Updated: Apr 25
“Ever since I can remember he's wanted to go to the hottest part of Australia and chase cows on a horse.”
My Mother was pointing out that regardless of the decision reached around the dining table this evening, eventually I was going to go.
I was sixteen years old, and sitting around the table was my Mum and Dad, an elderly gentleman Geoff Jolly and his wife Dorothy. Probably my four favourite people in the world, I looked up to them all for different reasons.
Since I was very young, like a lot of boys I wanted to be a cowboy. But it was more than that, it wasn't the gunfight in the main street or the circling of wagons fending off an Indian attack that attracted me. It was a romantic notion of long cattle drives, spending all day in the saddle then sleeping under the stars. The heat of the day and the cool of the night. A rotating night watch, quietly soothing the herd, just me and my horse. I was drawn deeply to horses, and would learn that I had an affinity with them that I now think stemmed from empathy, being able to view what was happening from their point of view. But some hard lessons were ahead, this youngster had a lot to learn.
Close to my fourteenth birthday my Father, ever supportive of his children's interests, bought me a horse. A young three year old filly, she was tall, black with a white star on her forehead, and two opposite white socks. He had bought her from a local stock horse breeder. To me she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. However, not knowing much about horses, he had bought me an unbroken three year old filly. This posed a problem, but surely not one that couldn't be overcome. When I told my father he simply turned up the next day with a book he had picked up on his way home from work, it outlined step by step how to break in a horse. A combination of optimism, ignorance and naivety gave me confidence I'd be riding the filly through the mountain range that backed onto our place soon.
The family property had about ten acres of usable pasture, roughly fenced. The rest was rugged foothills leading into the ranges. Growing up I had covered every inch of it and beyond with my dog Beau, he was a black Labrador Cross that my father had found up in the range tied to a tree, and left to starve. We became best of friends.
There were steep gorges, an eighty foot cliff, caves, an old mine shaft, and a central creek that only flowed after heavy spring rains. Wattle trees lined the start of the hills, giving way to taller Messmates and Iron Barks populating the slopes. 'Black Boy' Grass trees grew up near the top in pockets, with heavy kangaroo tail flowers that sometimes reached twenty-five feet up into the sky. Snakes and kangaroos were plenty, but rabbits were scarce which is what Beau and I were typically hunting with bow and arrow, or air rifle.
My Mother was terrified of me having a gun, but the one thing that terrified her more was snakes around the house. There weren't any non-venomous snakes where we lived and our parents had instilled a healthy fear of them into all us kids; my older brother, younger sister and me. As far as we were concerned they were all killers, and we might even die if one of them looked at us from close range!
So to bolster my request on my 12th birthday for an air rifle I suggested I might be able
to shoot any snakes that came around the house.
Beau and I would hunt all day through the hills with my new rifle, usually only to regale my parents with stories at evening dinner of 'the one we nearly got' or 'just missed'. But bright and early we'd be up and head off again the next day.
I had seen hunters on TV walking with their shot guns broken and hanging in the crook of their arm, when their quarry appeared they would close it, aim, and fire in one smooth motion. My air rifle broke in the same fashion but I would have to pull it down hard against a strong internal spring until it clicked, then it would hang limp and the pressure would be coiled inside ready to launch the pellet down the barrel once it was closed again.
So I would carry it the same as the TV hunters, hanging broken in the crook of my arm. I practised closing, aiming and firing. Trying to get smooth, and fast, and I reckoned I was getting pretty good. Until one day I was climbing through a fence and my jacket got caught on the trigger, the barrel flew up, catapulted by the coiled spring and hit me in the face, fucken near broke my nose! That's when I learned that air rifles are not like shotguns.
Then it happened; on a hot summers afternoon my mother hastily corralled all us kids inside with stern instructions of “Do not go outside!”. A prospect we didn't relish as the kitchen had a wood combustion stove that ran all day and all night, to cook on and heat the water for the house, as a consequence it was usually hotter inside than outside. But we knew by the tone in her voice that this was no time to debate the issue. She left us in the lounge room and headed to the back of the house, I found her looking out through the floor to ceiling windows with a worried expression on her face. My mother was a keen gardener and she had terraced the steep slope behind our house that had been cut into the hill. There were several levels of garden beds and she had built each step up with rocks from the creek.
