I recently had the pleasure of chatting with my Floridian neighbour and driver David E. Saunders, a former coachman for Prince Phillip, The Duke of Edinburgh, about what it was like working for Her Majesty and where it has taken him in the horse industry.
With the recent passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, it must be a very emotional yet memorable time for you recalling your experiences working so closely with and for the Royal Family, all due to horses. Have horses always been an interest?
No, I was an army brat born in Africa. My father, when he was in the military, was in the saddle club and my grandfather was Master of the Basset Hounds in Mulberry. I didn’t have any interest in horses until I returned to England at the age of 14.
What got you involved with horses?
My hormones! Where I lived in Chertsey, a historical town in the county of Surrey, there was a local polo yard with teenage girls. I got a part-time job there mowing grass, mucking out stalls and eventually riding polo ponies. It was here that I met carriage drivers and thought that carriage driving was very interesting. While I was working here I also got the opportunity to work in the film industry.
How did that come about?
I was approached by a film company that was using horses to see if I would like to work for them. It paid £5.00 a day. In the early ’70s that was good money, much more than what I was making, so I jumped at the offer.
What sort of work did you do for them?
I was a horse-riding double for actors Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine and Omar Sharif. Michael Caine and Omar Sharif were not overly fond of horses. I worked in The Last Valley starring both Caine and Sharif.
What did you end up doing after the film industry?
I met an approved training farrier and started my apprenticeship to become a registered farrier. I worked mostly on polo ponies, but I also did work for Sarah Ferguson’s (Duchess of York) horses. I also met my future wife Dorothy while shoeing her ponies.
How did you end up working for the Royal Family?
After Dorothy and I were married we lived in an apartment over a beauty parlor in Iver Heath. I saw an ad in Horse & Hound looking for a driving groom, so I answered the advertisement. A few weeks later I got a call from a Major Phelps. At first, I thought the law was after me, so I just ignored the call. With a bit of persistence Major Phelps finally got in touch with me and wanted to know if I was still interested in the position and I said yes.
What was your position when you started working for Her Majesty?
I was a Junior Liveried Servant – basically, I was at the bottom of the pile and did what needed to be done.
How did you become Prince Phillip’s groom?
At the time Prince Phillip’s head groom was an older gentleman by the name of Major Thompson who was retiring, so I told them that I would take the job. Normally that wouldn’t have been permitted because I’m not a major or colonel. I really upset the apple cart when I got promoted to being a Windsor Coachman; “protocol” had not been followed!
Do you think that your carriage driving experience played a part in becoming Prince Phillip’s Head Groom?
I’m not sure. He was no longer playing polo but still wanted to be involved with horses and decided to get involved in competitive carriage driving. In the early days of Combined Driving, it consisted of four phases: Presentation, Dressage, Marathon and Cones. Presentation was just that, how you looked and if you looked the best, you won, so this phase was quickly gotten rid of.
It must have been an interesting time being involved with Combined Driving during its infancy.
It sure was! Based on mishaps during the marathon phase, changes were made to the marathon vehicle. Movements were also added to the Dressage test, making the test more technical.
What were some of those changes?
One change was the use of quick-release shackles on the traces. Funny how that change came about; Prince Philip said to me one day, ‘David, there must be ways that we can make this sport safer!’ Having a sailing background, Prince Phillip felt that putting the same type of shackles used on sailboats on traces would make it easier to undo the trace from the whiffletree. Obviously it worked, because as you well know, quick-release shackles are still used to this day.
Another change was the addition of bumper bars on the marathon carriage. The wheels would hit trees or other objects, flipping the carriage. The addition of bumper bars reduced this from happening. I remember the time that we were in Zug, Switzerland, and a designer from Kühnle carriages was taking pictures of Prince Phillip’s vehicle. To this day, some of the designs used by Kühnle are based on ideas from Prince Phillip.
What influences did Prince Phillip have on the Dressage test?
Prince Phillip received a memo from the higher-ups wanting to know if a one-handed 30-meter circle could be done. “David,” he asked me, “What do you think?” I replied, “I don’t know, sir, but let’s give it a try.” I gave it a try, it worked and to this day a one-handed circle is used by Four-in-Hand drivers.
You were involved with so many interesting aspects of the Royal Family, from the early stages of Combined Driving to giving driving lessons at Balmoral in the summer. How did you ever make the decision to leave Her Majesty’s employment after 20 years?
I decided it was time to leave when Prince Phillip started driving ponies. Eventually, I ended up in America where I continued my career as a coachman, combined driving competitor, instructor and clinician. Recently I’ve become involved in Attelage de Tradition Carriage Driving.
What exactly is Attelage de Tradition Carriage Driving?
Attelage de Tradition was started in the France about twenty years ago. It is the blending of driving trials and traditional private driving – the emphasis being that you must drive an antique vehicle. It’s unique in that no matter what country you compete in, you must follow the rules set out by AIAT – Association d’International d’Attelage de Tradition. Each competition consists of the following format: Presentation, Routier (also known as road drive and usually involves a glass of champagne) and Maniabilité, which is like cones. Points are awarded to each phase with the most points being awarded for Presentation. Currently there are sixteen nations involved in Attelage and it is becoming increasingly popular.
Can you see yourself becoming more involved with AIAT?
Yes, as an international U.S. judge.
I understand you’re celebrating a Platinum birthday (70th) this year. With all that you’ve done in the horse industry, what do you see yourself doing next?