IT was a bittersweet visit to Maidwell Lodge Farm, the home of Piggy and Thomas March, last week.
Piggy had just announced her beloved horse of a lifetime, Vanir Kamira, would not compete at five-star level any longer, and was very happy with that decision. But the couple had also recently lost their beautiful home-bred stallion Cupid March to colic a week earlier. They were crushed by his loss.
Maidwell is a charming village in West Northamtonshire, just 45 minutes from Birmingham Airport and, after an early morning flight from Dublin, we arrived at the gate of the farm. The vast rolling countryside is breathtaking from the sand arena, where Piggy and Thomas are schooling a horse when we pull up.
Team March have been based at the Keir family’s Maidwell Lodge Farm since July 2013 and it has undoubtedly been a place of immense happiness and success. It is where their son Max (6) has grown up, and where they held their surprise wedding reception, disguised as a post Badminton-win celebration, in June 2019.
“We moved it straight after London 2012 which was obviously quite a low, I missed it with two horses going lame. It had quite a negative effect on me, on owners, on sponsorship, on lots of things. So actually a change of office was a good kick up the backside to get going and keep looking forward. So yeah, it’s been, it’s a great place,” Piggy said as we sat down in the tack room.
The first horse spotted at Maidwell was Vanir Kamira, aka ‘Tilly’ or ‘Tilly Bean’, the horse that finally took Piggy to her first five-star win at Badminton in 2019, and winner of Burghley last year. At the age of 18, she decided to retire her from that top level of sport. Tilly looks a picture as she heads to her ‘special field’ (she is the only horse who won’t eat the cross-country fences); she is fully clipped and ran at Lincolnshire a few days beforehand.
“She could easily go to Badminton, there’s no reason not to. But she is 18, she’s been amazing, like, beyond amazing, her five-star record is incredible,” Piggy said with a smile of her face when talking about the Camiro de Haar Z-sired Irish Sport Horse mare, bred by Kathryn Jackson.
“I didn’t want the decision taken out of her hands, I didn’t want her going until she was suddenly went lame or the form was too bad. I don’t want her under any pressure,” Piggy explains. She will continue to do her one-day events and holds a four-star entry. Piggy will know when she has had enough.
Was it a hard decision? “No. I probably would have taken her saddle off at Burghley last year. It was such a moment, but I’m glad in some ways I didn’t because Trevor Dickens [her owner] wouldn’t have agreed to it for starters.
That’s definitely taken quite a few discussions, and I’m very grateful to him to have stood by us in our decision.
“She did look very good when she came in, she does feel very well but my own gut feeling of riding her every day, the further I got to getting the Badminton entry, the worse I was feeling.
“I rang up Andrew Nicholson because I needed someone very tough, very straight talking to either very quickly tell me I’m being an absolute idiot and stop being such a softy and she’s absolutely fine and of course, she’ll keep going because she’s in such good form. Or someone that says no, if that’s what you believe that’s what you do and you’re not being soft.
“And after a good discussion with him, he was just like ‘no you’ve got to go on your gut’. And I was like my gut is for sure just saying let her stop at the top because she’s been such a soldier and deserves it.”
Piggy was conscious that the mare would have tried her very best had she taken her back to Badminton, and that was another worry. “That is the biggest thing... you can only go to the well so many times. She has given me her absolute everything so many times, it’s not like Badminton is a walk in the park for her, she has busted a gut. And it’s important to be able to give her a pat and say ‘good girl’!”
Piggy March with her Badminton and Burghley winner Vanir Kamira (ISH) \ Claire Nash
Pen to paper
Excitingly, Vanir Kamira has three offspring on the ground. Thomas explains: “She keeps winning the best mare prize at Burghley which is an embryo transfer scholarship to Twemlows Stud. She went there after Badminton in 2018 and I think she has a Jaguar Mail, Chilli Morning and an Upsillon, which are all now four-year-olds, they are all with her owner.”
Piggy adds: “They will be making their way at some stage, he was making noises at the weekend. I think now that he has gotten his head around Tilly Bean… I just don’t think he had any idea how much of a people horse she is now, he can’t believe the response he’s got from us saying we are not going to take her [to Badminton].”
