Mike and Zara Tindall open up about family life and why they consider Australia their 'second home'
The popular royal couple were recently in Australia for the Magic Millions Carnival. Here, they open up about their busy home life with two energetic young girls and all of their dogs and horses.
Jan 20, 2020 11:00am
By Juliet Rieden
When Zara Tindall was pregnant with her first daughter, Mia, we talked about how she would fit motherhood around her decidedly unsocial schedule of competitive horseriding, which involved her travelling all over Britain and overseas, sleeping in her horse truck.
"We'll just carry on as normal," she told me, explaining that eventing kids just have to fit in with their parents. After all, that's what she did with her mum Princess Anne, Zara added.
That was five years ago and now I am back in her Aston Farm home, in the heart of Britain's green and pleasant Cotswolds, and on the face of it not much has changed.
But while Zara is determined to stay very much in the saddle, she concedes it's not quite been as easy as chucking the children in with the horses and driving off into the – more often than not, rain-soaked – great outdoors.
And whether she brings her girls with her to competitions or leaves them at their home (which is down the road from her mum's residence in Gatcombe Park) involves a lot of variables.
"The logistics are much greater. You can't just drop everything any more. I do have to plan my season around the kids and what they're up to.
"They're very much part of our lives and what we do anyway. But I have to work out how to fit everything in. You look back and realise how much time you used to have before you had kids and then wonder, what was I doing with it?
"We make sure we're looking after the kids properly and then our jobs come alongside. It's about putting everything into place," she explains.
"They both ride," says Zara, looking rather pleased. "Lena is in a little basket on the saddle, purely a passenger. But we just bought Mia a new pony called Magic."
"Should be called Magic Millions, right?" jokes Mike, name checking the Australian race carnival Zara has been the ambassador of since 2012 (which we'll come to later).
I ask Mike if he thinks Mia is a chip off her mother's equestrian block.
"She can be," he muses. "She's going through that period where she thinks she knows what to do so we have someone teaching her. Her cousins, Savannah and Isla, and [their father] Zara's brother, Peter Phillips, all ride as well and they go riding together."
Zara is thrilled their girls are enjoying hanging out with the horses, but she also wants to make sure they find their own paths.
"I love that they have the opportunity of working with animals, being outside, all the traditions that you learn with treating an animal – looking after your stuff, looking after the animals and learning good balance, all those skills you learn – but I think Mia will probably want to do her own thing anyway."
Mike, who no longer plays rugby – he retired from the professional game in July 2014 – but is still heavily involved in the sport, is relishing the new pace of family life.
"I think it's superb. Mia is a fantastic bundle of energy and that challenges you as well and keeps it interesting. Lena is just starting to find her feet, but we've enjoyed every minute of it. You hope that's what kids do to you and it's been great."
"Three female dogs [and] my three girls. Plus we have lots of girls on the yard working with Zara… at least I've got Pete, my brother-in-law. And Andy, who works on the farm as well," he jokes.
Before Mia and Lena came along, Mike confesses he did think he might like a son, but now he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I was so happy with how Mia was as a girl that I wasn't really bothered either way and when Lena was coming along I wasn't bothered at all [about] what we got. I was just happy to be having another child," he says.
Zara suffered two miscarriages in between Mia and Lena, and talked candidly in a UK TV interview about the couple's heartache through both.
"I think the hardest thing in our situation was that everyone knew," she said. "Normally it's just your family and friends."
She said Mike had been "incredible… It's very different for us because we're carrying the child, but for guys it's kind of that helpless feeling, which must be incredibly high and horrible for them. At the end of the day they've still lost a child too."
Mike has thrown himself into fatherhood and I sense the Tindall parenting is pretty much 50/50. Does he change nappies?
WATCH BELOW: Zara scores a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics. Article continues after video.
"Oh yes. I definitely do that. I think you've got to now. That's part of the enjoyment anyway, doing the full thing," he says proudly.
