Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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Do you remember the moment when you decided that you really wanted to go to the Olympics?

I couldn't put down a time, or date, probably. But we discussed it, Mavis and I. We go to the next Olympic Games, just like that, you know. And of course that meant getting horses to do it and we set about doing just that. And of course, you just don't go to the Games because yes, I'm going to go to the Games. You've got to compete and you've got to win and all those things go with it. And of course, it's a bit different to going to equestrian games, eventing, because it's not like an athlete that's runner, or a swimmer, he has his trunks, or he has his shoes, his spikes he runs in and his shorts. You know, when you think about it, you've got to have a horse that's suitable, it'll do all three phases. It's got to be good at dressage, steeplechasing, because you've got a steeplechase and you've got to show jump. And you've got to be pretty good at doing those damn things. You've got to, apart from sitting on his back, you've got to be able to do these things. And it's not just a matter of sitting on his back, you've got to, with your legs, teach him to do all the things he does from one figure to another figure. Canter one time, trot, canter, or extended trot and all those damn well half pass. They don't think about it, most of these people that go to the Olympic Games. And they haven't up until we've won quite a few medals given any thought much to the equestrians, just what they do and go through. Not the other athletes. I think they look down a bit on us, bloody horsemen, you know. But they are, in my opinion now, they are the cream of the Olympic world is the horsemen.

Why is that your opinion, Bill? Why do you think that?

Because of what they've got to do to get there and be there, you know. The spills and thrills and the knocks about that you get with falls. If you don't - you don't get there through getting on a nice horse and doing it nice and smoothly. God, you got to take a lot of risk with that horse. And you see, what happened to me in Rome with pipes that should never have been there anyhow, that put, that I fell at, and you know, that's just one occasion. I think that probably they don't give enough thought, or enough money. See we did it very hard, we didn't, from no government support in the early days, it was all done by the likes of Sir Alec Creswick, Barnes, those fellas that had money that put it in. And they put a hell of a lot of money in to get the first team that went away to Stockholm. Then they supplied again for 1960. I think after 1960 the government started to get a bit interested and probably did give a little money, but mostly it was raised by the riders and the authorities themselves.

Now, in deciding that you wanted to go to the 1960 Olympics in Rome and discussing it with Mavis, there was a real financial consideration for you in that too, wasn't there, there was a sacrifice for you.

Well of course there is a sacrifice, yes... But I suppose most people - if you think about the same time Herb Elliot, Herb Elliot, you know, he was a brilliant long distance runner, Herb Elliott. Now he had to put a lot of time in, he had to put a lot of time to get himself to the peak where he did do well. And he had a manager, old Carruthies? Carruthers?...

Percy Cerutty, mm.

Percy Cerutty, yeah. He did it the hard way, and I suppose if you go back into my early times, we were amateurs and we had to prove we were damn amateurs, you know. If you took money for doing something in the way of sport you were not an amateur. Now Laurie Morgan who went with us to 1960, he had to prove that he wasn't playing football for Fitzroy. Now if they'd have found out that he'd been paid £3, £3 a week to play for football, they wouldn't have taken him you know. Amateurism was that damn strict then.

So as an equestrian he wouldn't have been allowed to go?

No, he would not.

Even if it had been payment for another sport.

Yes, that's right, that's right. He - and he had been paid, but they'd lost the papers. Something happened with the papers and they couldn't prove that he'd been paid. And you know, we were doing a stint in England, training for Rome, and we were riding across the plains there to Aldershot, they had sandy looking plains, and they were doing a stint 'Rocket to the Moon.' They made a film in South Australia, 'Rocket to the Moon,' you know, and we were riding, John Kelly and I, across these plains to Aldershot, and a person pulled us up and said, "Would you do a stint for us? We want somebody to lead a pack-horse and pass an old dusty vehicle, cruising across these plains". Now that's a bloke going out to prospect and he goes past a stockman with his horse and pack saddle. And I said "Yes, I'll do it". And John Kelly said, "He'll do it but you will not pay him". "Why won't we pay him?" "Because he's an amateur, we don't want him made a professional", you know. It was just like that. And I did a big jumping at Hickstead in England, we were quarantining our horses in England so we show jumped and did other things, and we were at Hickstead and somebody there said to me, "Bill, will you jump a course for us, over the water jump, over the banks, we want a short film for pony club. Now would you do it?" "Yes, I'll do it." They said "We will pay you". I said "Well how much are you allowed to pay me without making me a professional?" They said, I think it was £35 or something they could pay me without being professional. So I did it for them, the water jump and the banks and that, and I did it on a horse called Stony Crossing, yep. So it was, it was a different age, you know. We were definitely amateurs. Today, everybody's a professional, but there's no amateurs going to the Games anymore.

