Vicki Roycroft is one of the most successful riders ever at World Cup Finals and has been selected as a member of more International teams than any other Australian showjumper. She talks to Candida Baker about a life lived in the spotlight, the highs – winning the Rome Grand Prix on Apache, for example, and the lows, the worst of which was the tragic death of her son at the age of 17.
I can remember the last time I spoke to Vicki Roycroft in person as if it was yesterday. She was competing at what was then the Elysian Fields Showjumping competition on the Gold Coast, and my son’s horse was stabled near hers.
She told us that she was a bit concerned because she’d been having blurry vision for sometime, and that it wasn’t easy jumping the classes she was in with a “bung eye.”
As it transpired the bung eye was both more and less serious than she’d imagined. “I’d been having flashes of light in my eye, as if a car was coming at me,” she recalls, “and when I was up at the Elysian competition I went to the Gold Coast hospital where they did a whole heap of tests and told me that I had fluid on my retina. I remember saying to them, ‘well, that’s good I thought I had a brain tumour’. But it kept on getting worse, so when I was back home I saw my doctor who referred me to a specialist, and within 15 minutes I had the diagnosis that I had a large melanoma at the back of my eye, and that I needed to have my eye taken out. It was a bit of a shock.”
That was in August 2007, and as luck would have it – for Vicki at least – EI hit. “None of us could really do anything for 12 months,” she says, “so I was able to recuperate, and by the time I was out competing again I’d adjusted.”
In fact, she says, the experience of riding with one eye gave her a new appreciation for a horse’s ability to ‘read’ a jump. “Horses eyes are not really designed to look straight ahead,” she says, “they’re designed to look back and yet they can determine what’s a vertical or horizontal oxer, what’s a triple combination, what’s a double. I also found, to my surprise, that when you lose an eye you don’t lose half your peripheral vision, which is what you’d think – you only lose around 30% because the other eye adjusts.”
By the time the restrictions of EI were over Vicki was well and truly back on top form, and for this rider, who has seen more than her fair share of tragedies and triumphs, life continued as normal.
Strangely though, for someone whose entire life has been based on horses and riding, she wasn’t that keen on it as a child. “I was born in Melbourne, and my mum was horsey,” she says, “and we moved to Sydney when I was seven. My brother and sister rode, but to be honest I used to kick and scream my way around the horse shows. It wasn’t until I was 13 or so that I go interested and then my siblings gave up as they got older whereas I just kept on going.”
A chance conversation between her mother and Tommy Smith resulted in the arrival of a thoroughbred, Harvest Time, who went on to become not only a champion hack but also an eventer and showjumper. “He was too slow to race,” she says, “much to Tommy’s disgust because he’d been expensive, but he was the most wonderful horse. He retired with us when he was 20.”
Surprisingly, given her stellar career which includes representing Australia in three Olympic Games and three World Championship Teams, as well as herself being Australian Champion in Three Day Eventing and in Showjmping, Vicki remarks wryly that despite competing at Sydney Royal, “I wasn’t a great junior rider. In fact most of my generation were pretty hopeless to be honest. I got lucky in my last junior year when I was riding Kevin Bacon’s Bindi – but that was the only time I won and I can tell you it was the pony, it wasn’t me.”
It concerns her that these days there is so much pressure put on younger riders. “The fact is in equestrian sports, in most disciplines, your best years are from your early 30’s through to your 50’s,” she says. “We should be building careers to last, not putting so much pressure on them at the start.”
It wasn’t until the young Vicki met the then-doyen of Australian eventing and showjumping, Bill Roycroft (who died in 2011), that her riding began to show its true potential. “Bill was a bush rider in many ways,” she says, “but he was always in a perfect position over a jump, but although he was a great rider, he wasn’t so good at teaching – it was Wayne, his son who has always been a brilliant coach.” When Vicki married Wayne in 1976 at the age of 24, she became part of an Australian equestrian dynasty and although she and Wayne divorced in 2000, their marriage was a partnership that produced more winning combinations for Australia in showjumping and eventing than anything before or since.
And then of course, there was that horse – the 15.2hh Chestnut with heart and courage to burn. A racehorse so slow that after seven dismal starts the syndicate who owned him had no choice but to sell him for $250 to one of the owners, Tim Egan, who had seen Bold General jump thistle patches in his paddock, and thought he might have a bit of talent.
“It was 1982, if I remember correctly,” says Vicki, “and when Tim rang me about this little horse that he thought had talent but he was having a bit of trouble with, I remember I thought he’d done more with him than he had, so I put him straight at the jumps the more experienced horses had been jumping. He was a bit rough – he’d never jumped anything like those jumps before, but he was willing, and he had something.” So Bold General was sold to Vicki for $500 and trucked off to Mt White to begin his new career with a new name – Apache. It wasn’t an auspicious start – the horse was small and skinny – and Wayne was not impressed. “I hid him in a paddock to fatten up,” she says, “but when I started to ride him he showed me straight away that he had something.”
At around the same time the stellar coach and show jumper George Morris, entered Vicki’s life.
“I think the most important thing George taught me straight away was that you can’t have ego,” she says. “I thought I was pretty good the first clinic I did with him – I didn’t ride Apache at that clinic, he was still very hot to handle but I reckoned I was doing ok, and George knocked that out of me straight away. I was shattered, to be honest, I thought I was hopeless. And then I just thought, ‘I’ll show him I can ride’.” Not only has Vicki been showing George she can ride ever since, the pair became firm friends and when he comes to Australia he gives clinics from Vicki’s property at Mt. White.
