Topsy the Famous Performing Pony

From Waler Data Base @FaceBook. Image: Topsy at the Surfers Paradise Hotel, QLD, 1950s. Aussie~mobs on Flickr.

Topsy was a famous performing pony – a Timor-Shetland cross, once a very popular cross. She stood 10.3 hands high. Performing through the 1940’s and ’50’s, Topsy was bred by Tom Dennis at Huntington stud, Dunbible, on the Tweed River northern NSW. She was foaled in 1945. Tom also trained her.

Topsy the performing pony, postcard from Surfers Paradise

In 1949 Topsy was said to be the first pony ever to perform on the Melbourne Town Hall stage. She also performed at the St Kilda Palais in Melbourne and did free performances for the Prahan hospital. Bertram Mills’ circus offered a big sum for her that year, intending to take her overseas, but Tom wouldn’t sell her.

As well as her repetoire of tricks Tom Dennis also showed Topsy in pony classes, winning many ribbons. He also showed a pony stallion in those years in the under 13hh classes, named Donald Duck (perhaps her sire?)

When Topsy hit her popularity Tom and his wife lived at the Surfers Paradise Hotel Zoo, Appel Street, where Topsy was the star attraction – lots of locals plus visitors came to see her. Topsy performed in her own marquee behind the hotel, prettily situated in a tropical garden. “The Talking Pony” was painted on a big sign outside. It cost two and six (two shillings and sixpence) to see her and even crabby old journalists said once they saw her performance they begrudged not a penny of it – and even returned with their children and paid again! One journalist said he’d gained far more respect for horses (thanks Topsy!) She had an extraordinary repertoire of clever tricks. She could add, subtract, multiply, say yes and no (nod and shake head), play euchre – even identifying the right and left bowers.

By the time the Queen had been entertained by Topsy she had journalists wrapped around her little hoof. One interviewed her after the Royal performance and Topsy told the journo that Tom had kept the slate the Duke had written his queries on, and wrapped it in cellophane to keep as a family memento; that the Queen was barracking for her when the Duke asked his questions, and that the Governor had even put his arm around her neck and given her a big hug before she left. She was feeling on top of the world and putting on performances at Brisbane Theatre Royal. After the show was over, she got a taxi home. Tom rode in the taxi holding her lead rope through the window as the cabbies wouldn’t let her in the cab, and led her back to the hotel like that.

Image: The Mercury, (Hobart, Tas.), 17th March 1954.

Topsy was presented to the Queen and Duke at Qld Government House by the Governor and his wife, the Lavaracks. It was a rest day for the Royals, meaning their activities for the day were all at Government House, It was a very busy "rest" day and evening. Everyone was delighted Topsy entertained both of them and made the Queen laugh (many newspaper articles).

If asked about how he trained the pony, Tom would simply say “gently” and give nothing else away. If asked her value, he’d ask Topsy to tap out the thousands he’d turned down for her with one hoof, after a few thousand he’d say “you have the idea.”

She travelled about the country appearing at many shows, festivals and charity functions – popular throughout Qld and NSW – this led to her being presented to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in 1954 and to the Queen Mother in 1958, as well as appearing on television and being interviewed on the wireless in 1949, 1955 and ’56 – yes she supposedly talked – although known as The Talking Pony by many this referred to her tapping her hoof for some answers.

She could even speak French, and had some psychic abilities – a touring French Rugby League team went to watch her perform in 1951 and asked how they’d go – she said they’d win the second test.

Many people loved to take their children to Surfer’s Paradise to see Topsy perform- part scholar and part magician – and it was a favorite stop with station people visiting town, by request of their children.

Tom took Topsy to perform at many charity events at his own expense, charging nothing as these were fundraisers including for the RSL of several NSW and Qld towns, and the Red Cross. And this was long before the Queen made her even more famous.

Not sure when Topsy was retired, someone may know please, but she certainly did her owner proud and no doubt kept the family for many years.

Performing pony Topsy with her foal Turvey

‘Topsy and Turvey’ with trainer Tom Dennis, 1954. National Museum of Australia.

On the reverse of this card was an advertisement. Topsy helped her owner have an income in many ways.

As Topsy’s foal Turvey grew he was trained tricks too, and performed well, but didn’t get the acclaim Topsy did. The range of tricks became bigger, with Topsy and Turvey doing some routines together including some free jumping exhibitions. Turvey did several jumping tricks by himself too.

We received an email (December 2023) letting us know about Topsy’s retirement:

Topsy retired to the farm of Carl Perry at Repton NSW. Topsy enjoyed the views of the Belinger River from Perry’s Hill in her retirement. Carl Perry was a known breeder of Shetland Ponies.

Hooray for Topsy! And hooray for the internet that facilitated this exchange of information about her, thank you again Tanya Perry.

Posted by Enoch Waler

Waler gelding purpose bred to help educate and advocate for Walers, in person and via Facebook and Instagram.