There’s no hint of slowing down for veteran show horseman, driver and trainer Terry Cowan, who is still thriving in his element after more than 40 years as a fixture on the national circuit with the late, great Vince Corvi.

Terry Cowan was hurtling in circles the first time he met Vince Corvi. “I was riding a little brown thoroughbred for John Timmins, the horse superintendent at the Sydney Show,” Terry recalls. “Valley Duke was his name and he had a tendency to bolt. I’d been working with a dressage coach who’d told me to just sit and talk to the horse until he stopped. Which was what I was doing when Vince turned up at the marshalling yard to begin his clinic.

“The show had just finished and John had booked me in for a lesson. Vince asked me loudly, and very colourfully, what on earth did I think I was doing? As we zoomed by, I explained my instructor had told me never to touch the horse’s mouth. ‘Bugger your instructor’, he bellowed. ‘Sit him on his bum and stop him’. And so I did.”

That was in the early ’70s and the beginning of a unique equestrian partnership lasting into the 21st century. It was only to end when Vince died suddenly on 29 November 2016. The Corvi and Cowan partnership had dominated the show circuit for more than four decades, regularly taking home the ribbons from the Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne shows.

Terry, from the NSW Central West, had grown up around horses. One of his grandparents had been a teamster, and others were farmers. “My parents had various businesses, such as a milk run in Forbes. There was a pony in the backyard; Dad didn’t ride much and Mum rode a bit and she’d take me to shows. The most serious rider in the family was my maternal grandmother who did very well in the ring.

“As a kid I rode at Forbes Pony Club and I really wanted to be a show jumper but one of the club’s members, Stewart Leeds, told me not to even try as I didn’t have a clue about distance. I remember his saying, all those years ago: ‘You’ve no idea how many strides there are to a fence, Terry’.

“It was great if the horse could help me around a course but if I had to help the horse it was a bloody disaster. So I went down the flat riding track. I must admit I wasn’t keen on all the primping and plaiting that went with it – I only did it ’cause I had to.”

In the saddle at four months still in nappies!

Boy rider class, Forbes Show, 1964.

Terry’s maternal grandmother, Lilian Bolam, a show rider.

And he still had to go to school. “But I really wanted to leave so I looked for a job. I applied for one in a government department, went for an interview and was successful. I announced to my parents on a Friday that I’d left school and was beginning work on Monday. All hell broke loose! They had in mind a more academic future for their son.

“Three months later I realised I’d made a terrible mistake. One of the most boring things you could ever do was work as a clerk in a government department, but I wasn’t going to admit that to my family who I was still living with in Forbes.”

For weeks Terry thought of ways to escape the clerical tedium. “I decided to apply to the Mounted Police Force. I thought I could just get a transfer from one government department to another. That wasn’t possible but I filled out a formal application and was accepted. I left for Sydney with my parents’ blessing.

“In those days you didn’t have to work in a police station before transferring to the horses. While the other new recruits went and played policemen at various stations, I went straight to the stables at Redfern, and found somewhere to live in the eastern suburbs.”

Terry had just turned 20 and this handsome country boy (some have said he had Hollywood good looks) stayed in the Mounties for five years. His blue eyes twinkle mischievously as he remembers those times. “I saw many things and thoroughly enjoyed myself.”

After leaving the force he worked briefly with horses in Maitland, which didn’t work out as well as he’d hoped. “Then Fred Biesbroek helped me set up a saddlery store; there wasn’t one in the area because the local saddler, Jack Bribie, had died. That experience was almost as boring as being a clerk in Forbes. Sitting in a shop all day just didn’t appeal.

“When I’d first met Vince he was based in Queensland. He then decided to move down to Maitland, NSW. Upon hearing that news I threw my hands in the air, shut the bloomin’ shop and was gone in two minutes!”

“They seem to
sprinkle diamante
on to everything.”

Mounted Police Force – Passing Out Parade, 1974.

Patrolling Centennial Park in the early seventies. Photo supplied by Mark Tarrant

For over 20 years the two men worked at the property in Largs, a few kilometres from Maitland. (They later moved to Elimbah, near Caboolture). “Horses were coming out of our ears,” recalls 68-year-old Terry. “Each weekend we had two or three truckloads going to a show. I used to ride before daylight until after dark – and I loved every minute of it.”

It was a rare year when Terry and Vince didn’t take out the top awards for both hacking and driving at every major agricultural and royal show. “We’d also go away and give clinics, we didn’t teach so much at home.”

Often they would conduct group sessions with Vince providing the shape of the lesson and Terry concentrating on helping individuals with specific problems. Dressage basics were the foundation of their horses’ training and the Corvi/Cowan mantra was “Perfect practice makes perfect”.

“We didn’t just put on a double bridle and canter in circles – we worked on straightness, engagement, balance – all those words that a lot of hackies still haven’t heard of. So many horses are crooked and the riders have no idea.”

