The Kimberley Calling | Part 3 | By Paul Allen
Continuing on from Part 2
I continued to work weekends at the horse stud. Pete was the trainer, a lean scruffy Kiwi with dark curly hair and a mild stutter, he knew how to train trotters and pacers. Dave was the foreman, heavy set, he was a bit younger than Pete and grew up under his fathers hand also training trotters. Dave's sister Sally was married to Dennis, who was the owner. Then there was Matt; Mid twenties, totally deaf and communicated by sign language and some odd noises that he made as he signed. He was a strong worker who did whatever needed to be done for Dave or Pete.
They were a rough crowd, but I preferred rough as apposed to pompous, and I was comfortable working with and learning from these men. I knew nothing of the harness racing industry or Standard Bred horses and learned a lot about nutrition, getting a horse fit through a training regime, and breeding mares with a stud stallion. 'Colonel' was the stallion, he was the biggest and most powerful horse I had ever seen. Bay in colour with well defined muscles and a long mane and tail, he was very imposing and commanded respect. His yard was the biggest on the stud and had an eight foot high electric fence right around.
My day would start with feeding the horses, each horse had a different feed depending on their stage of training, age, or mares in foal, and so on. I learned quickly how to make up the different feeds and would take them to the stabled horses in training first, and then the horses in day yards outside.
Some were visiting mares for Colonel and others were two year olds being broken in to start their racing life (if they made the grade). Colonel wouldn't wait at his gate like the others, he was too proud for that. I had to enter his yard, then walk to his single stable known as a loose box, where he would be standing waiting. He intimidated me and made me feel like a servant. He would wait outside his box as I entered with his twenty litre bucket of feed, when he heard the bucket tap on the edge of his feed bin as I tipped it in he would stride inside without even acknowledging I was there, open his mouth wider than I had ever seen a horse, and take one massive bight into his feed as if he was breaking it's neck before he ate it. I made sure I was well out of his way by this time and gave him a wide birth on my way out. We developed an understanding; I stayed out of his way, and he didn't kill me.
Once the feeding was done it was time to muck out the stables and replenish the wood shavings or straw on the floor. The boys would be out on the town on a Friday night and often wouldn't return until mid morning on Saturday, still drunk. After I learned how to harness and drive a horse Pete would leave me instructions as to which horses needed work and for how long. I enjoyed these mornings on my own with the horses, despite the bitter cold of winter and my hands going numb trying to hold the reins. When they got on the track some of these horses just loved to work and it took all my strength at times to hold them at the pace Pete had instructed.
Other times I would be told to use the 'Jogger', this was a large steel frame on wheels with various tie points around it. I'd tie six or eight horses around it and tow it around the track exercising them all at once. The horses had specific positions where they liked to be on the jogger and if I got it wrong one would be kicking at another and invariably one or more would break their head collar and gallop away across the paddocks. It was a steep learning curve and I spent many mornings frantically trying to catch the escapees before the boys got back from town.
Training and breaking the Standard Breds was unforgiving, if a horse was required to carry his head lower, it was tied down. If it needed to be higher, it was tied up from the top of his head back to the harness. If a horse was lazy he was hit with a whip to make him go faster. Horses were taught to pace, which is an unnatural gait for horses (where the two left legs stride then the two right legs, like a camel) using hobbles, tying the legs together. If they didn't pace they would fall over. A standard and accepted practice throughout the industry. Even when we served mares, she would be tied to a rail and her back legs would be hobbled so she couldn't kick. Colonel was then brought in to have his way with her way, she had no choice.
It sat uneasy with me, the only experience I had was with Sky, these men had trained hundreds of horses. I wanted to be competent, more than that I wanted to be good with horses, so I learned. It was easy to get caught up in the escalation of force, if a horse was reluctant to turn one way someone would be on the reins pulling him around, and another up at the horses head directing him, then trying to startle him in the right direction, then scare him, before he knew it he was being hit across the side of the head with a length of poly pipe. Then he would turn, if he didn't he was discarded as not having the right temperament, and if the same mare produced a second offspring with a similar temperament then she would be discarded too.
I enjoyed race nights, loading a horse on the float and travelling to the meet. The pre-race excitement and then the thunder of the horses racing. We didn't race often, but when we did Dave and Pete had picked the race carefully and we would usually win. The boys would always bet big, and so would Dennis. I even started to put twenty dollars on our horse sometimes.