“Whats wrong Mum?” I asked.
“Snake” she replied without turning her head, she was scanning the rock garden beds. With that one word I got a hollow feeling in my stomach and I felt my heart start to beat a little harder.
I swallowed hard then looked up at her, “I could shoot it Mum?”
Her eyes stopped and she turned to look at me, put both hands on my shoulders and said,”Do you think you could?”
She was asking me straight out, no time for bullshit, but I lied anyway, “Yep” I replied holding her gaze.
“Go and get your gun” she said.
I scampered off to my room and returned with my rifle in hand and a box of pellets.
“I'm coming out with you,” she said, “and if I tell you to get back inside you do what I say quickly, OK?”
“OK Mum,” I said as I cocked my rifle and loaded a pellet.
She opened the back door and we gingerly moved out onto the back verandah, eyes darting left and right looking for the killer serpent. Mum was holding onto my sleeve ready to pull or shove me in any direction. My heart was pounding now and I tried to control my hands so she wouldn't see them shaking. All sorts of things were racing through my mind, my rifle was single shot, so once I'd fired it I had to break it, re-cock the mechanism, load another pellet then close it before I could shoot again. What if I missed with the first shot and the angry snake charged and killed us both before I could reload? And I'd lied about all those near misses over evenings dinners, I'd missed by a mile, I was a terrible shot!
Then suddenly we saw it, jet black, moving with silent ease through the rocks, it was an adult, six foot long with a small evil head and a tongue flicking in and out tasting the air. Quietly we moved a step to the right to give me a better angle, Mum tugging at my sleeve. I had to hit it in the head, a pellet in the body would only make it angry, but I had to wait for the perfect time, when it's head was showing between the rocks. As I raised my rifle and took aim the snake sensed we were there and starting moving quicker. Was it coming towards us? I couldn't tell, and I could feel Mum tighten her grip on my sleeve. Then it's head appeared between two rocks and it seemed to pause, looking at us. I took aim and pulled the trigger just as it's head disappeared behind the rocks again, but I'd shot high, somehow the snake stuck his head up out of the rocks again as I fired....right in front of my pellet! It went straight through his head and the snake fell limp down over the rocks.
“You got it!” Mum exclaimed clapping her hands together in disbelief.
I couldn't say anything, I just stood there. 'How can that be?' I thought to myself, 'I can't even hit a tin can and I just shot a moving snake through the head!'
“Yep!” I said sticking my chest out.
I was so proud and privately embarrassed when Mum told my Dad that night about his crack shot son.
I don't think I ever again hit what I was aiming at with my air rifle, or anything else for that matter, in fact years later I completely missed a Brown snake from ten feet away with a twelve gauge shotgun. But it didn't matter, I lived off that one shot for years!
Dad would happily tell anyone who would listen about my feat of marksmanship, and every time he told the story the distance of the shot got longer. The legend grew and it wasn't long before I was invited to join two local lads on a night of spotlighting for rabbits, where a good hand with a gun was always needed. But an air-rifle wasn't the right weapon for spotlighting, so through a friend of a friend my father (keen to nurture his sons new found talent) procured a twelve gauge, full choke, single shot shotgun and a few boxes of shells. It was the biggest gun I had ever seen and just holding it made me nervous. Beau and I set off into the hills rabbit hunting in preparation for the spotlighting. The shotgun kicked like a mule and first time I fired it (at a tree), it nearly dislocated my shoulder, it was so loud Beau took off with his tail between his legs and ran home, I didn't see him again for the rest of the day. But, I could walk with it hanging broken in the crook of my arm like the T.V. hunters.
