How daily horse rides have helped the Queen through lockdown

Harry Mount
Over the weekend, the Queen was pictured riding her pony, Balmoral Fern at Windsor Castle - Steve Parsons/PA
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At a time when her kingdom is in an unprecedented state of chaos, how reassuring to see the Queen back in the saddle, quite literally. Over the weekend, Her Majesty was photographed for the first time since leaving Buckingham Palace for lockdown at Windsor Castle – riding Balmoral Fern, a 14-year-old fell pony, while sporting jodhpurs, a green blazer and a headscarf decorated in racing silk colours.

Here’s hoping she was watching as horse racing became the first UK sport to return after the coronavirus lockdown today with a ten-race card at Newcastle Racecourse.

HM may have been riding on a flat, neatly manicured lawn in Windsor Great Park. But how many other 94-year-olds are still riding at all, let alone in a marvelously devil-may-care headscarf rather than a helmet?  

“It was remarkable to see her looking so well,” says Hugo Vickers, biographer of the Queen Mother, the Duchess of Windsor and Queen Mary. “Her daily riding is her main exercise, though she also walks her dogs. I think the nation needs reminders that the Queen is fit and well during these strange times.”

As throughout her life, horses have proved tremendous consolation to the Queen during lockdown at Windsor Castle, where she has been isolating with the Duke of Edinburgh since March 19 – the longest time the couple have spent together, without royal duties intervening, for many years, and her longest absence from said duties throughout the history of her 68-year reign.

The Duke, who turns 99 next Wednesday, June 10, retired to Park Farm on the Sandringham Estate after standing down from public duties in 2017, but was taken by helicopter to their Berkshire residence before restrictions began. The Queen would usually have returned to Buckingham Palace after her Easter break, before leaving for her summer break in Balmoral at the end of July. Instead, it is thought the couple will remain together at Windsor, where they retain separate apartments but join each other for lunch and dinner every day. 

It has been speculated that the Queen may not return to public-facing duties at all until a vaccine has been developed, but having famously said she had to be seen to be believed, she has retained a public presence throughout the pandemic, with two televised addresses to the nation: a special coronavirus message and another to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. 

The Queen riding with Prince Charles in the park of Windsor Castle  -  AFP

She has also been receiving parliamentary updates via red ministerial boxes and continuing her weekly audience with the Prime Minister – on her marvelously retro, cream telephone with its squiggly cord.

And, most days, she has seen her beloved horses, too – leaving the castle by a side gate, driving herself to keep contact with others to a minimum, and making her way to Home Park for her ride. Her usual companion is Terry Pendry, her Head Groom. Following social distancing rules, they ride two metres apart, and Pendry disinfects the bridles and saddles to keep the risk of virus transmission to a minimum. 

He has also changed the exercise route of the Queen’s horses, so they can walk past Her Majesty’s window. During the crisis, the Queen has usually ridden a favourite black pony, Carltonlima Emma, named after the stud near Leeds where she was bred. On her 94th birthday, on April 21, all the Queen’s horses were paraded in front of her and Prince Philip.

The Queen has mastered FaceTime to talk to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Those chats and the time with her horses and ponies have kept her going during the ten weeks since restrictions began.

Though their lockdown is certainly less arduous than most, the royal couple have been confined to private apartments in the Upper Ward of Windsor Castle, along with a team of hand-picked staff who are also self-isolating – among them, Paul Whybrew, the Page of the Backstairs and Sir Edward Young, her Private Secretary. Angela Kelly, her senior dresser, drives to see her from her home in Windsor Great Park in a disinfected car.

Tony Johnstone-Burt, Master of the Household and a former Royal Navy Officer, has referred to the Queen’s isolation team as ‘HMS Bubble’ – a joke she and Prince Philip are said to have much enjoyed, as the Duke’s nickname was ‘Big Bubble’ when he served in the Navy during the war. 

In an email to all staff, Johnstone-Burt wrote: “There are 22 Royal Household staff inside the Bubble, and it struck me that our predicament is not dissimilar to my former life in the Royal Navy on a long overseas deployment.

Princess Elizabeth riding her pony in Windsor Great Park, 1930s - Hulton Archive /Print Collector

“The challenges that we are facing, whether self-isolating alone at home, or with our close household and families, have parallels with being at sea, away from home for many months, and having to deal with a sense of dislocation, anxiety and uncertainty. Regardless of the roles we perform, we do them to an exceptional standard to allow the Queen and other members to do their duty to the best of their ability, too.”

And while the Queen is undoubtedly keen to return to normality, she is said to be making the most of the opportunity for daily rides at her favorite of all the royal residences.

“The Queen has loved horses since she was a little girl,” says Vickers. “Margaret Rhodes [the Queen’s cousin] told tales of childhood games, in which they all ran round pretending to be horses.”

She had her first riding lesson at the age of four at Buckingham Palace Mews and, as a girl, was given a Shetland pony called Peggy. Now a keen owner of racehorses, kept at the Royal Stud at Sandringham, she is also a skilled horsewoman - as memorably demonstrated at the 1981 Trooping the Colour, when a deranged lunatic fired blanks at her, and she controlled her startled horse, Burmese.

Her childhood love of horses was charmingly recorded by her nanny, Marion Crawford, aka ‘Crawfie’, in her 1950 book, The Little Princesses. She recounted how Lilibet (the Queen’s childhood nickname) “stabled” 30 toy horses on wheels under a big glass dome in her childhood home, 145 Piccaddilly, and even harnessed her nanny with a pair of red reins with bells on them.

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“I would be gentled, patted, given my nosebag and jerked to a standstill,” wrote Crawfie, “while Lilibet, at imaginary houses, delivered imaginary groceries and held long and intimate conversations with her make-believe customers. Sometimes she would whisper to me, ‘Crawfie, you must pretend to be impatient. Paw the ground a bit.’ So I would paw.

“Frosty mornings were wonderful, for then my breath came in clouds. ‘Just like a proper horse,’ said Lilibet contentedly. Or she herself would be the horse, prancing around, saddling up to me, nosing in my pockets for sugar, making convincing little whinnying noises.”

And, really, very little has changed over the following 90 years. As little Lilibet grew up to become Britain’s longest-ruling and – almost certainly – most adored monarch, still, little gives her more pleasure than the company of her beloved steeds.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)