I started to wonder how the stud made it's money. The horses in training were all bred on the place, so there were no training fees bringing money in. The mares we served were predominantly our mares too so stud fees weren't generating much either. Trying not to overstep my bounds I asked Dave one day and he told me that Dennis was a professional gambler and funded the stud. This made sense and explained why I rarely saw him, and when I did it was usually in the afternoons and he would typically still be in his dressing gown.
Some interesting characters would visit and stay, sometimes for weeks. It wasn't uncommon for a couple of Bikers to be around either which perplexed me as they didn't seem to have anything to do with the horses. But this was not only a Stud but home for quite a few peoples as well, and I figured that most of us have friends outside our work place.
I got along well with Matt and even learned enough sign language to be able to joke with him as we worked, unloading horse feed, fencing or working horses side by side.
Pete had also worked as a contract fencer in New Zealand, which was handy because after the Ash Wednesday fires a lot of the yards had been destroyed and needed to be replaced. The horses were all safe but most of the fencing had gone. From the stables I saw a red ute drive in one Saturday and Mr jolly stepped out in his Open Road hat, Sally emerged from the house to greet him, always suspicious of strangers. They talked for a few minutes then Mr Jolly tipped his hat politely and they said goodbye. Later that afternoon I overheard Sally telling Dave that an old man had come and offered some free paddocks for the horses until the burnt fences could be replaced. She declined explaining that arrangements had already been made for the horses and thanked him for the gesture.
Truck loads of posts and wire were delivered. The call went out and friends gathered for a working bee, most of them wearing black leather and riding Harley Davidson bikes, with colourful names like 'Maggot' and 'Blue'. Within a week the old posts and burnt wire were gone, and the boundary and paddock fences were replaced under Pete's direction with tight, straight lines of new fence. Only the day yards remained to be done, and the boys and I worked through them over the coming weekends.
The yards were post and wire with a hot (electric) wire running on the inside. Short runs of fence were hard to get right, the corner post assemblies had to be good, if they moved even the slightest when the wires were strained the whole fence would go loose. The fencer needed to know his stuff.
Pete worked us with a critical eye as we built the corner assemblies, we installed stays and braces on specific angles, and even a foot placed strategically four foot under the ground on some.
I asked Pete where he learned how to build them.
“Back in New Zealand” he said, “sometimes we would be fencing through swamps where you could just push the corner post down into the mud with your hands. The ground wouldn't hold them in so we had to learn how to brace them using stays and feet with the right angles.”
“Wow!” I thought to myself, how hard that must have been, to be able to push a post into the mud then brace it so it didn't move when the force of the tensioned wire was applied. I was impressed.
All the posts for the first yard were in and we started to strain the wires, with the hot wire there only needed to be four wires on the top half of the post. One by one we strained them tight, you could play a tune on them they were so tight. Then as the tension was being put on the final wire, like synchronised swimmers all the corner posts popped up out of the ground in a graceful ballet. Pete looked on in disbelief and Matt started making loud 'Booping' noises which was his way of swearing profusely.
'Must be sticky mud in New Zealand!' I thought, but wisely kept it to myself.
Skye was a handy horse now, reliable and sure footed. She would carry me up and down slopes I would struggle to climb myself, jump fallen logs and I could even crack a whip on her. We were good friends and even Beau had come to accept her as one us, but was still reluctant to join us on our rides, he would wait at the fence for our return.
As I was putting her away on a Saturday evening a familiar red ute drove in, and Mr Jolly stepped out.
“Hows your filly going?” he asked, walking over and shook my hand. “She's pretty handy now Mr Jolly, thank you” I replied with a smile.
He looked her over, up and down, “Who does your shoeing?”
“I do it myself now” I explained, hoping he didn't look to close at my work. “Good for you.” he said.
“I've got a few young-ins I'm breaking in now, if you'd like to come down and ride 'em I'll teach you how to break?” he offered.
“Sure!” I said, but then memories of Skye driving me into the dirt came flooding back. “But I'm not very good at staying on when they buck.” I added.
“I've seen you ride” He said with a wink, “you'll be right.”
At the dinner table that night I told my parents of the opportunity I had to ride for him.
My Mother wanted some clarification about the arrangement. Was it a job he offered me or just riding a young horse every now and then? I didn't have the answers for her as I wasn't entirely sure.
