Pauliina Swindells

In 2015, Polly Swindells qualified for the Rio games and her Olympic dream looked set. But a freak riding accident caused a broken back, and it all came crashing down.

 

For any other rider, two broken vertebrae would be a setback too far. For Polly it was just another hurdle in a career defined by challenge. Three years later and fully recovered, the underdog is back on the horse and competing once more.

 

The Finnish rider faces a heavy year of competition, scrambling for funds, sleeping in a horsebox, and relying on a supporting cast of friends and family to get by.

Stables & horse box hotel rooms

Polly, born Pauliina Marttila, hails from the city of Turku in Finland's southwest. A nurse mum and IT-trained dad, she came to riding relatively late. A promising ice-skater, she swapped blades for the bridle aged 12; paying for lessons with graft at the local stables.
 

Clearly talented, Polly first made the Finnish team in 1999, riding her horse Brave Piglet. She won the national championships two years running, and in 2001 she scooped a young riders European team medal. Accolades piling up, she moved, aged just 18, to Sweden to spend six months under the tutelage of Finnish champion rider Piia Pantsu.
 

Compared to lo-fi sports, such as hockey or soccer, equestrian is a cash vacuum. Equipment, transport, training, livery - constant spending is a prerequisite. Riders can only maintain their rankings via constant competition in a packed events calendar. The sport is a year-round investment.
 

Ever since she returned from Sweden, Polly has supported her career by working in the field. After completing her training under Piia, Polly's parents generously decided to sell their home to fund a riding yard, a humble family business providing their daughter ready access to the tools of her trade.
 

The Marttila family still runs their horse-feeding business to this day. Polly was eight years there, working and honing her skills. But with the sport infinitely more developed in other nations, Polly – then in her mid twenties – seized the chance to move to England and train under equestrian great Chris Bartle at his Harrogate yard.

The deal, once more, was exchanging labour for lessons. But the chance to upskill to an Olympic standard was too great to turn down. So she and her dad shared the drive from southern Finland to Yorkshire.

Originally she planned to stay six months, but Polly wound up settling in the UK; later marrying Cambridge-born joiner, James.
 

Despite working split shifts from 7am until 6pm at Bartle's, Polly wasn't making ends meet. And with her trainer preoccupied with managing the German equestrian team, Polly's form began to slip.
 

In a serendipitous moment, she was poached from Chris Bartle's yard to run the new Harrogate stables of riding enthusiast Sharon Graves, with whom she still works today.
 

So, today, as it ever was, Polly is a stablehand and trainer who funnels her cash and efforts into competing. This year, she's staring down a packed events calendar of domestic and international competitions. And with the Olympics in sight, there's a lot riding on her form.
 

Events take place all across the world and each is crucial in putting her in contention to ride for the Finnish team in Tokyo. But with endless travel and competition, it's a heavy financial burden.

Grooming, feeding and accommodating horses – not to mention transporting them across seas and oceans – as well as vets, competition fees and living expenses. It's easy to see how one event, such as the Worlds in North America, can cost north of £20,000.

 

It's true that Polly's career has been powered by grit and determination, but she couldn't do it without network of family and friends. Her parents help out, Sharon Graves continues to be a generous source of practical support, and James's sympathetic employer knows that Polly's competing comes first.

In recent years, The Equestrian Federation of Finland has stepped up in its efforts to nurture its Olympic prospects, covering some expenses and providing Polly – a long-time vegetarian – with a coach to help her maintain peak physical fitness.
 

But Polly's still an equestrian on a shoestring – and she's gotten pretty good at cutting costs to the bone.

She and James bought their own rickety horsebox, named Valerie, in which they share long drives, and sleep to save on hotel costs. A friend helps out with grooming and several small-scale sponsors gift non-monetary assistance, providing feed and livery, tools and clothing.
 

If Polly's to make it to Tokyo, the time, effort and long drives will be worth it. Polly's the penniless equestrian who's spent a lifetime trotting uphill.