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London calling: Pippa Funnell with Redesigned, the horse that has put her in line for another shot at an Olympic gold. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Great eventers, unlike great generals, do not fade away. They look for new horses to bring back the glory, and Pippa Funnell is convinced she has found the horse that can lead her to Olympic gold.

It is eight years since Funnell achieved what no one else in eventing has and claimed the Rolex Grand Slam, winning at Kentucky, Badminton and Burghley in the same year.

But, in the last five years, she appeared to have lost the appetite for top-class competition, missing the Beijing Olympics and turning to writing horsey books for children.

Now here we are, at her stables near Dorking, discussing the 43-year-old’s planned return to Badminton next month for the first time in four years. As she strokes her horse, Redesigned, she whispers: “Come on Red, we are going to the Olympics.”

The gesture makes her admit she hungers again for the “drug” of top-class competition and that nothing is as intoxicating as the Olympic Games.

“I did scratch my head after the Grand Slam thinking, no matter what I do, I am never going to have a year like 2003,” she says. “But, even that never felt like reaching the summit of Everest because I’ve never won an Olympic gold. Winning that gold in London drives me, absolutely. The Olympic experience is so incredibly special you pinch yourself and ask: is this real?”

Funnell was pinching herself last summer when she was chosen to compete with Redesigned for Britain at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

It was her first call-up since 2005 – the year Grand Slam horse Primmore’s Pride was last at his peak -and came only a month after she made a mark on her return to eventing by winning at the Bramham International Horse Trials with Redesigned.

“The selection was with a view to the Olympics. It felt like a rebirth. It reminded me how special an honour it is to represent my country, the special camaraderie, the feeling when the flag is raised. It reignited my hunger for competition.”

She finished fifth, and says: “You could say the GB six that went there are obvious choices for London.”

Despite having competed in the Sydney and Athens Games – winning two team silvers and an individual bronze – Funnell knows that London will be like nothing any British competitor has experienced.

“It is unbelievably terrifying to think of the pressure of performing in front of the home crowd. There will be a great weight of expectancy. We have had quite a few team meetings about this and Yogi Breisner, our performance director, has told us: ‘You have no idea what the expectations will be like. This will not be like going to another Olympics. You can go to Australia and stay in your bubble, not in London’.”

In addition to her worry about the home crowd’s expectations, Funnell has a deep personal fear.

“I have been thinking: what am I doing again? For five years, I’ve been able to sleep at night. Now suddenly I am struggling to sleep. I know I will toss and turn every night before the Games.

“I will try to keep the mind occupied, have a good book, or crossword or Sudoku by the bedside. I will have to be strict to not let the demons in, not let the brain play tricks on me.”

Funnell knows all about the tricks the mind can play, ruining the best laid sporting plans. In her early career, she would often do a wonderful dressage then foul up the next day’s cross country. The problem got so acute she consulted a sports psychologist.

“This goes back to the Nineties because I lacked self-belief and this affected my thinking at major events.”

It wasn’t her mindset, though, that was responsible for her missing out on gold at the Athens Olympics.

She was second after the dressage, where her extended trot movement on Primmore’s Pride drew the maximum six points from all three judges.

The next day was the first Games under the ‘short format’ endurance test, which was reduced to a cross country with no roads, tracks or steeplechase. That did not suit Primmore’s Pride and Funnell picked up 11.2 time penalties, more than anyone else in the top 30.

However, Funnell redeemed herself in the show jumping and won an individual bronze and also a silver as part of Team GB, who were awarded it after Germany were disqualified following a controversy over a points penalty.

Mihir Bose & Pippa Funnell. Image courtesy of Graham Jepson

While the cross country course in Greece proved taxing, the one at Greenwich next year will present even greater challenges. “This will be because of the terrain,” Funnell says. “It is seriously hilly from top to bottom and we’ll go up and down several times.”

She is well aware of the feelings of local residents that the event should not be held there.

“I do feel for them. Here we are disturbing their lovely park. It must be annoying for a lot of them.

“But it is only temporary and it’s not as if we are destroying it. It would have been very sad for our sport if it had been held at Badminton, out on a limb. This is a wonderful opportunity to be in the main hub of the Games.”

But can this sport for toffs, as immortalised in the Jilly Cooper novels, ever be part of our mainstream sporting life? The mention of Cooper’s name makes Funnell laugh. “I’ve only read one Jilly Cooper novel, Riders, and that because my husband, William, was doing the actual riding in the film for the main character, Rupert Campbell Black.

“I wouldn’t have the energy or the time for what Jilly Cooper describes as going on. I know how exhausting life is. I am up at six every morning. It is now 11am and I have already ridden four horses and will ride all day after you leave.”

Funnell admits eventing’s image could do with a facelift. “It is so sad it is seen as a toff sport,” she says. “I went to public school and I admit I was privileged but we did not have stables at our home. Everything William and I have built up is by hard graft. We’ve earned every penny creating this whole breeding operation. They are so many people in our sport who are not from a privileged background.”

Funnell argues that one of the reasons she has been away from top competition was that when her best horses retired she did not just look for a rich man to procure a new one for her.

“To me, the sport is not for an owner spending a fortune on a horse and giving it to me. The reason I go eventing is because of the sheer love of the hard grind working with young horses, the partnership of knowing the horses.”

Not surprisingly, Funnell believes she knows her horses so well that she can sense how they are. “It is like people with children. I would be able to spot if one of my mine is slightly down or looks slightly off colour, even before they show any sign.”

It was the memory of one of her horses, Viceroy, that inspired Funnel to become a children’s author.

“We lost Viceroy through colic and the owners sent me a bracelet made from its tail. I was wearing it on a long boring drive. Children have these friendship bracelets and I suddenly thought of this children’s character who would have a bracelet made from the tail of each horse she has.”

The result was the Tilly’s Pony Tails series about Tilly Redbrow and her life on Silver Shoe Farm. Funnell, who writes the books with help from a professional writer, says she was determined to produce something practical. “I give people tips about horses. I did not want it to be magical, not Harry Potter.” Then she laughs and adds: “Perhaps I should have, I would have made a lot more money.”

And like riding, which she says, “has been a therapy”, so have the books. The Tilly series in the last three years has come as she and William have tried and failed to have children. “It was the hardest thing in my life. One reason I was out of sport for a while was to concentrate on it and it didn’t happen.”

This may not be a subject she likes talking about but it has made her determined not to lose her perspective when it comes to sport. “My ambition is go to the Olympics but, whether I do or not, whether I win a medal or not, I’ll still be putting clothes in the tumble drier,” she says.

“You have to deal with life’s ups and downs. Tonight, Redesigned could bang his leg against the wall of the stable and suddenly he is lame. You can’t stop that. They are animals. Our sport is not like Formula One, the drivers can just tweak their cars. In our sport the horse is the athlete. I never forget that.”

      

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