More than just a one trick pony
Beryl Chick's life as a whip-cracking, horse-riding entertainer was recently celebrated in an exhibition at the North Coast National Show and will soon be the subject of a documentary by Kristyna Higgins.
“I just think she's an inspiration and a great role model,” Kristyna said. “I think she really challenged ideas about women at that time in the 1940s and she is so humble about her life experience. I wanted to see her acknowledged in this way and to get her story out there.”
Horses were part of Beryl's life from a very young age. She grew up on farms around Casino and won her first riding competition at the Casino Show at the age of three. Her father was a jockey and she remembers he used to lead her on a little pony when he went down to the racetrack to work the horses.
Beryl was the youngest of five children and her eldest sister, Jean, was a great rider, while her brother, Bob Riley, became one of Australia's best known horse breakers.
“We were kids growing up on a farm. We had to muster the cattle… We had a few places (properties) and every weekend my brother and I would have to go down and check the cattle to see that none were missing or calving,” she said.
Beryl worked as a nurse for a couple of years in Casino and then moved to Sydney when the war broke out. She was working in the Aeroplane Jelly factory during the day and in a restaurant in the evenings. Then one night she heard something on the radio that was to change her life.
“I heard this man advertising for young ladies to learn to ride a bucking horse. That's what I'd always wanted to do - I wanted to be the world's best whip cracker, the world's best bronc rider and I wanted to play a mouth organ. I mastered the first two, but I never mastered the mouth organ,” she said with a big laugh.
The man on the radio was a promoter, Mick Simmons, who had established a show on the corner of George and Haymarket Streets in Sydney, known as Mick Simmons' Corner.
“He was a former world champion bronc rider himself and was driving a taxi when he saw a sign that said 'parking for 100 cars', and he thought to himself 'if there's parking for 100 cars, I could run a rodeo in there',” Beryl said.
When Beryl went down to the audition there were 28 other women all lined up looking for a chance to break into the male-dominated world of rodeo riding.
“About six of us made the grade and one of our girls went on to win the Australian Championship in 1948,” Beryl said.
The rodeo trainer was a man by the name of Ken Huntley, who Beryl would eventually marry. They went on to form a performing partnership that pioneered all sorts of stunts and tricks that had never been performed in Australia before.
“When he (Ken) saw me his eyes popped out like saucers because I was only a bit of a country girl, a bit shy, but I knew I had plenty of ability and he saw that he could use that,” she said.
As well as the rodeo, Mick Simmons' show included musical acts, a comedian, dancers and contortionists. There was also a whip cracker, Ivy Delores, but Beryl thought she could do a better job.
“I said to (Ken) one night, 'I'd like to have a look at those whips of Ivy's and he said, 'Can you crack?' He put the lights on and said, 'Go down to the arena and show me what you can do' and he was dumbfounded. I was in the act the next night.”
Mick Simmons' show ran six nights a week for about a year and after that Beryl and Ken got a contract to be a part of a series of theatre shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide where they stunned audiences with their whip-cracking antics. Ken would knock an apple off her head, rip her dress off with a whip and they would cut cigarettes out of each others' mouths.
When they were in Adelaide Beryl started working with one of Ken's horses, teaching it to jump. The horse was called Paint and had a distinctive marking on its side that looked like a man and a woman kissing.
“Ken had bought this horse that had damaged feet... When I started to ride him he was a real old mongrel. Anyway I got him and I trained him up and got him used to jumping over the tailgate of the truck (which was on the ground). Ken saw the value of the horse and started making a calico hurdle, and then we put an afternoon tea table in, and then a human hurdle (which was Ken lying on a table).”
Beryl and Paint also learnt to jump through a ring of fire and a ring of swords.
For about seven years Beryl and Ken travelled all over Australia with their act. It was an act that included buck jumping horses and bullocks, but Beryl and Paint were the stars of the show. They travelled to New Zealand a couple of times and Beryl has a folder full of amazing photos and newspaper clippings from that time, including when they walked Paint up seven flights of stairs to appear on a New Zealand radio program!
Her photos make it look like a glamorous life, and Beryl looks more like a movie star than a rodeo performer, but she said life on the road was pretty tough at times.
“It was hard... I had to drive a 28-foot articulated trailer with 12 ton of gear on it all around Australia.”
Ken was driving another truck with all the horses and bullocks on the back.
Sadly, just as it looked like they were about to break into the bigger, more lucrative American market, Ken died of a heart attack. He was only 38 years old.
“Six weeks later Paint died. I reckoned I was never going to touch another horse ever in my life,” Beryl said. “I went for 20 years without looking at a horse.”
Then in 1972 Beryl and her second husband George moved back to the North Coast so they could be close to her ageing mum. They bought a farm near Lismore and Beryl bought a horse to muster the cattle. She was enjoying riding again, but two years later she suffered a debilitating stroke and spent six weeks in rehabilitation and six months having speech therapy.
“I was completely paralysed down the right side and they reckoned I'd never ride again and I'd be lucky if I walked again... (but) two years after I had that stroke I won lady buck jump rider for the North Coast,” she said proudly.
Beryl continued to ride and to train others well into her 70s. She is 88 now and says a hip replacement a few years ago finally put an end to her riding.
“But I could do it if I had the horse,” she said defiantly.