The night arrived. Tim and Paul were cousins, born and bred farm boys. The sons of two brothers who were big landholders in the area, and like all big properties were locked in a constant battle to keep the rabbit population under control. Weekend nights were often spent spotlighting, but more than just a part of running the family property it was also a form of recreation for them, they enjoyed it and were very good at it. They had a dedicated ute for shooting, with a gun rack in the back and a bar wrapped in foam for resting your gun on while you aimed. A spotlight was mounted on the roof that could be controlled from inside the cab. I shook hands with them and we loaded our gear into the ute. They had 'under and over' shotguns that had two barrels, one on top of the other, and enough shells to fight a small war. Tim explained that there would be one of us driving, one controlling the spotlight and one shooting. They knew both properties well and where the rabbits would be, the idea was that we would drive to certain spots and stop, the spotlight would be turned on and the shooter would hit the rabbits that the spotlight could find. Then we'd drive a bit further to the next spot and the procedure was repeated.
I tried to look like I knew what I was doing and spent the early part of the evening on the spotlight. It was decided that as I didn't really know the property it was easier if the two of them drove because they knew where the fence lines and boundaries ran and where the gates were to get from one paddock to the next. So I stayed on the light as the two of them swapped between shooting and driving. Then it was my turn to shoot. I climbed into the back of the ute and loaded my twelve gauge. Paul got out to open a gate and Tim called through his window up to me explaining that there was a creek running down the south side of this paddock full of box-thorn that the rabbits made their warrens under, but they would come out at night across into the paddock for the sweet pasture. If they got back into the creek they were gone, so we were going to drive down along side the creek with the lights off to get in between the rabbits and the creek. Then we'd stop and turn the light on and pick off as many rabbits as we could before they made it to the sanctuary of the box-thorn. It was a dark night, only a slither of moon was in the sky, the lights of the ute went off and we were away. In the darkness the ute started bouncing along the alleged track, we were going faster now than we had before. I was almost getting bounced out and I struggled to stay on my feet, I was holding onto the bar with one hand and my heavy shotgun with the other. Still the old ute got faster, the cold air started to make my eyes water and I couldn't see a thing. Another bump launched me up into the air and I abandoned the idea of holding my gun and cradled it in my arms so I could hold on with both hands!
“Fuck me!” I spluttered, cold air tears streaming down my cheeks now.
With one final bounce the ute skidded to a halt, all the lights came on revealing a cloud of dust and rabbits darting across in front of us making a B-line for the creek, as my feet landed back down on the floor the gun went off in my arms scaring the shit out of me, and one poor rabbit in the far reaches of the spot light making a final leap into the creek was bowled over in mid stride by my wayward shot, tumbling him end over end dead. The dust settled and the boys emerged from the cab excitedly.
“That was one of the best shots I've ever seen!” exclaimed Tim, “we were still moving!”
“Must have been eighty metres!” said Paul.
They were hoping to get more than just one rabbit from the dash down the creek but the assumed quality of the shot seemed to make up for the disappointment in numbers. I stayed on the back for a while with less than miraculous results, then suggested they shoot some more and I'd go back to the light.
My father relayed the story of the eighty meter shot bowling a rabbit in full flight to a friend who was a shooter. “You'd better come duck shooting with us one morning,” said Gordon, “we can always use someone who can shoot!”
“Ok” I said feigning a smile, “that'd be great.”
At 2:30am the three of us climbed into the station wagon, Gordon, his son Tod who was a few years older than me, and me. Loaded with shotguns, shells, waders, and plastic ducks we drove an hour and a half to the swamp. Gordon explained that the plastic ducks were decoys and placed out on the water in an attempt to convince ducks flying over that it was a safe place to come in to land. He told me that good duck shooters worked together, firing at specific times to keep the ducks over the swamp, bouncing them from one side to the other like a pin-ball. picking them off until the whole flock had been shot. 'Poor ducks I thought' but kept it to myself, good shooters don't think like that. When we got to the swamp there were other cars already parked sporadically around the place, we weren't aloud to use torches or make any noise. In the darkness we quietly put on our waders, mine were far too big for me and nearly came up to my armpits, I had to hold them up by squeezing my arms down on them or they'd fall down. We grabbed our guns and decoys and headed off into the swamp. Single file we followed Gordon into the reeds. The mud and water was freezing, my toes were going numb and I tried to stop my teeth from chattering for fear of making too much noise. After twenty minutes Gordon was happy with a spot and we were told to stay put while he went another fifteen meters and placed the decoys out on the water where they could be seen, then returned to us in the reeds. All we could do now was wait for daylight. It was only half an hour till daybreak but it seemed to take an eternity standing in the freezing knee deep water.
