A few years ago myself and a mate Dean Corke, decided to write a screen play based on stories I had been told by my instructor Tina womelsdorf. The stories revolved around her instructor the great Franz Maringer, his arrival in Australia and subsequent success as a coach of Australian equestrian sport. The more we dug, the more incredible information we discovered, if we had made the stories up we were hearing, people would have said they were too far fetched, too Disney. We presented the story to iconic Australian actor Bryan Brown. Bryan agreed that this story had to be told. With Bryan We put some effort into trying to get someone to pick up the story and run with it. There was plenty of interest, However it seemed the cost was prohibitive, the story was put on the shelf untold. I have decided to take what we had written as a screen play and just tell the story, it has to be told, so here it comes.
Over the coming weeks I will relay the story as it was told to me by many of the people involved in personal interviews, conversations and writings as well as some poetic license _one can’t let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Described as” a Bradman-esque Australian story that must be told” by Bryan brown. Personally, I would describe it as “The man from snowy river meets rocky”.
I hope you enjoy this portrayal as much as I did as it was passed on to me by those who were part of the story , they include Olympians Bunty Thompson, Neal Lavis, Bill Roycroft and his sons, Irna Maringar wife of Franz . Tina womelsdorf one of Franz ‘s students and others who had insight into the story. The version I have put together is based on all the versions told to me plus my romantic spin, however in general, the most outrageous incidents depicted are those that are most accurate .
It is widely know that at the conclusion of the 2nd world war many of the great classical art works of Europe were stollen or otherwise acquired and distributed around the world. Less recognised, is the distribution of great artists who left Europe, to find new homes across the globe, they have enriched society and changed the world in many ways. One classical artist who made his way to Australia was the great Franz Maringer.
Franz was not an artist in the sense that he painted or sculpted, none the less he was one of the finest artists in the world at that time.
Franz was a head rider at the magnificent Spanish riding school in Vienna, 500 years of the pursuit of equestrian perfection underpinned his classical training.
Franz was selected from amongst the best riders of the Austrian cavalry to be accepted into the school. He rose through the ranks to become a head rider.
During the war, the Spanish riding school came under the control of the Germans and was forced to perform under the shadow of the the swastika.
At the end of the war when the Russian army was flooding down from the north, literally devouring everything in its path, it not easy to feed an army, the Lipizzaner mares, the breeding stock of the school were at the schools farm in the former Yugoslavia, there fate, should no action be taken was certain and the ancient breed was at risk of being lost.
Franz, along with other members of the school performed for general MacArthur of the U.S. Army to convince him that an operation should be mounted to rescue the mares. MacArthur was so impressed, that such an operation was mounted and the mares were brought out of harms way.
A movie was made about this operation.
At the conclusion of the war, Franz decided that he would leave Vienna.
He eventually arrived in Australia.
At the time Australia had a burgeoning equestrian community, loaded with Australian thoroughbred horses and keen, brave and resourceful horseman. Some had returned from armed service and we’re looking for some focus to give meaning to there lives.
The combination of one of the greatest horseman of our time, the Australian thoroughbred horse and riders hungry for competition were about to merge to create an Olympic equestrian dynasty still influenced by all of these factors to this very day.
“Mirrabooka” Horseman of the southern cross
It is Anzac Day, in central Sydney. A full troop of NSW police mounted police stand silently by the side of the road dressed in full ceremonial uniform. The streets are deserted, the ground is wet following light showers the previous evening. The city is a strange place at this hour, most of the drunks from the night before have jumped into taxis or stumbled their way of into the suburban distance.
You might find one asleep in a door way, you can tell they’ve only been there for a few hours, they’re dressed differently to the regulars, the homeless folk who camp out in the quite city every night, they’re the ones with the plastic bags full of God only know what, they wear 5 layers of clothing. The one night standers are cold, shivering, curled up or sprawled with their mouths open maybe a small puddle of sputum close by.
The garbage trucks haven’t arrived yet, there is this short period of real quiet.
The silence is Broken this morning by a distant Echo, it gradually becomes recognisable as the clattering of horses hooves on the pavement, a second troop of horses appear from a side street and heads toward the mounted police troop. The commanding police officer brings the mounted troop to attention. ” troop! ateeeention!” .
The second troop have a relaxed Blasé vibe, no one sits to attention, their lances are not held upright at a consistent angle, as are those of the mounted police, there is a less polished, less practiced air about them but also a calm confidence, the two units move off as one. At closer Inspection, it can be seen that the second troop of horseman are all older men some in their 80s, maybe older, they are the remnants of light horse and cavalry troops, those that fought in wars since the turn of the century through until the 2nd world War. It is a little known fact, that Australian mounted infantry patrolled the top end of the massive continent of Australia. Who knows what they were to have done in case of an invasion, but should planes have been seen heading south across the the outback toward the major cities, the alarm would have been raised. They were there with their pack horses and swags, hi tech! Long since, and thankfully, replaced by radar systems.
The now Swollen troop of horses wound their way through the city, the echo of hooves off the sides of the skyscrapers is a strange but some how comforting sound it feels right for some weird reason.
The residence of inner Sydney always comment as to how safe they feel when they hear the Mounties clattering by in the quiet of the night. As the horses approach Martin place, the rallying point for the march the rumbling of a crowd begins to become apparent, interspersed with the sound of musical instruments being tuned and tried as in an orchestra pit before the arrival of the conductor. Gradually the crowd takes some loose order, hardly military precision but somehow organised, similar to that of the mounted soldiers. Hundreds of men and women are now formed into units ready for the start of the annual Anzac Day March, commemorating the efforts of Australian and New Zealand troops in all modern theatres of war, ANZAC, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
Crowds of tens of thousands now line the streets. On command the mounted police troop form up, their precision is practiced and polished their horses and tack are immaculate, they take up position at the front of the procession, the light horse fall in behind.
