LADY Perdita Blackwood CBE was born in 1934 at Clandeboye House, near Newtownards, Co. Down and lived there until her teenage years. She was the middle child of the then Lord Dufferin, Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava; and Maureen Constance Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood. Her sister, Caroline was three years older, while brother Sheridan (who became fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava) was four years younger. Lord Dufferin was sadly killed during the war in 1945.
Perdita’s earliest memory of a horse is being upside down in a basket saddle tied onto a Shetland pony on the lawn in front of Clandeboye House at the age of two or three!
At this juncture, it should be pointed out that, many years later, Perdita became known as ‘Lady P’, as children in the Pony Club found it hard to say Perdita. She has been called Lady P, with great affection, all over the world ever since! It seems only fitting to reflect that here.
Lady P, Caroline and Sheridan all loved to ride their ponies – there had always been ponies at Clandeboye House and, as children, they rode ponies as children nowadays might ride their bikes! Their mother hated ponies, so didn’t want her children to always be riding. Lady P remembers during the war, riding to the end of the road to the Post Office to buy sweets with their coupons!
Lady P started school at Rockport (near Holywood, Co. Down), but then went to schools in England, Switzerland, Italy and France. Despite her great love of equines, she only got to see ponies and ride during the school holidays – the other nine months of the year, she was doing other things, like learning to ski!
At school, Lady P enjoyed English – as did many other family members, in fact many of them have written books, including Caroline, who was well-known for her journalism and her novels. Lady P spoke Italian and French and a little German, but has only used English since – she won’t go abroad, as she won’t fly.
Lady P was ahead of her time and went to university in Peruggia in Italy to study Italian. It was most unusual for girls to go to university in those days, so this was quite an accomplishment! She had no desire to pursue a career using her degree though – her heart was set on breeding horses.
Their mother’s ambition was for her two daughters to marry kings… or possibly dukes! The two girls were taken to London during holidays and (resentfully, according to Lady P!) presented at court.
The positive side of this for Lady P was that, when in London, she met lots of people who loved horses. She became firm friends with Henrietta Knight, who went on to become a hugely successful racehorse trainer (and remains best friends with her!) and used to stay with her at the weekends.
When going to dances as a debutante, to please her mother, Lady P made another great friend – Sarah Long, whose mother Lady Dudley was on the British show jumping team. Her father had also been killed in the war and she had been left a great place in Wiltshire, near Bath. She had a horse and used to show jump; Lady P groomed for her.
Sarah was successful in show jumping and, around 1958, the pair decided to go to the Horse of the Year Show, at that time held at Haringey, London, with a horse called ‘Billy Russell’, in which they each had a half share. Much to their surprise and delight, ‘Billy Russell’ placed fourth and got a green rosette! Lady P decided she liked winning prizes and that she would like to try for more…
Lady P had returned to Ireland around 1955. She had inherited some money and bought Cavallo Farm, where she still lives. Her uncle gave her a horse as a 21st birthday present – an Arabian stallion called ‘Dominic’, the son of an Arab given to the Queen Mother. ‘Dominic’ stood at stud; Lady P bred him with mares that she already had and sold some of the offspring.
Over the years, Lady P also stood Thoroughbred stallions, ‘Stanmar’ and ‘George F’. Their progeny won lots of prizes for local competitors and for herself!
Lady P hunted every winter, mainly with East Down Foxhounds and also North Down Harriers, which were founded by her great-grandfather (they were originally called the Dufferin Harriers). She also enjoyed show jumping in the summer.
As a joke, Lady P’s friend Barbara Rich, decided to answer an advert in Horse and Hound for a horse called ‘Bawbee of Edenbarnett’. Lady P bought him, unseen, as a joke, for £165 – a bargain! He had previously been sold in Ballinasloe Horse Fair for £90. He was a Novice jumper.
Douglas Iggulden brought the horse over here and subsequently came to ride show jumpers for Lady P. The first big prize ‘Bawbee’ won was the Foxhunter final at HOYS (Haringey) in 1960! The Foxhunter was for top novices throughout England – it was a hugely popular competition, with about 1,600 entries, so to win was a huge achievement!
