ESME JACK 1917-2014
Esme Jack was the doyenne of dressage - a dynamic equestrian who helped introduce music to the prancing world of “horse ballet”.
The first international competition for dressage set to music was at Goodwood in 1979. It was the friendship between Jack and the Duchess of Richmond - who created the Goodwood International Dressage Competition - which led to the landmark event and laid the foundations for the modern sport.
In the early 1970s the Duchess asked Jack for dressage lessons. “She was a perfectionist, a strong character and a great dressage teacher,” recalled the Duchess. “When she taught, she often played music to her pupils, which I enjoyed, including in the pairs classes, which is like a pas de deux. I thought this was a good idea and between us we suggested it to the FEI, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, to get their permission for Goodwood. They thought it was something new and a good idea.”
Dressage at that time had changed little since becoming an equestrian pursuit during the Renaissance. The sport - a highly-tuned sequence of predetermined movements such as the piaffe (a cadenced trot in place), passage (an elevated, powerful trot) and pirouette (a 180 or 360 degree whirl) - was a silent one. Jack and the Duchess realised that music would make both rider and horse more relaxed, resulting in a better performance - and a more interesting spectacle.
Musical tests - also known as kurs - created an entirely different atmosphere. The pair used the musical choreography of ballet and ice skating as their inspiration (the ice-skating champion Robin Cousins was a kurs judge). As a silent pursuit, dressage could seem monotonous - as the same set tests were routinely repeated - but with music came variety. The beginnings were humble. “We had loudspeakers that didn’t work and the competitors had to make their own tapes to fit the rhythm of the horse,” said the Duchess. “You have to have a rhythm.” Scottish reels and Spanish flamenco proved suitable.
It revolutionised the sport - put simply, it made it more enjoyable. From its Goodwood origins, musical tests were to became an official part of international dressage competitions. The Duchess of Richmond described how the ripples from those early days gradually spread out, culminating in a wave of gold medals for Britain in the 2012 Olympics. “Esme Jack,” she recalled, “started off the first very important ripple.”
Eileen Esme Henderson (always known as Esme) was born in Richmond, Yorkshire, on June 1, 1917, while her father was away fighting in World War I. She was the eldest of three children born to a Scottish stockbroker and his English wife. Esme moved with her parents to Scotland and as a youngster at Cochno, Duntocher, enjoyed the outdoor life, playing tennis and golf, and fishing and shooting. She also had her own horses.
Despite her wealthy upbringing - tended to by domestic staff and with black tie always worn for dinner - her parents insisted that she muck out her own horses. No matter how late their chauffeur brought her back from a party she had to be up early to attend to stable life. As an adult she was extremely grateful to her parents for giving her a lifelong habit of never asking anyone to do something that she was not prepared to do herself.
During World War II she bought a farm in Scotland - High Clunch, near Stewarton in Ayrshire - on which she worked hard with a wartime staff consisting of one old man. In 1940 she married William Alastair Jack, a brief union which was later dissolved but from which she retained her married name. In the 1960 she moved to Sussex, buying Chantry Farm in Storrington, where her interest in horses continued with her riding in point-to-points. She then set up a riding school at Coldwaltham House, which ran for nearly three decades. It was during this time that she met the Duchess of Richmond.
Possessing an extraordinary affinity with horses, Jack believed that any faults in a horse’s performance or behaviour were due to human error, never the animal’s. As a teacher, she guided riders in using the bridle correctly and how to behave with a horse. It was not only her empathy with horses that came to the fore - Coldwaltham House was one of the first riding schools to offer tuition to disabled children.
As an early supporter of Riding for the Disabled, Jack was also involved with riding activities for pupils at Ingfield Manor, a school for the disabled near Billingshurst. Princess Anne visited Coldwaltham House as a teenager and later became a patron of the school.
Jack went on to become a List 1 judge at national level dressage competitions.
Old age failed to wither her spirit. She gave up riding in her eighties - although she had a brief return to the saddle a decade later - and as a substitute took up gliding at the Southdowns Gliding Club. In her mid-90s, she was also thrilled to ride pillion on the Harley Davidson owned by her dentist (having developed a taste for motorbikes after the war when she got her first BSA 250).
Her nonagenarian biking led to the suggestion that she might like to take things a little easier. She replied simply: “Why would I?”