Real lives: ‘If Mum wins one Olympic gold, I’ll have to get three!’

Meet the mother and daughter who battle it out for victory in the elite world of eventing, Mary and Emily King

Mary with Kings Temptress, her reserve horse for the Olympics, and daughter Emily with Mr Hiho

Mary with Kings Temptress, her reserve horse for the Olympics, and daughter Emily with Mr Hiho

Mary King, the 2011 world number one in eventing (the exacting equestrian sport comprising dressage, cross country and showjumping) is one of Britain’s brightest Olympic hopes. At 51, she will be our oldest female Olympian at this games and is competing for the sixth time – equalling the record set by javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson. Having won team silver in 2004 and team bronze in 2008, Mary is now going for gold. And cheering her the loudest will be her 16-year-old daughter Emily, one of the UK’s most promising young eventers. Emily, who lives with her mum, father David and younger brother Freddie on the family farm in Devon, is too young to enter this year’s Olympics – equestrian competitors must be at least 18 – but she and Mary regularly go head to head at horse trials. Here they talk about what it is like to be mother and daughter rivals.

I was 34 when Emily was born in 1996 and becoming a mother made me feel whole – but it didn’t stop me wanting to ride. Everybody told me I’d feel differently about my career once I had children and that I would lose my competitive edge. I rode until the day before she was born – it never occurred to me that everything would be other than fine. Within a fortnight I was back in the saddle. Five months after that, I was competing in the Olympics in Atlanta. Emily stayed at home with her granny and it was a real wrench leaving her for three and a half weeks during the games. But I have been incredibly lucky to have a mother who was prepared to care for both my children – not ever having to employ a nanny has certainly eased my guilt; I am not sure I could have had my career without her.

Atlanta was my second Olympics – I competed in Barcelona when I was 31. Eventing is one of
those rare sports where experience triumphs over age – at 31, Zara Phillips will be the youngest member of our team this year, while I am the oldest. That thought doesn’t worry me – I’ve just had one of my best years ever. I came back empty-handed from the Olympics three times before winning medals at Athens and Hong Kong [where the Beijing equestrian events were held]. The dream is to secure gold this time, but so much depends on everything going right on the day, so you have to hold your nerve.

Mary won team medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Mary won team medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Mary won team medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics

I am told that my sporting ambition comes from my father, but I couldn’t know because six months before I was born, he suffered personality-changing head injuries in a motorcycle accident. He was a dashing naval officer and had been on his way home from a game of squash when he was found unconscious in the road. No one knows to this day what happened, but the accident changed our lives for ever. He managed to get a job as a verger, which came with a rent-free cottage. But he had fits and couldn’t bear any noise, so my brother Simon and I grew up without a television and had to learn to be quiet children.

No one in our family rode, but from the age of five, I longed for a pony of my own. There was no hope, as we had no money. But the vicar’s brother let me ride his pony, Magpie, and when I was six, I won five rosettes in the local gymkhana.

I joined the Pony Club and a farming family lent me another pony. From then on, my childhood revolved around horses. At 11, I went to the Badminton Horse Trials for the first time. All the riders looked amazingly smart and sleek. It seemed impossible, but I knew I wanted to be part of that world. I left my girls’ grammar school at 16 to work in the yard of Sheila Willcox, a legendary eventing trainer. I also dug gardens, cleaned campsite loos, picked fruit – anything I could to raise money for riding. In 1985, I entered Badminton and finished seventh and was presented with spurs by the Queen for being the best under-25 rider. Seven years later, I won. I still feel that win was the best moment of my life.

Emily has grown up around my yard and been carted around horse trials since she was a baby. In a way, she has had it all on a plate, but you still have to have the bug. Her brother Freddie, 13, fell off a horse once and never wanted to ride again. Emily fell off, jumped back on, and never wanted to stop. She has always striven to jump higher and go faster. I have taught her a fair bit, but I have also tried to keep my mouth shut. She needs to be able to do her own thing. Like me, she is determined, but where I am fairly even-tempered, she’s feisty.

Mary and Kings Temptress in action last September

Mary and Kings Temptress in action last September

She’s desperate to beat me, but although we have competed numerous times in the past three years, I’ve stayed ahead. I give her whatever help I can. We walk courses together and she’ll ask my advice about what angle to approach a fence, but once the competition starts, I am out there for myself. If she does beat me, good for her, and I will be thrilled to bits, but I am not going to let it happen – that would be a hollow victory for her. She has got to feel that she has won despite me having given my all.

For both of us, injuries are an occupational hazard. Eleven years ago I was riding a young
horse up a field and a pheasant flew out of the hedge. My horse bucked and I landed on the back of my neck. At first, the hospital said I had whiplash, but my head felt very loose and a week later I saw a consultant who told me my neck was broken.

