The Legendary Miss Kay
Miss Kay Irving, M.B.E. 1903 -1993
Australia's icon of horsemanship.
Kay Irving was a big part of the early days of Pony Club, although she was not involved in the very beginning of PCAV or Pony Club Australia, she soon came to be extremely important in setting standards and directions for the fledgling youth organizations.
She was some one who saw the benefit of the ‘big picture’ while emphasizing the importance of the individual. Kay was at the forefront of new ideas and technology, while basic, classic values and practices underpinned her teaching. She believed that it was more important that kids had fun and were safe, especially when beginning, than trying to coach them too early to be top level riders. Her interest in using child psychology to help kids learn was unusual for the era.
In her teaching and writing she talked almost as much about personal growth and individual responsibility as she did about horse care and riding techniques. Kay used whatever resources were available, and was keen to make use of what current technology had to offer. Instructional development was augmented by films brought in from the UK. Books and magazines were shared with riders. And Kay began a School of the Air class on horsemanship and riding from Broken Hill, in order to help kids who did not have access to the usual resources. She wrote constantly – letters, books.
Kay was born at Rosedale near Sale in Victoria in 1903, the middle of three sisters – Marjorie and Phillipa (Pippa). For the era, and a country family, they were well educated. The family moved to Edenhope then Tyrell Downs near Sea Lake. All three girls finished their education at Lauriston Girls School, where their aunts worked. By this time the family had moved to Riddells Creek.
Kay then went to Melbourne University to study teaching, gaining a Bachelor of Education. Following this she taught in the United Kingdom for two years.
In 1932, in Burwood, alongside the Jordanville Railway line, the three sisters bought a small property of 20 acres and established the Waverley Riding School. The venture took off and by the 1940’s was the premier Riding School in Australia. It’s accessibility by rail, along with hard work and openness to new ideas helped it to grow. It took day riders and also residential students. At times it homed up to 114 horses and could attract over 100 riders in a day.
“I learnt a lot more than riding and horsemanship. I learnt self-discipline, self-control, and consideration for other people. It stood me in good stead over the years.” - Betty Adam – student at the Waverley Riding School. Betty Adam(now Wood) from Waverley Riding School p 81
In 1938 the Irving sisters performed a public formation ride, probably at the Royal Melbourne Show. Apparently it did not go well. (There was hurdling involved...) But about the same time Kay’s sister Marjorie began training 12- 14 year old riders, dressing up for a ‘soldier ride’. This led to the Black and White Musical rides, which had up to 16 riders. Fancy dress parades, maypole rides, the Prince Albert Quadrille – complete with wigs and gowns, they believed in having fun as well as working hard.
In 1945 the Waverley Pony Club was formed but initially could not be British Horse Society affiliated as it was a business. But Waverley Riding School members still completed D,C,B and A tests as per the British curriculum, did theory lessons and went on equestrian outings such as going to the movies.
The pressure of suburban development was being felt and the riding school moved to Oakwood Park near Heatherton Road in Dandenong in 1950.
The 1956 Olympic Team for the Melbourne Olympics was selected at the Irving’s property Oakwood Park. They also ran fund raisers for the Olympic team going to Rome in 1960. While in Rome the discussion amongst equestrians led to the first Inter Pacific trip to California by Australian Pony Clubbers and while the return event to Victoria was being organized, discussions were begun to set up the Australian Pony Club Association.
The Irvings (known as the ‘Irvs’ to students and friends) were natural horse women, growing up on a rural property, in an era where riding was a part of life. They came to learn later about the appreciation of more advanced riding training – use of the aids, improving balance etc. They researched all they could find about improving horse care and riding. The British magazine ‘Rider’ from 1939, books by J.E. Hance, Henry Wynmalen ‘Equitation’ 1938, Wilhelm Musler ‘Riding Logic’ 1937, the movie ‘Florian’ 1940, featuring a Lipizzaner. Kay worked with Franz Mairinger who had come out from Austria to train and manage the Australian team.
