Writer and broadcast journalist Clare Balding shares her love of dogs and horses, her passion for the sport and her thoughts and hopes for the future of the British countryside

“I’m very keen on Portuguese water dogs, Boxers of course. Oh, and I love lurchers and whippets. And the Hungarian pumi is a rather fabulous herding dog but rare in this country.” One senses Clare Balding’s list of favourite dog breeds is long. “Every dog I meet is my favourite,” she concedes. “The other day I was hugging a chihuahua. It was like having a hot-water bottle in my jacket.”

For her latest book, Isle of Dogs, Balding crossed Britain and delved into history to examine the roles dogs play in our lives. A job that also seems to have doubled as research to help find her next canine companion. “We lost Archie, our Tibetan terrier, in lockdown. I’d love another dog but it is about having the right set-up and time to give a dog a great life. So, I’ll have to wait for now but in the meantime I love hanging out with the dogs of mates, and I have great fun with my brother’s Boxers, Georgia and Doris.

I spent my childhood thinking I was a dog

“As a child, my mum’s Boxer Candy was my protector. In fact, I spent most of my childhood thinking I was a dog. We also had lurchers but there’s been a family tradition of Boxers,” she says. Doris and Georgia are unrelated to Candy but claim a shared heritage with Kevin and Dave, two dogs that have excelled in the show ring. “Here we go,” Balding interjects excitedly. “I’ve just found it in my notes: Dave the Boxer won the Working Group at Crufts in 2019.” It is such attention to detail that secured her position among television’s top tier and won her a haul of awards including a BAFTA, Sports Presenter of the Year and a CBE. “I have books of notes. I like having the backup,” she explains modestly.

As a nation we’ve shared pivotal moments with Balding, from the Coronation to the London Olympics, her infectious enthusiasm beamed into our sitting rooms. Nowhere is this more sincere than when talking about dogs. “There are so many examples of how they help us through life: being great companions, getting us out of the house every day, helping to create a network of friends or being by our side as we follow interests,” she insists. “Take the shooting world and the way the dogs work and how they enjoy the entire process. It’s great to see.”

Balding won her weight in champagne as a jockey

According to Balding, the Royals have shown the way when it comes to letting dogs into our lives. Many are familiar with Dash, Queen Victoria’s beloved spaniel, but less known are her other dogs. And there were lots. Kennel Club archives reveal no fewer than 200 staghounds, spitzes, Pomeranians and a collie to name but a few. Queen Alexandra was a pioneer in founding the Ladies Kennel Association, while our current monarchs have broken the mould by adopting from Battersea.

Clare Balding

Clare Balding photographed by Millie Pilkington

Balding is more familiar than most with the Royal Family. Her father, Ian, trained Her Late Majesty The Queen’s racehorses and as a gift to her parents when she was born, Queen Elizabeth II presented them with a pony on which she learned to ride. “I spent my childhood on various ponies, and also watching all sorts of sports with my dad. Eventing was my first love, although I did race-ride as a teenager. The prizes were great,” she reveals. “I won my first car and my weight in champagne, which was a major result.” 

Clare Balding has reported from every Olympic Games since Atlanta in 1996

After university at Cambridge, Balding was faced with a dilemma familiar to many sporty children. “Trying to pursue horses alongside shift work in the broadcasting world and living in London just didn’t make sense. However, these days I own half of a very nice eventer with Harry Meade but I’m sensible enough to let someone else take the reins.” Although she hasn’t fulfilled her childhood dream of riding at an Olympics in many ways Clare Balding has more than equalled it, having been to every Games since Atlanta 1996. “In broadcasting terms, it’s like being selected for the team. Of course, London 2012 was the pinnacle. I reported on the swimming, which was on every evening, and covered a range of other events, including boxer Nicola Adams winning gold and, thrillingly, team gold for the showjumpers.”

While she hasn’t fronted racing coverage for eight years, she’s a member of the Jockey Club and on Epsom’s board. “I love taking people there, especially on Derby Day; it’s a magical experience.” Among the well-known faces Balding has introduced to racing is Mary Berry. “Mary loves a flutter,” Balding reveals. For all the glamour of her career, the simplest of programmes is her favourite: Radio Four’s Ramblings, for which she interviews someone while going for a walk. “I’ve had a chance to explore beautiful places, and I even did a programme with a guy walking barefoot around the country,” she recalls. “I ditched my wellies, and it was wonderful. Thankfully, it was lovely soft, mossy ground in the Mendips.”

“Maintaining land is a huge amount of work”

According to Balding: “We’re fortunate that most farmers are good at keeping footpaths maintained and gates working. To protect our rural communities, businesses and the countryside, we need to encourage people to visit but we must recognise that maintaining land is a huge amount of work,” she insists. “My brother [trainer Andrew] employs about 75 people, and is responsible for a fair amount of land. I’m lucky to be able to enjoy it without that work.”

Through her travels, Balding has quite the insight into the state of the countryside but is typically upbeat. “I’m encouraged that from 2025 there will be a GCSE in natural history. To be able to identify trees and wildlife is such an important life skill.” And what does the future hold for her? “I’m writing a novel and one of the themes is the misconceptions people from the country and town can have about each other.” Something for us to look forward to but, sadly for Balding, it doesn’t look as if her busy schedule will allow time for a dog of her own any time soon. 

If you enjoyed this interview with Clare Balding..

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