So when you decided that you wanted to go to the Rome Olympics, you had to - what did you have to find? What did you have to get together yourself to be able to go? And what came from those who'd donated to the cause?

Well, we had to get a horse suitable for that Games. Now I got, I got - what did we call him, Boonabaroo, Boonabaroo we called this chestnut horse. Well he had to be castrated for a start, because he was a colt, and we had to break him in, get to riding him, teaching him to jump, teach him to do dressage. And from there I think we got another horse, a little horse we called Our Solo. Where you're going around the shows you meet up with a chap who used to say "Bill, I've got a better horse than that horse of yours". And he was talking about a mare that I did everything with on, a mare called Dixie. And this went on for several shows round Colac, Warrnambool. And he said "Look, Bill, come and have a look at this horse". So Mavis and I went over, it was near Camperdown this chap with his horse. And he saddled him up and when he girthed him up the horse bucked. And he said "That's a funny thing, he's never done that before". So I wasn't terribly worried about that, you know, girth up the horse, if he's a bit fresh he'll have a bit of a buck. So I rode the horse and he was a very nice one, I stepped on him and rode him about. And I bought him, right on the spot I bought him and rode the horse home to here. And that horse we went on with him, played polo-crosse on him, show jumped him, evented him. We did everything, he was a marvellous stock horse. And then I've got two, I've got two, two eventers. Then we were coming back from Sydney, been to the Sydney show, we started going around to Melbourne, Sydney, by this time, because the boys had started to compete on ponies. They were very good, Barry and Wayne were big enough then to compete on ponies. And we were coming back from Sydney and we stopped at Wangaratta with a chap we knew there with horses. And there we bought a horse called - ah, I've got to think of names. Names get away from me now. I've got to think about this fella. Beautiful big horse. They'd already showed him in Sydney in the heavyweight hack. Ah...

It's okay, doesn't matter. Go on.

I'll have to tell you about this horse later. Sabre! Sabre was the horse's name, Sabre. And there's a photo of him here I will let you see sometime. Beautiful big horse, so I've now got three horses. And I used to have to put a lot of time in. You know, if you've got to work three horses, do all this with them, takes a lot of time and effort. And with the help of Mavis we got by. Now those horses had to be worked and got fit. And I prided myself on the horses that I never exhausted a horse in the cross-country. Now cross-country's for around five mile you know, over about 35 fixed fences. Into water, out of water, all sorts of jumps they had to do. Now we were living in an area where there was a nice climb up a hill, and I used to do each morning on each horse about seven mile. And they'd get a run along about half-pace twice a week. And in the afternoon they would go out again and they would do a bit of dressage, kelly[?] show jumping. And I tell you, our show jumping were pretty damn rough, it was a 44 gallon drum with a pole across it. We didn't have all the stuff that's necessary, or should have been necessary, to do with our horses.

So to do the practice you sort of really made your own arrangements as best you could on your own property.

Yes, yes. But getting the horse fit was - and of course the great thing too was know how to feed a horse. When you started off on the horse, if he was in reasonable condition, if he was a big fat horse, you didn't go out and put a lot of pressure on him straight away. But if he's in reasonable condition, I always thought it took about eight weeks, eight weeks you would have that horse ready to do an event. Now in your feeding, your feeding for a start - when you start off with a horse you got to be careful you didn't over oat him, not too much oats for a start. You built him up with his feed to what he worked. And as you built him up and you were getting close to an event, he would be getting around the sixteen, eighteen or nineteen pound, depending on the size of the horse, a week, a day, a day. He would be eating that feed. Now it was a combination of good chaff, and lucerne, and of a night-time he'd get a bran mash. I never ever fed pellets, I kept right away from pellets, because in making pellets you would never know what goes into the pellet. It could be mildewy lucerne or bad hay. You would never know what goes into that once it's mixed up with molasses and that sort of stuff. Well that's my thoughts on it. Maybe that, somebody will sue me for life if they read that bit. I'm not saying it does go into it, but I was always frightened that it did go. I'm not purposely saying it does go in.