There will be a nice official retirement at some stage, but for now she will continue to work while she feels happy. And Piggy is going to write a book about her horse of a lifetime. “I’d love to try and do a book this year of her because I think she’s a fascinating little horse. She will no doubt be a horse of my lifetime, I know I’ve got lots of others I’m very excited about as well and hope that I’ve got some as successful, but she will hold a very special place in me that’s for sure. I think she’s got a cool story to tell.”
We could spend hours talking Irish horses; a walk through the yard sees lots of familiar faces, including Dassett Arthalent who was sold by Clare Abbott to Piggy’s owners Dassett Eventing just last season.
What draws her to Irish horses? “I started in long format and it was the blood that was still the important thing… it was all about the cross-country, the sharpness, being able to gallop, being able to get to the end. I wasn’t so bothered about the dressage to be honest. I was very much the old fashioned way of producing that they go hunting, they take a while to get going.
“I like them to have a nice amount of bone or a nice strong foot and not too upright and not too much movement. I’m not really one for the fancy, fancy off the floor, I suppose it’s how you’ve just been brought up… I’ve had more success with Irish horses, obviously in competition but also soundness, there’s a type of conformation that I look for.”
Keep the blood
She does acknowledge the introduction of foreign breeding to Irish lines, saying: “It has become a little bit more continental, hasn’t it? A lot of that started by trying to get more step and you’re worried does the blood go. It’s the same with life though, it gets more commercial everywhere. I suppose if you say Irish Sport Horse and it doesn’t look like a foreign horse, then I’m more confident before I’ve started, for whatever reason but maybe it’s just my past!”
Piggy March jumping the ISH Dassent Arthalent at home at Maidwell Lodge Farm \ Claire Nash
Dassett Arthalent (Valent x Nigrasine) won the silver medal at Le Lion d’Angers in 2022 as a seven-year-old and has a phenomenal record. “Clare [Abbott] has done an amazing job, obviously she bred him. And I don’t think she was keen to sell him but she was buying a house and we had a very good owner that looked for quite a long time. I think we only tried him for five minutes and we had him.”
Piggy is also synonymous with the Brookfield horses. “I ride for Brookfield and they are without doubt solid Irish breeding supporters. They get most of theirs through Louise Codd who does a brilliant job with all their young horses. And so I would have thought there will forever be a constant stream of Irish young ones coming through!
“Brookfield Future News is a horse I’m very fond of. He is not particularly a really big mover or a really big jumper but he wants to do it, he’s sharp thinking, he’s a fast horse and he really suits me. I would like to see him get to go around something big because I believe that he could do it.”
Also part of the Brookfield team is the John Mulvey-bred 14-year-old gelding Brookfield Inocent (Inocent x Kings Servant) who won individual silver and team gold at the 2021 FEI European Eventing Championships. The pair were selected as the fourth member, or alternate, for the Tokyo Olympic Games but decided not to travel.
The fact that Piggy has not yet competed in an Olympics is well documented. She was a shoo-in for London 2012 when both her horses went lame, she missed Rio due to pregnancy and was without a top horse, and then the competitiveness of Team GB saw her narrowly miss Tokyo.
“I would have been okay, personally as an athlete I would have been okay,” Piggy replies when asked how she would have felt going to Tokyo as the fourth athlete and not competing. “I would have been very happy for the team, I’ve a lot of friends in my sport and the team were friends. So I would have genuinely been very happy to have gone and played that part and helped.
“But it would have never been Brookfield Inocent’s place to have taken that role. We knew that from the start, so that was the annoying thing of probably being selected in the first place. If he was out there for two weeks without a job to do and then got called in just to show jump under flood lights having not ran, he would have gone in there like he was four years old and never jumped in his life. It would have been very embarrassing and everyone would have said ‘thank God you weren’t chosen’.
“William Fox-Pitt, he’s a great friend, and he has no filter these days since his head injury so he always tells you exactly what he thinks. But he rang and was just like ‘I feel very sorry for you. And I feel sad for you, you were ready to win a medal at an Olympics nine years ago and you still haven’t bloody got there’. I was like thanks mate!” she says with a laugh.
