Jane Bullen’s victory 50 years ago in 1968 was an achievement then, but would be extraordinary now. She was only 20—no rider under 25 has won Badminton since Mark Todd in 1980—and she had a full-time ‘real’ job, as a nurse; the only other winner who could boast similar credentials since then was Capt Mark Phillips, a serving army officer.
In addition, Jane (now Mrs Holderness-Roddam) was riding the family pony, Our Nobby, who only measured around 14.3hh—the family ‘bribed’ the vet to say he was 15hh, or he would not have been eligible for either Badminton or the subsequent Olympics in Mexico, where he was part of the gold medal-winning team.
Jane had to ask for time off work from the Middlesex Hospital, where she was working nights: seven in a row followed by a convenient four nights off which encompassed Badminton (then a three-day event in the true sense of the phrase). ‘Fortunately, Matron had a niece [Mary Macdonald], who also evented and she got me onto the right rota.
Our Nobby wasn’t exactly your typical eventer either; when he arrived in the family’s Didmarton yard he was scrawny and had ringworm, which he transmitted to Jane, as a result of which she was considered a medical rarity and was even written up in The Lancet.
In those days, ‘speed and endurance day’ comprised around 12 miles of roads and tracks and a steeplechase course on top of cross-country. All riders had to carry a minimum of 11st 11lbs and there was no qualifying process—it was only Jane’s third three-day. A poor dressage mark—in Our Nobby’s case, around 90—could be obliterated by gaining maximum bonus points for achieving the steeplechase and cross-country time. The price of a showjumping rail was 10 penalties—they jumped clear on the last day.
The cross-country may have been less technical, but it was full of rider-frighteners. Jane recalls: ‘I was terrified, but also excited and I had great confidence in Our Nobby. On the cross-country there was a stream with a bounce stride to rails and a lot of horses were over-jumping the stream and refusing the rails, but my brother [Mike Bullen] yelled at me to slow down and, because Our Nobby was so small, he could scramble over it. That was what helped win it for me.’
Jane went on to be the first British woman to win an Olympic equestrian gold medal and was dubbed ‘The Galloping Nurse’ in the press. ‘It was quite overwhelming really, it was so unexpected,’ she says.
Jane is vice-president of Badminton’s charity this year, The British Horse Society, and will be appearing in the main arena on Saturday morning with BHS president Martin Clunes after the Shetland Grand National from 10:30.