Her favorite horse was called Burmese. She was a regal black mare, given to Queen Elizabeth II by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Queen rode her for 18 consecutive years, from 1969 to 1986, including during Ronald Reagan’s 1982 visit to Windsor Castle. (The president was lent Centennial, a black gelding, for the occasion.)
The Queen’s love of horses started early. Born in 1926, she had her first riding lesson at the age of three, and received her first pony, a Shetland mare, the following year—a fourth-birthday present from her grandfather King George V. At 11, when a reporter asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, the future Queen answered (“without a moment’s hesitation,” according to Life magazine), “I should like to be a horse.”
It was a love that never waned. As recently as three years ago, the then 93-year-old Queen was spotted riding a black horse on the grounds of Windsor alongside her head groom. She was also photographed riding on the morning that her great-grandson Prince Louis—Prince William and Kate Middleton’s youngest son—was born. The last time the Queen was reportedly on a horse was earlier this summer, after the Platinum Jubilee.
In the nine decades between her first riding lesson and her death on Thursday, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch was as likely to be seen astride in a Barbour jacket, breeches, and printed scarf—or, on ceremonial occasions, sidesaddle in full state uniform—as in her famously monotone but brightly colored suits with matching hat and simple handbag.
The Queen frequently attended the Royal Windsor Horse Show, and she was passionate about racing. “My philosophy about racing is simple,” she said in a BBC documentary. “I enjoy breeding a horse that is faster than other people’s.”
She didn’t say much more about her love of horses. But photographs of the Queen with her animals express both tenderness and a deep sense of calm. Time with her horses offered an escape from the constant royal demands and the monotony of such a structured life. Horses don’t talk or ask questions. And one could say they have the enormous strength and fortitude of a Queen. —Julia Vitale
Julia Vitale is a Deputy Editor for Air Mail