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Friday, October 22, 2010

Topsy and the Ten Shilling Notes...... [Part 3]

[Continued from Part 2]

Changes had taken place since Rusty Toohey had given Topsy to me a couple of years before the horse-breaking. OK, I know they don’t call it ‘breaking in’ these days, as methods have changed, fortunately, but that’s what it was then and that’s what I’ll call it for the purposes of this account. The Tooheys had decided to sell up, and with Mum’s keen instinct for timing, she had persuaded Dad that we should at all costs buy his place. It adjoined our property, some paddocks on it even had separate title, and Rusty was keen to get out, as he wasn’t really a farmer. In fact – and I discovered this only yesterday in a message from my sister Jan, he was a hopeless alcoholic – which may at last explain his fit of generosity when he gave me Topsy. He could well have been dead drunk at that moment – but in his favour, he kept his word if so. It was too small a property on its own to be viable anyway. The price was fair. For the first time in our lives we were starting to make money; from whole milk sale, not just cream, so I imagine that was where the finances came from to buy up that extra 160 acres.
   But let’s cut the fake movie directing and get back to the main story. Back to our ten shilling notes. Remember, in some stories, it’s better to travel than to arrive. I hope it’s the case with this one, anyway. Or at least as good.
   At about 10 years of age I went to Pony Club weekly. You know what? I didn’t really like Pony Club. And you know what else? I didn’t even like riding horses much. You want to know why? I’ll tell you, seeing as you asked. Because practically every time I got on a horse on the farm, it was to do work, not play. Rounding up cattle to be milked, dipping, branding, mustering - all involved often lonely hours on horseback when there were way better things to do, as far as I was concerned. And in all sorts of weather – driving rain or cold drizzle, frost, dust, heat… So romantic notions about horse riding for me are few and far between.
   Having got that off my chest, I was pretty handy on a horse, years of bareback riding giving me the riding instincts of a Mongol horseman on one of those rough-as-guts tough-as-boot-leather ponies they still ride. The reason why there was so much bareback riding for me was that Dad and I only had one saddle between us for many years and it never seemed to be my turn. Besides, I was often too lazy to throw on a saddle and would just catch the horse, jump on, and do the job. Sometimes on really hot sweaty days I’d throw a jute pollard bag over the horse’s back and sit astride that. Though it got prickly, at least you didn’t get sores from the horse sweat constantly under the backs of your legs. But when I went to Pony Club, Dad bought a brand new saddle I could use, and that swung things round a bit for me. It was a no-nonsense stock saddle, not a show one, but the comfort factor was ten out of ten. Bareback riding compared with a secure seat in a saddle is like chalk and cheese, and I liked cheese, when I could get it.
   I went to Pony Club for two reasons. Firstly, it was decreed by Dad that I needed to learn good riding habits. The proper way to mount and dismount, to hold the reins, to deal with double reins for show riding, good posture, use of stirrups, to saddle up, grooming, etiquette etc etc. – that sort of thing. It was true – I did need to know all those things – especially if I wanted to be a show rider.
   Secondly, and a reason not at all to my credit, Pony Club was on Sunday afternoon, exactly when the milking was on, so if I went to Pony Club, I was excused my share of the milking, and I’d much rather ride round and round a paddock in pairs or fours with the other kids than milk cows. The extra load in the dairy fell mainly to Mum, so my motives were far from honourable. But it is true that I became a reasonably classy horseman by Pony Club standards, and won ribbons at the Gladstone Show to prove it.
   If I rode Topsy at Pony Club, the other kids had to put up with her incurable, exasperating determination to be half a head in front of any other horse we were paired with or riding fours. A nose in front of her by any other pony and she would snap at it. If that wasn’t enough to show the other pony who was boss, she would turn her head around and bite the leg of the kid riding the horse. I vividly remember the wails of protest from some of them. 
   So, all I can say is that most of my best work at Pony Club was done solo. No-one wanted their group of four judged with one pony permanently out in front, so I wasn’t popular in such group activities. I was a solo performer, mainly because of Topsy’s contrariness. I reckon if she had been the size of a racehorse, she would have won the Melbourne Cup, the Grand National and the Kentucky Derby as long as she got a head start, as she would have scythed down the opposition one by one as they tried to stick their nose in front of her. Is that allowed? I guess not.
   That first ten shilling note. I’m really sorry it’s taken this long to get this far, but it could easily be treble this length if I’d put in everything I’d like to, and still only be at this point. OK, let’s really focus.
   There was a Pony Club gymkhana on in Gladstone. A man called Gregory [or Geoffrey] Nathan was going to be there acting as a judge, along with his wife, Claire, who had distinguished herself by winning an equestrian medal at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956; bronze I think – but as we’d never seen an Olympic medallist in anything, that impressed us. It was like being in the presence of royalty, or even Slim Dusty. 

