Jackie Hance: a remarkable child rider

If you’d been a member of the horse world, or even a casual reader of a provincial newspaper in the inter-war years, you would have been hard put to avoid the name of Jackie Hance.

But fame fades, and when I was looking through School for Horse and Rider recently, which was written by Jackie’s father, Captain Jack Hance, I only registered rather remotely that it was his daughter who appeared in most of the photographs. I then started to do more research into Captain Jack Hance, equestrian expert, author and fellow of the British Horse Society, and author of some quite spectacularly misogynistic comments in PONY Magazine Annual.

Fascinating though he undoubtedly is, it was his daughter who caught my interest. She was a phenomenon.

Helen Irene Minnie Hance was born in 1916. None of her given names have any relationship whatsoever to Jackie, the name by which she was known, which is interesting. Did her name reflect a child drawn in her father’s image? She certainly became the best possible advertisement for her father’s riding school, which he started in Malvern in 1925. It was the country’s first residential riding school, and at first was run for women only.

Captain Hance first put Jackie on a horse at the age of four, but it didn’t go well. She didn’t take riding seriously until she was nine (and might, I guess be the child second from left in the picture above). There is a description of Jackie’s early riding experiences in Hance’s biography, Riding Master, which explains much. Although Captain Hance does not mention it, he was notoriously tough on his pupils, and it’s not impossible that Jackie had seen this and taken note.

As soon as I broached the subject she would not consider it for a moment; she was terrifed at the thought. We had a good Welsh pony then, called Pickles, and we implored, cajoled and even ordered her to get into the saddle, but she ran off and hid in a friend’s house.

Months later I found my wife and son had prevailed on her to learn, on condition I was not let into the secret. Jackie and I had always been devoted to one another, and it transpired that, because of her fears, she could visualize failure, thus incurring my displeasure, and maybe even losing my affection. I was brought on to the scene only when she was ready to jump.

Riding Master, 1960, p 80

Jackie was taught to ride side-saddle by her mother, Minnie. Minnie had been taught side-saddle herself by Col J E B Baillie when baby Jackie was old enough to be left.

When he kept my wife walking, walking, walking for hours on end, I nearly asked why on earth he didn’t get a move on. I have learned a lot since then, for he did nothing by halves, and, when he did get down to business, he was hotter than I was in the school. Within six months my wife could carry out all the school movements and jump all the obstacles…. it was my wife, not I, who taught [Jackie] on the lines she herself had learned so painstakingly from her brilliant instructor.

Riding Master, 1960, p 54

Jackie made up for her late start at riding remarkably quickly, and became the epitome of the famous child rider Jill describes in the Ruby Ferguson books. She won at Richmond. She won at Olympia. She won at the Royal Show.

By the time she was 12, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News was describing her as ‘the brilliant twelve-year-old girl rider.’ That year, she had jumped the full Olympia course with only 1 ½ faults.

She had won 700 prizes by the time she was 17, many of them side-saddle.

Riding has always been one of the few ways girls could compete on equal terms with boys. Jackie could, and did. In Richmond Horse Show in 1929, Jackie won the City of London Challenge Cup for the best child rider, as well as the best girl rider competition.

She attracted the attention of The Vote, the newspaper of the Women’s Freedom League, which included her in its list of sporting women in 1929 as ‘as a 12-year-old who in the last three years had won over 150 riding prizes’.

This did not come without cost. Evelyn Waugh, who was taught to ride by Captain Hance, described Mrs Hance telling him that Jackie had false teeth after having lost the lot when a horse rolled on her when she was 14. In 1933, her riding accident made the press when she was left concussed after one of her father’s horses, Caesar somersaulted and fell on her.

In a letter, Evelyn Waugh described the production of School for Horse and Rider:

‘The captain has more photographers coming and he is wreathing all the jumps with barbed wire and poor Jacky is as frightened as hell.’

Captain Hance remarked in School for Horse and Rider that the spiked metal fence shown had been jumped many times without incident in his school. Perhaps the barbed wire was a new addition for the book. And if Jackie was frightened, that seems to me a sane and rational response.

Her brother’s response is not mentioned. It cannot have been easy being Jackie’s brother. Her older brother, Reggie, was also a successful rider, but when Reggie’s engagement was announced in 1934, it was in the shadow of his sister’s reflected glory:

The engagement is announced of Mr R. F. Hance, brother of Miss “Jackie” Hance, the remarkable girl rider who has won more than 700 prizes for horsemanship in Great Britain and on the Continent.

Jackie married Charles Richard Whittington in 1938: their engagement occupied the entire front page of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 15th Oct 1937.

And there her equestrian career appeared to change: she won the champion hack class at Olympia in 1938, after she was married, but then she appears in the press mostly as a judge, something she had done since the age of 18. As Mrs Richard Whittington, according to The Tatler, 8 June 1955, she ‘was a distinguished equestrienne who judges at events throughout the country.’

Was this change one she welcomed? Charles Whittington was a stockbroker, so I presume funds weren’t a problem, had she wanted to compete. Was she like a Jill writ large, someone who gave up their horsy career (or at least had it take a different path) once they had grown up? Perhaps she felt the opposing pull of family life. I wonder if, by the age of 22, she’d had enough of competing at the highest levels for at least 10 years. I wonder if she missed the hard work, the glory, the travel and the press cuttings.

She was remarkable. It makes one look at her father’s book School for Horse and Rider, in an entirely different light. It is Jackie who features in photograph after photograph in the book, with her brother making a few token appearances. This portrayal of the famous girl rider as a training aid could only have helped the book’s sales, though it is interesting that at least in the blurb, and the press reports I’ve found, her presence in the book is not mentioned. Perhaps that was a bit too much for her father: even he, when he had an accident, was described in the press as ‘the father of Miss Jackie Hance, the International Horse Show rider’.

Although School for Horse and Rider remains as a record of her life, her real achievements as an equestrienne were far more than as the model for a book.

Sources and other interesting things

If you have acess to the British Newspaper Archive, there is an excellent caricature of Jackie Hance, looking, it must be said, grimly determined.

Duncan McLaren: Evelyn Waugh on riding, Captain Hance and the Hance family

Colonel Hance’s ‘quip’ in the Pony Annual was: ‘Dislikes intensely all good-looking women with a good figure who are in any way efficient other than domestically; not interested how efficient the other sort are!’
PONY Magazine Annual (ed Col C E G Hope), Max Parrish, 1961

Bearing in mind his daughter cut her way through show ring competition with consummate efficiency, and his first wife (Jackie’s mother) was responsible in her own right for teaching some of his riding school’s pupils, one has to wonder whether he meant this as a joke, and what his family said to him when they saw it.

Capt J E Hance: School for Horse and Rider, Country Life, 1932
Capt J E Hance: Better Horsemanship, Country Life, 1948
Lt.-Col Jack Lance: Riding Master, Robert Hale, 1960

Birmingham Daily Gazette, Saturday 11 November 1933
Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,  Saturday 17 November 1928, Friday 15 October 1937, November 1938
Kington Times, Saturday 22 June 1929, Saturday 15 March 1930
The Tatler
The Vote, Friday 16 November 1928

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