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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Spurred on

It seems that many of my childhood stories involve horses, and this one is no exception. I've already mentioned how my own little bay mare, Topsy, was an utter bitch when it came to Pony Club, because she was intensely bossy and competitive.

   One afternoon we decided that I would ride the grey mare, Rusty, instead of Topsy, so the horses around me at Pony Club weren't getting their ears shredded. We hadn't done this before because in real life, Rusty was at least as old as I was, meaning that she was in late middle age in horse years. This meant that she was wise to the ways of children and could quickly dominate them.

   To compensate, she had a beautiful temperament otherwise and a canter so gentle you could put a kid of five on her.

   The only problem was that with a child on her back, she did things at her own speed. This didn't suit Pony Club activities.

    So Dad's solution seemed the obvious one. I needed a pair of spurs. I was pleased with the idea because they looked and felt cool, as if I were a real cowboy. Maybe the term 'winning his spurs' was stuck there somewhere in my subconscious.

   When I got them – an old pair that had been hanging on a nail in the hayshed – I polished the brass till it looked like gold. Well, I thought it did.

   'Just keep your toes in,' Dad said, 'and be careful.'

   We started off from the house, spurs jingling a little. Rusty knew that noise, and pricked up her ears. It was not a noise she was fond off.

   Not fifty metres from home, I decided on a little test. I turned my toes out and gave Rusty a gentle nudge with the spurs.

   She looked (and felt) very lively and broke into a trot immediately.

   Riding a horse at a trot means standing in the stirrups every second stride. As a novice with this gear, I didn't realise that with each trotting stride I was spurring her a bit. Not a lot, but Rusty was highly offended.

   She lengthened her trotting stride, which doubled the spurring effect.

   'What?' she said, 'You little pipsqueak. You were put on my back when you were two years old, and I treated you as gentle as ... a baby. What's this about?'

   She waived the canter option and flew straight into a gallop, and at that pace we rounded the corner at the bottom of the hill.

   If I could have spoken the Calliope horse dialect and if she'd been in the mood to listen, I'd have explained that I had my whole attention focused on trying to keep my heels out, and she wasn't helping one little bit by reckless galloping.

   She was in no mood for discussions. On the contrary, she followed the road almost at full speed along past Boys's paddock, up the hill by the cowyard.

   It was only then I realised I was in a spot of real bother, on a sorely aggrieved nag about to bolt, and me with no idea of spur-control.

   She was heading straight for the narrow lane to the cattle grid that was the exit to our property – the one to the cemetery road. The way things were going, I might have been needing a plot there before too long.

   In case you don't know, a grid is very effective way to keep cows and horses in, simply because they hate trying to pass over anything they can see through downwards, and rarely will. Instinctively, cloven-hoofed animals feel unsafe on them. Horses too, they won't do it.

   If Rusty attempted to cross the grid at a gallop, or to leap it, the result would probably have been a broken leg and a merciful bullet for her, and a broken neck for me.

   As I struggled to work out how to keep my spurs from raking her sides, I did at least have the presence of mind to realise we were heading for a sudden and unpleasant way to finish life's journey, and while that might have been OK for Rusty, having gone well past horsey middle age, I hadn't really got mine started.

   For the first time since she bolted, I took a bit of control and wheeled her to the right, through the open gate of the four acre paddock beside the lane that ended at the grid. Still pelting along at a pace that would have done credit to the horses at the final bend in the Melbourne Cup – and having travelled nearly that far by then – we did one entire circuit of the paddock and were off for a second turn. I was still trying to figure things out; still focused on trying not to hurt her with the cursed spurs.

   At least, death by cattle-grid had been avoided.

   Meanwhile, my father had not been idle. He had witnessed the whole thing from the back landing, and could see the impending disaster unfolding, yea, before his very eyes.

   Barefoot, he raced after us, jumping the fence to take a shortcut through Boys's paddock and clearing the fence by a foot on the other side. All that championship sprinting he'd done in his youth came in handy on that day. Obviously, the hurdling of the two fences came naturally, which was a bit of luck for us both.

   Feet barely touching the ground, he raced by the cowyard as my charger and I were halfway round the second circuit of the four-acre paddock. Dad headed for the gate I'd opted for in avoiding the suicidal lane to the grid.

   It was at this point that I had a thought. Instead of trying not to spur Rusty on to greater speeds before she dropped dead of exhaustion, why not try to pull her up? Hit the brakes? Slam on the anchors? Stop her?

   In other words, to lean back on the reins as hard as I could.

   I simply hadn't thought of that. Over about a hundred metres, she slowed in response as I dragged on the snaffle bit. She had a soft mouth and her slowing down meant that the relentless spurring eased somewhat. Finally, with me standing in the stirrups and reefing back on the reins with all my weight, she ground to a halt just as Dad came charging through the open paddock gate, face red
as a beetroot with fury and effort.

   'What the bloody hell... why didn't you pull her up a mile back? What sort of horseman are you?'

   'I was hurting her and I was trying not to,' I whimpered, looking down at her sides as my father wrenched the spurs off my boots. There were spots of blood at spur-tip level and I felt appalled at what I'd done.

   'I just didn't think about trying to pull her up.'

   He had that resigned look on his face, knowing I was so soft-hearted that it was true. Also, that I was an idiot.

   'You won't be needing these again,' he said, hobbling back down the track, my shiny brass spurs in his hand. There was sharp gravel on the road and he wouldn't have felt a thing while running over it to try to save my miserable life. He was feeling the stone bruises now.

