Life Lessons from a Talented Mare

When I was 12, after my dramatic growth spurt, my parents were approached one day following the awards ceremony at a show by a person who had a very difficult but extremely talented mare who the person thought might fit me very well. We weren’t in the position to buy a horse at the time, so we didn’t follow up for several months. Then one day, in November, the mare’s owner called us again to say that we should really come and try her. She was in Spain, ridden by a professional adult rider, about three hours’ drive from us. As I had been homeschooled since we left Paris, it was easy to organize a visit. That’s how we discovered Foy, an Anglo-Arab who had stayed “pony size” because she had been born with a twin.

Foy was super thin with long gazelle legs, a rather weird face with a bump on her nose, some very long and flat ears, and what seemed like three curly hairs in place of a forelock. I rode her for the first time very early on a frozen morning. The sun was shining and the light was wonderful. What I felt under the saddle that day was completely different than anything I had ever felt before. She moved like a horse. The movements felt enormous and less elastic. Everything seemed unstable.

But when we started jumping, it felt like a dream. Foy had an incredible “punching” energy in the last stride before she jumped. She could switch from a 2-foot stride to a 13-foot stride in a second. I was riding a Ferrari and just trying to be up to the task.

A book cover.We ended jumping a course with no hole left on top of the standards. I had never ever jumped that high in my life. We were over 4”6” (1.40m), and it looked easy for her, even though she was under 15 hands. Of course, I got off the mare with stars in my eyes and my heart pounding. I was ecstatic, but she was too expensive for us. My mother was understandably concerned about Foy’s difficult temperament after our previous experience with Goliat.

About a month later, Foy’s owner called us to offer the mare for half the price… and that was the beginning of a new big chapter in my horse life.

I remember my mother hanging up the phone, turning to me and asking if I was sure I wanted Foy when she was known to be a particularly difficult mare. I answered yes. Mum wanted me to be truly involved in the choice and to take responsibility for it, so my parents told me they would pay two-thirds of the money, and the last part would have to come from me. I had an account that had been opened by my paternal grandmother in my name when I was six years old to help compensate for the fact that my biological father never took care of me and never gave a penny to my mother to help her raise me. The money was intended for my education, so using it to help pay for Foy was my first big decision in life, and being a part owner of her became my first true responsibility.

Foy was a mare that could not be counted on. She had constant ups and downs, and her moods were extremely changeable. Sometimes she filled me with euphoria as I enjoyed her athleticism, power, and strength. Sometimes she filled me with despair. She could jump 4’6” (1.40m) one day and categorically refuse to pass over a ground pole the next. At our first and only French Championships, we won the first round of qualification after a terrible warm-up, and the day after, she was incredibly relaxed in the warm-up and then wouldn’t even approach the first fence on course. (At age 28, Foy still made life difficult for others as she ruled over an otherwise peaceful herd of retirees with whom she shared a meadow. This earned her the nickname of “The Terrible Grandma.” She died in 2023, at age 29.)

Foy challenged me to a new dimension of riding. I had to learn, progress, and understand very quickly, because she was not a horse with a forgiving nature. The only possible answer when Foy twisted and turned in the air for several minutes without stopping, was to stay calm and patiently wait for the storm to pass.

Foy and her genius jumping style opened doors for me that I never imagined. One day Foy and I accompanied a friend to a clinic with the brand-new French National Pony Show Jumping Team Trainer, Marcel Delestre. I didn’t really understand how important the day could be; to me it was just a beautiful experience and the chance to train once with a very well-known horseman. I guess it is because I didn’t understand what was at stake that I was able to ride totally relaxed and without any pressure. Foy had a big day. Those who were there could see only her and think, “Holy shit! What is that?”

At the end of the clinic Marcel Delestre asked my mother if I could come to Lamotte-Beuvron where the French Equestrian Federation was hosting a training camp during the Christmas holidays. He was inviting 10 pony-and-rider combinations to prepare for the upcoming international season. Things moved quickly from there, and by the middle of January 2002, Foy and I were participating in our first international pony show jumping competitions together.