But I had already thought about leaving school, I was finding it increasingly harder to apply myself. School wasn't particularly difficult for me but I struggled to see any relevance in my studies. I wasn't learning anything I was actually interested in, or anything that my young mind could see would benefit me in the direction I wanted to take when I left.
“Well” she said, “You had better find out what it is that you are agreeing to before you do!”
So bright and early the next morning I saddled Skye and we headed down the road. It was about a forty-five minute ride if we trotted and cantered most of the way. He must have heard the hoof beats coming up the drive because he opened the front door as I was stepping off Skye.
“Good morning Mr Jolly, I was just wondering...did you mean like a full time job riding for you when we spoke yesterday?”
His expression softened like I hadn't seen before, “I'm not in the position to be able to offer you a full time job” he said, “I wish I was, I'll pay you when I can but I'll also teach you, and I would appreciate the help, I'm too fucken old to get on the young ones now.” Trying not to let my disappointment show, I agreed that would be fine, and we arranged for me to get off the school bus at his corner during the week, and he would drive me home later.
“Now, let me see you get on that filly.” he said.
I gathered the reins, put my foot in the stirrup and swung my leg over as he watched, then sat up tall.
“Not bad”, he commented, “it's a good starting point.”
This outcome seemed to appealed to my parents as I think they wanted to keep me in school as long as they could. But I was fifteen now and I was chomping at the bit to get out into the world and on with life.
Mr Jolly had four two year old's that he had handled and had done all the ground work with, they were in great condition, fat and shiny and well behaved.
“Never fall asleep around a young horse”, he told me, “no matter how quiet you think they are, that's when you'll get hurt.”
I learned that he had been a contract horse breaker across Stations in the outback. With one off-sider he would break three hundred horses a year. The number staggered me, and they were rough station horses, not two year olds that had been handled as foals.
He maintained, that done right a horse shouldn't buck, but the odd one was going to no matter what, so you needed to be able to 'hang up' (stay on) when it happened.
Dorothy Jolly was a lovely lady, a real Country Lady and all that it implied; quiet, polite, always well presented, hard working, openly loving towards her children and animals, but nobody's fool, and fiercely protective of those she cared about.
After the war when Geoff returned, like many others, he was given a soldiers settlement. A block of land to help them move on with their lives. But the country was hard and many found it difficult to make enough money off their block to live and raise a family. A young family with three young boys, Geoff took on contract Roo shooting at night to supplement their income. Once the boys were put to bed the couple would head out, one would drive and the other would shoot.
“I'll tell you something...” He confided in me one day, “I always drove and she would shoot, she's a much better shot than me, but don't you fucken tell anyone!”
She showed me a newspaper clipping over a cup of tea one day when Mr Jolly was out. The article was a letter written in to the paper from a gentlemen who had been reading the papers ongoing series of articles about the best buck-jump riders in the country, Rodeo legends.
He wanted to add a name to the list and recounted a story that he witnessed.
The Rodeo was in town, and all the rough riders and rodeo hands were at the pub downing a few. As the night wore on the story telling grew bigger and more incredible until a young man sitting quietly at the end of the bar with his off-sider pulled them up on a few of the tall tales.
One thing led to another and before long, in a heated debate the off-sider claimed that his friend could, “ride better than any of them, and could hang up on any horse they had in the bucking string, as a matter of fact, EVERY horse they had in the bucking string.”
The gauntlet had been thrown, so in the middle of the night the whole pub migrated to the rodeo grounds and one by one every bronc was saddled and the young man bucked them out. Not just for ten seconds as required by rodeo rules to be counted, but until they stopped bucking. The young man was a horse breaker by the name of Geoff Jolly.
I asked Mr Jolly about it one day, and never one for boasting he dismissed it saying that newspapers always exaggerate, buck-jumpers aren't that hard to ride, and gave me a wink.
The four two year old's were ready to ride, they were all Quarter Horses bred for cutting. Mr Jolly's son Greg was passionate about cutting and had bred or bought them for future training. Greg was in the U.S.A. working with and learning from arguably one of the best trainers in the world at the time, Buster Welch.