So you took great care of all the details.

Yes I did... Let me, before I go any further, your horse's feet, your shoeing, so many horses are lamed by the shoe pressing too hard on the heel or on the toe, on the soft part in the toe on the sole of the foot, there's so much to be known about the horse's foot, the shoe. And I did most of my own shoeing myself. There was an old farrier in Terang that did a lot of my shoeing, he was brilliant, a brilliant at shoeing horses. And I think probably I learnt a lot from him. But I did pick up a lot myself, from horses that were sore and I found out why they were sore in the feet, and it was a lot to do with shoeing. And it still goes on. [Inaudible - probably Stanaswa] the horse - we have hanging on our wall that won 24 races, he was, he was - through his career - a bit sore. He was leased out by three blokes, three or four blokes. And that horse, while he was racing was always a bit scratchy, always a bit sore, and I used to say "The bloody horse is sore you know. Why the hell do you still race him?" But he'd run 18 races with these people and they eventually handed him back to me and said "His racing days are over, Bill. You take him home". So I brought the horse home and for six months I fixed his feet. I knew how, I knew what was wrong with the horse, and I rang the trainer back and said "Will you take this horse back with me now? Me, not anybody else. Take him back with Mavis and I". Okay, he took the horse back and he won six more races with that horse. And he won three more in Melbourne with the horse. Now that just goes to show how essential it is to know and do about horses' feet. No feet, no horse, you know. And it goes a bit like for runners I suppose.

How important was it that you found the right horse to go to the Olympics? Is the horse more important than the rider?

Ah well, yes. Well, I would argue a bit about this because I think a good rider on a poor horse will get more results out of that horse than a poor rider on a poor horse. So you see I think a good rider on a good horse then, he's - unless, you always have those risks where you have an unfortunate fall or some damn thing - but yes, I think a good rider, a champion rider on a mediocre horse can get good results. But a poor rider on a poor horse, bloody hopeless.

How important is it for you to have a long relationship with the horse? You found Our Solo who you took to Rome well in advance of going to Rome. Was that important to spend that time with him?

I think, I think - yes, yes, you're probably right there. You're right and wrong in another way, that I did have a horse that I went very quickly on. But Solo, you see Solo we played polocrosse on him. He was loaned to a girl, Joan Palmer, to play polocrosse on, and eventually she finished up with that horse when I retired him. But yes, I knew that horse inside out and I think your question is pretty good, because eventually in England the manager said to me, "Bill, both your horses, Sabre and Solo will go to the Olympic Games. They're champions. The other boy - Crago's horse certainly won't go. But he will ride one of your horses. Now which horse do you want to ride?" He asked me "Which horse do you want to ride, Bill?" I said "My big horse, the glorious big horse". Sixteen hand big horse, strong horse. Sabre. Okay, Brian Crago will now, from now in England go back on your little horse, Our Solo. So he did. But he couldn't get on with the little horse. He was stopping at jumps, he was, you know, running off and he was knocking fences down. So Creswick said "Bill, back on that little horse, Crago will take your big horse". And there was no - I couldn't argue the point with him. I wanted to ride that big horse, but the manager said no, that's how it's going to be. So okay it was. I went back on the little horse and immediately I was doing all right on the little horse, because I knew the little horse too. So the question you asked me was pretty good, wasn't it?

How did you get to Rome? What was involved in getting the horses there and so on? Could you explain all that to me.

Well, yes. We competed - I think the last time we competed was at Oaklands, Melbourne. I think it was Oaklands, Melbourne, and Sir Alec Creswick said to me "Bill, I'm taking both those horses of yours back to Ferntree Gully", which was just out of Melbourne, he had a big property there. Well he had a fair sized property. Just out there - outside Melbourne, nice bit of land. He said "If you take these horses home you're going to compete on them, you're going to bugger about on them and lame them or do something and we won't have them for the Games. Now they're going to stay with me until they're vetted for the Olympic Games". So okay. I didn't say you can go to buggery, I want the horse home because I had more horses home here. I had the big horse Eldorado up there. I had him here and he could have gone to the Games too, had they any damn sense they would have taken him, because they took a, they took two horses with us that they never ever used. One lame all the time, and one was just, had a bad heart or something, never used it. But we had a few, I suppose we had a few people in charge that shouldn't have been altogether there, and vets that - you know, a lot of vets they're brilliant at doing operations and things, but they haven't got, they haven't had the practical that a lot of the old blokes had.

