Social-media threats, grisly accidents, untimely deaths. It sounds like the plot of a thriller, but it’s the life of Laura Collett, the 33-year-old British equestrian, who has shown that the seemingly genteel sport of eventing can be quite the opposite. From a humble background, Collett has risen to become the defending champion of the prestigious Badminton Horse Trials, long billed as “the most important horse event in Britain,” and is proof that class and money are no longer deciding factors in a sport more usually thought of as the preserve of royalty and aristocrats.

While it’s also the birthplace of the modern racket sport that shares its name, Badminton House is hallowed turf for equestrians. Over four days each year, it hosts an eventing competition during which the world’s best horses and riders compete against one another in three distinct tests.

King Charles, when he was Prince of Wales, at Badminton in 1980.

First, dressage, in which riders get their horses to perform a series of intricate, highly technical movements—like a ballet—that demonstrate complete harmony between horse and rider. Second, a four-mile cross-country course in which riders have to jump over some 45 natural and man-made obstacles at speed. This tests stamina and athleticism, and requires bucketloads of bravery. And third, show jumping, in which the rider must clear a set of fences in an arena, with any knockdowns or refusals incurring penalties. This tests accuracy and agility, since the softest touch of a horse’s hoof will cause a fence pole to fall.

For 74 years the event has taken place amid Badminton’s stately buildings and grounds. The seat of the 12th Duke of Beaufort, Badminton is rarely open to the public, and the four days of eventing regularly attract more than 200,000 visitors.

In the past, riders largely consisted of cavalry officers, aristocrats, and the offspring of wealthy families. Members of the royal family, such as Princess Anne and her former husband, Captain Mark Phillips, have successfully competed, and their daughter, Zara Tindall, a former eventing world champion, would normally be taking part. But this year the trials coincide with the coronation of her uncle King Charles, so she will not be present. (Fully cognizant of the clash, the organizers will be displaying the coronation on big screens throughout the grounds.)

Collett and London 52 leap one of the huge obstacles on the cross-country section of the trials.

Even so, these days the entry list is less blue-blooded and more professional. Jonathan “Jock” Paget, who won the event in 2013, was a bricklayer who started riding in his late teens. Oliver Townend, the son of a milkman, will be among the contenders this year. Eventing has become remarkably egalitarian, with adults of all ages going head-to-head. It’s the nature of a horse not to care for gender, age, or class. “Just because you’re royalty,” says Collett, “doesn’t mean they are not going to make you fall off and look stupid.”

Eventing is remarkably egalitarian, with men and women from 18 to 65 going head-to-head.

Collett was hardly born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father walked out on her family when she was young, and she was brought up by a single mother who juggled multiple jobs, including working nights in a gas station. The family has never owned a house, let alone a stable yard, and sometimes they have worked for the owner of their horses’ stables in lieu of rent. “We would [look after] the ponies together before and after school, often in the dark,” says Collett. “Things aren’t easy, but if you really want something, you somehow make it happen. That’s Mum’s philosophy.”

Collett started out in the world of “showing,” a sort of beauty pageant for horses. She won the Supreme Pony of the Year award at the Horse of the Year Show at the age of 13, having trained and groomed a semi-wild pony her mother had brought in off the Welsh mountains. From a young age she was turning untrained ponies and horses into winners, while many of her peers were buying rides that were already trained. There have been countless prizes since, but she lists her 2022 Badminton victory as the highlight so far, alongside the British-team gold medal she won in eventing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Collett and London 52 take part in the team equestrian competition.

“Badminton means everything,” she says. “Growing up, I watched it religiously, in awe of the people competing there. As a rider it’s the one everyone wants to win. Driving through the gates, it has a completely different feel. It’s just that bit more special.”

Go back 10 years and the idea that Collett would ever get on a horse again, let alone achieve sporting glory, would have been fanciful. In 2013, while competing in the cross-country phase at a minor competition, she suffered a horrific “rotational” fall—the horse tumbled over like it was doing a somersault. Collett was hurled to the ground, and her horse—all 1,500 pounds of it—fell directly on top of her.

The paramedics had to resuscitate her five times, and her injuries included a punctured lung, lacerated liver, kidney damage, a fractured shoulder, and broken ribs. She was placed in an induced coma for six days. When she finally came round it was discovered that a fragment of her shoulder bone had traveled through her bloodstream to her right eye, damaging the optic nerve. “When I closed my left eye, I couldn’t see anything out of my right,” says Collett, “but I knew I was very lucky to be vaguely O.K.” Between 1993 and 2016, 59 riders died competing in eventing, 41 from rotational falls.

Queen Elizabeth II at Badminton in April 1956. In the background are Prince Philip and the Queen Mother.

After six weeks of intensive rehabilitation, Collett was itching to return to the sport she loved, and was back on a horse sooner than advised. Her limited sight was the biggest challenge. “It affected my depth perception. I would walk into things, and when I first started jumping, it seemed like the jumps would move. But it’s amazing how quickly the body adapts—I just had to relearn distances.” She wears goggles to protect her eyes now, and with good reason: “If I get anything in my left eye when I’m riding, I’m a bit stuffed.”

Between 1993 and 2016, 59 riders died competing in eventing.

From childhood, Collett learned that, in order to survive in this costly pursuit, ponies that she had trained, won prizes with, and cherished had to be sold to keep the wheels turning. It’s a commercial mindset that she’s kept to this day. “Riding event horses for owners barely pays for itself after you have paid the grooms, rent, and feed bill. So I still buy and sell [horses] and have them for training.”

Collett celebrates winning Badminton Horse Trials.

It was for her remarkable training abilities that she was sent the legendary steeplechaser Kauto Star in 2013. The hugely popular two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner had retired from racing, and his owner wanted to see if he could be re-trained for dressage. However, while Collett was away from her yard, the horse suffered a freak accident in his paddock, which resulted in his having to be euthanized.

It was a devastating blow for Collett, who was only 25 at the time, made worse by the subsequent cyberbullying and threatening letters she received. “It was people who felt like they owned him. They sent death threats saying I was disgusting for trying to turn him into a circus animal.” Social-media trolls labeled her the most hated person in Britain. “It was horrendous,” she says, but “it was the horses that got me through it—they don’t judge you.”

This sanguine view of the world has helped Collett thrive. Two weeks out from this year’s Badminton, her top horse, London 52, had to be withdrawn with a minor injury. This leaves her to ride the less experienced Dacapo, who will never have seen fences as big as these. But Collett is undaunted. “I can still try and win back the Badminton trophy,” she says. “Hopefully, London 52 has had a word with him and told him what it takes to win a big one at Badminton.”

Eleanore Kelly is a former elite equestrian athlete. She is now a journalist for newspapers and television, including the BBC and Reuters