You can feel the history as soon as you turn into the driveway of Tooradin Estate.
A striking red brick homestead, protected by towering old pine trees sits elevated above horse paddocks, a work arena and a scattering of cross-country jumps made from the big sturdy trunks of trees that once stood tall on the farm.
It’s a cold midwinter’s day in Victoria when I venture out to meet the equestrian centre’s famous owner Sally Francis, and as she scoots down the short hill from her beautiful old home to greet me, she instantly strikes me as a hardworking horsewoman, complete with her Australian Equestrian team windbreaker jacket, jodhpurs and pair of gumboots to navigate through the heavy mud.
She’s immediately friendly and relaxed with me, and her demeanor has an instantly noticeable calming effect. It quickly becomes obvious why Sally has had such a positive impact on tens of thousands of Australian riders of all ages and abilities.
An Equestrian Australia Level 1 Coach, Sally has worked with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) for 35 years. She has also held the position of Chef d’ Equipe of the Australian Para-Equestrian team at two Paralympics, and her decades of dedication were publicly recognised recently when she was named on the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to horse sports and to people with a disability.
“It was a great honour and a great surprise,” she tells me. “I’m so grateful to the people who actually nominated me and did all that work to get it through. It was a thrilling moment when I found out.”
Sally has always been too busy helping people to ever really stop and reflect on her tremendous achievements in equestrian sport, but receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) has served as a significant reminder.
“It’s been so worth helping all those people and horses and all the organisations,” she says, “and it’s far greater than that – it’s the family of volunteers and carers, and recognising all the people that have helped me.”
Gazing into the roaring fire in the lounge room where we are chatting on this cold winter’s day, Sally is reflective for a moment before she goes on to pay tribute to her late mother Judy whom, she says, not only introduced her to horses but also set her on the coaching path.
“It feels like mum is a big part of the award and there’s been other great mentors like Miss Kay (Irving), Mary Longden and Susie Harris, as well,” she tells me.
But whilst coaching is her forte, and her work with the RDA has been so significant, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Sally is also a very accomplished rider and when she was younger she loved to compete, particularly in eventing
“I do love riding and going quite fast. In fact, I still like going fast if the occasion is right,” she laughs. Although these days she admits that she generally likes to take a slower pace when she’s in the saddle. “I like going trail riding and seeing beautiful parts of Australia on horseback – that’s a pretty magical thing for me,” she says. Although there’s not much time for that with her days taken up with giving lessons and looking after the 120 horses that live on her 400-acre property.
On my visit Sally is not only surrounded by many horses and her beloved dogs but also an assortment of friends and riders, including a young man with cerebral palsy, a vision impaired teenage girl and a young eventing rider who has brought her new and inexperienced horse along for his first piece of schooling.
“I teach everyone from beginners, a person on the spectrum, someone with a fear of horses or someone with MS who just wants to trail ride – to teaching riders who want a cross-country or jumping lesson,” Sally says. “It’s nice to be multi-disciplined so I can help more people and horses.”
Growing up, Sally spent many hours on the sidelines of the arena at Tooradin Estate watching her mother give riding lessons and she says that exposure was instrumental in her eventual decision to pursue a coaching career.
“Mum was incredibly shy,” Sally says, “but around horses she was confident. I’m a bit the same – I think horses bring something out in you that you want to share, you want to say, hey, these animals are really great and look at all the different things you can do with a horse! It often seems to me as if I was destined to follow a career in horses and it’s been a step by step process to branch out into different areas. I’m really very lucky to have had a career that has included everything from grassroots to international.”
Sally’s first trip to a major international competition was in 1994 when she accompanied para-rider Sue Harris to the World Championships in Hartpury, Gloucestershire, UK, as a carer. Two years later she was named Chef d’Equipe of the Australian Para-Equestrian team at the Atlanta Paralympics.
At the Sydney 2000 Paralympics, she was one of the National Technical Officials officiating at the Paralympic Equestrian events before she was named assistant coach for the Beijing Paralympic team in 2008. Following that she was Chef d’Equipe of the Australian Para-Equestrian team at both the Rio and London Paralympics.
“One thing that always stands out about those experiences was giving the riders the opportunity to ride in wonderful main arenas around the world,” she says, “with London definitely being my favourite. Looking down at the Queen’s Palace really hit me. We had four riders riding there at their absolute best and what a privilege it was – with the amazing bonus of getting a gold medal.”
Whilst she is enormously proud of being part of a gold medal winning Paralympic team, she says the highlight of her coaching career so far has been successfully assisting the development of RDA rider Stella Barton. “I first met Stella at South Melbourne RDA,” she explains. “She had to ride with a leader and two side-walkers and a physician assisting so she could have enough head, neck and trunk control to ride a horse. Now she comes to me and is riding independently.”
In January this year Sally couldn’t have been prouder when Stella reached a major milestone. She rode at a Para-Equestrian event at Boneo Park and won the Grade 1 (walk test) event.
There’s little doubt Sally has a special gift when it comes to teaching riders with disabilities, but, she says, helping them to ride is something that can be broken down into achievable steps. “I am calm, and I’m always thinking outside the square as to how to make it better for them,” she explains. “It’s helpful that I was a competitor as well because I’m good at working out in reality what you need to do to get the job done.”
Sally reckons she has another advantage over some other coaches as well! “I’m quite small, so I can ride the smaller horses too,” she says cheerfully. “That’s also been helpful in making it fun and enjoyable.”
Moving on to talk about the horses that can help disabled riders, Sally points out that talented horses are also an integral part of the journey, and, like a good coach, they too must possess a unique skill set of their own.
“Temperament is number one,” she says. “They have got to try hard and have a will to move because a rider might not have a lot of power in their legs. They have got to be adaptable to cope with different aids to get them to do a dressage test or go over a course of poles and they need to have easy movement to sit to so the rider can stay in balance. It’s easy if a horse is a little wider so they have that base of support that helps them use their trunk and core more effectively.”
To further her quest to find ever better ways for people to connect with horses, in 2007 Sally started Equine Facilitated Learning in Australia. It’s now a major part of her repertoire, and has become one of her great passions. “I always felt there was more to riding than just riding horses and I could see things happening in the US and overseas,” she says. “I enjoy helping people communicate better and horses help them do that. To communicate with a horse you need to use body language, and liberty work, when you can be with a horse and use subtle body language to invite the horse to go in a specific direction, is empowering – for everybody.”
Having also taught extensively in the Pony Club Australia movement, delivered practical presentations throughout the world and coached some of Victoria’s highest profile eventing riders – including Amanda Ross and Rohan Luxmoore – the 58-year-old has ticked almost every box there is, but, she still harbours a few more ambitions.
“I would love to be a team manager coach for a Special Olympics team,” she says, “and then thinking more for myself and the love of the horse, I would really enjoy some horse holidays overseas and I would love to take a rider with a disability on one of those trail rides or horse holidays.”
There’s one thing for sure – whatever she goes on to do from here, it will always be centred around horses.
“I can’t imagine a career without horses. I just love that they are not at all judgmental, and by us giving love and attention and treating them really well they give so much back. I have a mutual respect and love for horses.”