So you have always been a very good judge of horse flesh. You know a good horse...

I wouldn't say, I wouldn't say that I was brilliant at looking at a horse and saying he's going to be good. You can be made a terrible damn liar. I think you know, I think most horses can be pretty good. Some are, you know, just hopeless, but most horses can - there may be a bit of difficulty getting on with them, but eventually if you persevere you can get something really good out of a horse. Unless they got some lameness or you know.

So how did the horses get to Rome?

Well they - we were eventually taken from Sydney. We loaded them on a boat in Sydney and they put a yard, a wooden yard on the aft hatch of the ship, and they had ten ton of sand on that yard. And each side the aft of the ship was stalls the horses were in. And we had ramps built up so they'd walk up a ramp into this yard. And twice a day those horses were either lunged or - I used the little horse, Solo, I used to ride him round this yard on the hatch. Most of them lunged them around on the lunge. They lunged them round for half an hour or twenty minutes. Back in the stable, then back again in the afternoon they went out. Twice a day they went into that yard and were worked. And being exercised like that when we got to England we could compete on them. I think seven weeks after we got to England we could compete on them. We did compete on them. Now it was a lengthy trip to England because we spent Christmas on the boat, just off Perth I think, we were off Perth, Western Australia for Christmas. And we went through the Suez then - just before Suez Canal was closed. And we unloaded wool in Genoa. Genoa, Italy. And we spent a week there. I think it was near a week we spent at... So instead of being four weeks trip we took, you know, some five weeks on that trip across. And unloaded them at Liverpool.

And there lies a story with John Kelly and I, we drank a fair bit that last night, because the sailors, most of those sailors on that boat were Scotch. And boy they could drink those damn Scotch blokes. And we weren't all that bad I suppose, but next morning, five o'clock in the morning, we had to clean out those boxes, because they had to be stored away in Liverpool to come bring the horses home when they were coming back to Australia. And I think John Kelly and I, we drank a bit too much that night, because unloading - we had heaps of manure in a bag and we're walking backwards with this, and I tripped over some of the timber that they'd pulled down, and fell against that round thing they tie the ship up on. I don't know what they call it, bulkhead or whatever the hell it is. But I broke two ribs, two short ribs at the back. And crunch, you know. So we travelled all the way down from, to Aldershot where we were in the stables where the cavalry stable their horses from London. They come down every once a year and stable their horse there and compete. And by next morning I'm pretty crook with this, so they take me to the doctor and he said "Oh, a couple of cracked ribs, you'll be okay". So up we went on these horses. Now straight out, off the boat, they'd been exercised on the boat, but no work. And they were pretty damn fresh you know, they were bucking and hoofing. And by the time we'd finished the day I was really sore. And back to the doctor and he x-rayed me. And he said "You've got two broken ribs, they're broken off those two short ribs at your back". So I stayed in bed for a few days, and the doctor used to come each morning and use my behind as a dart board. He used to come with this syringe full of stuff and throw it in my - you know, oh boy. But it was okay, but I got pleurisy. And boy that knocked hell out of me. You try and cough with pleurisy and with broken ribs. If you ever get them, try it. So - anyhow I got over that, and, but they were out working my little horse and they weren't keeping him - he was a bit flat-footed the little horse, and soft soled, flat on the feet. And they made him very sore and by the time I was fit to ride the horse again, I had to be dead careful with him. And if you happen to know Aldershot at all, Wellington's statue is there. Have you ever - do you know it? Wellington's statue. It's on a mound, quite a rise bit of ground. And it was all sandy around it and nice soil. So that's where I got the little horse fit. I used to trot him up over this thing, down the other side, slow then back. I did all his training before we competed at Cowfold we firstly competed. And it was at Cowfold, I've got photos showing you, showing people how I hit a fence there and that little horse nearly fell with me. So that's how we travelled on the boat. It was really, it was rather pleasant, because on those cargo boats, people used to like to get on them, because there'd be only three or four people on them. They used to have a few cabins, and there was a schoolteacher and another couple on that same boat as us. But we all in a nice big room each. Not just like a little cabin, it was a room on these boats. And it was very pleasant travelling.

