Alex Townsend, 4* Eventer and Level II Instructor, along with husband Derek Pasco, a Director of Photography and keen eventer, are the owners of Wallaby Hill Farm, a private training facility for horses in the green heart of the NSW Southern Highlands. We thought it was high time for Alex to answer our 20 questions.
Q: At what age did you get bitten by the riding bug?
A: About four I think. It’s a long time ago now!
Q: Did your parents want you to go into a more ‘normal’ profession?
A: My parents aren’t horsey at all and they paid a lot of money for my education and sent me to university twice: first a BA then a Masters in Journalism. So they were definitely keen for me to use that and go into a ‘real’ profession. Before doing the Masters at UTS in Sydney, I was a diving instructor for 18 months in Egypt. The goal then was to become an underwater photographer, but then the horses got a hold of me again.
Q: How did you meet your husband, Derek?
A: We met while diving in the Red sea. He was living in London and working abroad as a cameraman in various war zones. After re-meeting Derek when I arrived back in London he was keen to return to Sydney, which he did November 1999, and I followed in January 2020 to start my Masters.
Q: Have you taught Derek anything about being a cameraman, and has Derek taught you anything about riding?
A: In the early days I could digitally edit stuff well before Derek could. He was a bit old school. Derek pipes up in the background, “Duck under trees!” A reference to 2015 when Alex sustained multiple fractures, breaks and lacerations due to a low hanging tree branch at a 3-day event.
Q: In hindsight, what would you have done differently when setting up Wallaby Hill?
A: A lot! We never set it up to be a big equestrian centre, not that it’s huge by international standards. We didn’t plan to run big events so as a result it’s been done in a bit of a piecemeal fashion. If I’d known what we were going to do I would have made it a lot more cohesive and user friendly. It’s a combination of eventing at someone’s house and an equestrian facility!
Q: How many cross country jumps are on the farm now?
A: A lot! Six levels of jumps plus portables for training, so between 200 and 300.
Q: Who designs the jumps?
A: Mike Etherington-Smith started designing in 2016 when we upgraded to a 4* course. Mike has been phenomenal. Obviously COVID happened and Derek Di Grazia wasn’t able to come, so Mike is now designing remotely. It will have a few new things but run along similar lines to last year. Mike is very familiar with the course and writes very comprehensive notes about where he wants the jump and how he wants it to sit. Vince Roche then signs everything off for FEI approval.
Q: What does a typical non-comp day look like?
A: Get up around 6am, feed the dogs, then go for a run. Feed myself. Then I usually ride a bit in the morning. I don’t ride as much as I used to. Stable rider Michelle Robson rides more of the young ones as she is better at that. Later in the day I have to do business stuff such as the Wallaby Hill range or plan up-coming events. Wallaby Hill now gets hired by non-horsey people so there are bookings to be managed.
Q: How do you manage everything at Wallaby Hill when you’re competing? Or do you just run around like a headless chook?
A: I do do that, but I’m also lucky to have a very good team around me: Maddy, Michelle, Soph, James and Derek. They work hard to help make the place run smoothly.
Q: If your competitors did one thing to make your life easier what would that be?
A: On the whole Eventers are very good and very respectful. It would be really nice if they could clean up the rubbish and the manure! We try and recycle but people chuck food into bins and leave the toilets in a mess.
Q: Which riders are the easiest to host, dressage, jumping or eventing?
A: Eventers, definitely! Some high level show jumpers care a lot more about cleaning poo up at their own farms than when they visit other people’s farms.
Q: If you had to switch disciplines, what would you choose?
A: After just saying how bad show jumpers are at cleaning up I would probably go and do that if I stopped eventing.
Q: If you had to stop riding completely, what would you do?
A: Probably do a lot more diving! There was a week after the last event where I contemplated selling it all and buying a boat.
Q: Have you been working on anything you wouldn’t normally during the COVID dramas?
A: The biggest difference is I’m doing more feed ups on the weekend due to not competing as much. This has allowed me to be around the young ones that I don’t ride every day a bit more, and I enjoy that a lot.
Q: Do you have a favourite horse at the moment?
A: I definitely have a favourite. I try not to, and I pretend I don’t, but Pie, my old 4* mare is my favourite, I adore her. Anything related to her and I have a massive soft spot. Then it alternates between Audi and Pimms, who I compete on mostly, depending on what I am doing with them.
Q: If you could steal anyone’s horse which one would it be?
A: I really like my friend Carey’s horse Tarraleah Kokoda. I love mares and she’s a tough and feisty mare, a cool jumper, and good on the flat.
Q: What could English eventers learn from Aussie eventers?
A: Be a little friendlier. There’re a lot more events in England with a lot more riders competing. Horses don’t get off the truck except to compete. A lot of events will do all phases in one day so it’s not as social. I remember having the piss taken out of me at an event in England. They were asking if my horses had their names on their halters in case they ran off. The eventing community in Australia is much more supportive.
Q: What could Aussie eventers learn from the English?
A: Because the numbers are greater, the Brits run a bigger enterprise. In the UK it feels like there’s a lot more scope to have a bigger event running business, but Australia could make things a bit more efficient. The longer distances make things harder here, but that often makes it a more social occasion.
Q: Excluding horses what other pets do you have?
A: Maggie who’s a retired sniffer dog; Sammy the rescue Labrador who fell off a cliff; Fink, which is a really bad name for her, a red Labrador; and Mouse the Golden Retriever.
Q: Is there a philosophy or motto you live by?
A: I feel very lucky to have what I have and I feel that it’s nice to share that.