Bryony Frost interview: ?I trust the horse ? it?s what works for me?
Julian Muscat's 2018 interview with the Ryanair Chase-winning rider
First published on November 17, 2018
These could be game-changing times for jumps racing, which could do with a bit of a lift.
A sport in which owners of modest means once entertained big-race dreams has become the playground of an affluent elite. The sense of camaraderie that coursed through the game is under threat from a steely professionalism. Yet just when romance is becoming harder to divine, along comes a woman who threatens to strip it back to its bare heart.
She is uncommonly gifted, yet in place of the contemporary jockey’s grim facade she brings a joie de vivre straight out of the Pony Club. It is not enough for Bryony Frost to love everything about the game. She wants to share her enthusiasm with anyone prepared to listen.
She has a captive audience. Frost has only to start a sentence for people to become entranced. She speaks passionately and eloquently about horses, happy to retell an inexhaustible supply of childhood anecdotes that would make most blush with embarrassment.
But what leaves the sport’s promoters beside themselves with excitement is that Frost is no welcome distraction from its hardcore frontage. She can ride like the wind. Together with Ruby Walsh she is the purest example yet of horse and human in perfect harmony.
It is the best possible rebuke to those who maintain a jump jockey’s primary asset is raw strength. Frost is already as talented a prospect as there has ever been among the ranks of female jockeys, yet the 23-year-old has ridden professionally for only 16 months.
In that time she has come to the fore on Saturday afternoons, when it matters most. Among other highlights last season she won her first Grade 1 chase aboard Black Corton and a prestigious chase at Warwick on Milansbar, whom she subsequently rode in the Grand National.
It has been more of the same this season. Frost won the Old Roan Chase on Frodon and wrote the headlines eight days ago when winning the Badger Ales Chase at Wincanton for the second successive year on Present Man. At her current rate of improvement there is every chance she will become a regular fixture in the top ten on the riding charts.
In that event she will also become a regular fixture on television chat shows, where she will mesmerise audiences by the way she brings her interaction with horses to life. She is a spellbinding storyteller with a spellbinding story to tell.
A daughter of the jump jockey-turned-trainer Jimmy Frost, she brings with her something of the Monty Roberts philosophy. It is engaging and refreshing, as evidenced by her assertion that she is at all times the horse’s servant.
Trainers are prone to compliment a horse by describing it as “a great servant”, yet Frost flips the notion on its head. She is a sheep in wolves’ clothing, recasting the relationship between humans and horses in direct contrast to the braggadocio definitions of male jockeys past.
None of it is premeditated, never mind contrived. It is simply amplification of what she has learned since the age of four, when she charged around Dartmoor on a succession of ponies she was allowed to ride on her own.
One of Frost’s first experiences left her wondering whether her time on planet earth was about to be cut short. “My pony reared over and fell on me,” she recalls. “It was the first time I ever got winded and I thought it was the end of the world.
“My parents must have been mad to let me do it,” she continues. “How I didn’t cop one I don’t know, but from then on, my world became my horse. Honestly, I live for them. It’s a partnership you can’t find in any other walk of life.
“You can’t talk to horses. There’s no communication in words, so you have to feel. It’s about emotion, sight, other things like that. If I met a horse once and a person once, the next time I saw them I’d recognise the horse before the person. Every horse has an individual look, a different eye.”
Her childhood partner in crime was her older brother Hadden, who is now showjumping in the US after retiring from raceriding in Britain. The pair would ride before school each day and return to ride in the afternoon. They were so desperate to jump aboard that they didn’t use saddles: putting them on wasted valuable time.
And off they’d go, chasing each other on horseback, one trying to dislodge the other or tear the bridle off the other’s horse. They’d jump headlong into rivers. It was invariably pitch black when they returned, bicycle lights strapped to their heads, their faces caked in mud.
When it wasn’t possible to be on horseback they would pretend to be horses. “We’d nick aluminium racing plates from dad’s shoeing cupboard,” Frost says. “Granddad was a farrier so we had all the stuff we needed. We’d nail the plates on to our trainers and we’d clip-clop around, making prints in the ground. I’d just run, be gone by myself as a kid, away all day.”
Aged 16, Frost suddenly had a decision to make. She was equally in thrall to showjumping and racing. “I asked Dad what I should do and he said I could always go back to showjumping,” she reflects.
“He said I should have a go at racing if I wanted, but remember to take life with a pinch of salt because it was going to be more difficult. He said ‘I won’t lie to you. You’re a girl in a world where it is very much the sport of kings'.”
Interesting, that. Female jockeys maintain publically that they are afforded the same opportunities as males, that any discrimination there might have been has long dissolved, and that the playing field is level.
In reality they don’t really have much choice, but the truth lies somewhere in between. Old attitudes die hard but they are mitigated by more enlightened owners and trainers – among them Paul Nicholls, who has taken Frost under his wing.
So what has Frost discovered for herself? She’s initially hesitant to address the question but when it is later resurrected she takes hold of the bit without straining for her head.
“The way I look at it, some people might not like the way I ride, while others do,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether I am a boy or a girl because it won’t change the way I ride. I would ride exactly the same if I was a boy, because it’s down to my character. Trusting the horse: it’s what works for me.
“So people can call me what they like, but I can’t get away from the fact that I’m a girl. If I can be the person to break that mould, who changes perceptions, then that’s what will happen. But I’m not setting out to make it happen.”