Paris 2024 is very much the goal. “But again this rule of three and being part of Team GB is bloody impossible! If dreams come through and all the rest of it then I would love to try and get there next year with Brookfield Inocent. He’s an amazing horse. I think he’s one of the best cross-country horses I’ve ever ridden. Again he’s a very blood horse, he’s not a dressage fancy horse. He’s just a neat sharp good horse that works for me.
“He had a tendon injury last year so he’s coming back in now and we gave him all the time. I’d love to have him at Burghley this autumn, that would be the aim this year.”
Piggy is quite content with her lot, saying: “I would really love to do an Olympics, like without doubt. But you can’t over pressurise the situation. You can only train as well as you can or try as hard as you can. If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.”
At the end of the day, no one can take away her Badminton and Burghley wins, although she wants to add more. “Badminton and Burghley all day long, isn’t it, really?” she says when asked to rate her championship medals or five-star wins. “I love the teams, don’t get me wrong you are very proud to compete for your country especially for Team GB. You grow up wanting to compete at Badminton and Burghley. It’s the pinnacle of eventing, it’s still very historical, there is nothing like it.”
Thomas began his own breeding venture in 2016, during which time Piggy was away from the sport to have their child Max. “It was November 2016 and we were thinking of what else we could do. One of the ideas was getting involved with an eventing stallion, so we bought one from the Holstein licencing. We then bought a couple of mares the following January/February time and it started from there really,” he explains.
The fruits of Thomas’ labour are beginning to come to fruition with the oldest crop now five. Devastatingly, their brightest star, the five-year-old stallion Cupid March died from colic just a few weeks ago. By Clarksville out of the five-star eventing mare Valentina II (Corofino I), he was granted Premium Life Graded status with Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain and was the four-year-old Burghley Young Event Horse champion last September.
The plan was to stand him at stud this year. “He has not covered any mares at all. We got some semen from him, but only a small amount and we haven’t quite decided yet how we’ll use that or what the plan of attack is. We’d just like to give him the chance to produce the kind of the horses that we thought he was capable of producing,” Thomas said.
There was a lot of interest from breeders.
“He was a lovely type, character, mover, jumper… he’d obviously proven it to a certain extent in the sport, winning at Burghley. He had the pedigree to go with it, he had all the boxes ticked.
“The mother is still going but she is 26 this year, we’ve got a four-year-old sister to Cupid by Van Gough but that was her last one.”
Thomas’ talents also extend to the digital side of the business; the eye-catching ‘Piggy’ and ‘March’ logos were designed by him, and he also edits Piggy TV, another string to the talented couple’s bow. The monthly subscription platform offers an insight into life at Maidwell, a behind the scenes look at horses training, plus yard tours at other stables and more.
Piggy March and Coolparks Sarco (ISH) \ Claire Nash
“It originally started when we were in lockdown and the owners couldn’t come and see their horses so we did videos of me in the school and then I’d do a voice over of it at night time and send it to them. I’m still excited about what it is and what we are making of it and what we hope it becomes. The whole objective of it is obviously trying to help people really,” said Piggy who stars in front of the camera while Thomas does all the behind the camera work.
“We all make mistakes the whole time, it’s just sharing our world, and it’s sharing my experiences, what I liked to try and get to do with the training or what I did like about this exercise. What I’ve done wrong, what I’ve done well or what I’ll try and get to.
“I was getting a lot of people asking if they could come for lessons. I don’t have the time, we are very exposed weather wise so even just to get a course out for three days, the wind blows too much up here. I was getting some really cool people, some really good riders, coming up to me independently to say I love your videos. They were saying ‘bloody hell, Pig, they are good but why the hell are you putting them on this for free?’”
“Like the day you were riding around at Le Lion in the warm-up and chatting to the Olympic champion Julia Krajewski who said ‘I really love watching your videos’,” adds Thomas.
It is funny to see Piggy is surprised that the Olympic champion watches her video, does she not realise her appeal, how much she is loved in the sport? “I’m just in a position that I’m lucky to share some cool stuff.”
After nearly two hours of chatting, it is very clear to see why Piggy is held in such high esteem, why she has so many friends in the sport, and why everyone wishes her and her family well.