Paula Sykes — Pioneering Woman Groom in International Show Jumping

I wrote an obituary for Paula Sykes, whose riding school in Cringleford, Norwich, I attended. Paula was an incredible character who was showjumper Pat Smythe’s right-hand woman. I made the full text available at Medium on 7 February 2018. I have had a problem with persistent copyright violation so am also making the text available here as of 25 February 2022. The image accompanying it belongs to the person credited, who sent it to me to use.

Pauline Phyllis Betty Sykes, who died in Costessey, Norfolk on her 88th birthday on 15 September 2017, was one of the first girl grooms in international equestrian competition. As the right-hand woman of 1950s showjumping superstar Pat Smythe, “Paul” or “Paula” (never Pauline) cared for Smythe’s champions Tosca, Prince Hal and Flanagan not just at the showjumper’s home yard in Miserden, Gloucestershire, but on the road when international equestrian transport involved days of travel by rail or packing the horses into crates on ship decks and crossing the Atlantic in winter gales. She slept in railway wagons alongside the horses on journeys to and from destinations like Sicily or cold war Berlin, on one occasion having to melt ice for her charges when the train was delayed at the snow-bound Italian frontier. She carried a knife to defend herself after an incident in an underground marshalling yard in Turin when a man tried to break into her wagon and was still clinging to the door as the train moved off. In her memoirs, Smythe praised Sykes as “a genius” who “cared for horses as children” and stressed the hardships of travelling and sleeping in a draughty horsebox, negotiating at showgrounds in four different languages and packing everything from crockery to campbeds and spare tack (Smythe’s Olympic bronze-medallist Flanagan once ate his own martingale shortly before entering the ring).

Paula Sykes was born in Ely in 1929, the third of four children of a couple who owned a sweet shop. She grew up in Bedford. Her father served in the Royal Horse Artillery during the First World War but she had little equestrian experience other than being dispatched into the countryside on an aunt’s pony in the holidays. After convent school she hoped to study physical training but was unable to find a college place due to the influx of women coming out of the forces. Her mother surprised her by suggesting she worked with horses instead, and Sykes found a place at a local riding school. For six months, despite her lack of experience — something she later found highly amusing — she would take rides of up to 25 people out across country. After passing a British Horse Society exam in 1949 at 18, she got the first position she saw advertised, helping Pat’s mother Monica Smythe run a riding holiday business in Gloucestershire.

Within six months, 21-year-old Pat Smythe’s career as a showjumper had taken off, her mother had set the riding holiday business aside and Paula was a full-time showjumping groom. When Monica was killed in a car accident in 1952, Paula became an even more stalwart support for the hard working and determined Smythe.

Smythe was named Sportswoman of the Year three times by 1957, became the first woman to win an Olympic showjumping medal at Stockholm in 1956, won the European Ladies’ Championship four times and British National Championships on eight occasions. As she became internationally famous in an era when showjumping was bigger even than football in Britain, Paula was a line of defence against intrusive journalists determined to discover if she had a boyfriend or not. Smythe later wrote that “she was discretion itself and only slightly more communicative with the press than Lester Piggott”.

When Smythe married Swiss Olympic three-day-eventer Sam Koechlin in 1963 and retired from competition, Sykes moved to the village of Cringleford outside Norwich and started a riding school. Generations of Norfolk children learned to ride at the busy, friendly yard where Sykes lived in a mobile home in one of the fields. The Horse Rescue Fund placed many rescued horses and ponies with her that went on to be superb competitors. One, a skewbald called Woodstock who arrived direct from the cattle market, was one of the first “coloured” ponies to have national success, competing unbeaten for two and a half years. Sykes had an excellent “eye”: she would vanish to the local sales to “just have a look” then telephone for the lorry and return with four ponies who would later scoop up rosettes at Norfolk gymkhanas. For the girls who worked at the stable, Sykes produced delicious three-course lunches stirred with the same spoon used for the horses’ linseed.

While she had few, if any, ambitions for her own riding, she was a dedicated mentor to the girls who dominated the Norfolk equestrian scene on her horses and ponies. She would scour show schedules, fill out entries and organise the logistics every weekend and was seldom happier than when en route to a competition or offering advice on the journey home. Her mentees were taught that no matter how late they returned from a show, their horse must be immaculately groomed, settled on a deep bed, fed and watered before the girls took care of themselves. Cringleford Riding School was forced to close in 1995 after the Uniform Business Rate rise proved too punitive and most of the ponies were rehomed with former pupils. Sykes continued to be involved in showing and earned the Pony Club’s Cubitt Award for 25 years’ service. She chaired the Beccles and Bungay Riding Club and worked closely with the Side Saddle Association.

Profoundly modest, loyal and independent, she was also a much-loved aunt and godmother, although she perhaps never realised how important she was to her pupils. At her funeral, her hearse was drawn by two jet-black Friesian horses.

Rapunzel Horses – the hot accessory of Early Modern Europe?