These would be perceptive words from anyone, never mind the young Frost, who claims not to be worldly-wise. They demonstrate a mental agility to address issues entirely from her perspective, rather than pre-set parameters.
But then, being besotted by horses does not preclude aptitude, as Frost proved when her mother Nikki demanded she give her education some attention in the run-up to her GCSEs. She responded with five A-stars.
Even when discussing a delicate subject Frost never stops smiling, never lowers her pitch of natural enthusiasm. Words dance off her tongue; it is a losing battle to try to convey her essence in cold print. She emits wide-eyed wonderment over a range of topics, and unusually for one of her precocity, she wants to embrace the media with open arms.
She was adamant she wanted nothing to do with media training when she was offered it last year. “I like to let people into my world so they can see it through my eyes,” she says. “I don’t want somebody else’s perspective on my world, because they don’t know it.
“I'm open about the way I feel. Why hide it when you’ve had a good or bad day? You are over the moon when your horse has given you everything and he’s won. Maybe I’m just a bit mad, but when that happens I’m overtaken by all these emotions. It’s boring keeping things to yourself.”
The firsts keep coming for a jockey in her career infancy, although she has seen enough to realise she’s not yet ready to stand on her own two feet. She shed her claim only on Monday; just the fifth female jockey in Britain to get that far. To hear her describe her formative months at Nicholls’ Manor Farm Stables, where she has worked for two and a half years, is to recognise the adjustments she needed to make.
“I was finding my feet when I arrived from Devon,” she says. “It was the first time I’d worked in a big yard and I was struggling. I was feeling homesick, didn’t have many friends. I went through a stage when I thought people might not like me.
“I spoke to Dad about it and he told me that not everybody likes chocolate. I was only a little 20-year-old who’d never been to London, but I’ll never forget what Dad said. He told me to focus on my horses and everything would be all right.”
Frost’s father means everything to her but Nicholls and his head lad Clifford Baker, together with her agent Dave Roberts, have all become important within her support structure.
“I hope they all continue to look after my career even though I've lost my claim,” she says. “I only managed to do that because I’ve had a lot of loyal people behind me, right back to my days point-to-pointing. It’s quite a privilege, to be honest. I have a lot of respect for the backbone they showed to take a chance on me.”
Frost also had her first taste of a lengthy saddle absence when she was benched for three months after a spill at Newton Abbot in July. She was trampled on by a horse after she was dislodged by a slipping saddle. She fractured her sternum and two lower vertebrae, to go with lacerations to her liver and pancreas, but the real complication took the form of an aneurysm.
Although she was bleeding internally, she thought she would be fine after a couple of days; perhaps back in the saddle a few days after that. The reality was far less forgiving.
“It was a big grow-up for me,” she reflects. “I’d already been down that road with falls but the difference this time was that I was on a roll. I watched horses winning who I knew I could have been riding. It was probably the most bitter pill I've had to swallow.”
Frost will have to contend with a succession of spills if she is to enjoy a career of longevity. Older jockeys speak of their cumulative effect on the mind, their lasting damage on the body. But Frost is unperturbed. She is too high on the hallucinogenic sensation of riding horses over jumps at speed.
In that sense the ultimate test is the Grand National and, in accordance with so much of her escapades to date, Frost’s first taste of it this year was addictive. Milansbar, from the stable of another staunch ally in Neil King, was the first British horse to finish in fifth place.
“That was so cool,” she remembers. “Milansbar is so massive that riding him is like sitting in a huge armchair that’s above the world. It was an unbelievable feeling going over those big fences.”
She then proceeds to give a graphic account of how the race unfolded, her precise, ordered oratory in stark contrast to the carnage that unfolded around her. It is far too long to reproduce in full here, although her recollections of the start are almost poetic.
“Going down to the first fence is like a cavalry charge,” she says. “The noise, the rumbling of the ground underneath you; you can feel it coming up at you. There is nothing like it.
“So you try to find a bit of room, try to focus on the exact spot where you want to jump the first fence. Your fingertips are on the horse’s bit, asking him to concentrate: ‘Mars Bar, are you there? Are you with me?’
“Then he went out over the first and I kind of knew he would do it, he went down on his nose and I thought: ‘No no no, it can’t end like this.’ But then he came back up, he recovered his balance just in time, thank God he knew how to find himself, and then he was on his way . . .”
Frost, too, is on her way. The journey promises to be every bit as momentous.
Corton a vintage all of his own
Whatever the future holds for Bryony Frost, she is adamant no other horse will mean as much to her as Black Corton. The horse who carried her to an inaugural Grade 1 triumph at Kempton on Boxing Day also gave her a debut winner on her first ride as a professional at Worcester in July last year.
“We both started out on the same path at the same time,” Frost says of the horse aboard whom she has won seven races. “He was little, I was little and we were just thrown together to see how we got on. We weren’t really meant to be anybody.
“I know I’m never going to get that with any other horse,” she continues. “I’ve got some fantastic horses to ride but me and Blackie, we started off together. None of this would have happened without him.”
So much so that Frost sought out Black Corton eight days ago, when the yard was quiet after morning exercise and Frost was due to ride Present Man at Wincanton later that day.
“We went for a little hack, just Blackie and me,” she recalls. “We just went quietly up the hill and I spent a bit of time with him alone. It put me in such a chilled spot for the afternoon.”
It says a lot about Frost that in her hour of need, she chose Black Corton for company. “I suppose the truth is that I’d rather be with an animal than a human being,” she says.
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