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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

No matter how many horses you have had, no one forgets their first

ABOVE: The journey begins – Gracelyn Howie from Penshurst with Shorty Lena. Picture: PAIGE GRAY

IT’S said you never forget your first kiss, or your first love. For horse people it’s their first pony.

Even if the person is world famous, the horse that set them on their way remains as clear in their minds as the first time they saw them.

We spoke to some well-known people across a range of equestrian disciplines and professions and asked them to share their memories.

Andrew Hoy

Andrew Hoy has won six Olympic medals: three gold, two silvers and one bronze. He has competed in eight Olympic games. At 63 years old, he is aiming for his ninth Olympics in Paris next year, and still remembers his first pony.

“My first pony was a chestnut Shetland Pony – borrowed from my uncle. The pony was called Ginger – true to his colour and name, he was a real challenge to ride. Since those days I am aware – if you can get a Shetland Pony from point A to point B on the line you want to ride and the speed you want to travel– you will be an Olympic champion!”

Claire Uren

National show horse judge and producer of many champions, Claire and her twin sister Helen remember their first pony well.

ABOVE: Claire Uren and her second pony, Snowy.

“Our first pony was bay and dad couldn’t understand why we seemed frightened of him until he saw the open mouth, ears flat back charge at us and realised that the pony really meant it. Turned out he was a rig. His name was Bounce and when he went, a 12 hand founder-prone black pony replaced him.

We called him Black Velvet and in our eyes he looked just the drawing on the front of the Jill has Two Ponies book.

Barcoo bridle and an oat bag and Helen and I shared him for years. He was lumpy, probably had Cushings and was an absolute saint. We crawled all over him, practised school pony tricks like crawling between his legs and imagined we could do circus tricks, standing on his rump, teaching ourselves to vault on board.

Can’t count how many times it was a face-plant in to his bum when we failed the bounce on to his back from behind. Cisco kid and the Lone Ranger could do it so practise, practise … he was an absolute saint of a pony.”

Maree Tomkinson

Maree, an elite level, international dressage rider has always been prepared to work hard to achieve success and even as a child was determined to spend her time with her horses.

“My parents had no previous experience with horses. I begged and begged for a pony and they told me if I went to riding school every Saturday for a year I could have one.

Even at six years old I was very tenacious and played the long game.

I hated riding school but I went every weekend and after one year on my seventh birthday I was given Black Bess, an entirely unsuitable pony that lived in our suburban back yard in Bendigo.

My parents tortured me at seven years old, sending me to clear the yard and feed water and take care of my pony religiously hoping my little seven-year-old body would tire of the hard work, riding bare back and getting pelted off by the wild little pony … ha ha ha to them. It certainly didn’t work and I tortured them for years with my horse obsession.”

ABOVE: Maree Tomkinson graduated from Black Bess to Peter Pan.

Gordon Nash

Champion Stockhorse breeder and judge, Gordon has had many great horses over many years but still remember the first.

“He was a Timor pony that arrived on a truck with a load of others with some people to do mustering on the high country. He was lame when he got off the truck so he stayed and I got him. I was eight. I rode him to school, and often through the hills instead of going to school. He turned out to be a ripper pony, I rode him everywhere, after stock, drafting. I remember moving cattle in the high country with him during bushfires, I called him Whiteboy.

When I grew bigger he was moved on to another family for their kids as so many good ponies do.”

Sue Foley

The busy rep for the massive Midland Pony Club Zone of Victoria describes herself as a pony club tragic. Formerly a trackwork rider for Colin Hayes at Angaston and then Flemington, like many women she had a break from horses for many years until her daughters joined pony club.

“I got Star for Christmas. I woke up on Christmas morning and she was tied to a tree on the back lawn . I was 10.

My parents were not horsey and we made awful mistakes. We didn’t know that she had suffered from laminitis, so she foundered but she was the sweetest 12.2hh pinto of undetermined breed.

I joined Bendigo Pony Club and met a riding friend, Karen, who came from a trotting family. Her uncle Gus taught me a lot. Karen and I rode all over Bendigo and we only had one rule and that was to be home before dark.

I gave Star to a wonderful woman named Julie who did a lot of work with Riding for Disabled. Star stayed with Julie until she was put to sleep at 25."

ABOVE: Sue Foley in her younger years after horses became part of her life.

David Cameron

Two-time senior Australian show jumping champion, David’s father was a successful competitor and horseman while his mother was a reputable trainer of young horses.

“I started riding at five or six. I have a twin brother, Ian, we started riding together.

We always had horses at home but our grandfather Bob Cameron was responsible for us starting riding.

Bob provided our first two ponies Powder Puff and Mouse. A couple years later he swapped them for our second ponies, a couple of galloways, Tia and Chloe.

Powder Puff was a gun! Your typical legend little grey pony. He was bomb proof, jumped, sported and won heaps of ribbons. My first real horse was a warmblood by Kassiber called Krome. I jumped my first World Cup with him.”

