Honouring Her Majesty: An Equestrian Biography of Queen Elizabeth II

By CuChullaine O’Reilly F.R.G.S.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II mounted on Imperial. The first equestrian portrait of the Queen showed her wearing the Uniform of the Scots Guards. It was painted in 1963 by Leonard Boden.

Few lives have been filled with so many enormous events. When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952 Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. That mighty empire disappeared and the world changed but for 70 years there was one political and emotional stability in millions of people’s lives: Queen Elizabeth II.

The longest reigning British monarch in history, she was Commander in Chief of the Army, Head of the Church of England, attended 21,000 public engagements, gave her Royal Assent to 4,000 Acts of Parliament and raised more than £1.4 billion for worthy causes. She met five Popes and thirteen US Presidents. She greeted 15 British prime ministers from Winston Churchill to Liz Truss.

Yet politics never dimmed her passion for horses. She first mounted at the age of 3 and spent the next 93 years of her life, riding, raising and racing thousands of horses. This unique biography offers the first chronological equestrian review of this remarkable royal horse woman.

1931: Princess Elizabeth riding her first pony, Peggy.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was born in Mayfair, London on April 21, 1926. She was the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother). Her first riding lesson took place in the private riding school at Buckingham Palace Mews in January 1930. At the age of five she rode Peggy, a Shetland pony given to her by King George V, to a meet of the Pytchley Hounds at Boughton Cover.

1936: King George VI and Princess Elizabeth riding at Windsor Castle.

In 1936 her uncle was crowned King Edward VIII but later that year he abdicated when his proposed marriage to divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson provoked a political crisis. Consequently Elizabeth’s father became King George VI. The ten-year- old princess thus became the heir to the throne. As a future Queen she was privately tutored in constitutional history. However a Girl Guides company, the 1st Buckingham Palace Company, was formed so that Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret could socialize with girls their own age.

1945: Queen Mary was a keen race fan whose horses won more than 500 races. She passed this passion for racing on to her daughter Princess Elizabeth.

Britain entered the Second World War in 1939. When the Luftwaffe began bombing London it was suggested that Queen Mary and her two daughters evacuate to Canada. The Queen famously scoffed at the idea of retreating from the Nazis, telling the public, “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”

Instead Princess Elizabeth chose to defend her country by joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The 19-year-old Elizabeth was the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Services as a full-time active member. Registered as inductee No. 230873, under the name Elizabeth Windsor, she completed a mechanic training course that taught her how to repair and rebuild engines. She also learned how to drive jeeps, trucks and ambulances. When Germany surrendered in 1945 Junior Commander Elizabeth Windsor celebrated in the streets with her fellow Londoners.

1947: Wearing the uniform of the Grenadier Guards, Princess Elizabeth rode Tommy, a bay police horse, during her first Trooping the Colour.

In 1947 Princess Elizabeth made her first overseas tour, accompanying her parents to Africa. On her 21st birthday she made a pledge to the British Commonwealth via a radio broadcast.

“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Her promise to devote herself to the service of others was quickly put to the test. King George had been a symbol of British courage during the war. Yet the stress of the conflict had taken its toll on the monarch’s health. Elizabeth, the heir presumptive, took on more royal duties as her father’s health deteriorated.

The annual Trooping the Colour military parade is held the second Saturday of June. With her father too ill to attend, in 1947 Princess Elizabeth rode in his place. This ancient ceremony is a demonstration of the Army’s loyalty to the Monarch and their nation. The pageant, which features 1,200 troops, 400 musicians and 240 horses, takes place outside Buckingham Palace on The Mall and Horse Guard’s Parade.

 In November of that year Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey. Even though the young couple received 2,500 wedding gifts from around the world, the princess was required to use ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding gown.

 Their first child, Charles, was born in 1948. Their second child, Anne, was born in 1950. While their children remained at home, the Princess and Prince departed on a tour of Australia. They had reached the British colony of Kenya when King George passed away on February 6, 1952.

The young princess, wife and mother who had departed, returned to Britain to assume her duties as Queen Elizabeth II.

1953: To honour Queen Elizabeth 1 and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, this vast equestrian statue and monument were erected in London.

Even though she technically became Queen when King George died, the actual coronation was not held for more than a year. The need for this delay was two-fold. It allowed the nation to honour and grieve for the King. Plus it permitted the government and country fourteen months to prepare for the elaborate coronation ceremony.