Three years ago, Emily had a similar fall. Again, it was caused by a bird flying out of a hedge. Her horse reared and fell backwards, crushing her beneath him. A farmhand found her in a heap. I rushed up not knowing whether I was going to find a dead daughter, but she was vaguely conscious. We got her airlifted to hospital where they found she had broken her pelvis. The risk of serious injury – and even death – is always there with eventing, but you have to balance that with the excitement. If Emily has a bad fall and hurts herself, so be it. But there is no way I would stop her because it is dangerous – it is too thrilling for that.

Emily is way ahead in her riding ability compared to how I was at 16, but she has also had to learn to cope with defeat. She was in gold medal position at the Junior European Championships last year but
a bad jump put her back to seventh place. It was gutting, but she was a gracious loser. She says she’ll be even more successful than I have been – but I intend to make her wait a few more years before she overtakes me! I know she will be cheering me on at London 2012, and we’ve already had a brief conversation about Rio in 2016. There is the slightest chance that we could both compete there – I will be getting very old by then, and Emily will still be very young – but it is a captivating thought.

Thanks to Mum, I have been surrounded by horses all my life. But being the daughter of the 2011 world number one eventer brings its own pressures. Mum has won six team World and European Championship gold medals, and four British Open titles – plus she’s about to compete in her sixth Olympic Games. And there’s an expectation that I should be as good as – and eventually better than – her because it is in my blood. That is a lot to live up to.

I was lucky enough to go and see Mum both in Athens and Hong Kong. I’ve seen her compete thousands of times at horse trials, but there is something very special about the Olympics – the size of the stadiums, the mix of the audience and the fact that you have competitors there from all over the world. I can still picture her walking on the podium to collect her medal in 2008. My dream is to do that one day. Mum keeps her medals on a hook by the door of our downstairs loo, but I am not sure I would be quite so modest.

Mary and Emily with Mr Hiho

Mary and Emily with Mr Hiho

To many, it must seem obvious that I would follow in Mum’s footsteps, but she’s never pushed. I was five when I got my first loan pony and 12 when I started eventing. I’ve learnt so much from Mum. She’ll walk a course with me before a competition and give me tips – but she would never let me win.

I wouldn’t say I’m feisty, but I am independent. I like to do my own schooling when training my horses for dressage and just ask for help when I am struggling. It is important to carve my own niche. I can’t wait for the day when I am mentioned in press reports simply as Emily King, rather than ‘Emily King, daughter of…’

I ride three horses for two different owners at the moment. My main horse is Mr Hiho, who came from a dealer in Wales. I tried him out and thought he was amazing, but Mum thought he was too big – he’s 16.3 hands – and didn’t like him. That was three years ago and I’ve managed to prove Mum wrong because he is such a talented horse.

My owners and I chose my other two horses, Charlemagne and Miss Indigo, after watching clips
of them on YouTube earlier this year. They come from Holland and were 8,000 each. It was risky – Mum has always seen her horses in the flesh before committing. But she watched the clips and we made the decision to go for them.

‘If Emily does beat me, good for her, and I will be thrilled, but I am not going to let it happen’

Until now, I have had to fit riding around school, which has meant weekends only during the winter and early morning starts in the summer. But now that I have done my GCSEs, I am going to spend the next year showjumping training and working in a yard in Sweden. Mum went to work in a yard at the same age, so she has no problem with me doing it. Dad, who is a farmer, was a little wary, but he has been persuaded. It’s a bit scary – all my friends are staying on at school and planning to go to university. But if I want to be a successful eventer, I have to give it my all.

I’d say Mum and I are probably closer than some mothers and daughters, but I still have my own life.
I don’t have a boyfriend at the moment, but I have had one. And while I can talk to Mum about anything, I don’t share all my secrets with her.

One of the most remarkable things about Mum is her ability to keep smiling. I’ve watched her win many times, but I’ve also seen her have some crushing defeats. Four years ago, she was leading throughout Badminton, and then fell on the second to last fence of the cross country. Obviously, she was devastated, but she never blames the horse. She says that if you can’t cope with disappointment, you won’t last long as an eventer, and she’s right.

I’ll be going to London to cheer Mum on in the Olympics and it would be wonderful to see her win gold. Although the slight downside is that she’ll be giving me even more to live up to. If she gets one gold, I’ll have to get three! My main motivation is wanting to beat her success. But I know that when
I do, she’ll be really proud of me.

Mary King, will be riding in the London 2012 Olympics at Greenwich Park from 28-31 July