably not. You could get me the greatest horse money could buy and I’d still probably end up breaking my neck.
I look fondly on my years in the saddle but, for me, the most enduringly wonderful thing about equestrianism is its gender parity. It’s just plain accepted that skill, patience and bravery are things that men and women can possess equally. It’s the most feminist sport of all.
Sooz’s mum winning a national dressage championship in 1992
No one would ever say, “Your mum’s pretty good for a girl”. Medals in equestrianism don’t have to be divided by gender because when it comes to dressage the women really are riding high.
Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.