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Unlock the Secrets Heritage Pavilion: Equestriennes

Posted on : 30 March 2021

The precursor to modern showjumping was show-ring jumping. It was a daring and dangerous sport, at which women excelled. And it was loved by the public.

The forgotten standouts of women's sport

The action shots made handsome spreads in newspapers and magazines, horse and rider seeming to float mid-air above the jump, or the rider caught mid-tumble during a fall, coat-tails flying. For women, there wasn’t another sport like it, because the female stars were just as popular with fans as the men. It was spectacular and it was dangerous. It was show-ring jumping - the collective name given to the horse events that preceded modern showjumping - and which had its heyday in Australia in the 1920s and '30s.

Crowds loved the thrills and spills and were gripped by the tension that escalated in competition, but they were an educated audience when it came to horseflesh and riding, and understood the nuances of skill. Big prizemoney was up for grabs, sponsored by companies who saw how much public attention events received. This encouraged professionalism, and farmers and graziers put teams of horses and riders on the road to chase the money. From Victoria to New South Wales and right up to Cairns, they travelled the almost year-long circuit of country and city shows. For men during those cash-strapped times it was a way to earn a living; for women it was also a rare chance to live an independent life and shine at the highest level.

When a young Narrandera girl, Emilie Roach, went to the Sydney Show in 1914 her life changed:

'The Sydney Show really got me and I was not able to think of school lessons or music any more, for I had seen Mrs Stace riding side-saddle over those big fences and heard the thunder of applause from the crowds. It was then and there I decided to become a Show rider.'

The 51-year-old Mrs Eunice Stace was a pioneer of the sport, expert at all events but especially known for her success in the glamour event of high jump. Stately and erect, with impossibly good balance, she set Australian and world height records during her twenty-year career.

But the guard was changing and Emilie Roach soon realised her ambition, becoming one of the best of an outstanding crop of rising female stars that included the likes of Alice Laidlaw, Dolly Fogg, and Nina and Enid Clarke. With her favourite horse, the white-footed hunter Lady Radium, Emilie Roach had countless wins for the Weir family and Bob Chittick’s team. At the 1930 Sydney Show, the simpatico pair won every event they contested. In the high jump Emilie soared on horses like Dungog, Musician and Peter, setting a Sydney ladies' record of 7ft.1in. on Dungog in 1929. Impeccably turned out and always gracious in victory or defeat, Emilie Roach competed for 40 years, winning her last event in 1955, before retiring in 1957.

In the 1930s two new champions came onto the scene: Beryl Perry and Madge Keane. Described as ‘a diminutive and vivacious' redhead, Madge Keane's size and temperament made her particularly suited to the high jump. Riding for Ernie Nelson, she took his gelding Domino to a new Sydney and Australian record of 7ft. 4in. in 1935. The head-first fall she'd suffered from another horse shortly before, clearly didn’t unsettle her.

The following year, the director Ken Hall made a Cinesound film of the Sydney competition. The spectacle and drama impressed him so much he began negotiating with Ernie Nelson to take his horses, along with Madge Keane and Beryl Perry, to the US, to give exhibitions at Maddison Square Gardens. But war ultimately scotched the plan.

While breaking records was newsworthy, it wasn't the focus for teams. Just doing enough to win was the better strategy, conserving horse and rider for another day, and another chance at prizemoney.

It was a hard life travelling from place to place, mostly by train (trucking of horses only really began in the late 1930s), and the chores of attending to animals and kit never ended. Equestriennes usually stayed in country pubs instead of camping on showgrounds - so home was a room, a suitcase and the sound at night of the public bar. It was a demanding job that took physical courage. Broken collarbones, ribs and wrists were commonplace, along with concussions. Most riders could list a string of injuries by the time they finished their careers. Occasionally, too, there was tragedy: someone broke their back, or there was a fatality. In Sydney on Good Friday at the 1934 Show, one of the best riders in the state, Eve Daly, was thrown from her horse in a hunting contest. A few days later she died from her injuries. She was 21 years old. It was a 'doleful' Show for the equestrian community. The jump seemed jinxed - some blamed a distracting shadow - and over the weekend two other riders were taken to hospital with multiple fractures, one of whom was Madge Keane.

Despite the hardships and hazards of the game, many riders and horses had very long careers. Which was another reason why the sport was so beloved. Fortunes could be followed year after year, the horses as well-known and admired as the humans. Some of the horses competed well into their twenties before they retired. At country shows where the professionals went up against locals, personal ties developed; and at city shows where the stakes were raised, every one of the tens of thousands of spectators had favourites. Interest also lay in the success of particular teams, who were the pride of the home districts they came from.

For those who became veterans like Emilie Roach and Madge Keane, it was a life they were reluctant to leave. But age was not the only factor influencing retirement decisions. During the long interruption of the Second World War teams disbanded, causing some participants to abandon show-ring jumping for good. When the sport resumed, the pressure was on to modernise. With the 1956 Olympics due to be held in Melbourne, qualifying events at the big city shows had to conform to international showjumping rules. From 1952 both types of events were run, but full and permanent change to Olympic standards came in 1959.

The glory days of the equestriennes were well and truly over. Never again would Show crowds of upwards of ninety thousand roar their approval at the prowess of a woman rider.

'It is quite impossible,' said Emilie Roach at the end of her career, 'for me to estimate how many blue ribbons and championships I have won, or the number of cups, medals and trophies that have been presented to me.'

By every measure, the Narrandera girl had finished a champion, one of the greats in an era where women achieved that rare thing - parity in public attention for their sport.


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