Unbeknown to us a middle aged Italian man, obviously an experienced hunter had moved with great stealth and taken up a position not far from us in the reeds. There was ten minutes of twilight, not dark but not yet light, and deathly quiet, then the first rays of sun shone through. With a blood curdling yell the Italian man leapt out of the reeds scaring the shit out of us, and in a fury of bullets from his pump action shotgun opened fire on our decoys. There were little pieces of plastic floating everywhere and Gordon launched into a tirade of abuse.
The two were screaming at each other, Gordon in English and the man in Italian, but there seemed to be some common words like “Fucken Arsehole!” I thought they were going to shoot each other when suddenly they both stopped as some shadows crossed overhead, “Ducks! Shoot!” and they both started shooting up into the morning sky.
I looked up to see a flock of about twelve ducks heading straight for us.
“Paul shoot!” repeated Gordon.
I quickly stood up straight and with my feet square, a shoulder with apart, raised my twelve gauge up towards the sky, the ducks were almost directly overhead now and as I lifted my arms my waders promptly fell down, I aimed and pulled the trigger, the recoil knocked me clean off my feet and I fell backwards into the knee deep water. Instantly my waders filled with water and acted like a sea anchor holding me down, my head was under the water and I had my arms outstretched trying to keep my gun out of the water but I couldn't get up and I thought I was going to drown! Oblivious to my predicament the others in front of me were still shooting. In a last ditch effort and pure survival instinct, I thought 'Fuck it!' and stuck the barrel of my shotgun into the ground, packing it full of black mud and used it like a crutch to push myself up out of the water.
Now on my knees, soaked from head to toe and covered in swamp mud, my gun was still stuck barrel first in the mud and I was gasping for air. Gordon had turned around having noticed I wasn't shooting and was staring at me with a confused look on his face, “What the fuck happened?” he said reloading his gun.
“I slipped over” I lied, embarrassed but happy to be alive.
“Well you can't fucken use that now” he said gesturing to my gun, “the barrel will be full of mud! You'll just have to wait and we'll shoot the next flock.”
For another hour we waited but no more ducks flew over, maybe the little pieces of plastic duck floating around on the water made them think twice about coming anywhere near us.
I waited for the hour in my waders, up to my armpits full of water like a fucken ice-block in a glass, and decided there and then that this would be the end of my shooting career. 'Good thing too' I thought 'I had started to believe my own bullshit, that I could actually shoot.'
Time to concentrate on my filly.
The book said I needed a yard to break in my filly, a round yard, and our property didn't have one. But we had trees up on the hills, and I had an axe. I stuck a peg in the ground in the middle of the valley, tied a rope to it and estimated the length I needed to reach from the centre of my round yard to the outside. Holding it taut I walked in a circle counting my steps, and scuffing my feet as I went, marking a circle on the ground. I then divided the total steps by ten which gave me equal length sides to my pentagon and I put a rock on the ground where each post would go. By my calculations I needed ten posts, and three rails for each gap which made forty. That was a lot of trees, I was gonna need some help!
I recruited my mate 'Skip' who lived nearby, and armed with a rope and an axe each we headed off up into the hills with Beau at our heels.
The straightest trees were up near the top, once we'd selected the tree we wanted we tag-teamed with our axes until we got it to fall over. We had trees falling into nearby trees getting hung up on precarious angles, and some falling the wrong way sending us scampering for our lives. Others would split right up the centre as they fell, and shoot backwards like a freight train. But we learned; we learned how to scarf a tree in relation to the canopy bias, to get it to fall the way we wanted. We learned to leave a hinge that would hold and give it the direction we wanted, but then snap as the scarf closed so it wouldn't split. After our first few attempts, sweat, and swinging until we couldn't feel our arms, we also learned the value of a sharp axe.