When giving their clinics they would see 90% of the horses going rump-in and leading with the hip. Terry would stand directly in front of each horse and would see just how many were curled, had quarters in or were being held on a circle with the inside rein. More than once during these clinics pupils would hear: “Lazy riders make lazy horses. Busy riders make busy horses, and crooked riders make crooked horses”.

Does Terry feel riders’ priorities are different these days? “I’d like them to be game enough to ride a horse somewhere other than on an arena. They ask, ‘what do I want to go riding in a paddock for?’ So you can learn how to blooming well hang on! We had to do a lot of that. A show horse is shown in an open space but they try to do it all on 20 by 60 metres. And eventers used to go droving with their horses – not anymore and it’s so detrimental to everything equestrian. Arena, arena, arena – they’ve never learnt to ride the poor beggars!”

Of all the horses that have come into his life is there one that stands out? “He was a chestnut called Chinook. Vince had bought him from a racing trainer in Tamworth. I put him on the lunge after he’d been at home a while and thought he was perfect. He went on to win Champion in Melbourne and Brisbane and was Reserve in Sydney – Dale Plum beat him on a brown horse.”

There has always been rivalry at horse shows. It is not unusual to see a petulant princess tear a ribbon from her horse’s neck because it wasn’t blue. Irate mothers confront judges and there have even been punch-ups at dressage comps.

Terry and Lightning Lunch.

Terry and Harmonic.

Edwina Duddy’s Hudson Vamoose, trained by Vince and Terry.

“I don’t think the camaraderie is as prevalent these days as it once was,” says Terry. “Every week we were competing against rivals like Maureen Walker’s show horses and Mrs Willsallen’s hackneys. We might have a bit of a bitch or grizzle in the privacy of our stables but we certainly didn’t publicly air any grievances we might have had.

“Everyone’s so serious today, possibly because the exhibitors are compelled to perform well for all their clients who’ve often spent a great deal of money on the horses.”

The rise of bling is another aspect of showing which slightly disturbs Terry. “They seem to sprinkle diamante on to everything. I think it’s all gone a little too far. It’s more subdued in the dressage arena.”

Dressage clinics, hosted by international masters, always attracted Terry and Vince. “We began with Rosemarie Springer decades ago. She was brilliant (Frau Springer died last April aged 98). “In later years we made a point of going to Ulla Salzgeber, Edward Gal, Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin etc etc.”

And they would not just watch a couple of sessions, they would stay for the clinic’s entirety, sometimes speaking directly with the teachers who had noticed the two gentlemen who had turned up each day to watch every lesson.

“These clinics would give Vince confidence and confirmed that what he was saying about training back at home was right. And we’d pick the eyes out of what we saw and heard.”

Of course, many of these recent masterclasses featured warmblood horses. “There’s so much thoroughbred in the warmblood now and they’ve become entrenched in dressage.  Vince and I showed only a few, one was a brown gelding about 15.2hh. The biggest win we had with him was Reserve Champion hack at Melbourne. Vince called him Harmonic; I can’t remember his breeding.

“Right now, I’m working with one preparing it as a Show Hunter. The classes here are very different to the British Hunter classes. There’s a tendency in this country to concentrate on the ‘show’ as opposed to the ‘hunter’!

“These days I only have four horses in my yard. When Vince went to God I went to Morayfield about 20 minutes from where we were in Elimbah. Working with me is Ruth Herridge. She’s a wonderful help not long retired from a banking career. One of the horses is a client’s, one’s mine and two are Margaret Beggs’.”

Older riders will recognise that name. This somewhat eccentric horsewoman, and Tamie Fraser’s first cousin, has been on the Australian equestrian scene for decades owning both hackneys and hacks. She is now in her early 80s. “I used to help with her shopping when I lived in Elimbah,” says Terry. “She now has a wonderful angel assisting her.”

Ms Beggs’ outfit of choice has always been a pair of King Gees paired with a sturdy belt and a Yakka shirt, but she was dressed in more formal attire when attending Vince’s memorial service at the Queensland State Equestrian Centre. “She is a wonderful character and was always very, very good to me in the past.”

And the future – what does it hold for Terry Cowan? “I want to continue training and helping people. I have pupils at all levels. Some are showies, others are riding dressage, such as a woman who I’ve taught since she was at Novice and is now about to compete at Inter 1.

“I’m driving single harness horses, helping out other drivers and, of course, you’ll still see me at shows.” Terry recently visited Canberra Royal to present the Vince Corvi Memorial Cup for Geldings Showing Thoroughbred Qualities. “And when we’re all allowed out again, I’ll be giving some interstate clinics. Thank you, Equestrian Life, for bringing to the surface so many of my memories.” EQ

Terry with young rider Kaitlin Labahn-Meyland and champion hack Rolex II.

“There’s a tendency in this country to concentrate on the ‘show’ as opposed to the ‘hunter’!”

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