Page 1: Biography
Briggs, Margaret Jane
This biography, written by Mary Mountier, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Although Maggie Briggs's deeds as a show-jumper have been exaggerated and romanticised by her biographers, she was undoubtedly an outstanding horsewoman. Born Margaret Jane Briggs on 17 April 1892 at Ōtākeho, near Manaia in South Taranaki, New Zealand, she was the only child of Lydia Elsie Stevens and her husband, Robert Ephraim Briggs, a labourer. Her father drowned in a boating accident when she was four, and 18 months later her mother married John Robertson, a farmer from Hāwera. By 1904 the family was living in Īnaha.
Maggie's show-jumping career began when a prominent Manaia horseman, John Mitchell, observed her riding her pony to school. Wanting a young rider for his pony Czarina, the winner of many show-ring prizes, Mitchell arranged for Maggie to be coached by his son Alex. She made her début at the Egmont Agricultural and Pastoral Show at Hāwera in 1902, winning all the junior events she entered, and coming third against older women in the open wire-jumping contest.
Graduating to bigger and better ponies, Maggie Briggs became well known in Taranaki for her skilled and fearless riding. By 1913 she was living in Clevedon, near Auckland, and in the same year made her first appearance at the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Show, winning the ladies' championship. She stayed in Auckland, possibly working with horses, and continued to compete in riding events. She won the Auckland championship again in 1917 and 1918, and dead-heated for first in 1920. By this stage she was writing verse, some of which appeared under the pseudonym 'Pākehā' in the Auckland City Mission's newsletter. She may also have worked at the mission on a voluntary basis.
When Briggs was competing for the Auckland title in 1922, a show-ring judge indicated that it was time she stepped aside to give younger riders a chance. Briggs soon after moved to Australia where, against the best opposition in Sydney and Melbourne, she won many prizes. She also gained prominence in exhibitions of wire jumping, bareback jumping and high jumping, all requiring boldness and bravery. In 1925 Briggs was invited to ride in the United States by a Californian horse enthusiast, Guy Woodin. Through this wealthy contact she was introduced to Los Angeles high society, which included film stars. Before long she had become a minor celebrity as the 'champion show-ring rider of Australasia'.
American horse sports were quite different from what she had been used to, but Briggs adapted with ease to the rodeo riding and exhibition jumping that were then popular. Her status rose further when it became known that she was riding Rudolph Valentino's favourite horses. Although Briggs later talked with pride and showed photographs of this episode in her life, she did not make public what may have been a brief personal relationship with the famous actor. Only her closest friend in New Zealand was shown a hand-written letter from Valentino.
A notably attractive woman, with a penchant for flamboyance, Maggie Briggs travelled to New York in December 1927 to be interviewed for a part, reportedly in a hunting scene, in a Florenz Ziegfeld show. On the return trip she slipped on an icy pavement in Chicago and dislocated her hip, thus ending any prospect of a stage part. From this point, her life in America remains largely a mystery. She later gave the impression that she was involved in a relationship – perhaps a marriage – which ended unhappily. She returned briefly to competitive riding in 1933, but soon after contracted tuberculosis, lost her power of speech and spent several years in hospitals and convalescing. Doctors considered her case incurable, she later claimed, and she attributed her recovery to the morale-boosting effect of her correspondence with a radio disc jockey, who played requests and read her poetry on air.
In 1948 Maggie Briggs returned to New Zealand. She settled in Ōtaki, at first living with her half-brother Charlie Robertson and his wife, and later in a small cottage behind the local shops. In the small rural town she stood out as an exotic, yet lonely and enigmatic figure. She dressed fashionably, wore heavy make-up, had a glamorous hairdo and spoke with an American accent. Befriended by the horse-loving McBeth family, Maggie donated her trophies as prizes for young show-jumpers and took a keen, but distant, interest in her old sport. She never fully regained her health and died suddenly, after a brief bout of pneumonia, at Palmerston North Hospital on 5 November 1961.