“As soon as the words came out of my mouth I thought, what an idiot, why did I say that? And on live television, too. Brilliant.” Jennifer Saunders had been filming at the International Horse Show for her documentary about riding when she bumped into Clare Balding, who was reporting with a television news crew. Balding interviewed her about her enthusiasm for all things horsey and before she knew it, Saunders had volunteered, on camera, to compete in one of the world’s top sporting events, the Badminton Horse Trials.
“I hadn’t planned to take part in any jumping competitions myself,” she says. “The whole point of my documentary was to re-engage viewers with horses and riding. I’d been happily admiring snaffle bits and saddle soap when Clare mentioned the Grassroots Championship at Badminton, an amateur event for up-and-coming riders, and I stupidly said, Y’eah! I’ll do that!’
“Of course, the production team saw the opportunity and I just couldn’t get out of it. They wouldn’t let me go back on my word and I was really cross with them.”
Though a member of the Pony Club as a teenager, Saunders had shunned competitive sport. “I never really enjoyed it when I was younger,” she says. “I always found it too nerve-racking. Because I’m so competitive I can’t bear to lose, so I’d get more and more nervous as the competition approached, and I probably communicated that to my pony.
“Plus, I was always afraid of jumping when I was a child. I had a serious fear of falling off. But I used to daydream about being discovered by scouts for the Olympics. I think that was every girl’s dream at the time, to be like Marion Coakes, who rode her pony Stroller through Pony Club to the 1968 Olympics. He was absolutely tiny compared to the other horses that were competing, yet she won a silver medal with him.”
To prepare for the Grassroots Championships, Saunders called in help from the experts. She had her first jumping lesson since the age of 15 from top showjumper Tim Stockdale, was put through her paces over a cross-country course by Piggy French, a seasoned eventer, and was even given advice by Princess Anne, who walked the cross-country course with her during an event at Gatcombe Park.
Her essential riding kit included a rapid-inflating safety air jacket that would protect her neck and back in the event of a fall. “It’s like an exploding life jacket,” Saunders explains. “It fills with air and holds you in a vice grip. It’s a brilliant thing, because I just think you break much more easily when you’re older. But it doesn’t do much in the way of making you look good. Jodhpurs and jackets used to feel cool, but not now. Not at all.”
And then there was the most important expert of all – a very big horse called Jack. “His professional name is Black Pearl and he is 17.2 hands high, such a long way from the 14-hand pony I rode as a teenager,” she says. “It was the first time I’d ridden a seriously proper horse. He’d been there, done it and was so laid back, just the loveliest horse in the world. And the funny thing was, after my lesson with Tim, I realised I just loved jumping.”
Perhaps, however, somebody should have suggested a navigation lesson: “I did get lost a couple of times when it came to competing in one event. I’ve never really jumped a course before and there were 20 jumps to go round.
“It was never my intention to do all 20, anyway. I said, ‘I’m just going to do a couple and that’s all it’s going to be’. But once in the arena I carried on. For me to do the lot was a bonus. When I lost my way, I looked around and people pointed me in the direction of the next jump.”
So, having gone above and beyond the call of duty, does Saunders think we’ll rediscover our love of equine sports after watching her two-part film? “I hope so. When I was a teenager there was showjumping on TV almost every Saturday night. Showjumpers were international, well-known sports personalities and events like Horse of the Year Show were really big events, as entertaining as the Eurovision Song Contest. It wasn’t just the excitement of show jumping; they showed Pony Club competitions such as bending and sack races.
“But then they started to edit events so you only saw clear rounds. You didn’t see the fences coming down or the refusals. It became sterilised, and that made dull viewing.
“I can’t believe it’s not on TV any more. It’s seriously good fun.”