My Australian Wild Horse Adventure

The author has twice as much fun working with Mikayla and her foal Guner at the same time. (Photo courtesy of Horses and Horsemen)

By Stacey Ruel

I am a New Englander living in the Outback of Australia. I live in a small town of about 28,000 people called Alice Springs. If you have never heard of the place, just have a look at a map of Australia. Look for the center and you should find it. Yes, it is as remote as it looks. Located about 1536kilometers to the north of Adelaide and 1486 kilometers to the south of Darwin, it is the second largest town in the Northern Territory. There are only about 200,000 people in the territory (pronounced terra-tree by the locals) and most of them live in Darwin, the capital. There's not a great deal out here except for some large cattle stations, small mining towns and a few roadhouses along the way. How I came to live in the ' Red Center' of this country is a long story in itself. The short version is that my work brought me here. I had the opportunity to live and work in a place that most people never even visit - not even Australians!

And so it was in this remote location that I attended my first horsemanship clinic in May 2003, which was conducted by Sam Watson of Horses and Horsemen. Sam and his sister Sascha teach people how to communicate with their horses and they train horses how to understand their human. The story of how Sam and Sascha made their start with horses is amazing. After learning how to ride, they rounded up eight wild horses from a place called Clayton Station, broke them to harness and trained them to pull a WWI artillery gun - and that was before Sam became a horsemanship apprentice! Sam was just 19 years old at the time and Sascha was only 17. They now work with problem horses and provide lessons to people on their beautiful 500-acre farm of rolling green pastures located in Western Australia.

While I was learning the basics of natural horsemanship, a mob (herd) of wild horses had been rescued from extermination at a place called New Haven Station located just up the track in the Northern Territory. The station had been sold to a bird sanctuary and the land had to be 'de-stocked' which meant that all of the horses and cattle had to go. A hundred or so brumbies (wild horses) had been mustered (rounded-up) and were shipped to an Alice Springs trucking yard where they waited for their fate to be decided. A few brumby conservation groups expressed an interest in adopting some of the animals but these plans never came to fruition as the transportation costs were beyond their reach.

Commanche feels a saddle on his back for the first time. (Photo by Stacey Ruel)

A Brumby society in Sydney eventually adopted some of the horses but many were sent to an abattoir (slaughterhouse) in South Australia. Eleven horses went to Kerry and John Smoker, cousins of the Coppock family who owned the station. After a week in Alice Springs, the Smoker horses began a long and arduous journey to Kellerberrin, Western Australia. They were herded onto a truck with a group of other horses destined for Port Augusta in South Australia, a 1230-kilometer trip. The truck driver, however, had other ideas and dropped off the entire truckload of horses at the Peterborough Abattoir, a slaughterhouse known for processing horsemeat for export. Once Kerry and John discovered what had happened, they contacted the local police. Most of the horses were saved from slaughter but three had already died due to the poor conditions in the yards. The remaining eight horses were moved to the local rodeo grounds where they remained for another two weeks. Their brief stay at the slaughterhouse, however, required special documentation from the Department of Agriculture before they could be transported interstate. Once the paperwork was processed, they were taken to a place called Jamestown where they remained for another six weeks. Still in South Australia, they were then moved to Wudinna for another week. Finally a trucker was found that would take them to Kellerberrin. Their ordeal, however, was not yet over. The trucker was able to get them as far as Kalgoorlie where they were due to be drenched for liver fluke. The vet was late and the horses could not continue the journey without this treatment. The truck driver had cattle to deliver and would not wait any longer. He left the horses in the yards at Kalgoorlie where they waited for yet another week. A man named James Scott had heard about the horse's grueling trip and decided to help the Smoker family in their quest to save these wild horses. He welded a stock crate to his flatbed truck and drove all the way to Kalgoorlie, picked them up, and took them to Kellerberrin.

Kerry and John were now faced with the dilemma of how to deal with these wild and unbroken brumbies. They now had nine horses as one of the mares had a foal while in the yards. Neither one had much experience with horses. They had also already spent a considerable amount of money just on transportation costs and there was no way they could afford to pay commercial rates to have nine horses trained. Through a friend, they were put in contact with the Watson family of Horses and Horsemen. The Watsons wanted to help but they couldn't very well train all of these horses at no cost. They were, however, prepared to organize a 'Wild Horse Working Camp' which would offer an opportunity for seven students to participate. Each student would be assigned to work with a horse over a period of seven days under the supervision of Sam and Sascha. The seven days would be formed into a course structure including demonstrations, classroom instruction and hands on experience. There would be no limit as to how far a student could advance the horse in seven days, as long as it was done in an acceptable manner.

My own adventure began when I, in Alice Springs at the time, received an e-mail from Brent, Sam and Sascha's father, some time around mid November 2002 inviting me to participate in the working camp. The clinic was going to be held in December so there wasn't much time to make a decision or to make travel arrangements. I made a call to the Watson family to find out the details of the project and after talking with Brent, I just knew that this was something I wanted to do. I booked my plane tickets right away.

