‘It’s absolutely everything, my lifeline.’ Godolphin Flying Start graduate Emily Scott introduces us to her 96-year-old great aunt, Elizabeth Breton who has spent a lifetime with horses and still rides twice a week.
The last year has forced people to endure prolonged isolation from family and friends and, for many, this unnatural existence has been a very lonely time in which we have sought solace in some of life’s simplest pleasures, like walking the dog or baking the perfect banana bread.
When one reaches a certain age, a previously long list of hobbies and interests is inevitably going to diminish, which is the case for Elizabeth Breton, who freely admits, ‘it’s been a long time since I’ve gone for a walk’. At the age of 96, Elizabeth, who lives alone in a small village in Gloucestershire, gets her dose of fresh air and exercise from riding twice a week at her local equestrian centre Wickstead Farm, which lies between Highworth and Faringdon. “They’re the best days of the week,” she says. “It’s absolutely everything, my lifeline.”
A habit formed very young
Growing up on a farm in Lincolnshire, Elizabeth was sat astride a horse before she could walk and explains that it was necessary to drive a horse and trap to get around as there was no other form of transport. From a young age she was incredibly confident on a horse, although she admits her style was not the best because she wasn’t taught to ride properly. “I grew up in the early days of The Pony Club, there was none of the skill that is around today. People ride very well these days.”
Before being sent away to boarding school she would often go hunting with her Father, who would ask to her go in front so he could see she was alright and after a while the instructions would change to, ‘don’t go as fast. I can’t keep up!’. It was around a similar time that a great friend of her Mother’s died, leaving an orphaned son Fred, who was invited to come riding with her. Elizabeth remembers fondly how Fred would always be requesting to go fast, but if his pony was to stumble or misbehave, he would become a bag of nerves!
Although Elizabeth’s heart was set on competing at Badminton, which she believes is ‘the true test of horse, skill and ridership’, her talented young event horse Willy Nilly got navicular at the age of five and had to be put down. She was distraught and describes the loss ‘like losing a child, it was awful’. It was on the Point-to-Point field that Elizabeth had her day in the limelight when she won the Beaufort Ladies’ Race on Farm Hill and her beaming face in the winner’s enclosure was printed on the front page of The Western Daily Press. “It was a little local sensation,” she says. When recalling the race Elizabeth praised Farm Hill’s ability rather than her skill in the saddle as her attitude in those days was ‘any fool can race if you’ve got a good enough horse, you just sit on it’.
Picking up where she left off
The arrival of her two children forced her to take a break from riding, a break which unknowingly stretched for 30 years. During this time Elizabeth became heavily involved with her local Parish Council and the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Meysey Hampton where she was asked to be treasurer.
It was only at the age of 70 when her son and daughter-in-law needed some help with a 13.3hh pony, which was too much for their children, that she decided to get back in the saddle. “I took him up to Lincolnshire and hunted with the Belvoir; we had great fun.” Elizabeth was adamant that at the age of 70 her riding was improving, although she did have trouble remembering the course when competing in a few local Hunter Trials!
It was through her political work with the District and Parish Councils that she met a local publisher who was struggling to find time to walk his Labrador, Purdie. More than willing to lend a hand, Elizabeth offered to walk the dog and even now that she is unable to walk very far, Purdie still enjoys joining Elizabeth on her horse rides.
Sharing the joy
Once Elizabeth was no longer able to keep her own horse, she made contact with Vicki Mace-Benson at Wickstead Farm, who has been riding with her now for 15 years. When Coronavirus struck last spring and the country went into lockdown, Elizabeth was straight on the phone to Vicki asking how she could continue to ride. Wickstead have a brilliant initiative called ‘Share Care’ whereby people can share the ownership of a horse with others and Vicki explained that if Elizabeth was to become a part-owner in her regular mount Billy, she would be able to continue riding him.
Ex-racehorse and hunt schoolmaster Billy is 17hh and an absolute gentleman. Elizabeth explains that he is incredibly comfortable to ride, but it is getting on and off that is the hardest part! She finds her motivation from a book she was introduced to in the late 1950s, called The Power Of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, which has helped her through the most challenging times in her life and tells herself, ‘I can get on and I can get off’. She is uncertain how long she will be able to go on but has no plans to stop.
No substitute for experience
While doing research for this blog post, I joined Elizabeth and Vicki on foot for one of their rides recently. The sun shone brightly for what felt like the first time in months and we were having a lovely chat when a pheasant decided to make a racket extricating itself from a hedge and Billy very nearly unseated Elizabeth! Luckily her good seat and years of experience kept her glued to the saddle, as Elizabeth pointed out, ‘he’d be quite big to fall off!’
As well as her rides on Billy, Elizabeth keeps connected with horses and her local community through the Harry Whittington Racing Club, which she has been a member of for three years. She regularly visits the yard where she loves to get up close with the horses and catch up with fellow owners over a bacon butty in the cosy log cabin at Hill Barn.
Everyone who is lucky enough to meet Elizabeth is inspired by her energy, her humour and her positive outlook on life, something that has not always come naturally to her, but she has trained herself to embrace.