Did Mavis come with you?

No, no Mavis stayed home looking after, keeping the honey flowing into the hive... She came over later and I'd bought a small car in England. She took that car and she travelled around and her and Meg Kelly, John Kelly's wife, they went to France and toured around France and quietly down to Rome. And they used to drive up and down to the Games each day.

How far in advance of the Games did you get to England? How long did you have to be there?

Well I suppose we probably stayed there four or five months. We stayed there quite a while. But we'd no need to. All we did was do what more or less we were doing here you know, just keeping the horses fit until Badminton. And we competed at Badminton. I won Badminton. Laurie Morgan was second in Badminton. Neale Lavis was fourth because he put, his horse put his foot in the water, there was a water jump, and that cost him four penalties for putting his foot in the water. And Anneli Drummond-Hay, the English girl was third. John Kelly was tenth, and Brian Crago was eleventh.

So what did the English think of these Australians coming in and cleaning up their Badminton?

Well, it gave them a bit of a shock I think, because they beat hell out of us at dressage you know, oh the bloody Australians they can't do dressage. Our dressage wasn't all that bad. I think we lie about fifth after dressage, but in the cross-country we fairly kill them.

How had you learned your dressage in preparation for the Games?

I used to do most of my dressage as I worked my horses up and down the road, you know. You can do it - and I carried it out. As you do, you know, you do the things, a working trot is a nice easy working trot, then you do a medium trot, or you do an extended trot. You can do all those things as you're getting your horse fit. And you canter. And you've got a horse, you've got to know that the pressure where your legs, one leg forward one leg back a little will make him canter on his near side leading. Or you vice your legs the other way and he'll canter on the other leg leading. Or you want him to half pass, so the leg goes back and that. And you hold him, and he'll walk sideways, you know. You can do all those damn things as you do your long work. And I was forced to go to Franz Mairinger who was our trainer at Bowral, New South Wales. And Franz's - when I was with him for a while, he said "I don't know what the hell they sent you up here for". You know. But I think there - how did I learn dressage, I should have explained that. I bought Wynmalen's book. Wynmalen was a great dressage rider that wrote books. And he wrote two books on dressage. And when I had to - I knew I had to do dressage, I bought his book. And they all said, "Well you bought his wrong book anyhow, Bill". But I read this damn book, I knew how to do the movements and I put them into practice. Now you'll find today, today they'll be at this trainer and they'll be at the other trainer. Somebody's running a school, they'll be at that school. They're crazy. If you know what you're supposed to do in the head then you put it into practice, you know. They said to me in England, "Bill, get the best trainer you can find in England". So I got the best bloke I knew of, and I let him ride all the other boys' horses, and this is before we went to, we went to Munich, Germany. And after I'd seen him ride those horses for a while, I said "I don't want to see you again, thank you". I paid him off. And I got in touch with them in Australia and they said "Bill, you've got to have that trainer. Now you've got to have a trainer. If you sack that bloke, you get another trainer". So I looked for the one that was most successful at Badminton was Bertie Hill. Bert Hill from down in Devon. So I rang Bertie, and I said "Bertie, will you take the boys down there? I want them down there for six weeks". "Yes, I'll have them, Bill". He had a big indoor school. I talked to his wife and she said "Yes, Bert will have them down". And she said "Aren't you coming, Bill?" I said "No, I'm not coming". "Can't Bertie teach you something?" I said "No, Bertie can't teach me anything. Perhaps you could, but Bertie couldn't." So I didn't go down with them. I didn't go down. I did my own thing, and when we went to Munich, those boys had spent weeks with the top bloke in England, their dressage was no damn good. But I won the dressage bar one point, one point. And that was because a bloody German judged it in Germany. They always had one, one on the judging of the country that the Games are being competed in. So there you go. If you know what to do and put it into practice. Now that's what everybody should do, but they go to this school, they go to that school, you know.

What do you think of dressage? [INTERRUPTION]

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