After a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Perth and a four-hour drive to Margaret River, I arrived at the Horses and Horsemen farm just as the wild horses were coming off of the truck from Kellerberrin. The herd was in rough condition and most of the horses were underweight and covered with dirt and matted hair. As I wasn't a regular student, I had arrived a few days early for a special two-day course. It turned out to be a great opportunity to get to know the individual personalities in the herd and to assess their mental and physical state. During those first few days we offered them as much meadow hay as they could eat. I have never seen horses eat so much and I could hardly keep up with filling mangers, hay nets and water buckets. They were initially divided up into yards, which they were accustomed to by now after all of their travels. We didn't try to approach or touch them yet; we just hung around during tea breaks and raked around them to clean the yards.

After my two-day 'bridging course' to get me up to speed with Sam's regular students, the other participants began to arrive. We were briefed that we had seven full days to teach our assigned horses catching, leading, feet handling, trailer loading, tying up, and, if we had time, to prepare them for riding. The farrier was scheduled to do their feet on day seven and all of the horses had to be ready. It seemed like an impossible task!

Stacey takes Scrubber for a swim in the farm dam. (Photo courtesy of Horses and Horsemen)

The Smoker's youngest daughter had already named all of the horses. Blaze was a nice looking chestnut yearling filly with a big white blaze down her face. The pony sized gray mare was named Daisy and later assessed to be about two and half years old. Mikayla was thought to be about ten years old. She was also a gray and had a lovely seven-week-old bay colt by her side that was named Guner. Storm Cloud was a bold bay mare thought to be about ten. Cloud Dancing was about eleven years old and a flea bitten gray. The cuts and scars all over her body were clear indications that she was at the bottom of the pecking order in this herd. And the oldest of the group was a sorrel mare called Pretty Girl, thought to be in her late teens. All ages of course, were just estimates based on a vet check.

There were also two dark bay stallions in the group, Comanche and Scrubber. I was assigned the one they called Scrubber, a young bay stud colt about four or five years old. He wasn't much to look at in the condition he was in but probably wouldn't turn out half bad with a bit of weight and muscle on him. He stood just under 15 hands high and according to the vet, possessed the classic conformation of a Waler, a hardy Australian breed.

The first day focused on learning how to properly catch the horses in a small area. Through approach and retreat we were able to show them that we were friendly and that the halter wasn't anything to be afraid of. Once the halter was on, we started to teach them basic yields - how to come forward, how to move the hindquarters out of the way, how to move the shoulder over, and even how to back up. At first the horse might only give half a step but soon that turned into two steps, then three and before we knew it we had taught our horses their first leading lessons.

Scrubber turned out to be the heaviest and most dull horse that I have ever worked with. When he moved he certainly did not put any energy into it. At first the fact that he moved at all was good enough, especially since we were in the confidence-building stage. Day two was more leading and yielding. Scrubber had his first bath, learned how to circle around me, learned how to tie up and we began picking up his front feet. By day three it was time to teach Scrubber how to be a bit more responsive and respectful. I was tired of him walking all over me and dragging me around where he pleased. His escape plan for everything was to plow me over. One time he reared up, came forward and nearly came down on top of me. We spent a long session with him teaching him how to yield backwards with energy. It was almost like he didn't even know how to think backwards! Day three was a big day for Scrubber as he learned how to jump over logs, go into the simulated horse trailer that we had built with barrels, pick up his hind legs and accept a paste wormer. Day four was more of the same only this time we loaded him on the real horse trailer for the first time, introduced the saddle and blanket, began teaching lateral flexion from the ground, and leaned over his back. On day five he was ready for his first ride. Only three of us in the group of seven made it to the riding stage so I was really pleased with this accomplishment. And because we had prepared him so well, Scrubber's first ride was rather uneventful - no rearing, no bucking, no fuss and he even did a little trotting. I even went swimming with him later on that same day in the farm dam!

All of the horses were ready for the farrier on day seven and he was quite impressed with what we had accomplished in such a short time. I think he was expecting them to put up quite a fight! I couldn't believe myself how far the horses had come in just a week. Normally the equivalent training would take place over a month or two but this had been a special case. We put in twelve and thirteen hour days to meet our goals, but we did it in the end. All of the horses left with a basic foundation, ready for the next step in their training. All of the participants left with a great sense of accomplishment and a new set of skills. I know that I left with a lot more knowledge, feel and timing than when I arrived and I had gained a great deal of confidence in myself.

I loved every moment of it and I was ready for more. Until I can attend the next clinic, however, I have returned to work and for the moment, I am stuck being a desk jockey!

About the author:

Stacey Ruel is originally from New Hampshire but currently lives and works in Alice Springs, Australia. Throughout her many travels around the world she has always managed to keep horses a central part of her life. She is currently working through the Parelli horsemanship levels with her young Australian Warmblood, PS Lexus and plans to compete him in dressage.

Stacey Ruel
3/152 Cromwell Drive
Alice Springs, NT 0870

Horses & Horsemen
RMB 256B, Osmington Rd.
Margaret River WA 6285
Phone: 08-9757 8135