Doug then moved his family over to Northern Ireland and he continued to ride show jumpers for Lady P.
Meanwhile, ‘Bawbee’ went on to be ridden by the Irish team rider, Seamus Hayes; Lady P then sold him to Manchanelli, the Italian team rider, in August 1961.
RDA and Pony Club at Cavallo
Lady P started Riding for the Disabled (RDA) at Cavallo Farm way back in 1967, when she gathered together riders from Fleming Fulton School and Mitchell House, Belfast. All these years later, riders from Mitchell House still attend!
She provides premises and ponies, in order to give these disabled riders an opportunity to experience the wonder of ponies and riding. As with all RDA groups, she has been supported by a band of dedicated volunteers.
From the beginning, an RDA committee was formed, which included Billy McCully (who was the top show jumper in Ireland at the time) and his wife Claire (also a top show jumper); David Mitchell (a riding school owner from Killinchy); Pearl Mitchell from Carrowdore Castle; Lady P and a couple of others – mostly show jumpers.
Not long after that, Billy McCully was riding against Marian Cave at Newtownards and, through her connections, the Irish Army sent up team riders and they, in turn, started up the first RDA group in the barracks in Dublin.
Around the same time, the North Down Pony Club was started. Ponies were very cheap to keep at the time, so Lady P says it was very easy to run these things. Again, they still ride at Cavallo Farm.
Over the years, North Down members won lots of accolades, including show jumping championships in England. At one time, there were 78 children at the Pony Club camp!
Princess Anne came to Cavallo Farm three times to visit the RDA children. During one visit in November 2007, she presented Lady P with the Birt Spooner Cup at the RDA annual conference at the King’s Hall.
Lady P is proud to say that she never bought an expensive horse, nor one that had won a prize before. She says she was lucky to be born with an eye for a good-looking horse – and her success rate certainly supports this! Her favourite shows to compete at were the RDS Spring and Summer shows (the last RDS Spring Show was held in 1992). She recalls that she and those riding for her were the first people to go over to the Royal Highland Show from here and win there (with ‘Hijacker’)!
Lady P says she was never trying to be champion of the world… All her competing was done with joy and laughter. The riders all got on together and wished each other well. Lady P had great fun buying three or four-year-olds that had done nothing and seeing what they could do.
Lady P says she was always lucky with the riders she picked to compete on her horses and ponies – they were mostly unknown riders, but they had great success. Nuala Belford from Portaferry has been with her the longest – Nuala has been working with Lady P for 30 years… She only came for six weeks to help out!
Among these riders were Ronnie (Veronica) Bailey from Tipperary, who was RDS Side saddle champion and Calvin Watson from Crossgar, who won plenty on Lady P’s pony ‘Georgina’.
Lady P bought two horses at Ballinasloe at different times, one called ‘Dreyfuss’ and another called ‘Clouseau’ and they both won in Dublin! Meanwhile, ‘George F’ won the stallion class in Dublin an incredible four times!
Lady P had numerous notable equine successes over the years. She bought ‘Hijacker’ as a foal and he won at the RDS as a foal, a yearling, a two-year-old and then claimed Supreme as a three-year-old. He was then sold to Mr Hunnible in England and won HOYS for him as a four-year-old!
Lady P bought ‘Conundrum’ in 2010. He had great success in Working Hunter classes, including Balmoral and Dublin (and took Reserve Champion) and had many Working Hunter wins in England with Rosemary Morris from Leicestershire in the saddle. He went over to Rosemary every year and came home for Dublin. He died last year – he was only about 14. Like many of his equine companions, he is buried at Cavallo Farm.
‘Mr Bergerac’ won RDS side saddle, lightweight and riding horse classes with Nuala Belford on board. They also won a one-day event together at Scoon Palace in Perth, Scotland!
‘Ever Ready’ was a 15.2 home-bred mare by ‘George F’. She had never done a Riding Horse class, but Lady P took her to Dublin, where she won the class and the Championship! Lady P wanted to take her back the next year, but by mid-July the mare was bought by disabled rider Sarah Bunting, who took her to Dublin, won the class again and took Reserve Champion!
