In my office hang a number of photographs of Winston Churchill with horses. My favorite is Churchill with a horse named Colonist II, a big grey racehorse that he bought in 1949. Churchill and Colonist II captured the heart of the public and led me to write of their exploits together. With an admiration for Churchill and a fondness for horses, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the release of Brough Scott’s Churchill at the Gallop. Scott, a well-known English jockey, broadcaster, journalist, and author, chronicles Churchill’s lifetime experiences with horses from his youth, serving in the military, and his intervening and senior years; a period stemming from Churchill’s early recollections in Ireland in 1879 to his final years from 1952–65. Read More >
While ‘the man of action’ perhaps more accurately describes Churchill in time of battle, demanding action from others and of himself, he was always a restless man, fearful of inaction. In his quieter years, he was always determined to keep himself busy (perhaps to keep the ‘black dog’ of depression at bay). Although his favourite pastime was painting, he continued to travel, ride and swim, as well as write books during his ‘wilderness years’ – he only gave up playing polo when he was fifty-two – and was riding into his sixties and seventies. Even when elderly, after the WWII, he continued to travel (to the US, to give lectures and speeches, to Europe for holidays). Despite having suffered heart attacks, strokes and pneumonia, he was far more active – and physically resilient – than most his age.
‘I am writing in one of the Keepers’ Lodges to wh I have returned after stalking & where I am waiting for the Prince of Wales. Quite the best day’s sport I have had in this country – 4 good stags & home early!’
Churchill in a letter to Clementine, from Balmoral Castle, 20 September 1913, from Soames, Speaking for Themselves
When Churchill sailed to India with his regiment, the Queen’s Hussars, in 1896, polo – and winning regimental polo cups – seemed to be the only action he was likely to see. Eager to make his mark, he took matters into his own hands and persuaded the Daily Telegraph to take him on as a war correspondent. In 1897, he travelled to the North West frontier of India and Pakistan to join the Malakand Field Force fighting against the Afghan tribes in 1897, under the command of Sir Bindon Blood. It took him a total of five uncomfortable weeks (by ship and by train), with the promise of nothing more than a role as ‘correspondent’, to get to the front.
‘Here was a place where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones.’
Churchill, My Early Life
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. While at Sandhurst, Churchill had learnt to play polo. Now that he was an officer with the Queen’s Own Hussars, he played regularly at the Hurlingham and Ranelagh Clubs in London. It was here that he demonstrated his talent with horse and polo stick and he soon became a skilled player. Churchill continued to play polo until his fifties, despite having a weak right shoulder (injured in a fall when disembarking from the ship in India) and having to wear it strapped to prevent it ‘going out’. (He could never play tennis because of this, even though Clementine was a very good player and they had a hard court installed at Chartwell; it was later turned into a croquet lawn.) Click here to see the draft constitution of the ‘Fourth Hussars Polo Club’ (Churchill’s name appears sixth under ‘Members’).
‘For men like Churchill, polo was war; it was like a miniature battlefield. Bloodshed and injury to horse and rider was common and the faint of heart need not apply … Courage and audacity on the polo field translate into savvy and audacity on the battlefield.’
Carlo D’Este, Churchill and Polo
A few weeks before his eighth birthday, in 1882, Churchill – like many other children of his class and background – was sent away to boarding school. It was at his second school in Brighton (after two unhappy years at St George’s, Ascot where ‘floggings’ were common) that he learnt things that interested him; not just French and history, but riding a horse and swimming. Both riding and swimming were to feature heavily in his life. At Harrow he represented his house at swimming competitions, but it was at fencing that he excelled. In 1889, Churchill wrote to his ‘Darling Mummy’ asking her to allow him to take up fencing. Churchill went on to become an accomplished fencer and even became Public Schools Fencing Champion in 1892.
‘… I think it would be so much better for me to learn something which would be useful to me in the army, as well as affording me exercise and amusement.’
Churchill to his mother, Lady Randolph, 5, October 1889
Although not often thought of as a sportsman, Churchill was a fine fencer in his schooldays, becoming English Public Schools Champion at fencing during his time at Harrow School. But it was riding that he most enjoyed. Always a keen horseman, life as a cavalry officer in the Queen’s Own Hussars suited him enormously. He learnt to play polo as a subaltern, hunted (infrequently) and, although he played polo until his fifties, eventually turned to racehorses – he owned many – to continue his involvement with horses.
In later life, Churchill owned twelve brood mares (his first, in 1945, called ‘Madonna’) and in the summer of 1949, he bought a racehorse – a three-year-old colt called ‘Colonist II’ – which was the first of many thoroughbreds (including, of course, one named ‘Pol Roger’!). Churchill was made a member of the Jockey Club in 1950, much to his delight. His racing colours – pink and chocolate brown (Lord Randolph’s colours) – became the colours of Churchill College, Cambridge
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.