As for the mythical "special bond" between a father and his daughters, Mike says, "Yes, it's true. I do think that girls look to their dads to be able to get away with things."
At 38, Zara knows she needs to literally get back on the horse if she's to stay on top of her career, and she and Mike, 41, work as a team looking after the girls. For Zara, the most urgent concern was getting herself back into competition shape following Lena's birth.
"I think it was easier the second time around to figure out what you needed to do, how long your body takes to get itself back into semi-physical working shape," she explains.
"The second time your body goes, 'oh yes, okay, I've done that before'.
"It almost has a motor program, whereas when you return [after pregnancy] the first time around I think the body goes into shock and says, 'I haven't done this before'.
"But no matter how prepared you get physically for giving birth, your body is never quite the same. For me trying to get my body physically strong enough to do the right job on the horse, getting it back to where I was before the pregnancy takes a lot of work.
"I go to the gym, ride the bike, run a bit and swim if I can. I've been competing since this time last year so I'm just getting back into it."
Zara would love to compete in another Olympics – she won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games – but says it's not just about her own readiness, it's about having the right horse.
"I've got a horse [Class Affair], he's a nice horse for the future; whether he's going to be quite ready to go to the next Olympics I'm not sure – physically, mentally, experience-wise, he might not be quite ready for that."
In her sport, Zara notes, women compete into their fifties so she's not panicking yet.
"Luckily in eventing it depends on the horse. If you've got a good horse and the combination works, then you can go on a lot longer."
But like all mums, Zara can be prey to bouts of mother guilt, even though they have staff to help take the strain.
"If I'm away and Mike's here I don't feel as guilty, whereas if we're both away then I feel much more guilty."
Mia is a real livewire and already at school.
"She goes to the local village school in Minchinhampton, which she loves. She's a very active child. She does gymnastics and a lot of swimming, tennis, skiing, surfing." Sound familiar?
I ask both parents – separately – if now that girls can play rugby, they'd be happy if Mia and later Lena wanted to take up their father's sport. "I have no issues with it," says Mike immediately.
"If I was completely honest, I would really like Mia to go for tag rugby because I think it's fantastic for body awareness, athletic ability and just a general all-round hand-eye co-ordination.
"Would I really want her to play contact? Probably not, just because of my experiences of how hard it is. The girls' side is not quite up to the men's side in terms of what you can do as a professional but if she wants to play I'm never going to stop her. If she finds a love for it and wants to go on, then so be it."
Zara, however, is not as thrilled with the idea.
"No, no," she says, shaking her head. "I've had a husband playing rugby and I'm not sure I would want my daughter playing. They say the game is like being in two car crashes a week. They just run into each other. I don't think I would be able to watch my daughters do that.
"I guess you want your children to experience anything but at the end of the day they're going to do what they want to do anyway."
"I keep giving her a golf club. 'Why don't you play golf?', I say. And then I can go and play golf with her," he grins.
Fun in Australia
One thing the Tindall girls will definitely be experiencing – and soon – is sun, surf and swimming in Australia.
Since Katie Page-Harvey, Magic Millions co-owner and chief executive of Harvey Norman, signed Zara to be the inaugural Magic Millions Racing Women Ambassador in 2012, she and Mike have been regular visitors to the Gold Coast and Australia.
The Aussie vibe suits this very unroyal, laidback couple perfectly and they tell me that they now see Australia as their second home; they were very much looking forward to their recent January jaunt Down Under. This year, for the first time, they brought both daughters with them.
"Lena's been flying a couple of times but nothing long. I think Greece is probably the furthest she's been, but Mia loves flying. She always has," says Mike.
"Early January is bleak over here so it's nice to go and have a bit of sun. I love the lifestyle of Australia and the ability to get up early, go on the beach – especially for the kids, taking them in the ocean is brilliant," says Mike.
