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Keeping it real with Amanda Ross

Olympian Amanda Ross is an equestrian coach, professional athlete and personal trainer with a refreshingly down to earth take on life. She recently spoke to AMANDA MAC about the journey so far.

It’s around 7:00 o’clock on a Monday night and in the background I can hear the clatter of pots and pans, and possibly something being stirred. I’m a virtual, mobile phone facilitated presence in Amanda Ross’s kitchen and she’s busy food prepping.

“I was feeling guilty thinking I should have ridden a couple of horses today,” she tells me, “but then I thought no, you have to have one day a week where you don’t ride. A day off when you do your human things – so that’s what I’m doing now.”

A great believer in healthy eating and with a fitness level that’s through the roof, the word ‘powerhouse’ comes to mind, which is very likely what Anni Sedgwick, Amanda’s mother, was referring to when she dubbed her daughter the ‘energizer bunny’.

At the time of writing, Amanda is among the top 60 in the FEI Eventing World Athlete rankings. She competed in the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and is a serious contender for the Tokyo Games (when they eventuate). But she also has her feet planted firmly on solid ground – a realist who at one time faced the possibility that her career as a professional rider might be over.

Amanda grew up between Brighton and Mt Eliza in suburban Victoria. Although her mother, a keen rider at hobbyist level, stopped riding when she first married, she took the sport up again when Amanda was very young.

A good thing all round really, because that’s what kindled Amanda’s passion for horses. “Mum used to ride with the Francis family, originally in Mt Eliza. Later the Francis’ moved to Tooradin, and Mum started riding again when I was two. She took me with her and plonked me on a horse. I thoroughly enjoyed it and screamed when I was taken off.”

Having cut her early equestrian teeth on trail rides around the property, her first pony arrived when she was eight and at last, she was allowed to join Pony Club. “I got a Welsh A and she was just that typical naughty little grey pony who basically wouldn’t go where you wanted her to, ate hay bales when they were under jumps instead of jumping them, and I loved her,” she laughs. “But my next pony, Sharma, was the best pony ever. He was also a Welshy and he was amazing, a wonderful, wonderful pony and very versatile.”

If the mention of Francis in combination with Tooradin rang a bell, you’re almost certainly thinking of Tooradin Estate, home of the now late equestrian Judy Francis, and her daughter Sally, who in 2019 was awarded an OAM for her contribution to equestrian sport and riders with a disability.

And it was the Tooradin Pony Club that Amanda had the very great fortune to join. “We were very lucky because we were taught by Judy and Sally, who had spent some time in the US learning equitation and taught us their jumping style. We did everything at Pony Club,” Amanda recalls, “games, eventing, dressage. Our parents dropped us down there, and we’d spend the whole day riding our ponies over the 400 acres. It was just a fabulous place for a kid to grow up and learn horsemanship. And that grounding in equitation shaped both the way I ride today, and my love of eventing – and I’m forever grateful for that.”

The horse-fixated Amanda continued to ride into her teens, but when her days at high school came to an end, the expectation was that she would go to university. Grudgingly  – “I didn’t want to, I just wanted to ride horses” – she signed up for Phys Ed.

Amanda with the stunningly presented Dondiablo in the CCI4_L Trot Up.

After completing the first year, fate mercifully intervened when her stepfather was offered, and accepted, a job in the UK. Recognising this was a golden opportunity, Amanda opted to move with the rest of the family, taking her recently purchased horse with her. “At 19 I flew to the UK with 52 polo ponies, six piglets, a Dobermann, and my horse. It was an eye-opening experience. I’ve had many a trip since then but that was the very memorable beginning,” she recalls.

Fresh on the ground in the UK, Amanda competed in novice level eventing, worked in a variety of yards and met some interesting people along the way, including British dressage great Spencer Wilton. “Then I worked in a fantastic yard with a lady called Frances ‘Mouse’ Berry who at one point groomed for Sam Griffiths with his eventers. She had everything: hunters, cobs, show ponies – and I learned how to muck out, set the yard fair, and clean tack. Monday was the day when the entire yard got cleaned from head to toe. So I learned all about the systems we didn’t really have in Australia,” she explains.

And what trip to the UK would be complete without a visit to the world famous Badminton Horse Trials? But not just any old visit: “I went to Badminton behind the scenes,” Amanda tells me, “because I’d met a lovely guy whose family ran the caravan park at Badminton every year. So I stayed with them and got to go to the official cocktail party, and met the course designers, and that was a really wonderful experience.”

While Amanda didn’t go to the UK as a great competitor, she did go hungry to grow. She’d been offered a fabulous opportunity, grabbed it, and was rewarded with a once in a lifetime experience. “I learned how to set up a yard and make sure the horses were well cared for, with a system to keep tack packed and organised. And I’d seen how the big events were run, so in 1993 I returned to Australia as a 20-year-old with a vision, I guess.”