   It's probable that mine was the shortest career for a spurred cowboy in history. I had absolutely no desire to put them back on, and never wore a pair again.



  1. Oh, so THAT is why they don't go over grids! Though sometimes they do, if panicked, and so out here dogs are occasionally stationed beside the grid to bark the sheep or cattle away. What a lovely story. It tells so much of your childhood, your own nature, and your dad. Lots of love but no nonsense. Life is different for most children now..and not to their advantage.

    Your writing is fantastic -it's improving all the time!

    Julie M xx

  2. Thanks for the compliment! I'm trying to get a bit more ruthless, not that it may seem that way.

    Animals with hooves generally don't climb trees, so they don't like the sensation of nothing below. [Leave out of this mountain goats etc who do amazing things on almost vertical hillsides. But they still don't usually climb trees!]

    Modern grids are made of steel as one unit, and just dropped in a big hole dug in the ground. This simplifies installation enormously, but it can mean the gaps between the bars are too narrow, and some animals are willing to tackle them. Bad design!

    Grids like ours were handmade from 4" x 2" timbers, and spaced quite widely. Only the gamest hooved [hoofed?] livestock would tackle them, and if they started leading others of their kind into temptation, it was the saleyards for them.

  3. Julie searches for photo she's seen of goats up a tree in Africa (well you DID say 'usually'!) Also, did you know, while we're on goats ,that the most common way for a mountain goat to die is falling off the mountain! Much to the relief of stalking snow leopards' tummies.

    I was having a horrible morning with problems to solve in town but as I drove in there was a koala walking along the roadside.It posed picturesquely in several positions -on the roadside, a few feet up a =tree, peeking from behind a branch, all the while I was trying to work out how to take a photo with my phone (it's not an iphone..) But I was thinking 'why am I so avid to take its photo?' A waste of personal koala communication. But it all made me forget I was on the way to the dentist (in a good way).

    Julie M xx

    1. Aha! I knew someone would say that about the goats, which is why I added the qualifier – somewhere in the dark recesses of my memory I recalled the goats-in-a-tree image as well.

      I remember those mountain goats too, and one apparently well known very old one finally slipping to her death after a life on the edge. Maybe not a bad way to go.

      For sheer goat tenacity [sheer – geddit?] look at these pictures!

      There's something magical about seeing a wild koala – but such a dangerous place for them to be, on the ground. Maybe that hope for a photo was as proof that this happened, for you. But keeping it in memory instead is better.

      You survived the dentist. Huzzah!

  4. As I read your story, I came to realise that I was holding my breath and my heart was racing. (It's not sensible not to breathe for too long!) I was right back there, on a farm outside Attunga, near Tamworth sometime around 1963-ish. Because Dad was a Dairy Officer with the Dept of Ag, he worked with the Elliots on their dairy farm. So it was how my sister and I became friends with the daughters, Robyn and Wendy. We had many blissful horse-obsessed holidays with them, riding bare-legged and bare-back (never mind the chafing!)from straight after breakfast until dark. Wendy and Alison loved Topsy. Robyn and I shared Banjo. I had no idea how to ride, the only instruction given to us novices from their Dad was, "Hold on and keep his bloody head up!"
    We went out for hours at a time, coming back to the farmhouse where mother, Betty fed us (I remember with great fondness her exquisite butterscotch pudding which I have never tasted anywhere else. What is the recipe, I wonder?). No-one checked up on us. No-one was worried about what we were up to. No one was "hovering" over us. We fell off. We got back on. We rode into rivers and dams and brought back the horses lathered in sweat. We hosed and brushed and curry-combed those ponies until they shone.
    One afternoon, Robyn and I decided we were going to build "jumps" in the newly-ploughed paddock probably half a km from the homestead. We toiled for hours - back-breaking work to build jumps out of clods of rich Namoi (was it?) valley soil. I was so tired and aching, I wanted to stop at 2 jumps. Robyn wanted 5. So on we went. By the time the 5, 2m long X 1m high jumps were completed, it was dark. Were the parents worried? Doesn't seem so.

    So, onto the horses we climbed, Topsy and Banjo, and we started racing and jumping them (bare-back!!) Then the moon rose in the midst of a full canter, a big, shining orb, illuminating the paddock, casting eerie shadows. The horses took fright at their shadows and shied away alarmingly. My horse bolted. I was terrified. It took all my strength to hold onto the reins and as much mane as I could hold in my 13 year old hands. My legs were aching - no stirrups to assist, no saddle - just bare horse's back. We were heading for the closed gate of the paddock at full gallop. At the last moment, of his own accord, Banjo veered away and came to a heaving and sudden halt. I slid off, trembling - relieved, but exhilarated too. I knew this was a risky and terrifying experience I would never willingly choose to have encounted. But I survived it and learnt something new about myself.

    Thank you Mum and Dad (departed) and Mr and Mrs Elliott for giving your children the space, the trust and the opportunity to test their own metal, and to be free to learn to trust themselves.

    1. Great story! You're the first person I ever heard of who also had a horse called Topsy. You were a bit lucky there.

      I can't ever recall being tipped off a horse while in the saddle. But as I rarely got use of the saddle and rode 90% of the time bareback, my memory is littered with 'falling off' incidents in that mode. I never once got really hurt.

      So how much of it did you tell your parents? Did you play it down or tell them the unvarnished truth?

      Thanks for this.


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