Once we had a tree on the ground we would cut the branches off and cut it into lengths to give us the posts. With a rope tied to a post each we then dragged them down the hill like mules into the valley below. At the yard site we then used the blunt end of our axes to knock the bark off. We were exhausted, we had the first two posts down at the yard site and we were spent. The drag was killing us, the posts were heavy, the bark was rough which was creating a lot of friction and digging into the ground, and we were trying to carry our axes with us so we wouldn't have to walk all the way up again to get them. There had to be an easier way. We tried making a harness for Beau who seemed to have limitless energy and get him to drag them down for us, but he wasn't having any of it and would just sit and look at us with a dumb expression on his face. We got in front and called him, patting our knees encouraging him to pull, eagerly he'd start towards us until he felt the lead pull tight against the log, “C'mon boy!” I encouraged. He looked back at the post and then at me as if to say “I can't I'm tied to this fucken log dumb-arse!” So we gave up on that.
Then we noticed as we knocked the bark off, the sap and moisture under the bark made them quite slippery.
We decided the next two we'd bark up on the hill, and then drag them down, might be easier and we wouldn't have to carry our axes with us!
It took some trial and error but we worked out a knot that wouldn't pull off the slippery posts, then we were ready. I was hoping the freshly barked logs would be noticeably easier to drag, otherwise I was going to have a hard time convincing Skip to hang around.
Once again with a log each we gave them a heave. They slid easily on the hard ground and took off down the hill gathering speed like a battering ram. In seconds we had tossed our ropes and were running for our lives ahead of the speeding logs. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Beau joyfully bounding down the hill with us, tongue hanging out, oblivious to our impending doom. I looked across and saw Skip dive to the side as his log went crashing past him through the undergrowth. My legs were carrying me as fast as I dared on the steep downhill slope, awkwardly leaping over shrubs and fallen branches, gravity had taken over and it was all I could do to stay on my feet! My post was gaining on me and it was only that it crashed into the base of a tree that brought it to an abrupt halt and saved me from getting knocked arse over head!
Out of breath I struggled back up to Skip who was still lying on the ground gasping for air with a shocked look on his face, “Fuck me!” he exclaimed, and we both burst into laughter rolling around on the ground with Beau climbing all over us.
We had solved the problem of the arduous drag, so much so that we even attempted two logs each, and started all four careening down the hill, running the gauntlet trying to stay ahead of them to the valley below. But after some near misses decided one each was enough to tangle with.
At night we built a fire in the middle of the yard, and stayed up late drinking billy tea, smoking tree bark cigarettes and telling lies about girls. We slept in sleeping bags beside the fire, the night was really cold, but we didn't care, we were comfortably exhausted and slept like Roos on a hot day.
Skip helped for a few days, then a friend from Yarrawonga took his place. I had known Cam since I was very young, our parents were good friends and I'd occasionally spend school holidays at his place, or vice-versa. He was a country boy, and could ride pretty good. He had a buckskin pony named Sonny that he let me ride when I stayed. I think Sonny could tell I didn't know how to ride and would just carry me wherever Cam's horse would go. But to me, I was riding, the feeling was indescribable, and fuelled my yearning.
By the end of the week we had forty logs down in the valley, and traded our axes for a crow bar and shovel. The posts needed to be four foot in and eight foot out. The ground was hard, compacted, dry clay. To this day I curse the concrete clay on the family property, and every time I dig a post hole I swear it will be the last one I ever dig by hand!
One on the crowbar and the other emptying the loose dirt out of the hole with the shovel, we chiselled away half an inch at a time. Until finally we had reached our depth, one down nine to go. Two holes a day was all we could manage, and again spent nights around the fire laughing. Cam left me with ten holes four foot deep, vowing to return when I was to ride my filly.
The holidays were over and school then got in the way for a while. I'd spend my nights reading the book, over and over, trying to understand it. The man in the book used a kerosene tin as a step to get up onto the horse for the first time. Did I need to get one of them? We never used kerosene!
I figured I'd do without it. There were other things I'd have to make do without too, like a saddle. I didn't have one, and they were expensive.
The book talked about 'rough breaking', and 'conventional methods', and 'new approaches'. There was discussion on the psychology of horses, and quotes from horse trainers dating back 2000 years.