On command, a young female mounted officer breaks way from the troop, she looks barely old enough to be out of school, it is a stark contrast to the elderly men sitting quietly on their mounts. You can tell when you are getting old, the police look younger and younger, the constable makes her way to the light horse troop where she positions herself next to the oldest rider. Though nearly 90, Cec McDonald is a proud and somehow bright eyed individual, he has a confident but relaxed demeanour and the look of a fellow who would have been handsome in his day, had the constable been here 70 years ago he would have turned on the charm and no doubt had her blushing astride her immaculate police horse . Cec is also the oldest surviving mounted trooper in Australia, 2 new hips, 1 knee and a Triple bypass but still he is here, he wouldn’t miss this for quids. He is sitting aboard a wiry stock horse. Cecil’s horse is dwarfed by the handsome police mount now positioned beside him. The stock horse looks as though he was probably pulled out of the paddock this morning, healthy and happy, but with the look of grooming that can only be attribute to a man, one, which respects his mount enough to groom him for comfort and health, but not necessarily to show standard.
The little horse is agitated at the atmosphere, the old man sits unfazed, his legs draped down the horses narrow rib cage, the stirrups appear to be only an afterthought, they are holding no weight, he is balanced within himself, appearing to sit into, rather than onto the horse. He appears to almost melt into the saddle, he holds the reins slightly looped in one hand raised in readiness, just above the Pommel of his stock saddle, his other arm hangs relaxed by his side.
The female constable approaches Cecil, a little nervously but totally respectful of the old horseman. “I’ll be riding with you in today’s march Sir.”
“You mean babysitting me don’t you darling? ” comes the response, tongue in cheek, from Cecil.
A pipe band strikes up, drums begin to pound, echoing and signalling loudly to all and sundry, the march has begun . The sudden thumping of the drums and the whining of the bag pipes are more than Cecil’s stock horse can cope with, without warning he attempts to spin, the old man with no obvious visual cues, gathers him under his seat, the horse though on the toe, remains obedient to Cecil’s invisible aids, the horse moves forward, neck arched, hind quarters lowered, hocks engaged, Setting a picture like something out of a baroque art work, seemingly about to explode, yet totally at the behest of Cecil’s masterly co ordination.
Cecil’s relaxed confidence is now joined by a quite pride, bubbling below the surface of his calm exterior. There is no conscious thought in what he is doing to control the horse, conditioned reflex takes over, Cecil has the ability to influence the horse in this situation without consideration for what is required, leg, seat, weight, hands work in unison, truly, he is riding by the seat of his pants, there is more to this saying than meets the eye, those who have not ridden regularly could never begin to understand.
Cecil’s escort is in awe at the standard of horsemanship she has just witnessed, if only he were 70 years younger she thinks. What an honour to be in the presence of such a horseman.
Television cameras and roving media are all over the March. All over Australia people, relaxed in their pyjamas are eating toast with Vegemite or weetbix, drinking the first coffee of the day. After half an hour of time filling and recollection of famous battles, comments from the public and general time wasting, the announcers commence their commentary as they have done for the last 50 years, bouncing off each other as the March progresses.
“And the annual Anzac Day memorial march, as always led by the NSW Mounted Police.”
“And as always Bob, turned out immaculately”.
“Talking of turned out Gary, in what appears to be their final march on horseback, the remaining members of the Australian Lighthorse units, don’t they look fantastic”?
“Yes Bob, a controversial decision by the R.S.L. to end the traditional annual ride of these fine Australian horsemen, apparently for insurance reasons. “.
“That’s correct Gary, yes unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and I must say, in support of the R.S.L., for safety reasons, it’s probably for the best. ”
The first group of spectators passed by the parade are the war widows, for the participants in the March, this is an emotional moment, many of these women have spent their entire lives without the man they married, sometimes only days before they left to fight. Many have raised families on their own, there is a strange pride and admiration amongst the marchers for the sacrifice of these women, the thought sends a chill up the spine of the the constable escorting Cecil, a lump forms in her throat.
Directly beyond the war widows, a small group of anti war protestors have secretly taken up position at the front of the crowd. Now as the mounted police pass by, they take their chance to disrupt proceedings, they produce a banner which they quickly unfurl . At the same time a hissing noise is audible, even over the following bands, as a bunch of firecrackers are lit and thrown at the feet of the parading horses.
The female constable can hardly contain her anger at this disrespectful act right next to the war widows, the fireworks have landed at the feet of her horse, they begin to explode in quick succession, sounding like a machine gun. With her emotions momentarily distracted her horse responds instinctively, he spins and begins to back up, his hind quarters are aimed at and heading straight for the war widows, most sitting in fold up chairs at the front of the crowd, they will never be able to get out of the way. The constable while trying to establish her proximity to the crowd momentarily looses control of her horse.
In a split second, Cecil, on his now dancing stock horse, reaches forward with his freehand, he takes the reins of the police horse and firmly but calmly encourages it forward, a disaster is everted, the panic on the face of the constable is replaced by relief. Unfazed, Cecil drops his arm calmly by his side once more, to the cheers of the watching throng he rides on as foot police arrested the protestors. The mounted constable, now regathered, tips her pith helmet to Cecil and trots forward to rejoin the troop of police horses, leaving the old man un escorted, he won’t be needing any help.