"I just think the people over in Australia are so laidback and they have good banter. No one's worried about talking to each other. It's not a rushed lifestyle. I think it's a great place and we enjoy it so much."
Zara adds, "Mia loves swimming. Of course, the climate allows you to be able to go swimming all day every day. When we first took her to Australia she was 11 months old; we kickstarted her love of water."
Mike explains: "She swims twice a week at home with lessons. If she's anywhere near a pool she'd be in there all day. And that came from Australia when we went for six weeks when she was three and stayed at a place that had a pool. It was all she wanted to do."
This time Mike hoped to introduce Mia to surfing.
"She hasn't done that much in the ocean but she had a few surf lessons down in Devon [on England's southwest coast] this year."
The family has an established group of mates in Australia who they catch up with and Mia is already well versed in the top tourist attractions.
"In Sydney with Mia, I have done the Bridge Run and we visited the Zoo. Then on the Gold Coast we went to Sea World and Movie World last year.
"We've now also made lots of new friends in the Magic Millions family. So I get to renew my golf rivalry with Gerry [Harvey] every year – always good fun," says Mike.
Gold Coast magic
Zara is rightly chuffed that the Magic Millions has become such a beacon for women in her industry.
"I think we're challenging the stigma of racing being a male-dominated sport," she says.
"There were a lot of male-owned horses and to be able to get more females involved was Katie's original idea. There are way more female jockeys now, there's more females in the sport, so I think globally we wanted it to happen in every sphere of racing, which I think we've managed."
The Carnival and Raceday has developed into a first-class thoroughbred event, now in the world's top 10 richest race meets.
The 'Racing Women' initiative, of which Zara is patron, champions the participation of women in the sport with an enticing prize money bonus of $500,000 distributed between the first four all-female owned or leased horses, on top of the prize money.
"Every year's been more of a success than the year before. The amount of women who are now involved with racehorses and the number of times that the bonus has been won is fantastic," says Zara.
When Mike Tindall was a lad growing up in Otley, in England's north, he says the closest he got to horseracing was working on the fish and chip vans at York or Chester races. Jump forward a couple of decades and Mike is now a regular in the royal box at Ascot, Cheltenham et al. So how does Magic Millions compare?
"Royal Ascot is fantastic but it's more dressing up in formal gear. Then you've got Cheltenham which is somewhere in between but it's not really warm, you're in your coats; whereas this is just pure summer fun. People are far more relaxed. No one's worrying about what people are thinking. You're free to dress however you want to and I like that.
"And now we've got the polo as well," he says.
Bringing polo to the Gold Coast in the heart of summer may sound like madness and it does get very sticky, but since the first match in 2017 it's become a showstopper with a distinctly Aussie edge.
"I love polo, it's a great game to play … a little bit hard on the Gold Coast because it's so hot, but it's good fun and since Nacho Figueras [the Argentinian polo heart-throb] came on board it's been even better. He really is a great global polo player and makes such an event of it.
Zara plays and in the commentary box is Mike.
"I try not to stand next to Nacho for too long, it makes me feel bad about myself," he jokes.
"I get to commentate on it with [Seven Sport's] Hamish McClachlan and we see how many one-liners we can throw out. Obviously I support my wife's team and try to put the opposition under pressure."
Does Mike think he'll ever join Zara on the polo field?
"I've said for three years I've got to learn to play polo and I've yet to fulfil that dream. Riding would be my main issue. I think I'd be all right at hitting balls. I'd be good at walking polo. It's the horsemanship I'd struggle with.
"Zara is so busy at the moment – she hasn't had time to coach me – and I don't really have a horse to do it with, so it keeps being pushed back. But at some point I will vow to learn and spend the year getting ready for it."
As they both talk it's clear Australia has become a really happy place for the Tindalls so I have to ask: Would they consider moving Down Under?
"Probably not while I'm still competing. It would be a little bit hard commuting. But after that… yes, I think if an opportunity came up we'd definitely think about it."