The 17.2hh ‘Cavallo Horatio’ was ‘Ever Ready’s’ brother. He was placed second in the Open Working Hunter at Balmoral, ridden by Nuala Belford. He also had great success with Ronald Ross from Comber, winning the All-Ireland £1,000 Working Hunter Championship at Clogher Valley Show in 2000.
He was then ridden by James Armstrong from Bangor to win a Novice event at Scoon Palace in Perth, Scotland – the year after ‘Mr Bergerac’ won there!
Chris Eakin from Coleraine rode ‘Steeple Jack’ (stable name ‘Andy’) to win Tattersalls Working Hunter, around 2005. ‘Andy’ had previously won the Working Hunter Championship in Dublin with Ronald Ross.
Lady P also had success with event horses, including ‘Fru’, ridden by Catherine Keenan from Dromore and ‘I’m A Bertha’ (black and white), ridden by Nuala Belford.
Lady P bred quite a number of successful ponies. As a child, Lady P remembers riding down to Helen’s Bay, where the Lowry’s and Geddis’ had farms, where they had jumps set up. Years later, Ignatius Geddis won at the RDS when he was 10, riding Lady P’s pony ‘The Bomb’.
‘Georgina’ (by ‘George F’) won an English Pony Club triathlon; while ‘Cavallo Frank Sinatra’ (also by ‘George F’) won the Desert Orchid Working Hunter championship.
‘Cavallo Orphan Annie’ had a memorable claim to fame… On one occasion when she came to Cavallo Farm in the helicopter, Princess Anne said she liked the grey pony and wanted to buy her for Zara, but Lady P wouldn’t sell! The pony went on to compete in Scotland on a Working Hunter team for Northern Ireland.
Lady P recalls another talented pony called ‘Market Square’, which came from Bushmills. A little girl called Iris Whatmough from Bangor rode him at local shows and won lots, jumping in 13.2 classes.
Lady P took them to Dublin, thinking they had a strong hand… The starting bell went, the pony jumped the first three fences in the main arena, then went for a gallop… It is three-quarters of a mile around! The crowd went silent. After they galloped round twice, the judge rang the bell for three refusals! Iris managed to pull him up at the double bank and the pony stopped because he thought it was too big. They walked out of the main arena no bother – but ‘Market Square’ was banned from Dublin for evermore. Ironically, he never ran away again! Trevor Monson from Newtownards, who was on the Irish team, rode him after that.
Lady P has no horses now; she sold her last, ‘Silver Banjo’, at Goresbridge early in 2020 and made the top price. She says she might buy another one yet, so watch this space!
When asked about her biggest equestrian accomplishments, Lady P says that she once rode in a Dublin show class for McCully’s and won! She was so excited! In those days, you could only show jump in Dublin, if you also entered in a show class – so they needed Lady P to ride in the showing class. She says the experience taught her never to be big-headed, as her winning was irrelevant to McCully’s or the owners, as long as the horses were able to jump! No-one even said well done!
She also has fond memories of winning a Donkey class in Dublin with ‘Lily The Pink’ – she says it is the best rosette she has (and she has many)!
The best prize she ever won was a gold bracelet.
In 2009, Lady P was presented with the BHS Queen’s Award for Equestrianism, which is awarded for outstanding services to equestrianism.
Aside from her equine pursuits, Lady P says she was queen of musical chairs as a child!
When congratulated on being awarded the CBE last year, Lady P says she was very surprised and has no idea why she received it. She doesn’t know who nominated her and has no idea why she got the top honour!
It seems clear though that Lady P’s dedication to equestrianism and to facilitating others to access the animals and the sport that she always loved is what has so deservingly been recognised!
The RDA riders, North Down Pony Club members, fellow competitors and breeders would surely agree that their lives have been all the richer for the experiences they have had at Cavallo Farm and the opportunities (and high standards of competition!) afforded to them thanks to Lady P.
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