One of the most poignant moments of last week’s proceedings at the Defender Burghley Horse Trials didn’t come about as part of the competition — rather, it was one of the bookends of Sunday’s finale.
Though Piggy March‘s two-time five-star winner Vanir Kamira had ostensibly retired from top-level competition at the start of the season, she’s continued to run for fun here and there, including nabbing a second-place finish in the CCI4*-S at Burnham Market this spring. But over the weekend, the eighteen-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Camiro de Haar Z x Fair Caledonian, by Dixi) officially bowed out of an extraordinary career.
“A special moment today with Vanir Kamira retiring from competition at her favourite event – Burghley,” Piggy writes of ‘Tilly’ on her social media channels. “She felt like she really enjoyed herself and was so relaxed in all the atmosphere, which was fantastic. She has been such a superstar for me and I’m so proud of everything we’ve achieved together. I really wanted her to finish whilst she was still at the top of her game and delighted she retires sound, fit and well and still loving her job. Thank you everyone for your appreciation and thank you Tilly for all the amazing days you has given us all. One in a million.”
‘Tilly’ has given us all so many happy memories over the years – join us as we look back on some of our highlights.
By the time Piggy and Tilly headed to Badminton in 2019, they already had a glittering resume together: they’d come together at the start of the 2017 season, after the mare had spent time under the saddles of both Izzy Taylor and Paul Tapner, and although the mare had had a reasonably unremarkable record at five-star before their union, they finished second at Badminton that year. In 2018, they racked up top ten finishes in CCI4*-S classes at Belton and Hartpury, and put a tumble at Badminton behind them with a fifth-place finish at Burghley.
And then there was Badminton. They began their week in fourth place on a very good score of 26, and then moved up to second place after cross-country with just 0.8 time penalties — but by the time they faced showjumping, their weakest phase, they were a seemingly insurmountable 5.3 penalties behind two-phase leaders Oliver Townend and Ballaghmor Class.
When Piggy and Tilly jumped a classy clear round, Piggy galloped around the arena as though she’d won the whole thing, such was her joy in the mare’s achievement — and moments later, when Oliver dropped a mid-course rail, and then had to adjust in the middle of a combination to combat a half-stride, ultimately adding four seconds on the clock, she really had.
“It’s these little horses that make it for us,” said Piggy, whose win with Trevor Dickens’s mare came by just 0.3 penalties — less than a time penalty. “She’s a pain in the arse 362 days a year, and she’s really tricky to manage. She’s not the nicest of things to ride, you know, and she’s difficult, but she’s amazing – I say it all so fondly, because we all love her to bits. She’s a true five-star horse that comes to form at Badminton and Burghley. The rest of the time, she feels pretty ordinary, and you have to work pretty hard for what you can get. She doesn’t find any of it easy, and if I’d built that course at home and practiced it on the same side of the arena, I could do it fifty times and never have a clear round. There’s something about her, and those great little mares that just do enough when they need to. If they’re on your side, they’re just incredible.”
And of the win?
“It’s a complete fairytale, if I’m honest,” she smiled. “It’s such a team effort, and I know everyone says it so much, but nobody has a bloody clue what you go through to get to the level, to be competitive at this level, and actually get your nose in front of the line first. It’s impossible, and you kind of get used to saying ‘well done’ to everyone else, and going home and thinking ‘oh, I had a rail; I could have been here, I could have been there.’ You go home and you work away, and you dream again, but you get way more knock-backs. It’s so hard, and it’s just having those people here when it all comes together means so much. It’s such a team effort.”
Vanir Kamira was one of those unlucky horses who entered her peak just as the pandemic hit — and that loss of competitions was even more disruptive to these true five-star galloping horses, who are never at their best at short-format internationals. We missed out on seeing her through all of 2020 and most of 2021, but when Bicton announced that it would hold a pop-up Burghley replacement in the late summer of that year, we were treated to seeing her do her thing on the world stage again.
Though she didn’t ultimately win — a couple of rails on the final day dropped her to third and saw Gemma Stevens take the win with Chilli Knight — she was our cross-country leader after making light work of a seriously terrain heavy Captain Mark Phillips course. Their round was the fastest of the day, and saw them cross the finish line nine seconds inside the optimum time.
“For these wonderful old horses, to miss two full seasons of their careers, and from being fourteen and running well at Badminton and Burghley… they’re not tennis rackets or footballs; you can’t put them in the cupboard and do nothing,” said Piggy. “’Tillybean’ doesn’t run very much; she doesn’t really do one-day events, so I came here just hoping her experience from previous years was going to carry us through. I knew how to get her fit, but still, in the back of your mind you think, ‘I hope she remembers!’ And, ‘I hope I remember how to ride!’”