Was it that I was entering adolescence and experiencing the loss of innocence that goes with it? Was it the complicated financial situation and my parents making big sacrifices in their lives so I could compete at an elite level and accept the responsibilities that went along with it? Was it suddenly an awareness of the danger when jumping such high fences with increasing technical difficulty? I can’t say exactly the cause, and I honestly think it was a mixture of all that, but what’s certain is that I went through two extremely formative but difficult and painful years. For the first time, I struggled with self-doubt and the fear of disappointing.

I was incredibly proud of representing my country and defending our colors. I clearly remember the speech we got during that first team clinic, which explained to us the model behavior that we had to have, the exemplarity that we had to represent, and the values of hard work, self-improvement, self-control, respect, loyalty, and perseverance that we had to embody. These words resonated in me so strongly that I made it my life to be disciplined and live up to the Federation’s expectations. I locked myself in this “straitjacket” for several years, losing sight of the real reason why I love being with horses so much—the freedom they give us, and the pleasure inherent in the constant search to understand a fascinating animal whose language we do not speak.

My relationship with Foy wasn’t a peaceful one. It was a passionate relationship between a teenager and a very special chestnut princess.

I was focused on improving my technique, but it made me lose my instinct for a while. I was just about to discover that the greatest enemy of the rider is doubt, because to doubt—beyond the technical problems that go hand-in-hand with it—is to betray your horse. You can doubt before getting in the saddle. You can doubt after you get off. We can and we all do make mistakes, every single day. But to doubt when you ask something of your horse is to put him in a position of weakness and discomfort, which is much worse than the resulting error itself. It took me a while to truly understand that.

Foy was a genius, but she was very unstable. Today, with my experience and knowledge, I think we could have perhaps helped her with natural hormonal balancing products. It could have made a difference. But this depth of knowledge came much later for me. Becoming a horseman takes a whole lifetime. You never stop learning. You never stop growing. That was not my story with Foy. Her role in my life was to teach me many other things, such as precision, nuance, self-control, and perseverance.


A woman patting a chestnut mare.

(Morgan Froment Photography)


My relationship with Foy wasn’t a peaceful one. It was a passionate relationship between a teenager and a very special chestnut princess. I admired her incredible personality (believe me or not, she was “talking” to me all the time when I was on her, which helped me be prepared for whatever was coming next). I feared her changing moods and her unpredictability. I loved her immensely for those very special moments when, finally, we were one. In those moments, the whole world stopped spinning because the sensations she offered me were unparalleled.

In June 2002, Marcel was frustrated by how unreliable Foy was despite being such a big talent. He decided to ride her in order to try to help me. We were in Switzerland, 24 hours before the veterinary check of our next international competition. From the moment Marcel sat on her, you could see the ultimate resistance in Foy’s eye. After an eventful warm-up, Marcel called for the first jump, a very small cross-rail. Foy took off from a distance that simply did not exist, and both horse and trainer crashed to the ground.

Marcel got up off the ground, but he didn’t get back on. I went to catch Foy who was cantering free in the arena; Marcel left us without a glance.

I was just about to discover that the greatest enemy of the rider is doubt, because to doubt—beyond the technical problems that go hand-in-hand with it—is to betray your horse.

During the next three days of competition, I could not persuade Foy to go farther than the first fence. Even in the warm-up she refused to go. The day Marcel rode her marked a definitive breaking point for Foy from which she never recovered.

This wasn’t the end of our story together, but it was the end of our competitive journey. A hard one. I was 14, and for the first time, my dream was collapsing, and my entire world with it.

I had been doing school at home on my own, training ponies in the morning and working in the afternoons. I had a plan; I had a goal; I knew where I was heading. And suddenly, everything was over. I also discovered the jealousy and wickedness that sometimes resides in those who dream to be in your place but never will. I was not prepared for it. I felt dirty, empty, and endlessly sad when I saw people elated and giving each other high fives with beaming smiles on their faces because Foy and I had failed. I couldn’t understand this, and it left a deep scar within me. Luckily, my family offered the support I needed. They helped me get through the difficult emotions I was experiencing and accept them as part of life when you choose to push your limits and reach for your dreams.


This excerpt from The Horses Who Made Me is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. To order a copy of the book, click here.