Rob Virgo, of Middleton, is a great-grandfather aged 78, yet last month he was roping steers at the Marabel Rodeo, and he breaks wild horses at Mundoo Island. Meet a remarkable man.
Rob Virgo ran away from home aged 13 to join Ashton’s Circus as a jingles clown performing tricks on horses in between being a broom boy, fearlessly having the occasional buck jump at a rodeo, and illegally driving a truck.
“I met Mr Circus himself, old Joe Ashton,” Rob, now 78, said with some pride. “You worked from the time you got up til the time you fell asleep in your swag, and for that I got five quid a week and my keep.”
Rob, who was adopted by a couple in their 60s and brought up in Brompton – what he called the then slums of Adelaide – was eventually tracked down by police and sent back to school. Two days later he turned 14 (then the school-leaving age) and went droving in the far north.
Not your average upbringing, but Rob said he got though life well including 27 years in the police force in the mounted division and prosecutions because he read a lot of books, not to mention some amazing life experiences through his incredible devotion and love for horses.
It has far from ended too having roped steers on his great friend, a buckskin mare Buttermilk at the Marabel Rodeo meeting last month, and breaking in more colts on Mundoo Island for the fourth-generation family owners, Colin and Sandy Grundy.
Amazing stuff for a 78-year-old, but most of all Rob prides himself on his gift of communicating with horses and breaking them in through kindness. It is undoubtedly a lesson for many of today’s horse people.
“I have loved horses ever since I can remember,” Rob said. “As a 10-year-old kid I discovered what they called the Koala Farm behind the Adelaide Children’s Hospital where they had heaps of Shetland ponies. I’d lead them around all day with other kids on them so that I could get a 15 minute ride on one at the end.
“One day my mum and dad took me to a rodeo tent show, the Snowy River Stampede, and I was hooked. My brother and I used to follow the local rodeos and get a ride whenever we could… if it was a big crowd they’d introduce us as a couple of 16-year-old local lads even though we were only 13. It was good fun, I tell you, but gee we took some busters.
“It was only when the police found me at the circus that my mum and dad realised I had been wagging it from school for 18 months. A lot of the time I was going to a paddock on Regency Road at Islington where this old guy Sid Roberts had heaps of horses. I bought a horse from him for a fiver. I just called it Racehorse, but it was too old to race.
“As a kid I used to go to the horse sales. They’d get all these horses down from the north and blokes would give us a shilling to get on them so they could find out whether they could be ridden. It was a hard-earned bob, I can tell you.”
By far, Rob’s biggest regret was not having a camera on his droving trips. “I was among a few who drove 420 horses from Wudinna on the west coast down to Port Wakefield from May til September,” he said. “I had my 16th birthday on the track, and it was just an amazing experience. I feel sorry for the kids now because they will never know this stuff. I have had such a full life.”
There was also sadness on his life journey; his brother was killed on a horse, as was their great-grandfather. At 22, Rob was bull riding at rodeo shows around the state, but it all changed when his great mate from childhood days, Snowy Pyecroft, who was just 20, was killed at the Carrieton rodeo in the mid-north just weeks before he was to be married.
“It was going to be Snowy’s last ride because his missus didn’t like him doing it,” Rob said. “My misses didn’t want me riding after that so I gave it up and took on show jumping dressage and all that sort of stuff.”
But, it seems, you can never break the spirit of a rodeo cowboy. At 72, Rob was visiting friends in Windora, Queensland when there just happened to be a rodeo this day. “I watching this fella, and I thought, gawd, I reckon I could still do that, so I went over and put my entries in,” Rob recalled. “It was a hell of a ride.”
A remarkable life indeed, and those adventures and the tough times are a big part of Rob’s make-up and his gentle approach to horses.
“I worked on Thistle Island where they had a lot of unbroken horses, and that’s where Chris Wade taught me a lot how to break them in properly,” Rob said. “Before I was just a cowboy kid who used to get on them, rough ’em out; it never worried me.
“Over the years I developed a gentle way of dealing with horses. I saw a lot that had had the guts ripped out of them; thrashed into submission. They were badly treated, my word.
“I have always had a love for horses and I decided even at 18 years old there was a lot better way so I started working on ways to break them in without causing an injury or fighting with them.
“You have got to connect with horses. You look at them, get a feel about them, and you think, this will work with this horse. I think to myself, I know that’s how I would like to be treated, and I reckon the horse would like the same. It’s a feeling deep inside of me.
“I just like to connect with the horses. I like the idea of getting a very much untouched animal. Within an hour I can get them to come up to me and trust me. That to me is a bigger achievement.”
Dare not categorise Rob as a horse whisperer. “I don’t call myself anything,” he insists. “A horse whisperer is just a name; just words made popular by a movie. It’s the same as this natural horsemanship stuff; it’s just a saying. There’s nothing natural about horsemanship; if there were we’d be born with bowed legs and our nuts would be under our armpits where they couldn’t get crushed.”
Rob describes Mundoo Island as his playground. The beauty here, he says, is that the horses are left alone, allowed to grow up and learn the herd mentality until someone comes along and breaks them in. They just run wild, and it’s a beautiful sight when they muster them through the swamps.
The island has long been known for its horses, and in the early 1900s attracted polo players and buyers from India including Indian royalty, the Maharaja Sayaiji-Roa, Gaekwar, Baroda.
Rob has broken the horses in for Colin and Sally, who have two children, since first coming here nine years ago when he bought Buttermilk, named after the quarter-horse that starred in movies and was ridden by Dale Evans in 1950s television series The Roy Rogers Show.
“Buttermilk and I connected from the start; she won’t have a bar of anyone else,” Rob said. “That can be a problem because I have to work my life around what she wants, but that’s women. You can tell a gelding what to do, you can ask a stallion, but you have to discuss it with a mare; it’s much like married life really, and I was no good at that.
“There’s just something about horses; they have this lovely smell about them. I can smell a horse before I can see one. They are a magnificent animal.
“Sure, they have caused me a few broken bones. There was the time in 1972 when this pretty palomino with blue eyes suddenly reared and came down across my leg… I could hear my bones smash. I got up hopping around like an Irish dancer. It wasn’t the horse’s fault; the owner had this horse on drugs to quiet it down and it was so frightened. I don’t like it when people use drugs like that.”
Rob, a father of three, a grandfather of seven and a great-grandfather of seven, has a black belt in judo and a red belt in karate, but it’s never been in him to be a fighter or be aggressive toward animals. Behind his face that has seen a lot of sunsets in the bush there is a plenty of softness, and he still appreciates the fact his parents did their best for him, and he’s proud to say he feels as if he’s done his best too.
He said the circus taught him that the roughest types in life can be the most kind-hearted, and horses have allowed him to see the beauty in life.
“I feel good every morning when I get up and see Buttermilk and another old rodeo bucking horse I got from Mundoo Island named Cowboy out in the paddock,” Rob said.
“Cowboy’s name used to be Adam. I thought to myself, no wonder he kept bucking his original owner off. Fancy calling a horse Adam. Geez, how embarrassing for the poor horse. I could imagine him out in the swamps on Mundoo Island and the other horses asking him, what’s your name? And he says Adam. People can be so cruel.”