Before I got on the young horses Mr Jolly warned me what each one would be like;
“This one will be fine, pretty quiet, but don't go to sleep. Watch this one she might try and stand up on you (rear). We'll take this one slow or he might dog it (sit down). And this one” he said referring to a smart chestnut gelding with a white face, “you'll need to hang up on I reckon, he's got some things he needs to get out of his system,” He had nicknamed the chestnut 'Killer'.
Over the week, when I rode the two year old's his predictions came true in varying degrees. On his first ride, 'Killer' threw me off....twice!
I listened to everything I was told, eager to learn. Horse breaking was a sought after position in his day, and held in high regard and pay. Consequently breakers were secretive as to their methods to try and maintain an edge over a competitor to secure the next contract. Some of the methods and techniques we employed with the young horses I was sworn to secrecy over, and I took the confidence seriously. Whilst still in the vein of 'Horses need to be shown who is boss, you need to be the leader of the herd', contrary to the harness racing industry, the way Mr Jolly handled them varied immensely depending on the horses individual temperament and personality. What worked for one would not necessarily work for the next, there was a real skill in being able to identify and recognise how a horse would respond to different approaches.
Mr Jolly had made a living out of horses early but his love was for dogs, working dogs.
On his property there were around thirty dogs tied up at kennels and in sheds. Most of them were Border Collies or Collie crosses, and there was one Kelpie, 'Josh'. He also had a few Heelers, blue and red, a Stag-hound, a Whippet, and a Hunt-away. In the house yard Mrs Jolly had a miniature Dachshund 'Trudy' who followed her everywhere.
He had also done a lot of droving, predominantly sheep, along stock routes when feed got short on the property. Each dog had a purpose, the Stag-hound would protect the sheep and lambs at night, snap a foxes neck with one bite. The Collies and Kelpies would work the sheep, and the Hunt-away would drive them out of thick undergrowth with his 'whooping' bark when needed. The Heelers would protect and guard the gear and camp, and the Whippet...
“He'll catch your dinner for you when things get tough” Mr Jolly explained.
I often stayed for dinner which was always meat with vegetables and soup to start with, Mrs Jolly was an excellent cook and a gracious hostess. She always made me feel welcome. After dinner Mr Jolly and I would retire to the T.V. room where he would promptly fall asleep in his arm chair and I would spend every moment watching videos of horse cutting or working dog trials.
I mostly liked the three sheep trials, one dog moving three sheep through a course of obstacles with only vocal or whistle commands from the handler. The focus and concentration of these Collies was intense, I watched, captivated. They were as agile as a cat and I saw similarities between them and the cutting horses, the horses moved like a sheepdog as they tried to keep the cow out of the herd. Both had to be at a level of training so that when competing there was little influence from the handler or rider. Cutting horses were penalised if the rider influenced the horse with the reins, and the dog handlers had to stand at a given point and let the dog do the work. Both cutting horses and trial dogs had to understand what was expected of them, the trainer had to build a vocabulary to a level so that the animal could understand the goal.
I learned that Mr Jolly had been one of the most successful dog trialers that the country had ever seen. Had won everything there was to be won, even the National Championship a staggering six times. He had travelled to the U.K. to compete in international trials, and was presented to the Queen of England.
He might take ten to twenty dogs to a trial, they would calmly sit in a line and wait to be called for their turn to work, then return to the line and wait quietly for the next dogs turn. I wondered why he didn't trial or train dogs anymore, although occasionally if I walked up the drive quietly after getting off the bus I would find and watch him working with a dog before he knew I was there. His passion for them was still obvious to me, and his dogs loved him.
He told me a story of the last trial he entered, he would typically camp at the trial grounds with his dogs for the three days of the trial. After feeding and watering his dogs he went into town to have some dinner, when he returned some of his dogs were dead, they had been poisoned.
He vowed he would never trial again, and never did.
“I'll teach you how to break in a dog one day” he said putting a hand on my shoulder.
Mr Jolly took me under his wing, “I've crossed a few dry gullies” he'd say, meaning he had been around a bit and learned some things to pass on. He taught me about horses and gave me the odd snippet of wisdom about dogs. But more than that he believed firmly that a young man should be equipped with the skills to handle any situation, and maintained that a lot of these skills were not hard to learn and would be invaluable at the right time. I learned which cutlery to use for which course when fine dining, to fill my soup spoon away from me, and my desert spoon towards me. He encouraged me to learn to dance so that I would be able to move a woman around the dance floor confidently when the occasion called for it.