She needn’t have worried. From the start of the course until the very end, Piggy and Tilly gave a masterclass in accuracy, confidence — and old-school event horse fitness. This had always been the mare’s best quality; she’s learned to put together a mid-20s dressage test through correct, sympathetic training, and her showjumping was always be just a tiny bit scrappy, but get her out on a mountainous eleven-minute track and she was wholly and completely in her element.
“She was like, ‘come on, mother!’ She puts her snout on the floor and truffle snuffles the whole way around like ‘come on, let’s go!’ – we don’t give anything much height, but we’re flying along,” said Piggy. “She looks for the flags and the moment I try to slow her up a bit or think ‘let’s give this a bit more time’, she’s like, ‘nope, we’re going!’ But the confidence you can have in a horse like that who knows her job, and wants to do it — she’s a gritty, hardy little mare.”
“I’ve joked before, saying she’s a pain in the arse 362 days a year, but those few days when you’ve got a big competition and really need something with guts and heart is when she just comes into her own. I’m so very proud of her and so very proud of Trevor Dickens, as well. He’s owned her all her career, and what a fabulous horse to have had. These are the moments: she’s been a Burghley horse, she’s been second there twice and fifth once, and it’s been so sad for her not to have had one event that was hers to have a go at [since 2019]. She’s made for hills, for terrain, for grit and heart, and she did it, exactly as she always does it, today.”
Last year, we finally got Badminton back — and for Piggy and Tilly, it was a chance to try to defend the title they’d held for three years.
It was to be Laura Collett and London 52’s week, but it was an exceptional fourth-place finish for Piggy and Tilly, who had added just 0.4 time penalties across the country.
“It’s probably the best she’s ever jumped, even though there was a pole,” Piggy said. “I’m just over the moon; I felt like I left quite a lot out there yesterday. I was down on the clock for three minutes and I felt like I rode very hard for the majority of the course, and she left her heart out there — she gave everything. So I was just a little bit worried today, and I don’t want to expect things of her, because of what she’s done for me and her age.”
Though many riders might have been disheartened by feeling their horse flop over a small warm-up fence, which Vanir Kamira did while preparing for that showjumping round, the stumbling effort actually proved a great sharpener ahead of their performance in the ring.
“It was the best thing that she did,” said Piggy, “but then she went in there and [jumped like that]. That’s sort of been her character — just when you think there’s absolutely no way, she just has something in her that tells me to do one straightaway, and says ‘I’m here, mum, I’m here with you.’ It’s just brilliant, and it’s just so nice to come away from the week with such a special buzz.”
And then, after a win in the CCI4*-S at Hartpury as prep, what a last hurrah: at the tail end of last year, Piggy and Tilly did the double, and won Burghley. They began their week on an exceptional 22.6; then, after coming home just one second over the time, they stepped up to the lead on cross-country day. By the time they jumped, they’d been afforded two rails in hand — and they used one of them at the first part of the double at fence 4. A few more would bounce, but no further fell, and the Burghley title was theirs.
“I can’t quite believe it, really, but I’m just so relieved,” she said.”I felt like I put more pressure on myself today than I normally do; I’m usually pretty… well, relaxed might be a strong word, but I definitely understand that what will be will be. Today, though, I just felt so much that this little horse deserves it as much as any horse here does. I just didn’t want to let her down. You’ve just got to go and do your thing, but I was just so desperate for her name to be up there on the plaques at Winners’ Avenue. She’s been a Burghley horse through and through — she’s been second twice, fifth, and has now won, and she’s got a total of 4.8 time penalties across all of those runs. It’s the toughest cross-country course in the world to make the time, and she’s a very special horse for that reason.”
How did that measure up to her previous successes?
“It’s really what dreams are made of, and without a doubt, this’ll be one of the best days, if not the best day, along with Badminton for me,” said Piggy. “I’m just so proud; it’s a massive, massive achievement, and even out there taking the trophy pictures with the cars, I can look back on all the pictures of Oliver, of Pippa, of William, and everyone you see in the magazines. You think, ‘oh, that just looks amazing — will it ever be me?’ You believe it in your training, and you believe it going, but it can easily not be. We all know that, and it’s the same in every sport — but you just keep trying and keep believing and you just hope that someday, someone’s looking down and it’s your day. We all know that as sports people and horsepeople; you have your moments every now and then, and someone was looking down today to say it was the moment for me.”
Thank you, Tilly, for all you’ve given our sport: for showing the world that guts and heart are more important than anything else; for being something so extraordinary in such an outwardly ordinary package. This is what eventing is all about — and as horses go, this one has been emblematic.