Recognising a pioneer of Australia’s equestrian success

Tom Roberts
Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts: Go forward, dear – a horseman’s life and legacy. A5, 108 pages, black and white, 33 images. Hard copy $29.99 plus PPH ($8 within Australia/$16 rest of world). E-book available after launch date @$25 from the Horse SA online store.
Review by Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson, CQUni Appleton Institute

When I was a teenager, I leased my first horse Caesar from the secretary of Pegasus Pony Club, Jeanette Fletcher. Sometimes I slept at her house so I could wake up early enough to ride Caesar several kilometres down a narrow road-side track to attend a club rally. The room I slept in had a shelf full of books left there by her three daughters who had been riders. I couldn’t help but notice four books with bright yellow spines and when I was too shy to make night time conversation, I used to pick my way through them, reading the bits that seemed relevant at the time. I was delighted by photographs of local riders including our own Olympian Erica Taylor, and intrigued by people being described in captions as Mr, Mrs, Miss or Sister. I didn’t know it at the time, but Tom (together with Margaret Clarke and RM Williams who became equestrian celebrities in their own rights) was instrumental in Pegasus Pony Club being formed in 1953 (the first Pony Club in South Australia and second in Australia).

Tom’s books were easy for a novice teenager to read. The images were well chosen or hand drawn, the writing style was straightforward and the chapters ended with summary notes. I have particular memories of repeatedly reading a section about rein contact told in mathematical units, although my greatest challenge at that time was probably getting my horse to go into – and stay in – canter. His penchant for capitalisation conveyed significance, not shouting as it is interpreted in a post-email world.

In the 1990s, there was a ‘horses, stock and saddlery’ section of the state Advertiser newspaper which was well worth reading on Saturdays. Tom Roberts’ series of books were a mainstay of the column, being sold as a package deal. I didn’t order them from there, but many years later purchased copies of two of his books from a second-hand shop. The one titled Horse Control and the Bit is signed by Tom, with an inscription to Lucy and Charles written in June 1976, just over a year before I was born.

I hadn’t turned the pages of Tom’s books for about a decade when I was asked to review a recent biography commissioned by the Horse Federation of SA. It is written in two parts. The introduction by Julie Fiedler sets the scene of Tom and Pat Roberts as a dynamic duo who touched the lives of those around them, through their kindness as humans and their dedication to horses and horse training. The proceeding two parts contain more detail on how Tom (with Pat) impacted the equestrian scene across Australia.

Part One is written by Nicki Stuart, an accomplished equestrian and journalist. In the first part, Stuart details Tom’s life. Having never had the pleasure of meeting Tom, I was unaware that he was born overseas. It turns out that Tom had an extraordinary life abroad and made an extraordinary impact in Australia. Stuart tells the story of the making of Tom the horseman, but it is also the story of cavalry training during the First World War, repatriation to South Australia, Adelaide’s Police Greys (and why they can jump), service in the Second World War, and life in Adelaide when horses and riders were not an unusual sight and the ability to ‘float’ a horse from one place to another was entirely novel. Tom’s impact was not just that of a skilled teacher and natural horseman who came to South Australia. Through his biography, we come to see Tom as an inspirational leader whose kindness attracted talented trainers from Europe who in turn left an undeniable mark on equestrianism in Australia.

Above all, Stuart tells a beautiful love story, pre-empted at the start of chapter four with a coy reference to Tom’s blue eyes. Reading about Tom and his wife Pat is a reminder about the importance of developing supportive local networks for riders to encourage each other. What is clear is that Tom wanted the best for humans as well as horses. It is very easy for riders to blame horses, and for trainers to blame humans, but Stuart portrays Tom as someone who saw the benefits in seeing the good in both. This book has numerous examples of how his optimistic investments paid off.

Tom Roberts and Spring Song demonstrate ‘feeling for the mouth’ to Virginia Batten, Coromandel Valley , South Australia, 1972. Photograph by Webb McKelvey. Published in Tom Roberts, Horse Control – The Young Horse.
Tom Roberts and Spring Song demonstrate ‘feeling for the mouth’ to Virginia Batten, Coromandel Valley , South Australia, 1972. Photograph by Webb McKelvey. Published in Horse Control – The Young Horse.

Part Two is written by Dr Andrew McLean, a renowned equestrian who helped pioneer the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). Whereas Stuart’s portrayal of Tom traces a chronology of his life, McLean’s is hinged around the chief elements of ISES training principles and how they can be identified in the methods that Tom advocated. McLean discusses horses’ needs and how they learn. We see Tom in a more abstract way, but in no way depersonalised. Tom’s methods provide an opportunity for McLean to give a consolidated overview of learning theory and a fascinating history of horse riding and training in Europe, with insights into how German riding became so prestigious in Australia yet was somewhat lost in translation, specifically with regard to horses being driven into the bridle by the riders’ legs.

The thing that attracted me most to Tom’s books when I was younger was how local they were – with references to local riders, places and clubs. I overlooked his books in my later life, probably for the same reason. It is easy to be enamoured by what is happening the furthest away or what is the newest insight into an ancient tradition like horse riding. But having read this book, I am aware of how Tom and South Australia formed national and international connections. I am excited to return to his texts anew, with more perspective, different challenges and new horses. And now that my primary concern isn’t achieving and maintaining canter, I can even work on my flying changes, inspired by Tom’s tips on the subject, noted in McLean’s discussion of shaping successful outcomes by identifying the small steps they require. As for McLean’s reference to horses with masculine pronouns, they are somewhat redeemed by his explanation for the phrase ‘go forward, dear’ in the book’s title. It may sound chauvenistic to those who who were never taught by Tom (I admit to finding it objectionable at first), so you will just have to read the book yourself to find out why it was Tom’s signature phrase.

This biography provides more than a look at the man behind the books. Stuart and McLean together reveal Tom’s origins in horse training, how he was influenced by trainers in Europe, the UK and the US, and how central he was to a rapid riding evolution in Australia. However, in a world where tradition is being increasingly critiqued through scientific advancements, Tom’s insights into horse behaviour and training remain. This biography reinforces Tom’s teachings for those already familiar with him and makes them accessible to a new generation of riders; it will profit you regardless. From what I have read, Tom would be honoured by this book, humbled by its authors and contributors and grateful for its supporters. Pat would be proud, and rightly so.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards continuing the educational opportunities for horse owners, including film conservation, audio books and preservation of donated items from the Tom Roberts Legacy Project. The Tom Roberts Legacy Project Book Launch is being held on September 15 at the Old Mill Hahndorf where copies can be signed by the authors. Reserve your place here.

I would like to acknowledge Julie Fiedler, Executive Officer of Horse SA for making this book happen and preserving Tom’s legacy.


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