Breaking Through Barriers: The First Ladies of Eventing
Two women, one American and one British, helped destroy the cliche that eventing was too tough a sport for the fairer sex: Lana du Pont Wright and Sheila Willcox.
Top photo via London College of Fashion/The Woolmark Company
From the 1800s the highest echelons of eventing competition were only open to military officers in active-duty mounted on military horses, until 1924 when the sport opened to male civilians.
Born 13 years later, in 1937, Sheila Willcox started out like any other horse crazy girl, in Pony Club.
By 1956 she was the top woman in British eventing with her horse, High and Mighty. They finished 2nd at Badminton that year and came back in 1957 to win the event. The pair went on to win both Team and Individual Gold medals at the 1957 European Championships. Her return to Badminton in 1958 clinched another win, this time leading from start to finish with a 22 point lead after dressage and a 47 point lead by the conclusion of the event!
Sheila returned to Badminton again in 1959 to win… again… with her younger horse, Airs and Graces. She holds the record for the only person to win three consecutive Badminton titles.
Also in 1959, Sheila and High and Mighty added another Team Gold to their roster at the European Championships. Because women were not allowed to ride in the Olympics at that time, High and Mighty was sold to a male eventer, Ted Marsh, though he was never actually selected for the Games.
Sheila continued to rack up titles until a bad fall in 1971 left her partially paralyzed. She switched to dressage where she won several Grand Prix titles with Son and Heir. She was also coach of Team Canada for the 1976 Montreal Games and 1975 Pan-Am Games and wrote the first book about the sport of Eventing, Three Days Running (1958), followed by the The Event Horse (1973).
The honor of first woman competing in the Olympics goes to Lana du Pont Wright. Lana began her riding career foxhunting with her very equestrian mother, Allaire du Pont, famous for breeding the Thoroughbred racing legend Kelso.
In 1964 Lana and her horse, Mr. Wister out of Occupy, were selected for the Tokyo Olympic Games where she helped clinch a Team Silver for the United States.
In the U.S. Equestrian Team Book of Riding, she describes her first fall and her eventual completion with brutal objectivity: “We fell hard, Wister breaking several bones in his jaw. We were badly disheveled and shaken, but Wister was nonetheless eager to continue. We fell a second time near the end of the course, tripping over another spread. When we finished, we were a collection of bruises, broken bones and mud. Anyway, we proved that a woman could get around an Olympic cross-country course, and nobody could have said that we looked feminine at the finish.” ~ (http://www.equiery.com/archives/octart02.htm)
A true Renaissance woman, Lana also competed heavily in endurance and combined driving. Greystone Sir Rockwell “Rocky” was a Connemara-cross whose Thoroughbred dam shared bloodlines with Lana’s 1964 Olympic mount, Mr. Wister. Rocky helped her medal at the World Driving Championships in 1991. She was also one of the founding members of the United States Combined Training Association (now USEA).
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