One extraordinary display of patriotism was created by the Selfridges department store. The company commissioned sculptor Peter Mancini to create a towering equestrian statue depicting Queen Elizabeth II riding her horse Winston (Churchill). Towering above the statue was a painting of Queen Elizabeth 1. Quotes from the two queens, dated 1558 and 1953, loomed above Oxford Street.

 On the morning of June 2, 1953 an estimated 3 million people gathered in the streets of London to try to catch a glimpse of their new monarch. They were not disappointed.

Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, rode from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in the Gold State Coach. The carriage was pulled by eight grey geldings, named Cunningham, Tovey, Noah, Tedder, Eisenhower, Snow White, Tipperary, and McCreery.

The coronation ceremony dates back more than a millennium. The Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown — which weighs almost 5 pounds and dates back to 1661 — on the Queen’s head. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury and the nation’s royalty knelt to pledge their support to her. Those gathered in the Abbey shouted, “God save the Queen.”

 The queen responded, “Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”

Her official title was “Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.”

1959: Despite her duties as a monarch, Queen Elizabeth never overlooked her role as a mother. This included encouraging her children to join her in the saddle.

When the crown was placed upon her head, the new Queen became responsible for a complex set of duties. She was a constitutional monarch who opened each session of Parliament in person and held weekly meetings with the Prime Minister. She was the Head of the Commonwealth, an organisation of 54 independent and equal countries that work towards shared goals. She was the Head of the Church of England and attended religious ceremonies such as the Royal Maundy Service held at St George’s Chapel inside Windsor Castle. As Commander in Chief of the Army, Navy and Air Force, she held more than fifty ranks including Colonel-in-Chief of the Scots Guards.

 However her love as a mother was passed on to her children via her passion for horses. Charles, the Prince of Wales, who rode alongside his mother at Windsor Castle, became an enthusiastic polo player and passed his love of that sport on to the Queen’s grandsons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

 The Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, was the first member of the royal family to participate in the Olympics. In 1976 Anne competed in the equestrian three-day event held in Montreal. The Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Tindall, won a silver medal for equestrian eventing in the 2012 Olympics.

1961: Wearing one of her trademark Hermes headscarves, the monarch who was mad about racing would gallop around the Ascot course prior to the first race of the season.

Upon ascending the throne, the Queen inherited her father’s valuable collection of race horses. “The Sport of Kings” became a passion for the Queen, who maintained stables at every one of her royal residences.

The Queen was a serious student of racing. In 1954 and 1957 she earned the Champion Owner title in British flat racing, an honor that went to the owner whose horses had won the most prize money during that season. Between 1988 and 2017, Queen Elizabeth’s horses ran in 2830 races. Her last racing triumph occurred in 2022.

Of all the races which she attended, the Royal Ascot was the premier equestrian sports event. Founded by Queen Anne in 1711, the Ascot Racecourse is located outside London. For more than 300 years the Kings and Queen of Great Britain have attended the annual race in June.

Preceding the start of the five-day event is the Royal Procession. Each day of the event the Queen and members of the Royal Family were driven along the track in horse- drawn carriages. They then watched the races from the Royal Enclosure. The Royal Ascot received the patronage of eleven monarchs and was attended by the Queen every year starting in 1945.

1972: Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth celebrate their silver wedding anniversary at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

Royalty is no guarantee of happiness but in this respect Queen Elizabeth was one of the luckiest women of all time because she married the love of her life.

 Prince Philip Mountbatten was tall, strikingly handsome and a seasoned veteran of the Second World War where he had been one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy. During the invasion of Sicily he had saved his ship from a night bomber attack.

He was then transferred to Pacific, where he was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the declaration of surrender.

 With the blessing of King George, Philip married Princess Elizabeth in 1947. On the day of their wedding Philip was made the Duke of Edinburgh. He played polo until 1971 when he developed an interest in carriage driving. Two or four-wheeled carriages are pulled by a single horse, a pair or a four-in-hand team. Prince Philip helped develop the sport and write the rule book. When he was 99, Prince Philip’s youngest granddaughter, 18-year-old Princess Louise, was inspired to compete in the British Carriage Driving Championship.

The Prince retired from his royal duties in 2017, aged 96, having completed 22,219 solo engagements and given 5,493 speeches from 1952. More importantly Philip served as the consort of the British monarch from Elizabeth’s accession as queen in 1952 until his death in 2021, making him the longest-serving royal consort in history. Their marriage had lasted 73 years.

