Spend even a small amount of time in Mary King’s stunning English countryside farmhouse and you’re likely to see a few signs that you’re in rarefied company: It could be those pictures of King with Princess Diana, casually displayed as though they were vacation snapshots; or perhaps it’s the trophy case worth of medals hanging on a coatrack outside her bathroom; or maybe the recent issue of Horse & Hound magazine on the kitchen table, the one with King posing gracefully on the cover alongside daughter Emily and faithful dog Tommy.
What all these things show, and what King herself would never tell you, is that this is the home of a legendary figure within the world of equestrian, an Olympic champion and a fearless ambassador for the dangerous but breathtaking sport of three-day eventing. And if all these signs inside her home aren’t enough to make you realize it, the exquisite stables adjoining her house should do the trick.
Here, a pair of young stable hands work diligently to maintain the iconic status and expectations accompanying the Mary King name beyond the fields of competition and into the day-to-day operations of King’s successful stable, where she houses anywhere from six to 10 horses at any given time. With over nine years of experience between the two of them, Jodi Rorke and Emma Moore work six days a week during competition season (between March and October) in order to ensure that King’s teammate – and crown jewel of the stable – Imperial Cavalier remains in peak condition. Add to that the expectations of the other owners who entrust their beloved horses to King’s stable and any illusion of a stress-free and idyllic life in the countryside seems contradictory.
“It’s a huge responsibility,“ Rorke tells me. “You’re always looking for what the horses are going to do, and you have to bring them in if they’re being too wild. After all, they are somebody else’s horses and they’re worth a lot of money.”
If the life of a stable hand is that stressful, however, Rorke and Moore certainly don’t show it, even when the looming topic of the 2012 Games is brokered. “It doesn’t change things massively,” Rorke insists. “All competitions are big. We always have a high level of care with the horses.”
Instead, the two are mostly concerned with the safety of their horses and that of their employer. Three-day eventing is both an inherently beautiful and incredibly dangerous sport showcasing the total mastery of both rider and horse, where the gymnastic grace and trained discipline of the horse in the dressage phase of the competition is juxtaposed with the brute force of the cross-country and jumping portions. Falls and injuries are common occurrences, and Mary King is no stranger to serious bumps and bruises. With every competition that passes, there seems to be a collective held-breath moment until both King and “Archie,” as Imperial Cavalier is affectionately referred to, come out unscathed.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Moore says. “Especially when they go cross-country, you just hope they come back in one piece.” Adds Rorke: “It’s definitely your heart in your mouth when they’re going around (the course). And if they have a fall, you have to remind yourself ‘Oh yeah, there’s Mary under there too!’”
Now more than ever, the pair’s attention to detail and calm demeanors are a crucial element for both Imperial Cavalier’s – and Mary King’s – success. Archie recently turned 15 and is poised to begin his last Olympic run, fittingly as a home favorite in the London 2012 Games. Rorke has looked after him since he first arrived at King’s in 2007, when she was also a new face at the stable. All of the hard work since then, and all of the long hours spent riding, grooming and looking after Archie, will culminate in a three-day period in August.
“To us, it seems normal,” Rorke says. “But people come to the yard and are amazed. Stuff that is normal to us, other people find extraordinary. So I guess people do expect quite a lot.”
Whoever said life in the countryside was a breeze?