All of this was like Japanese to me as I had no experience or understanding of horse breaking and training, I didn't know what was conventional or what wasn't. I didn't even know how to ride! I wanted desperately to understand it and be able to absorb it. I assumed that something in book form undoubtedly contained some hard earned wisdom, or deep and elusive understanding of the subject, and that by nature the author must be an authority. But my eyes and my mind would glaze over as I read, I found myself confused and overwhelmed by the words, but drawn to the photos in the middle of the book. They
were of a man handling an unbroken horse with a rope, touching it all over, then hanging over its back. I studied them, the horses position in relation to his handler, his stance and body language, I felt I could see what the horse was doing and why. His intent, and whether he was reacting or responding, or just tolerating. They fascinated me.
Over the coming weekends I put all the posts in the ground and rammed the earth tight around each one. I was excited to see my yard starting to take form. My father gave me an old brace and bit drill, and after burying the bit into the first post so deep it took me two hours to get it out, I learned to drill a little at a time. I drilled sixty holes, six in each post, my arms were ready to fall off. Then my father showed me how to hitch the rails on with fencing wire. For the last three I made loops with the wire and left them hanging from the posts on either side, so the rails could slip in and out. Finally it was done, “we've got ourselves a yard!” I said to Beau, he cocked his head to the side and wagged his tail at me.
My filly looked uneasy in the yard, defiant. She paced around, sniffing at the rails and the ground. There was a flat spot on one of the rails where I could balance my book, I wanted to have it on hand.
Step 1. I had to handle her all over, and teach her to lead.
I stepped in with my rope and managed to get it around her neck, I was as nervous as she was. I pulled and tugged at her just like the book said. But instead of facing up to me, then progressing to a step forward, she'd turn tail and drag me around my new yard (usually face first) when she got scared. As confused as each other, we battled on. Frequently I would stop to check if I'd missed something in the book, she wasn't doing anything she was supposed to! The filly would be on the far side of the yard catching her breath, head up high, sweat shining on her neck, ready for the next round. What allegedly should have taken an hour and a half took the whole weekend, but eventually somehow we became friends. She let me approach her and realised I wasn't going to hurt her. I guess she figured it was a lot easier to stand and let me pat her, than dragging me for another lap.
Step 2. Mouthing.
The book said it was time to 'mouth her'. To do this I needed a long set of driving reins. Dad had an old set of harness in the shed that I dug out and pinched the reins off. They weren't ideal, a little shorter than they were supposed to be, but they would do the job.
Once I had the bridle on her I hooked the long reins onto the bit. The idea being I would
walk behind her holding the reins and steer her in different directions as she walked, teaching her how to respond to the bit. Seemed simple enough, and looked fairly sedate in the book compared to our previous lesson, which appealed to me. But because the reins were short I was close behind her, and instead of walking she would take fright when she couldn't see me and lurch forward. When the reins touched her rump or hind legs she would kick out at them, and I'd duck and weave like a boxer as her hooves whizzed past my head. I couldn't get far enough away to stay out of reach.
I had spent the previous weekend getting her to face me and stand still, and now I was expecting her to walk away from me with me behind her. Even I could understand how confusing this must have been for her. But as before, together we eventually managed to work out our own version of the long reining, and she learned to give to the pressure on the bit and turn in the general direction I wanted her to.
Step 3. The first ride.
My filly was now quiet (ish), and mouthed (kinda). It wasn't what I had learned from my book, or an uncanny knack I had with horses, but more likely just the fact that we had spent so much time together over the weeks, and gotten to know each other working out our differences that forged a respect and bond between us. Horses are herd animals, they don't like to be alone, and now I had become part of her herd, we were friends. In our own way we had developed a vocabulary. A communication mix of sounds, hand and body gestures, and in some instances just a knowing that had developed through repetition.
It was time to ride my filly, and true to his word Cam had come down to offer support and words of encouragement.