In her Christmas broadcast that year, the Queen paid a personal tribute to her “beloved Philip”, saying, “That mischievous, inquiring twinkle was as bright at the end as when I first set eyes on him”.

1977: A mounted monarch in good times and bad.

The Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II marked the 25th anniversary of her accession to the throne. On June 6th the Queen lit a bonfire beacon at Windsor Castle, the light of which spread across the night in a chain of other beacons throughout the whole country.

Other nations honoured the Queen as well. New Zealand created a set of commemorative postage stamps. Yet the regiments of the Household Division marked the occasion by commissioning Susan Crawford to paint the queen in the saddle. The portrait shows the Queen, dressed in a tweed jacket and jodhpurs, enjoying a moment of peace as she rides Worcran across the pastoral countryside above Windsor Castle.

Shakespeare had wisely written, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The artist made the intentional choice to place threatening clouds in the distance, symbolic of the many international and domestic crises that would disrupt the queen’s reign.

During her 70 years on the throne Queen Elizabeth saw 15 British prime ministers come and go, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson to Liz Truss.

Though political parties rose and fell, the queen remained a source of solace for her subjects as they dealt with the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, the death of 116 children and 28 adults when debris from a coal mine buried an elementary school in the Welsh village of Aberfan in 1966, the Falklands War that erupted in 1982 and Princess Diana’s death in 1996.

In 1981 an anti-royalist plotted to assassinate the Queen. He sent a letter to Buckingham Palace which read, “Your Majesty. Don’t go to the Trooping the Colour ceremony because there is an assassin set up to kill you, waiting just outside the palace”. But the letter was delayed in the mail. Unable to obtain ammunition for his father’ service revolver, the would-be killer purchased two blank-firing replica Colt Python revolvers and was waiting in the crowd. When the Queen rode past, the would- be killer fired six shots at point blank range. Burmese, the Queen’s mount was startled but the monarch quickly brought the horse under control. Unharmed, she rode on. Her assailant was instantly captured and when questioned said, “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be somebody.”

Later that year a sniper attempted to kill her while she was visiting New Zealand.

1982: Queen Elizabeth riding at Windsor Castle with President Reagan during a state visit.

When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1952 Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union, Mao Tse Tung commanded China, Pandit Nehru led India and Harry Truman was president of the United States.

 Queen Elizabeth’s reign spanned 14 presidencies and she met all but one, Lyndon Johnson; Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Beginning in 1951, Queen Elizabeth cultivated a seventy-year friendship with the White House, visiting the United States several times as both princess and queen. Her visits included four State Visits, five State Dinners, and two unofficial visits during her reign.

1992: A champion of liberty, a skilled diplomat and a gracious stateswoman of unmatched dignity.

The queen met five Popes and hosted 112 State Visits to the United Kingdom, including Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (1954), Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1971), President Lech Walęsa of Poland (1991) and President Barack Obama of the USA (2011).

Soon after ascending to the throne the Queen began an unprecedented life of travel. She began in 1953 by embarking on a seven-month round-the-world tour, visiting 13 countries and covering more than 64,000 kilometres (40,000 miles) by land, sea and air. During her 70 year reign she visited 106 different countries, making her the most widely travelled head of state in history. Because all British passports were issued in her name, she did require one for overseas travel.

In honor of her 40th year of ruling and Canada’s 125th anniversary the Canadian Parliament commissioned Jack Harman to create the first equestrian statue of Her Majesty. She was depicted riding Canadian bred Centennial, a horse presented to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Queen Elizabeth unveiled the statue in Ottawa on July 1, 1992.

2002: Fifty years after she travelled to her coronation in the Gold State coach, the Queen marked her Golden Jubilee anniversary by riding through London alongside Prince Philip for a second time.

During a visit to Canada in 1969 Prince Philip expressed his opinion on the duties of his royal wife. “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people. If at any time any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”

The Prince spoke with such conviction because he knew that Queen Elizabeth had done her best to fulfill her vow to serve her subjects. This included attending 21,000 public engagements, given her Royal Assent to 4,000 Acts of Parliament, being the Patron of more than 500 organisations and raising more than £1.4 billion for worthy causes.

As Sovereign she was a symbol of national identity, unity and pride. Her annual Christmas broadcast was a treasured holiday tradition. During her reign the Queen sent 307,000 cards to people in the United Kingdom celebrating their 100th birthday.