Mr Nathan was not only a recognised national judge of Arab horses, but also judged aspects of gymkhanas, so the pair were good value in the competition as far as being fair and independent were concerned. The latter, independence, was deemed a vital requirement in Gladstone, especially amongst the 'town' mothers. Some of them at gymkhanas were as bad as those Child Beauty Pageant mothers - you know the ones.
   The older kids in their late teens were in the individual competitions, but I was chosen to be in one of the fours. As you now know, Topsy had presented an insurmountable problem for the Calliope Pony Club for months. Not even the combined experience of the girls who taught Pony Club, Trish and Cathy Boys, had solved it. I was one of the better junior riders, but everyone hated my horse. Heck, when it came to Pony Club, I wasn’t that keen on her myself, but we developed an understanding over the months on the biting habit. It involved a switchy stick in my hand and a sharp whip across the nose with it if she turned to bite any other beast or child. Still, it meant I had to be constantly on the alert, as she would take any opportunity she could to harry the horses beside us if I didn’t keep an eagle eye on her.
   So we ended up solving this by a piecemeal solution. The problem could be cut in half in one fell swoop by having me on the wing; an end spot. One fewer horse to bite. I had noticed that for some reason, Topsy also favoured biting the pony to her left – the side that Juno had inched up on that very first time, so I was posted at left flank in the fours. Bimbo Brown had a pony nearly as mean-spirited as Topsy could be, so he was placed next to me on my right side, while Wendy Mossman and Sue Moran, both great show riders, took the other starboard slots. Topsy wasn’t that keen to bite Bimbo’s gelding so there was an uneasy but fairly stable truce between them for the competition. As long as I was very focused and made Topsy stay in line, we weren’t a bad foursome at all, and ready to take on all comers.
   A story like this has to end in a win, of course, and we did. Neither of my parents could be present - there was milking to be done. Dad would have enjoyed it - well, both of them would. I was gobsmacked early that morning when I went to clean my riding boots to find that Dad had polished them himself the night before, and I could nearly see my face in them. Never had anything like that happened before. 
   Individual prizes were awarded to the senior solo performers, and we juniors got our blue ribbons, presented by Mr Nathan himself. Then a strange thing happened. As we got ours, Mrs Nathan left her seat in the judges’ stand and walked out to him in the ring. They exchanged words, she pointed at me, and from his pocket, he took out what looked to me like a huge roll of banknotes and peeled off a ten shilling note.
   Being on the left flank of our foursome, I was right next to him.
   ‘What’s your name, son?’
   I told him, not sure whether it was something I’d rather he didn’t know. He passed the name on to his wife, together with the money.
   ‘I want to make a special encouragement award, for commendable horsemanship and concentration,’ she said through a microphone that boomed out all over the showgrounds, and handed me the ten bob note. I never heard my name roll around the hills amplified through huge Vic Shellard speakers before - any speakers for that matter. Calliope wasn't big on microphones. I was stunned.
   I felt an utter fraud. For one thing, my position on the left flank in the particular fours manoeuvres we were doing put me right in the limelight. Most of the time, I was the only one of the four of us she could have seen, or at least I thought so. For another, I was so intent on making sure that Topsy didn’t try to bite Bimbo’s pony and stay perfectly in line that I guess I must have looked very well focused indeed. To this day I don’t know exactly what made her rip ten shillings off her husband and give it to me, but I wasn’t complaining. I was a fraud, but temporarily a rich one, and that was good enough for me. Sue and Wendy, my fours partners, were very gracious about it, but Bimbo looked displeased. Would I share my good luck with them? Not on your Nellie.
   Claire Nathan wasn't finished with me.
   'She's naughty, isn't she?' Topsy pricked up her ears and then flattened them immediately, in aggressive mode. 'Hop off a minute.'
   I dismounted, very correctly.
   'Nice saddle. Good quality'
   'Dad took a long time picking it out.' He certainly had paid plenty for it.
   'It's new, I can see. And you've been looking after it.'
   Not true, but I didn't let on. Dad had been looking after it, regularly using the Coachaline saddle grease that our other old saddle all too rarely saw in its life.
   She lengthened the stirrup leathers in a flash and swung into the saddle.
   Topsy's ears pricked up again sharply, but didn't go back into fighting mode. Then the whole audience and I witnessed the most amazing thing. She rode Topsy in circles, zigzag, over a hurdle, pirouetted, things I couldn't even name... and Topsy behaved like an absolute angel. Everyone appreciated the spectacle and clapped, except me. I was standing there like the village idiot, ten shilling note in hand, gaping open mouthed like a newly caught cod. Topsy had been ridden by an Olympic medalist! 
   Mrs Nathan jumped off and in a flash fixed the stirrups for me to mount up again.
   'See? She could do that for you. Get back on.'
   I obeyed with alacrity. I was sitting in my saddle, still warm from an Olympic medallist's bum!
   ‘Do you like show riding?’ Mrs Nathan asked.
   ‘It’s all right, Mrs Nathan.’
   ‘You should do more of it.’
   ‘I will.’

It was a sincere lie. The truth was that one of the last things in the world that I wanted to do was ride round and round a show-ring, demonstrating mastery of boy over unwilling beast. But the ten shillings was nice and she had a great smile, and deserved that predictable response to her question.
   But how I got that other ten shillings, now - that’s a far better story than this one!

Topsy and I, with our farm in the background.


  1. The bit about your Dad polishing your boots made me get a bit teary!


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