Think about eventing as a sport. Now, think about who stands out to you the most as the most influential female eventer in the world to you. Why is that? It will be different to each of us, I am sure. For some it may be Mary King, a lot of us grew up watching her cruising around Badminton, she is still the only British Event rider to have won five national titles, some of us would have grown up playing Mary King Riding star on our PC. For others it may be Lucinda Green, the 6-time badminton winner surely deserves the title of being massively influential in the world of Eventing. Who else still remembers her riding her grey gelding Beagle Bay with those memorable yellow cross country colours jumping fences one handed? For others it will be Pippa Funnell and the impact both her and her partner in crime supreme rock had on the sport during their reign of glory. Now that was some pair across the country. All of these and more are trailblazers in the sport, iconic, formidable and awe-inspiring in their own way. But someone else comes to mind for me.
To me, the most influential person in the history of the sport must be Sheila Willcox. Now, some of you may not have heard of this name before, and you are forgiven as she was born in the pre-war era of 1936, when women were seen and treated as second-class citizens as well as inferior to men, especially in such a male dominated sport as Eventing. She had massive obstacles to overcome when it came to being seen as equal in the sport of Eventing. She not only broke the ceiling for women in Eventing–she smashed it to pieces and achieved much more than any woman or man had before her. She was a pioneer of the sport and left a massive legacy behind her.
Sheila was an event rider, a coach, an author of many books, a media personality, a trainer, a producer, a mentor, –she mentored the great Mary King as a student, and Mary attributes her competitive success to Sheila in her own autobiography. She had an incredible way to train horses to become champions, which few had mastered at that time. She knew her horse and how to get the best out of them. The woman is Eventing royalty, and more people need to know her name and the massive influence she had on the sport. She changed the game forever.
“ Teach your daughters less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering the glass ceiling” - unknown
Sheila was like so many of us. She was not born into a horsey family, but that didn’t stop her. She had the most enormous drive and determination that compelled her to compete, produce and write about Eventing. Badminton horse trials finally opened its doors to female riders in 1952 for the first time and Sheila had her sights firmly set on a Badminton win. She competed in her first Badminton Horse Trials in 1956 at the age of 20 (in which she came 2nd on a horse she produced called High and Mighty). She subsequently wrote her first book at the ripe age of 21, called Three Days Running. The following year was quite a remarkable year for the young event rider. Just a mere year after her first attempt at Badminton, she went on to win it in 1957. That same year, she was selected to represent Britain in the European championships, winning both individual and team gold medals.
Sheila had high hopes of being picked for the Olympics team, but it was a man only event at the time. Imagine that, in 1952, women could ride in Badminton horse trials, but not for a further 12 years could they ride in the Olympics. Sheila was undeniably talented enough, and the results spoke for themselves, but unfortunately, her biological organs didn’t quite meet the criteria of the Olympic committee at the time. She was urged to sell her Badminton winning horse High and Mighty for a fellow Brit to compete on for the Olympics. She unwillingly did sell her beloved horse, but he wasn’t to be absent from her life for too long. He trotted up lame for the selection process and Sheila bought him back. Then in 1958, she competed at Badminton for the third time in her career. They came first. Again. She was still disregarded for the Olympics. The next surprize came just the following year again when she achieved what has still not been achieved to this day in three-day eventing – she won three consecutive Badminton horse trials. Although just to put the icing on the cake and prove how talented a producer she was, she rode a horse called Aires and graces who had only competed in his first ever three-day event 6 months previously.
“ Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” -Ralph waldo Emerson
Sheila paved the way for women in eventing, and for the generations that followed her. No longer would people look at women as any less than a man in the sport, they deserved their place in all competitions, including the Olympic games. Talent is talent at the end of the day, regardless of sex. Sheila proved repeatedly that she was a reliable team member, a force on the cross-country and an epic sports person. She never stopped working to be the best at her sport, not the best woman, the best. Full stop. She didn’t see it as a man versus woman sport—she saw it as me versus you sport. To me, she was one of the best event riders ever, not one of the best, “female” event riders. The narrative of labelling women ends with the terms we use, such as top female jockey, top female goal scorer. Do we say the same about men? Do we say the men’s football is on television tonight? Or he is a good golfer, “for a man”? But why do we feel it's ok to say this about women? Sheila didn’t see us as inferior, she saw us as equal and she proved it in the results, because it didn’t matter in our sport, and it doesn’t matter now. The best rider should be called the best rider regardless of if they are male or female.
Sheila Wilcox will go down in history as a beacon of hope for so many riders in our sport. She broke new ground; she did the unthinkable, and she still holds that badminton record more than 50 years after her competing. We need to remember the Sheila’s of our generation and celebrate their massive contribution to our sports and our rights in the sport. A true pioneer of the sport—Sheila Willcox.
“I am no longer accepting the things I can not change, I am changing the things I can not accept” – Dr Angela Davis