Gillian Rolton: Australia’s Olympic Heroine
Gillian Rolton became one of Australia’s best known equestrian heroes after her gutsy performance in the Atlanta Olympic Games, when she clung on to her horse after breaking her collarbone and several ribs to take Australia to a Gold Medal in eventing, writes Dannii Cunnane.
Any of us who are glued to great moments in equine history are unlikely to forget the sight of Gillian, after two falls off her beautiful grey mount Fred – or to give him his full name, Peppermint Grove – as they managed to make it past the finish post. But even before then Gillian was already in the history books as the first Australian woman to win any medal at an Olympic Games event.
Magnificent as her effort was, it’s not something she could repeat today. “Back then, the rules allowed a rider to get back on their horse if they had a fall,” she says. “I was riding Fred and during the cross country phase he skidded after clipping a hoof on a tree root and we both fell to the ground. Luckily he just had some gravel rash so we were able to carry on. I received a leg up and we continued on the course. It wasn’t until I started riding again that I realised I was injured – I couldn’t use my left arm. At the next water jump I took the shorter route to make up the time from my fall but unfortunately that didn’t work in my favour and I somersaulted into the water!”
Gillian managed to remount once more, but with three kilometres to go and fifteen more jumps to clear it wasn’t easy. “I was in pain from my injuries but Fred and I had a wonderful rapport and he got us home,” she says. “I couldn’t steer well so I believe it was mental telepathy and his good training that got us through…I was adamant that I wasn’t going to quit!”
Gillian hasn’t always competed in Eventing, she came into the sport at the age of 21 after becoming interested in horse fitness. “I always had an interest in horses but my parents didn’t purchase a horse for me right away,” she says. “Until I was ten I went to friends houses and helped them clean the stables and groom their ponies while I just hoped for a ride. Eventually my non-horsey parents caved in and purchased a dear horse called Randy.”
Gillian’s non-horsey parents weren’t the first, or probably the last, to be sold a horse that wasn’t quite what they thought they were buying. “Randy was sold to us as a seven year old Thoroughbred gelding,” she laughs, “but it turned out that he was actually a 17-year-old ex-pacer and also a rig! He had no canter or jump but I took him to Pony Club and had a good time. My next horse was a freshly broken in four-year-old riding pony called Petrella and we had a lot of fun together in showing, dressage and Pony Club games.”
After Gillian finished school she started a teaching degree and developed a keen interest in Physical Education. Two years into her course she took some time off and travelled to Canada for a riding instructor’s course – the Professional Horseman’s Association of Canada’s level one. “In those days, Equine courses weren’t offered in Australia,” Gillian says. “I passed the course and travelled around working at various stables but I was itching to return home and apply my skills to my own horses. Before I’d left for Canada I’d purchased a weanling called Monty (Saville Row) and I started him under saddle once I returned home. Part of my level one course included jumping and as luck would
have it, Monty was a natural jumper – although as part of his education I took him out to hacking and dressage events just to keep him well rounded, but Monty’s natural ability to jump shone through and when I realised he was never going to be a champion hack I thought we would give eventing a try.”
Monty went up the grades very quickly – and he was an ideal horse for Gillian. “He was very competitive and gave me so much confidence,” she says. “He kept winning faster than I anticipated, so much so that the dream of the Olympics truly didn’t enter my mind until I suddenly found I was being spoken to by selectors.”
Unfortunately for Gillian, Saville Row missed out on selection after sustaining a leg injury in the final selection trial for the Los Angeles games in 1984. In 1988, Gillian also missed out on her Olympic dream to ride Benton’s Way in Seoul after dislocating her elbow the day before the final selection trial was to take place.
It was a huge disappointment for a rider who had now come to realise that the Olympics was actually a goal she could achieve, and even though the consolation prize in 1988 was winning the Advanced Class at the prestigious Gawler 3 Day Event she also had to cope with the devastating news that Monty would no longer be able to compete at the top level due to his injury. For Gillian, it’s the partnership she’s enjoyed with each horse that has made her eventing life so special, and looking back at her 40-year career 40 years, she is thankful for every horse she has worked with. “Each horse has taught me so much,” she says. “Fred and Monty gave me confidence while Benton taught me to be gutsy. While I would never consider myself to be a courageous rider, I truly believe that the training you do at home makes you confident that you can get out there and achieve your best.”
These days, Gillian juggles a lot of activities. She is currently an international judge and worked as part of the ground jury at the 2012 London games as well as at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France. “I’m really enjoying the judging side of things,” she says. As the Parton of Pony Club Australia Gillian is still involved in equestrian at a grass roots level and is also Event Director for the Australian International Three Day Event (Aus3DE) in Adelaide.
Somewhat surprisingly, Gillian says that she would never consider herself a courageous rider – but for those of us who watched her extraordinary effort that day, her left arm hanging limply by her side, pain etched on her face, she is the ultimate symbol of courage, and a continuing inspiration for all aspiring eventers. If having courage means never giving up, then Gillian Rolton is courageous in spades! Want to know more about Gillian’s journey?
Gillians story was published in the June 2017 edition of HubVibes