“You'll drink many a cup of tea that you didn't really want,” he said, “get used to it, it doesn't cost much to be polite, and giving people a few minutes of your time.”
I soaked it all in.
In later years at a dance I saw his son Greg gracefully moving his partner around the floor when others were struggling with the 'Tea-pot dance'.
There was a lovely Blue Heeler bitch that was never tied up and roamed the yard freely. “She's got a few brains” Mr Jolly told me, she wasn't aggressive like 'Mona' and 'Boof', the two Heeler's that lived on either side of the entrance to the saddle shed, they would tear the face off anything that came in reach, but she was protective when she needed to be.
Many times I had fed Mona, helping Mr jolly feed the dogs, and I was a familiar face working with the horses, but still I had no hope of getting near her or into the saddle shed, I would just leave the saddles outside and Mr Jolly would put them away. The only other person who could get near her was Mrs Jolly, if she came out to the sheds for some reason Mona would roll onto her back sweeping the ground with her tail madly, begging for a pat. The yard Heeler had a litter of pups, then got sick with milk poisoning. Despite Mrs
Jolly's best efforts and care she died when the pups were only a week old. The little pups were unlikely to survive. “Pick one,” Mr Jolly said to me standing over them, “look after it and it will be devoted to you for the rest of its life.”
I looked at the little pups, all white, barely with their eyes open. There were two that were noticeably bigger than the others, they looked strong and healthy and would likely survive. But one was smaller, a female on it's own, not curled up sharing warmth with the rest. As I squatted there looking at them the little female opened her eyes, maybe for the first time, to have a look at the world. She gazed around, then I saw her eyes focus, and she looked at me, just looked.
“This one.” I said scooping her up. “Thank you!” I cared for the tiny pup, taking her everywhere with me, she would ride in the
pocket of my 'Dryz-abone' coat with her little head hanging out, bobbing up and down as I rode Skye through the hills. Beau welcomed her into the pack, and when her colour came through she was speckled red with a patch in the middle of her back and another over one eye, I named her 'Kelly' and the two of us started our adventures together.
Appearances can be deceiving
I still worked at the Stud on the weekends, and with Mr Jolly during the week after school. I could tell he didn't like me working at the Stud but wouldn't presume to tell me not to. He knew I needed to make my own money, and decisions. But he had a mantra he repeated to me on more than one occasion; “Associate with mugs and you become a mug.” But I liked the guys at the stud, they had always been fair to me, and I had grown wiser and wasn't that naive to be convinced by the 'professional gambler' explanation anymore. I noticed that any conversations Don had with visiting friends were always had whilst strolling around the property, never indoors. Talk with Daniel was never specific, reference was made to 'that thing we were talking about before'. But I was there for the horses and wasn't susceptible or interested in being drawn into anything else.
'Whatever else was going on was their business', I thought, as long as they didn't try to involve me. That was respected, and in fairness they never really tried.
There was another young guy, a year younger than me on the school bus 'Druce', he lived not far from me and got off at the stop before mine. There was a grey mare in their paddock and she was a good type. When I asked him about her he explained that his father had bought her a couple of years earlier on the advice of a local horse friend, Joe Khan, who coincidentally was the man who bred Skye. Druce's father had ambitions of riding her but they never eventuated and the mare now lived a solitary life in the paddock.
My inquiry about the mare sparked Druce's curiosity, and my enthusiasm for horses was infectious. Before long he was riding her and he quickly became quite a good rider. Our friendship grew and we spent many days riding the hills together. He even started to help at the Stud when an extra pair of hands were needed.
Joe Khan had taken in a man from up north who was down for a couple of weeks. He was a Station Manager from the Northern Territory, near Timber Creek. Druce and I would sit for hours, galvanised by his stories of station horses, cattle musters and wild bulls. Eventually, explaining that young men who were handy with a horse were always in short supply up north, he offered us both a job on his Station, and that his Head Stockman 'Sparrow' would teach us about Station work. He even named the Station horses that he would give us each to use, and described their personalities and attributes. We were so excited, this was the real deal! His ute would seat three and offered to give us a ride back with him when he returned in a week. All we needed was our saddles and some clothes, he would set us up with anything else we needed when we got there, even agreeing to let me bring Kel. Finally I was heading in the direction I dreamed about, the Outback.