“We had no idea of the ‘science’ of riding – the effect of weight and balance... We didn’t know we weren’t perfect. .. Tom Roberts wrote and told us about Franz M. Let’s learn I said... We didn’t know anything about riding the horse before F.M. ... whoever, whatever I’d contacted before – nothing had penetrated.” (Kay Irving)
The sisters sold up the Riding School in 1958 and Kay became very involved with the Pony Club movement. After being approached by the committee from PCAV in December 1956, Kay was asked to put together a Syllabus of Instruction and to train potential Instructors. The first 3 day Instructors Courses were held in 1957 at Oakwood Park.
“Kay taught as she’d taught the Waverley Pony Club, staff and helpers – horse care, beginner’s needs, fun and survival. She did, however, (as in later years of Waverley Pony Club) introduce the Franz Mairinger teaching principles of rider position and aids.” (P 348 WRS)
In April 1958 Kay was made an honorary Life Member of PCAV, and about this time was appointed as Chief Instructor. Kay went on to be Chief Instructor concurrently in some other states, (South Australia in 1965, also in Western Australia and Tasmania) and was appointed to the National position as well.
In 1960 Kay went with the first InterPacific team to Pebble Beach in California as Team Coach.
“She led by example. She was always the same – to everybody. She was a bit gruff at times. Then she had a lot on her mind. People got to know that. In general terms she was practical and a ‘hands-on’ operator both in the ridden and oral communication. She had the ability to be able to stand ‘out there’ and get the best out of her students. Then she could sit down and write a syllabus of instruction.” (George Cross, p 359 WRS)
In 1966 the Pony Club ‘Manual of Instruction’ was published, for national use by all Australian Clubs, followed by ‘Horsemanship for the Australian Rider’ in 1978. Other publications include the B Standard Notes; K Test Syllabus, and the 1963 Games Book.
Then there is the book ’21 Lessons for Young Riders’, inspired by her work with the Pony Club School of the Air from Broken Hill. This grew out of her being Chief Instructor at the time of the Pony Club Association of South Australia, and visiting Broken Hill Pony Club. While there in 1966 she asked if she could have five minutes to talk to the students about their horses and riding – the session was a hit and they used up all twenty minutes of the allocated time. Kay also gave some advice and support to the Riding for the Disabled group when they started in 1971, principally with training instructors.
The K Certificate - an Australian Pony Club only Certificate – and is named after her. It sits between the C Certificate and the more demanding B Certificate. This idea came from the well known ‘knitting circle’ which operated as a discussion group while keeping busy with the needles and yarn. Kay also used these gatherings to fund raise for causes such as the Olympic team.
Kay is remembered by Victorian Pony Clubbers with the naming of the PCAV office as ‘Irving House’ and in the Kay Irving Memorial Games, held with the State Games, Flat and Musical Ride annually. The Musical Ride is a particularly Pony Club event with its beginnings in the formation and Black and White rides developed by the Irving sisters a long time ago. Many Fancy Dress rallies are held by clubs each year, often at the Christmas break up; another fun tradition from the ‘Irvs’.
‘She consistently stressed Pony Club was not a riding academy but a youth organisation to train children to become good co-operating and contributing members of the community. The horse was the medium but not the “be all and end all”’ (p377 WRS)
In 1976 Kay was awarded an M.B.E. for ‘service to women’s sports’
“Darling Kay is an M.B.E.
And we’re as pleased as we can be.
If we’d been asked we’d tell the Queen,
A dame is what she should have been
Except that dames sound old and fat –
And goodness knows she isn’t that.”
(Judy Bagnold telegram to Kay, p385 WRS)
Kay continued to ride and compete until she was 81, her last horse was a thoroughbred she called Treasure. Marjorie died in her sleep at home in 1973. Kay and Pippa moved to Waverley II at Gruyere in 1985. Kay discovered gardening, while still doing a lot of work for Pony Clubs. Pippa died in 1986 after an illness. Kay continued to be involved with Pony Clubs until the end, and to live alone with lots of help from neighbours and friends until she died in October 1993. She never stopped being involved with horses.
Much of the material for this article was derived from the Waverley Riding School, by Ann L Robertson, 1994. (ISBN 0 64620652 4) – A detailed, colourful book of over 400 pages about the Irvings’ lives.
Miss Kay's homework for District Commissioners from 1973