Paula Sykes — Pioneering Woman Groom in International Show Jumping

Paula Sykes on Scorchin’ at Ostend. C/o Jane Martin.

Pauline Phyllis Betty Sykes, who died in Costessey, Norfolk on her 88th birthday on 15 September 2017, was one of the first girl grooms in international equestrian competition. As the right-hand woman of 1950s showjumping superstar Pat Smythe, “Paul” or “Paula” (never Pauline) cared for Smythe’s champions Tosca, Prince Hal and Flanagan not just at the showjumper’s home yard in Miserden, Gloucestershire, but on the road when international equestrian transport involved days of travel by rail or packing the horses into crates on ship decks and crossing the Atlantic in winter gales. She slept in railway wagons alongside the horses on journeys to and from destinations like Sicily or cold war Berlin, on one occasion having to melt ice for her charges when the train was delayed at the snow-bound Italian frontier. She carried a knife to defend herself after an incident in an underground marshalling yard in Turin when a man tried to break into her wagon and was still clinging to the door as the train moved off. In her memoirs, Smythe praised Sykes as “a genius” who “cared for horses as children” and stressed the hardships of travelling and sleeping in a draughty horsebox, negotiating at showgrounds in four different languages and packing everything from crockery to campbeds and spare tack (Smythe’s Olympic bronze-medallist Flanagan once ate his own martingale shortly before entering the ring).

Paula Sykes was born in Ely in 1929, the third of four children of a couple who owned a sweet shop. She grew up in Bedford. Her father served in the Royal Horse Artillery during the First World War but she had little equestrian experience other than being dispatched into the countryside on an aunt’s pony in the holidays. After convent school she hoped to study physical training but was unable to find a college place due to the influx of women coming out of the forces. Her mother surprised her by suggesting she worked with horses instead, and Sykes found a place at a local riding school. For six months, despite her lack of experience — something she later found highly amusing — she would take rides of up to 25 people out across country. After passing a British Horse Society exam in 1949 at 18, she got the first position she saw advertised, helping Pat’s mother Monica Smythe run a riding holiday business in Gloucestershire.

Within six months, 21-year-old Pat Smythe’s career as a showjumper had taken off, her mother had set the riding holiday business aside and Paula was a full-time showjumping groom. When Monica was killed in a car accident in 1952, Paula became an even more stalwart support for the hard working and determined Smythe.

Smythe was named Sportswoman of the Year three times by 1957, became the first woman to win an Olympic showjumping medal at Stockholm in 1956, won the European Ladies’ Championship four times and British National Championships on eight occasions. As she became internationally famous in an era when showjumping was bigger even than football in Britain, Paula was a line of defence against intrusive journalists determined to discover if she had a boyfriend or not. Smythe later wrote that “she was discretion itself and only slightly more communicative with the press than Lester Piggott”.

When Smythe married Swiss Olympic three-day-eventer Sam Koechlin in 1963 and retired from competition, Sykes moved to the village of Cringleford outside Norwich and started a riding school. Generations of Norfolk children learned to ride at the busy, friendly yard where Sykes lived in a mobile home in one of the fields. The Horse Rescue Fund placed many rescued horses and ponies with her that went on to be superb competitors. One, a skewbald called Woodstock who arrived direct from the cattle market, was one of the first “coloured” ponies to have national success, competing unbeaten for two and a half years. Sykes had an excellent “eye”: she would vanish to the local sales to “just have a look” then telephone for the lorry and return with four ponies who would later scoop up rosettes at Norfolk gymkhanas. For the girls who worked at the stable, Sykes produced delicious three-course lunches stirred with the same spoon used for the horses’ linseed.

While she had few, if any, ambitions for her own riding, she was a dedicated mentor to the girls who dominated the Norfolk equestrian scene on her horses and ponies. She would scour show schedules, fill out entries and organise the logistics every weekend and was seldom happier than when en route to a competition or offering advice on the journey home. Her mentees were taught that no matter how late they returned from a show, their horse must be immaculately groomed, settled on a deep bed, fed and watered before the girls took care of themselves. Cringleford Riding School was forced to close in 1995 after the Uniform Business Rate rise proved too punitive and most of the ponies were rehomed with former pupils. Sykes continued to be involved in showing and earned the Pony Club’s Cubitt Award for 25 years’ service. She chaired the Beccles and Bungay Riding Club and worked closely with the Side Saddle Association.

Profoundly modest, loyal and independent, she was also a much-loved aunt and godmother, although she perhaps never realised how important she was to her pupils. At her funeral, her hearse was drawn by two jet-black Friesian horses.