Back home in suburban Victoria it was time for a new chapter, and having sold her horse in the UK, Amanda was in the market for a replacement … or two. After scanning the For Sale columns in The Weekly Times, then the self-proclaimed ‘voice of the country’, she came up trumps when she bought Otto Schumaker, a six-year-old Thoroughbred. “Otto had been registered as a racehorse, although I don’t know if he was even trialled. I think he was a bit crazy,” she laughs. She also acquired an off the track three-year-old nicknamed Bumble, and bestowed on him the show name London’s Night Owl, a homage to one of international eventing great Sir Mark Todd’s horses.

Otto had competed in a couple of pre-novice events with John Francis, who has a sizeable reputation for producing some very nice horses. However, Otto proved to be quite a handful, so for a time Amanda became a working pupil for eventer Michael Baker in exchange for lessons, which she says, helped considerably.

When Amanda and Otto began competing, their first six competitions, all pre-novice, were far from memorable – dressage turned out to be the pair’s Achilles heel. But as their results improved, other riders took note and approached Amanda wanting lessons, which kicked off her income-earning capacity as a Level 1 coach.

Without a property of her own, Amanda had never had a lot of horses in work. But that changed in her mid-twenties when she moved in to her soon to be husband’s property and began to produce, compete and sell event horses.

Which in a very roundabout way brings us to the 2000 Sydney Olympics: “Qualifying for the Olympics was one of those things that happened organically. I’d won Gawler 1* in 1995 on Otto and that was the first time anybody had actually paid any attention to who Amanda Ross was. Otto was 2* by the end of that year, and the following year I won the Gawler 1* for the second time but on a different horse, GS Chevalier, which attracted even more attention. I remember Wayne Roycroft saying, ‘Did she win the 1* again?’, like who actually is this girl,” Amanda laughs, “and that’s when the coaching picked up too.”

It would be nice to think that from then on all was plain sailing – but it wasn’t. Following a 3* win at the Lochinvar Three Day Event, the Olympics were next on the agenda. But Otto had some issues with his soundness. “It was just arthritis, there was nothing particularly dodgy, but leading into the games there was a concern he wasn’t going to be sound,” Amanda explains. “But funnily enough he was more sound after the cross country then before. So the Olympics, although there were some amazing things about it – with a home Olympics the support’s incredible, you don’t have to travel, you’ve got your friends and family there – it was actually a really anxious time because we were trying to make sure Otto stayed sound. I’d love to say Sydney 2000 was amazing, fantastic and wonderful, but if I’m honest, there were parts that were really quite stressful.”

Following a good dressage test, Otto, always a hot and very strong horse, was so affected by the Games atmosphere that by the end of the course, Amanda couldn’t hold him. While it didn’t look as if she was lacking much control, she had a fall three fences from home, and although she got back on board and finished, any chances of winning a medal were gone – a disappointing and demoralising end to her first Olympics. “I’d really wanted to prove that I was good enough. I had quite a bit of imposter syndrome and felt that there were other riders who should have been there instead of me, so I was desperate to prove I was worth the spot – and that probably haunted me for a good ten years,” she says.

Since then, Amanda has adopted a more down to earth approach to the Olympics. “Going to the Olympics is very interesting. From an outsider’s perspective it’s absolutely wonderful, but from a competitor’s point of view you only get a once in every four year shot. So if your sole focus is the Olympics, you could possibly have quite a disappointing life because we know how hard it is to be prepared and on form at exactly the right time, and with horses things can go so wrong. While I really want to go back to the Olympics and prove I can do better, it’s now been 20 years and since then I’ve been reserve for the World Games three times. So you have to really love what you do every single day, or down the track you might turn around and realise that while you’ve been chasing this elusive dream, you’ve forgotten all the other things you’ve done really well. You have to stop and smell the roses.”

Powering through the cross country with Dondiablo.

As it happened, there were more challenges coming down the line. It was 2005. Pop diva Kylie Minogue had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, which triggered a public awareness campaign encouraging younger woman to routinely check their breasts for abnormalities. Now in her early thirties, Amanda fortunately took that advice to heart and discovered a small lump. A subsequent doctor’s appointment was the beginning of a dark and frightening journey. “I had a mastectomy and went through chemo, and luckily I’m now out the other side. Thankfully I had the horses,” she says of that time, “because they kept me sane. As a Type A personality I saw a therapist for a bit, because I didn’t know how I was going to deal with the unknown of putting my life on hold. But it taught me that you don’t have to ride every single day. If you’ve schooled them well they’ll still be there. So yeah, that was an interesting learning curve.”