We were up early and the Autumn morning was crisp and fresh. We yarded the filly, a routine she was familiar with now and I got in with her as Cam climbed up onto the top rail to sit and watch. After moving her around the yard she was eager to walk up to me and say hello. I touched her all over and hung over her back without any protest or fear from her, she was quiet and calm. She took the bridle without any fuss now and I hooked on the long reins. Awkwardly and being careful not to touch her hind legs, the two of us waltzed around the yard changing direction, walking small circles and figure eights. She didn't kick out anymore but would swish her tail across my face if I lagged behind or flapped the reins against her rump.
Cam was suitably impressed with our progress, and I was proud of my filly when he commented on it.
Giving her a pat, I took the long reins off and attached the riding reins, I knew how she liked to be patted now and her enjoyment and reassurance was almost palpable. I handed the reins to Cam and climbed out of the yard.
“Where are you going?” he asked a bit dumbfounded.
“Nervous piss” I replied walking over to a nearby tree.
The adrenaline was pumping in my veins and I had butterflies in my stomach as I climbed back into the yard and took the reins. I was hoping like hell she didn't buck!
“Ok girl” I said looping the reins over her head, “Here we go.”
I jumped up and hung over her back as I had done many times, instinctively she widened her stance with her front legs so I wouldn't knock her off balance, but remained calm, and
I dropped back down to the ground again. I repeated this a few times and she didn't bat an eyelid.
'This time,' I thought to myself, and jumped up again. Instead of dropping down I slowly slid my right leg over her rump and down the other side. “Easy girl” I said stroking her neck with one hand as I gradually sat up straight. I was on her now, she raised her head, her ears rotated back towards me and I could see her watching me out of the corner of her left eye. Her muscles tensed beneath me, she was very much awake now, this was new ground! Fleetingly I was surprised at how high up I felt. I sat still, stroking her neck again, reassuring her, then just as gradually slid my leg back over her rump and dropped to the ground once more.
“Good girl!” I said patting her again, and we both seemed to exhale the breath we'd been holding.
This was good, she had taken me up on her back, and she hadn't exploded.
“she didn't jump away” Cam said, “she was watching you but she didn't panic, I reckon she's gonna be fine.”
“I reckon too!” I said smiling.
Many times I got up on her for short periods and then stepped off, until she was
comfortable with me being there and her apprehension seemed to pass. It didn't take long before she hardly paid attention each time. The adrenaline had subsided, pride and excitement had taken its place. Together we'd be riding through the ranges in no time, jumping fallen trees and chasing kangaroos!
“I'll just get her to walk around the yard a bit today for me, and that'll do her I reckon.” I said to Cam as I jumped up onto her again.
I sat up straight, gathered the reins, and squeezed her gently with my legs urging her forward. She raised her head again and looked back with her ears, acknowledging something different was happening, but she didn't move. I squeezed a little harder, but still she didn't move.
“Give her a kick.” Cam said.
So lightly. I kicked her with both heels. She made a 'Huff' sound as my heels hit her ribs forcing the air out of her lungs, and her head rose even higher, but her hooves were firmly planted on the ground, and still she didn't move!
I was a bit perplexed, I wasn't expecting this! I knew this section of the book by heart, it only said, 'walk around the yard to begin with, changing directions', Nothing about how to actually get her walking!
Bravely I kicked her harder “C'mon girl, lets go!”, but she just 'Huffed' again.
Soon I was flapping my legs and arms around like an idiot trying anything to get her to move. Cam was starting to giggle up on the top rail. My tall, black filly remained motionless, except for flicking her tail in protest, or turning her head to nip at my heels that were digging into her ribs. This was getting embarrassing!
“Give her a smack on the arse with your reins!” Cam suggested watching me flapping my legs.
So I grabbed the tail of the reins and flicked them around my hip hitting her on the rump. Like a spring she leapt forward with all four legs, catching me off guard and I slid backwards losing my seat. Her head disappeared and she pushed it down between her front legs, pulling me forward by the reins with it! As she hunched her back she leapt straight up into the air, her hooves were four foot off the ground and I was two foot higher than her back. By the time I was coming down she was coming back up again and hit me hard, launching me up into to air! I went sailing through the air and came down with a 'Thud' on top of one of the yard posts, hanging over it like a limp doll groaning. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cam hit the ground on the outside of the yard knocking his head on the bottom rail as he fell. I thought my filly must have bucked into the rails knocking him off, but turns out he was laughing so hard at my rough riding performance he had lost his balance and fallen backwards off his perch!