Vicky Lawrie

A six-time Garryowen winner and a prolific winner in the show horse rings, from ponies through to hacks, the former Queenslander now trains show horses with her husband Chris, in South Australia.

ABOVE: Vicky Lawrie on one of her early mounts.

“I learnt to ride from an aboriginal stockman on my grandfather’s property. I don’t remember learning up downs, my grandfather tied my horse to his monkey strap and if he walked I walked and same for trot and canter. I loved mustering cattle. I was about five when I used to go up to the station.

We moved to town with the whole family and I befriended a racehorse trainer. He let me ride my first horse Billy. He was a lead pony for racehorses and then he said I could have him to go to pony club. I think I was about nine. He did everything: hacked, novelty, jumped, cross country. Then I had a great aunt who was wonderful to me until I spread my wings working for people and started showing. Vince (Corvi) gave me a great start and I got to ride great horses and travel.”

Mary Hanna

Mary had represented Australia at five Olympic Games in the equestrian discipline of dressage (in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012, 2016 and 2020). Mary also rode in showjumping and eventing.

“My first pony apart from a very old naughty Shetland called Taffy (I hardly remember riding him) was a grey mare called Satin, a part Welsh Mountain.

She had rather a long back and was not a beautiful show pony. However, I loved her and she was a great all-rounder. We did quite a few years at pony club together, and my sister and I used to go on long rides out in the countryside around our property. Both the ponies could jump, and we loved jumping logs and any obstacles we could find around the farm and surrounding land. Sometimes we would take a picnic lunch and a dog and be gone for most of the day. Our parents never worried about us as long as we were home by sundown. We shared many adventures and as a family we would round up stock, or check the sheep during lambing time, often bringing home a sick or abandoned lamb across the front of the saddle.”

ABOVE: Double trouble – the Roycroft boys on their ponies.

Wayne and Barry Roycroft

The Roycrofts are Australia’s most famous equestrian family. Both Wayne and Barry have competed at the Olympic Games and World Championships and are renowned coaches.

Barry’s Moya was a Welsh pony 12.2 hands high. “She could jump her own height easy and I won my first ODE on her at Joan Palmer’s property Kielli at Mortlake.” Wayne remembers a bay filly called Coronation known as Cori. “We rode the ponies to school bare back, and used to jump logs and anything we could find on the way.”

ABOVE: The Roycroft boys again with another early mount.

John Patterson John, or “Patto” as he is universally known, is probably the most famous clerk of the course in Australia, so much so he has an OAM and has a book written about him. After his father was killed at Tobruk in 1941 he was raised as a Legacy boy with his war widow mother, as he says below, riding every pony in the district.

ABOVE: Patto would also ride anything on offer.

“I never really owned my own pony. We were too poor to own one so I rode everyone else’s around Coleraine and Hamilton.

I remember a black and white pony the milkman had whose kids couldn’t ride it so he got me to come around and straighten it out.

The ranger had a black galloway mare called Annette he got me to ride in shows.

It wasn’t until I came down to Melbourne at 15 to be an apprentice jockey to Phil Burke, that Normie Cakebread had a black and white stallion that he gelded and I got him. He got used as a lead pony for the Thoroughbreds. I called him Skewie.”

Angie Rickard

Angie once worked as a jockey but has gone on to become one of Australia’s most talented and experienced equine photographers. She is a familiar face at all the major shows and events in the southern states.

“Coming from a very non-horsey family, I had to borrow ponies, pay for hourly rides at the local riding centre or demand week-long stints at Ponyland.

When it became obvious that getting my own would be so much cheaper and easier (yeah right) we ventured off to Bacchus Marsh horse sale with a hire float, a friend with limited experience and a grin. I was 11 years old. We looked at a few and then this fat little pinto mare caught our attention for her crooked blaze. We had a few short rides around the yard and she didn’t buck or do anything wrong, so we bid. She was ours.

We called her Diamond, which sounded better than Blaze, and over the next few months we went to the local riding club in amongst the big horses and adult riders. With me being very novice, we had a go at most things including novelties.

She had great steering and brakes and many times we parted company much to everyone’s amusement. She had clearly done this stuff before and knew what it was all about.

But then our beautiful fat little Diamond became two.

I went out one morning and she had a tiny foal beside her in the paddock. That was the sudden end to riding club and the beginning of holy-shit-what-do-we-do-this-thing?

We had no history of Diamond at all and no idea about mares and foals. I kept riding Diamond in the paddock followed by a feisty filly foal, which was eventually weaned and sold.

Diamond continued teaching me lots, especially how to hang on and keep one leg each side when going at speeds around, up, and over things, and she covered many miles around the bush tracks chasing kangaroos and the odd emu. She never had shoes and I don’t recall ever having a rug on her.

Tough and tiny but was never a problem, and she went on to live a long, happy life in Horsham and Maryborough with a friend after I needed something bigger.”

ABOVE: Angie Rickard with Diamond, who came with a little surprise.

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