Other difficulties were to follow. After divorcing in 2008, and without a property of her own, Amanda agisted her horses and often lived on other people’s properties, enjoying some beautiful locations in the process. But the day came when a painful reality check hit home, and she recognised that her two 2* horses, Loxley and William Wordsworth, didn’t have the ability to go any further. “At the time I was living in a beautiful place near Boneo Park, but it wasn’t where I wanted to live. So push came to shove and I thought, I’m going to have to give up riding professionally, I think I’m actually going to have to give up. I looked at my bank balance and realised I was spending everything I had on horses that were lovely but lacked ability, I wasn’t making enough money, and life was really, really difficult there. So I decided to do the adult thing, pull the pin, and sell the horses.”

Amanda admits that it was absolutely the hardest decision she has ever had to make, particularly as it was coupled with the self-imposed proviso that if she came back to professional riding it would be subject to strict terms: “I wanted to work with people who were into the competitive side of horse ownership rather than just making money, and I wanted to love the horses that I rode like I was a 12-year-old kid again – which was something I was really missing. Rather than just working horses I wanted to enjoy the daily process because I really love riding. I also wanted to live closer to Balnarring because all my coaching clients and my folks were there.”

Interestingly, it was after swallowing that very bitter pill that magic began to happen. A real estate agent helped her find a house to rent on a property just 10 minutes out of Balnarring that had recently been purchased by Fraser and Chrissie Brown. After a string of crazy coincidences, Amanda met the couple, who although they had had no previous connection to the equestrian world, decided to invest in a horse for Amanda to campaign – which is when her beautiful and brave dream horse Dicavalli Diesel came along. “I look back on it now and everything I’d put out to the Universe that I felt would make life work for me again actually came to fruition,” she says.

Things were improving! But where there are ups, there will inevitably be a few downs. Diesel did well at Adelaide in 2015, and 3* was on the horizon for 2016. Because she felt she needed another horse, Amanda had just invested in Dondiablo, a green eight-year-old, when Diesel suddenly broke down with tendinitis, leaving the inexperienced Dondiablo as Amanda’s one and only. “So Fraser decided we needed another top level horse,” Amanda tells me. “Sharon Ridgway of eventers.com.au, who I’ve known for years and knows the way I ride, suggested that I look at Koko Popping Candy (Zarzy), a black Thoroughbred mare. And there was something about her that I really loved. I knew she was a somewhat unorthodox jumper, but her owners, Rob and Cassie Palm, said she was the most amazing cross country horse ever,” Amanda explains.

Recognising that Zarzy had potential on the flat, with an untapped resource in her trot, the deal was done. “Rob and Cassie had done a really good job getting her from off the track to eventing. I respected their training and what they said about her,” Amanda tells me, “and she’s been an extraordinarily interesting horse to work with because she’s not very orthodox at all. She’s very careful, she’s definitely a Thoroughbred mare, and she’s also the best cross country horse I’ve ever ridden, hands down.”

I mention noticing that Zarzy had scooped Equestrian Victoria’s 2020 Off the Track Eventing and Dressage Horse of the Year awards – “I know right! She’s pretty fancy on the flat,” chimes in an obviously delighted Amanda. And to top off an otherwise COVID-gloomy year, the Victoria Racing Club (VRC) announced that Amanda was to be their new Ambassador. “I didn’t realise how important it was until I got about 70 responses when I put it out on social media!” she laughs. “And we’ve been able to cut a deal which is really supportive of my Tokyo plan, which is exciting.”

With her long-held habit of staying open to new opportunities, Amanda recognised the Ambassadorship would allow her to branch out and do something different with horses. “I’ve grown up riding Thoroughbreds. I’ve got Zarzy, and Otto was a Thoroughbred too. Even though we’ve got some Warmbloods in the yard I have such a great connection with Thoroughbreds that I was really keen to support them. So when this came up I thought it was a great opportunity to learn more about racing, which is a fascinating industry. I’ve never gone to track work or worked with racehorses at that level, so I’m looking forward to learning a lot.”

Right now, Amanda’s horizons are looking not just rosy, but energizer bunny busy. Foremost is Tokyo, which she began preparing for the moment events were back on track at the end of last year. “I got some competitions in, doing some dressage comps, and two to three day jumping shows, and that type of thing.” This season, the pressure is on to get in several more runs including the Sydney CCI-L.

Ever pragmatic, Amanda is fine with the idea that at the end of the day, she’ll have to be better than everyone else, and with a sound horse that’s primed and ready at the right time.

While Tokyo is her initial focus, she also has the 2022 World Games in her sights, and is very keen to pursue her role as the VRC’s Ambassador. But, of course, there’s more: “I really want to show jump at World Cup level successfully. I’ve evented all my life, and I also want a new challenge and I find show jumping super exciting. I would absolutely love to have horses good enough to do that.”

And then there’s her Eventing Fit business, and her YouTube channel that she says needs some work, not to mention cooking up a storm in her cottage kitchen.

Seriously? I am in awe.

Feature Image: Amanda and Dicavalli Diesel magnificent test put them in the lead in the dressage phase of the 2018 R.M. Williams CIC3.