Painfully I peeled myself off the post still winded, and Cam sat up rubbing his head, my filly was standing quietly in the yard looking at us, the reins hanging down.
“You should have seen how high you were!” he said starting to laugh again.
“I know how fucken high I was, I was up there!” I snapped.
He was laughing hard again now and holding his stomach as he replayed it in his mind.
“Why the fuck did she do that?” I asked thinking out loud, that wasn't supposed to happen!
We had both been around horse men enough to know the golden rule, 'what's the first thing you do when a horse bucks you off...you get straight back on!'
The idea didn't appeal to me at all and I took a minute to refer to my book. then discarded it in disgust, “Fucken book” I grumbled.
Reluctantly I climbed through the ropes back into the ring. She was nervous as I approached her, but she lowered her head into my chest when I put my hand gently on her forehead. I didn't want it to be a fight between her and I, and I got the feeling neither did she. I didn't like the confrontation, and knew her bucking was born out of fear and desperation.
“What was that all about girl?” I said, “Got that out of your system? We both know you can buck better than I can ride, so do me a favour, let's not do that again huh?”
I gathered the reins and lay over her back again, I could feel her apprehension, so took some time to get on and off a few times until she relaxed. Then once more I slid my leg over, and sat up straight. The adrenaline was causing my hands to shake, I tried to calm them and squeezed with my legs hoping she would just walk forward. But as before, she remained still, like a statue. I kicked with my heels to no avail. Back on his vantage point Cam raised his eyebrows at me without saying anything. I grabbed a fistful of her mane with one hand and flicked the reins hitting her on the butt with the other.
She leapt into a flurry of bucking, again dropping her head down between her knees. Better prepared this time I gripped with my thighs and hung on to her mane. She was bucking straight forward, jarring me on her withers as she hit the ground, but I kept my seat and wrestled to pull her head up with the reins. Then she sucked out from under me changing direction sharply to the left, and I found myself once again struggling to stay with her. One more buck and I was sailing head first into the dirt.
Spitting out dust I sat up swearing, she was standing over me puffing, looking down at me.
Cam was laughing again, “At least you lasted a bit longer this time!”
I was angry now and stood up, there wouldn't be a reassuring pat from me, I wasn't going to reward her for pole-driving me head first into the ground! I jumped back on her, grabbed a fistful of mane, smacked her on the arse, and we were into it again. Left and right, and higher than before. She was snorting as she bucked now.....this time I landed on my arse!
“I think she's getting better at it!” Cam offered, struggling to talk, there were tears running down his cheeks he was laughing so hard now.
He was right, I was teaching her how to buck and she was learning quickly. Time for a re- think. Despondent, I let her out into her paddock figuring I'd done enough damage for one day.
The weekend was over and Cam returned home. After dinner I ventured down into the valley with a torch to find my book, hearing a noise in the darkness I scanned with the torch and two eyes reflected back at me from the fence. My filly had spotted me and made her way over to be with her herd. Pensively I stayed with her for an hour, hoping she might miraculously gain the power of speech, and confide in me all the horse secrets that had eluded enthusiastic boys for centuries. But she was content to just stand quietly with me, her eyes slowly closing. There was dry sweat on her neck and I felt guilty that I hadn't hosed her down.
“I'll not do that again” I promised interrupting the silence, and her eyes opened quickly but then slowly closed again.
Beau would be waiting for me at the edge of the paddock when I got off the school bus, and together we would run back to the house. After changing my clothes and downing a glass of Milo we'd head down to the valley. With Beau watching on, I spent the evenings handling my filly, long reining and brushing her, but I hadn't tried to ride her again. I needed to work it out in my head, I thought I must be causing the problem and didn't want to wreck her. Or was she just a problem horse? I didn't know.
END of Part 1 | Read Part 2 now
Paul Allen was my Head Stockman on Carlton Hill in the East Kimberley in the early 1990's - a finer man you will not find, a horseman through and through, and not too bad with the pen either! I learnt many things from 'Woody' and he remains a close friend to this day.