Vicki had a chance to turn a very quick profit when an Irish dealer was out looking for horses not long after Apache’s first few shows. “I was thinking I’d ask ten thousand – which isn’t a bad profit from $500, but Wayne, to my surprise put $20,000 on him, and the dealer pulled out. Wayne knew that he was going to be amazing.”
And amazing he certainly was. Nine months with no rail down. Winner of more big competitions than most have had hot dinners, winner of the Grand Prix at Wentworth Park, which shot them both into the European spotlight, where he was immediately runner-up in the Geneva World Cup round, and after a sensational European season Apache was ranked one of the top ten horses in the world.
As a chosen rider in the Nations Cup in Rome, it was a bit “wild”, Vicki says at first. “He was so strong, and he was a bit wild, but by by the time we got to the Grand Prix, he was in great shape – there were only two double-clears going into the jump off. One was me on my tiny hot horse, the other was this massive 17hh German horse, Argonaut, who’d won it the year before. Well, he went in first and had a rail down, and I went in and the crowd went wild. I was pretty sure I could go faster than Argonaut, so instead of going for slow and clear I decided to beat his time – and that’s what happened, I had a rail but we were faster.” To add icing to the cake, the Australians won the Nations Cup and the party, she adds, as if it’s an everyday occurrence that an opera singer should host a party for show jumpers, was at Pavarotti’s. She was the first Australian, and the first woman to win the Rome Grand Prix.
These days if an Australian rider takes a horse to Europe and wants to bring it back there is Sports Commission funding, in those days there was none. And after a year away from home, and with the dollars they could get for Apache, in the end Vicki had to make the decision to sell him, but in a rare happy ever after ending, she bought him back when he was 19, and actually did one more season with him at home. “He got to mini-Prix,” she says, “and won the warm up class for the World Cup at Horseworld, and that’s when I decided to retire him. I thought it was so great he could go out on a good note.”
Apache lived to a ripe old age, and is buried on the Mt White property.
The property has been an anchor for Vicki for decades now, and never more so than when, in 2003, only three years after her separation from Wayne, their only son, 17-year-old Mark, died in a tragic accident on January 14 after he was caught in a notorious rip at Birdie Beach in Lake Munmorah National Park.
“I was never going to have children,” says Vicki. “I was terrified when I found out I was pregnant, and Wayne and I had no idea how to be parents. Mark simply evolved with a lot of love along the way and turned into a beautiful, loving, kind young man. I couldn’t discuss it for a long time, but finally although you never get over it, you get through it. We had him in our lives for 18-years, and for that I’m thankful. Every day I use a tea-cup he gave me for my birthday and not a day goes by without me thinking of him.”
Mark was a good swimmer and surfer, and the sad irony that it was the surf that claimed him, rather than an equestrian accident to either of his parents is not lost on Vicki. “Every time you ride, it’s a risk,” she says. “After I lost Mark for a long time I thought I would just give up riding, but then I thought I would have lost everything I love, so I just kept going, day after day, and in the end what they say is true – time is a great healer.”
Fortunately for Vicki a new partner came into her life after Mark’s death, and that plus her continuing commitment to her horses, riding and coaching meant that in the end she realised that Mark would not want her to be unhappy, and that the genuine pleasure she gets from coaching and teaching was a way in which she could give back to the equestrian community.
She is vocal about certain aspects of horses and riding. “I’m absolutely with George Morris on the importance of flatwork,” she says. “Particularly these days when the courses have got more and more technical. If you don’t nail your flatwork you won’t nail your jumping, it’s as simple as that. I’m also a great believer in sitting lightly on your horse, and not over-riding it, you want a willing partner – one that asks, ‘what would you like me to do?’, I’m also really strong on groundwork. I go crazy when people let their horses rub up and down on them. It all starts on the ground.”
At Mt. White she currently has 21 horses, with ten or so of them in work, including the talented young stallion Dynamite Bay, whom she rode recently at Aquis. “He’s a bit quirky, as stallions can be,” she says, “but he’s got talent for sure.”
Does, she I wonder, have a theory around the difference between mares, geldings and stallions? “Well, certainly with stallions you have to be more assertive. After all, they’re the alpha males, and there’s a lot of testosterone floating around, and a tendency to have a high opinion of themselves. Geldings are eas
ier-going without a doubt, and mares are temperamental, but,” she says, “get the mare that will give you her heart, and she will give and give and give.” She’s always fascinated by the progression of her young horses, and the potential they show.
A recent hip replacement – “they said I couldn’t ride for 12 weeks but I was riding in four,” has actually been a godsend she says. “I can hop up on a horse from the ground again,” she says. “I haven’t been able to do that for years.”
Time has mellowed her somewhat, but scratch the surface and the fire still burns bright. “I don’t have the same huge ambitions I once had,” she says, “but still of course, I would love to have a horse I could win an Olympic medal on since despite everything that remained out of my grasp. But that would be the only way I would be aiming that high again. There’s no point in simply making up the numbers.”
I don’t think that anyone could ever say that Vicki Roycroft has ever or will ever, ‘simply make up the numbers’.
Vicki Roycroft has won more World Cup Qualifiers than any other Australian rider, on more than 12 different horses. She has been to four World Cup Finals representing Australia. She is an NCAS Level Three Showjumping and Eventing Coach and a Member of the NSW Elite Showjumping Squad. She was Chairman of the Equestrian Australia National Showjumping Committee from 2005 to 2013 and Chairman of the Australian Showjumping Riders Association from 2003 to 2011