Romany Gypsy rider breaking away from her roots

By James Wooldridge
BBC News

Image caption,
As a Romany Gypsy, Phoebe is in the minority in the equestrian world

Professional event rider Phoebe Buckley has ridden against Princess Anne's daughter, Zara Phillips, and hopes to compete in the London 2012 Olympics.

But as a Romany Gypsy moving in what can be a privileged world, it is sometimes hard going, and Phoebe says there can be discrimination.

Her parents were born and brought up in wagons and lived on the side of the road, but when Phoebe was born they decided to settle in Cambridge.

Phoebe started riding horses at the age of four. "Every girl wants a pony so I badgered and badgered. My parents went to Cambridge cattle market and bought a very cheap horse for me and I just got hooked," she says.

She moved to event riding aged 12, which she admits is fairly late compared to many others.

"We thought it was just a phase and she'll grow out of it," says Phoebe's father Tom, "but the more she got into it the better she did and the more she wanted to do it."

After leaving school aged 13 - something which is common for many Romany Gypsy children - she started working for professional event riders Tanya Kyle and Toni Liddle.

Toni "broke in" young racehorses for champion trainer Henry Cecil and it was while working alongside her that Phoebe developed an interest in competing.

"She took me under her wing. I got really in to the eventing and the competition side and it all escalated from there really."

Image caption,
Phoebe hopes that her achievements will encourage other Romany Gypsy women

Phoebe owns two horses called Flash Gordon and Identity Crisis. She is particularly attached to Flash Gordon, but she worries that she might have to sell him to raise money.

"Quite often, the very good horses get 'spotted' and if you are offered a lot of money for your own horse, it's very hard to turn that down, even if the horse is the one that potentially is an Olympic horse."

Within the Romany Gypsy community it is frowned upon to have a credit card or loan, and because Phoebe's parents are unable to provide her with financial backing, it has made things difficult.

"It's a rich person's sport," says Phoebe's father Tom. "Most of the top jobs the [horse's] owners pay for... if it wasn't for that, she wouldn't be able to afford to do it."

Breaking with tradition

Unlike many of her peers who got married at a young age, Phoebe broke with Gypsy tradition and continued to ride as a career.

"When I was younger (a few of my friends) couldn't believe the way I was going to... go away from the traditional route for girls.

"Now my friends are married with a couple of kids and they realise they have not a lot in their life other than to cook, clean and wash.

"Aged 26, I'm well over the hill and not married, and in their eyes I'm well past it, but they can see I'm carving a career out for myself and I think they find it really refreshing.

"Most people are proud and think good on me for breaking the mould."

It is not easy being a Romany Gypsy rider in eventing, a sport which often attracts people from privileged backgrounds.

Phoebe says she has faced some discrimination.

"A little while ago I overheard somebody saying that I shouldn't be allowed to mix in those sort of circles because 'do they know where I come from?' and that's really hard."

"I'm quite tough and thick-skinned, but it is hard when you feel like you are trying your best.

"You don't mind being shot down when you are doing something wrong, but when you are being shot down when you are born into something which you have no control over, it is very difficult," she says.

In 2009, she competed against the former Eventing World Champion Zara Phillips at the Badminton Horse Trials.

"It was 'the princess against the pauper' and it was funny because Zara is not like that at all, I think she found it as funny as I did."

"Yes, she has more opportunities sponsorship-wise than me, because she is who she is, and equally I got loads of press because I am who I am.

"And there are plenty of people in the middle who are as talented as me and Zara who don't get any. So we take it for what it is."

But Phoebe has also found that for the majority of event riders background is not important.

"It's all about working hard, having luck, getting your head down and getting on with it."

She hopes that by continuing to compete in high-profile events, she can change public perception about her community. She also wants to inspire other Romany Gypsy women, who usually marry young and do not have careers, to follow in her footsteps.

"I'm hoping that for some of the girls, I am giving them a bit of - 'you can go and make a life for yourself and it's not all bad' - and equally for normal folk I'm showing that we are not all bad and there are a lot of us that just want to get on with life and are nice."

With London 2012 approaching, Phoebe is hoping to try out for the Olympics. Selection will be based on her horse's performance over a series of events in the run up to the games.

"It's a bit like doing your exams and then the top four or five students go through," she says.

She is hoping her horse stays well too.

"Even Olympic horses can and do go lame and even the best riders in the world would struggle to get to the Olympics without the horsepower behind them."

BBC Radio 4's Against the Grain will be broadcast on Friday, 25 February, 2011 at 1545 GMT. Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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