Pioneering female eventer Sheila Willcox dies at 81

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Sheila Willcox and her two-time Badminton winner High and Mighty.
Sheila Willcox and her two-time Badminton winner High and Mighty. © Barratts

Sheila Willcox , the equestrienne who paved the way for women in the sport of eventing, has died at the age of 81.

Willcox died peacefully in her sleep after a prolonged illness.

The double European Championship and three-time Badminton winner was a pioneer for women in the sport, winning multiple European medals and titles. Starting her career in The Pony Club, she went on to become the top female rider in British eventing, winning her first Badminton in 1957 after finishing in second place the previous year.

Riding arabian-cross High and Mighty, she was then selected for the 1957 European Championships where they won team and individual gold medals before returning to Badminton in 1958 to win the event again with a 47 penalty advantage.

After she married, becoming Sheila Waddington, she returned to defend her Badminton title in 1959 with the young horse Airs and Graces – who had competed in his first three day event only six months before Badminton. She won the dressage, but had to go slow over the cross-country because of the ground conditions. A rail down in show jumping by fellow competitor David Somerset allowed her to clinch the win. To this day, she is the only rider to have won Badminton three years running.

Sheila Willcox and High and Mighty.
Sheila Willcox and High and Mighty.

In 1959 it was decided to run Badminton in two sections – The Great and Little Badminton – though both sections jumped the same course. This was due to the popularity of the sport and the number of entries. This was abandoned after the 1965 competition, and since then there have always been two days of dressage. Willcox won a fourth Badminton title, winning Little Badminton on Glenamoy in 1964.

During this time women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games so despite being one of the most decorated riders and accomplished horsewomen of the time she was denied an Olympic appearance. Her mount was sold to Ted Marsh, to be used by the British Team, although High and Mighty was, in the end, never selected. Willcox bought him back.

She went on to coach Team Canada for the 1976 Montreal Games and 1975 Pan American Games, and  ran her own stable in the Cotswolds. Willcox wrote the first book about the sport, Three Days Running in 1958, followed by the The Event Horse in 1973.

Born in 1936 at Sutton Coldfield, Willcox began riding in a non-horsey family in childhood. She described her household as “entirely suburban, based on business and academic careers and given to rugger, tennis, golf and bridge-playing”.

From the age of four, she spent her pocket money on pony rides in the beach, and got her own pony at the age of 10. At 16, she bought High and Mighty and trained him herself using the principles in Henry Wynmalen’s book Dressage. She was also instructed by Colonel Edy Goldmann.

High and Mighty (affectionately named “Chips” at home) was half thoroughbred, by Control, and from a mare named Jealousy, who was by the pure Crabbet arabian stallion Raftan (Naseem) and from a highland pony mare.

Two years later, with Chips, Willcox rode in her first three-day-event at the age of 18, and was second at Badminton the following year.

Sheila Willcox and High and Mighty.
Sheila Willcox and High and Mighty.

Willcox competed successfully for several years, winning eight major titles. However, a fall in 1971 at the Tidworth Horse Trials left her partially paralysed, and she gave up eventing and focused on dressage. She went on to gain success in this equestrian sport as well, reaching the Grand Prix level on Son and Heir.

Willcox was also instrumental in the career of Mary King, who worked for Willcox for two years when she was in her teens. She said in her autobiography that: “We had to Windolene the stable windows inside and out, twice a week, and the horses had to be turned out to perfection. [Sheila] would come along with a white glove and run her hand over them. If there was a piece of straw in its tail, you were fined. And it was all done to the clock. Bloomin’ hard work, but if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Her marriage to John Waddington was dissolved. Sheila Willcox is survived by a son.

Willcox’s family has requested no flowers, but donations can be made to the the Alzheimer’s Society and Riding for the Disabled.

A Requiem Mass is being held for Willcox at St Gregory’s Church, Cheltenham on June 30.

Sheila Mary Willcox (12 March 1936 – 9 June 2017)

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