The Queen was also the protector of the Royal Collection, one of the largest and most important art collections in the world. Held in trust for the nation, it includes more than a million paintings, watercolours, drawings, photographs, decorative art, books and rare manuscripts.

2016: A lifelong friend to horses, the Queen admires the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.

Held annually since 1943, the Royal Windsor Horse Show is the United Kingdom’s largest outdoor horse show. The five-day event hosts international competition for dressage, show jumping, carriage driving and endurance riding. The national equestrian event held special significance in 2016 as the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday celebrations.

The Queen was a renowned animal lover. Her passion for all things equestrian is well known but she was also the Patron of 30 animal charities and championed rural life. During her life she owned 30 Corgis, which she enjoyed because of their energy and untamed spirit.

2020: In the saddle during the global health crisis.

Founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest castle in the world. It has been the home of 40 monarchs. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Great Britain in 2020, the Queen and Prince Philip sought sanctuary within the safety of Windsor Castle and its extensive grounds.

During that national emergency the Queen urged people, “take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

While biding her time in quarantine the Queen rode most mornings, often choosing Balmoral Fern, one of the Fell Ponies which she was fond of.

2022: Celebrating 70 years on the throne alongside the iconic horses that symbolised her reign.

February 6th marked the Platinum Jubilee of the monarch who had ascended to the throne 70 years before. In the message broadcast that day the Queen renewed the commitment to a lifetime of public service which she had originally stated in 1947.

Later that month she tested positive for COVID-19, which left her tired and exhausted. But her health had sufficiently recovered by April 21st that she was able to celebrate her 96th birthday. In a symbolic gesture of the equestrian monarch Queen Elizabeth was photographed standing alongside two snow-white Fell Ponies, Bybeck Kate and Bybeck Nightingale. Photo courtesy Henry Dallal.

On June 13th she became the longest reigning British monarch in history.

In keeping with family tradition, the Queen travelled to Scotland in August and took up residence at her beloved Balmoral Castle. This was the Queen’s “happy place” where she and Prince Philip had escaped from the pressures of royal life.

It was also the place where she performed her last official duty, when on September 6th she appointed her 15th British prime minister.

2022: A world in mourning.

Because of her extensive knowledge of equestrian history, the author sent Queen Elizabeth the books and research he had published. Always gracious, courteous and curious, Her Majesty sent replies in May 2008, July 2009, November 2011 and May 2017 to express her interest in his new equine discoveries.

In late July the author sent a preview of the Shakespeare Equestrian Collection to Queen Elizabeth. Her reply from Balmoral Castle, which arrived on August 15th, acknowledged the monarch’s interest in how the SEC had contrasted the starkly different equestrian worlds of Queen Elizabeth 1 and Queen Elizabeth II.

In the previous century she had stated the meaning and mission of her existence.

 “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Her vow fulfilled, on September 8th the beloved monarch passed away peacefully. Prince Charles and Princess Anne were at her side.

 Like the vast majority of humanity the Queen had been an emotional anchor throughout my life. I had witnessed unjust wars inflicted on innocent millions. Politicians had lied with regularity. Corruption thrived. Greed, envy, racism, sexism and every type of evil had flourished during the 68 years of my life. Yet standing alone in stark contrast was the Queen who represented self-sacrifice, duty, courage, loyalty and modesty.

I wept. The world wept with me.

When the funeral cortege arrived at Windsor Castle a final touching equestrian event occurred. The Queen had ridden Emma, a Fell Pony, for fifteen years. The loyal horse and her groom were waiting. The monarch’s Hermes scarf had been draped over the saddle. According to numerous eyewitnesses Emma lifted her right leg in respect as the Queen’s cortege passed.

2022: Her mounted Majesty waves goodbye.

More than a million people lined the streets of London to witness the passing of their Queen. Her family and 2000 others, including dignitaries from every corner of the globe, witnessed the Monarch’s funeral at Westminster Abbey on September 19th, the firstsuch service since the death of King George II in 1760.

That evening the Queen was interred alongside Prince Philip, and her father and mother, in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Within the chapel are the tombs of 11 other monarchs but none I believe so gracious and beloved as she.

Rest in Peace, Oh Noble Queen!

CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild and the Editor of Equestrian Investigations for HRL magazine. An award winning journalist, O’Reilly has spent more than forty-years investigating equestrian exploration and history. He is the author of The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration and The Horse Travel Handbook. longriders@thelongridersguild.com