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I’ve been reading beautifully illustrated books about horses all my life and in the last twelve years I’ve trawled all sorts of academic articles and image libraries, so it’s always delightful to find an image I’ve never seen before. The Palazzo Pitti in Florence just opened an exhibit called Leopoldo de’ Medici: Prince of the Collectors to celebrate what would have been the cardinal’s 400th birthday. Someone shared this image of the young Leopoldo in a Facebook group for Lipizzaner fans, and I was smitten. The 1624-1625 painting is by Justus Sustermans, a Flemish court painter to the infamous Medici clan. Look at the detail: the flecks of foam on the paving under the horse’s mouth, the way it’s patiently resting one hind hoof. What I’d give for a huge poster of it!
But of course the really striking thing is that MANE. ALL OF IT. Has anyone written about the meaning (if any?) of the turnout of court horses in the Early Modern era? I’ve seen great articles on baroque bits and read about the costumes worn in carrousels, but do we know anything about this commitment to hair? It’s not mentioned in the rather beautiful part of Guerinière’s The School of Horsemanship that describes exotic coat colours and the significance of whorls (read an earlier post about that here). But it does feature in other images, like those in the Certamen Equestre (Gallica has a facsimile online for extended tea-break consideration and these screengrabs are sourced there):

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This book records a carrousel and procession that took place in Stockholm on 18 December 1672 to celebrate the coming of age of Karl XI at 17. It was illustrated by the court painter, David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl, and these plates were later engraved by Georg Christoph Eimmart in Nuremberg. Lena Rangström has written the most detailed account in volume II of Mulryne, Watanbe-O’Kelly and Shewring’s Europa Triumphans, a collection of studies of European court and civic festivals in the period.
Rangström describes the decking out of Stockholm with triumphal arches, tapestries, a firework display and even a wine fountain. The 560-strong procession, which included 100 nobles on horseback and 80 more horses led in hand, culminated at the tilt yard in the riding school at the Hay Market or Hötorget. It was meant to depict the young Karl as a force for unity in Europe against the Turk, and so he led the “Roman” quadrille, Field Marshall Gustaf Banér the “Turks” in their caftans, Count Bengt Oxenstierna led the “Poles” (see their “winged horses” below) and Privy Councillor Krister Horn was captain of the “European States” in modern dress. Here are images of the quadrilles:

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Karl as a Roman. Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.
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The “Turkish” horses in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica. It looks as though all the Black grooms in Stockholm were drafted in to add extra “exotica” (oof).
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“Polish” horses, Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.
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“Europe” in the Certamen Equestre, via Gallica.

It was – of course – spectacular. “On knights and horses everything shimmered: gold, precious stones, and rich pearls,” says one account, and, “On the horses, one saw different ornaments on their heads, different ones on their feet, and different ones on the other parts of their bodies.” Pine branches hung from the ceiling and the riding school was lit by thousands of candles on hundreds of chandeliers against the dark Stockholm winter.
There was only one game – running at the ring – and the King won, for:

“None deserved it more, none knew how to control and turn his horse with such gentleness; nobody bore off the ring with such pleasing gestures and such grace of the whole body.”

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For other long-haired horses stories, I present the eighteenth century Swan of Arnstadt and a nineteenth-century freak, The Wild King of Oregon Wonder Horses.


UPDATE: From Charles Hamilton Smith’s The Natural History of Horses (1841), talking about Russian trotting horses:

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How Byron Invented the Wild Horse – and How to Tune into The Age of the Horse

I have a new essay for LitHub about the surprisingly scandalous story behind our Romantic ideas about wild horses, and some lovely news: The Age of the Horse is now available as an audiobook.

I’d have loved to include this bit of doggerel I found when researching the story of wild horses – it’s clearly inspired by the stage play and was published in the Bristol Mercury, on March 19th, 1836. In The Waterfall, a series of wild animals approach a waterfall but all turn away in fear, until the last verse:

The wild horse thee approaches in his turn:
He changes not his proudly rapid stride;
His mane stands up erect, his nostrils burn—
he snorts, he pricks his ears, and starts aside;
Then, rushing madly forward to thy steep,
He dashes downward into thy torrents deep.

The photo above is the last “tarpan” in captivity. The colt was captured on the Zagradovsk steppe in 1866 and is unlikely to be a “pure” bred wild horse. He was kept in Moscow Zoo. Image and information in public domain, via Wiki Commons.

The Half-flayed Horse: your Hallowe’en story

Some men drove their horse and gig to Greenbank on the island Yell in Shetland. They left the horse outside a pub and went in to drink without ensuring it had water. The frustrated horse pawed at a barrel of porter, split it open and drank all the booze.
When the men re-emerged much later, the horse was not looking good. They climbed into the gig and shook the reins and the horse keeled over – apparently dead. Loathe to lose money, the men flayed its hide and went home on foot.

They were woken a short time after they clambered into their beds by a clattering in the yard. To their horror, it was the horse, skinless, and “very cowld”.

The farmers had recently killed some sheep for the winter so they hastened to get the sheepskins and clap them onto the flayed horse.

The sheepskins grew very naturally onto the horse, and thereafter the farmers got the wool of five or six sheep from it each year.
Adapted from The Lore of Scotland: a Guide to Scottish Legends by the peerless Jennifer Westwood and Sophia Kingshill.

Welcome to The Age of the Horse


“In 5,500 years of domestication humans have transformed horses’ bodies into everything from buttons to a physical reincarnation from the mythical past of a nation. This is not a history of the horse, but it is a story of six ways in which we have recreated it, from Wildness to Culture, Power to Meat, Wealth to War.”

The Age of the Horse was published by Atlantic Books in the UK and by Grove Atlantic in the USA. Kyoko Matsuo translated the book for Hara Shobo, who published it in Japanese.

Amazon UK  Book Depository  A Great Read  Alibris  Angus & Robertson Waterstones   Booktopia

US: Amazon   Barnes and Noble  Books a Million  Powells  Shop Indie! Hudson Booksellers

Australia: Booktopia

Japan: Amazon

Audiobook: Tantor.