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Source: University of Canterbury

24 May 2021

She is friends with Kiwi Olympian Sir Mark Todd and once trained the champion horse Charisma, but now Francesca Howard is taking the reins as the oldest student currently enrolled at the University of Canterbury (UC).

  • Nonagenarian equestrian Francesca Howard is studying Sport Coaching at UC and running her own business.

At 90 years old, Howard is studying Sport Coaching at UC, as well as running her own business. She plans to complete a Graduate Certificate of Sport Coaching by the end of this year.

It’s her second stint as a UC student after she earned a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English about 20 years ago.

She believes it’s important to keep her mind and body active. Arthritis makes it difficult for her to ride herself these days but she helps coach the Cust Equestrian Group, near her North Canterbury home. “Living on a hill and looking after animals keeps you moving,” she says. “I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink alone.”

Born in Britain in 1931, most of Howard’s career has been spent either riding horses competitively or teaching others to ride in schools around the world – including in Hong Kong, Kenya, Canada and the United States – as a British Horse Society instructor since 1960. 

She has lived in New Zealand since 1978 when she began working for Equestrian Sports New Zealand. She was based at the National Centre near Taupo but travelled around the country for more than five years providing coaching in show jumping and dressage.

Even with her diverse life experience she says there is always more to learn, and studying at UC has added to her knowledge of sport psychology and coaching techniques.

“I’m still motivated by wanting to work out what makes a good coach, coaching with confidence, and how do you deliver information in a way that means it can be received and used. I know you can talk to someone forever, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be taking it in.”

Howard is an entrepreneur as well as a student, having developed a device called Telerein which measures the amount of pressure a rider is putting on the horse’s mouth in order to prevent bruising or damage. Telerein, manufactured by her company Kingfishers International Ltd, has been sold in seven countries. “I’m proud of it because it’s a welfare thing for horses,” she says.

UC School of Health Sciences Senior Lecturer Glenn Fyall says Howard is an example to her classmates of the benefits of lifelong learning and an “absolute delight” to teach.

“The students, who in most cases are 70-odd years younger than her, have warmed quickly to her enthusiastic and passionate personality and she has integrated well into the class culture.

“I recall a practical session where she demonstrated her Telerein tool and somehow manufactured horses out of swiss balls and obliging students. It worked really well. I think she gained a lot of respect from that.”

Howard first met famous equestrian Sir Mark in 1980 after he won the Badminton Horse Trials as a virtual unknown. She asked him to come and talk to some of her students. “He was very shy in those days and he only spoke for about five minutes. He borrowed a horse from me a couple of times,” she says.

Two years later she had trained and was competing in dressage on Charisma – who she describes as being “like a rocket” – at a Horse of the Year show, when the thoroughbred caught Sir Mark’s attention. “He said to me, ‘What’s that you’re on?’ and I felt like saying, ‘Keep your sticky fingers off this one,” Howard recalls.

They later became good friends and Sir Mark famously rode Charisma when he won his individual gold medals in Three Day Eventing at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Howard represented New Zealand twice in the Haig Cup international team dressage competitions (now called the World Challenge) and she was a national coach for the New Zealand Pony Club from 1983, delivering courses around the country. She also worked as a journalist, attending Equestrian World Cups around the world and writing for New Zealand magazines.

“I haven’t made much money but I’ve travelled enough,” she says of her long and varied career.