By Alan Reid
Norman sat, squatting astride the flattened top of the round yard post watching Ben working the young horse on the end of the mouthing gear, familiarising it to a bit in its mouth and commands delivered through the reins.
He watched in silence as Ben moved behind the horse and gently stroked the stockwhip against its ribs and legs coaxing it forward before applying pressure to the long reins, pulling deftly on the nearside rein, then the offside rein to manoeuvring the horse like a ballet coryphée pulling puppet strings to cajole a heavyweight pugilist to a flawless bourree.
He had seen Ben mouth horses before, but no matter how many times he watched it never failed to fascinate. All the elements of the delicate struggle between the two players in the yard – the parry, the suspense, the frustration, the exhilaration, the satisfaction and the ultimate respect were manifested in the growing bond between the man and his charge. It was the balance between the teacher and the pupil, the breaker and the free spirit, which eventually created a servant without servitude, a beast tamed with spirit undaunted.
“We’ll ride him after lunch,” Ben said as he removed the mouthing gear, hung it over the top rail of the fence and retrieved his saddle from the round yard rail. “You can have a go if you like Norman,” Ben taunted.
Ben knew the “Not likely!” response even before it was delivered. He tied the stirrups together over the saddle to prevent them flaying the horse if it decided to buck and easing the saddle onto the horse’s quivering back, speaking whispered praise as he reached a wire under the horse to retrieve the surcingle and gently tighten it between the animal’s heaving breaths.
“We’ll let him get the feel of it while we have lunch,” Ben said as he climbed through the rails of the round yard fence and the pair walked towards the house.
There were parallels between Ben and Norman. They were good mates and they both had a love for the bush and all its unique character along with its unique characters. Beyond that they were parallel like railway tracks – they came together somewhere just beyond the horizon.
Ben was from the bush and suited a dusty yard working freshly caught brumbies or droving stock. Norman was born to the city where a desk and a suit and tie were the stock in trade. Ben was a powerful man with a athletic stature that made him appear taller than he was. Norman was best described as slight and less than tall, and from some angles, slightly rounded. Ben could find his way by the stars. Norman lacked night vision and always made camp before the sun went down. Ben was an expert shot. Norman couldn’t hit a sleeping stag with a shotgun. Ben always guaranteed a feed of fish. Norman couldn’t bag a catch during a feeding frenzy in a swimming pool. Ben could repair a car with eight-gauge wire and a pair of pliers. Norman had trouble locating the box holding the pliers. Ben could ride anything on four legs. Norman couldn’t.
The truth was Norman didn’t trust horses all that much. He rode them because it was a convenient way to get around otherwise inaccessible locations in the bush. He respected horses for their elevated viewing platform, their complete acceptance by wildlife which otherwise would flee at the sight of a man and their tenacious determination to surmount the toughest obstacles, most inhospitable weather and longest distances without complaint or hesitation. However, his admiration and affinity was limited. He maintained “The front end bites, the rear end kicks and the middle goes in any direction when you least expect it – and sometimes they did the whole lot at once.”
Bush mythology says that riders can’t claim to be good horsemen until they have been thrown at least three times. On that count Norman was legendary, unfortunately not for his horsemanship, only for his spills. He had notched up more falls than an escarpment in a thunderstorm, but despite his record he had registered some achievements chasing brumbies or recalcitrant bullocks through the scrub and down precipitous ravines. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the fortitude – he just didn’t have the ability.
The horse was standing quietly in the shade when Ben and Norman returned from lunch. It moved forward as the men approach, its ears pricked, dust puffing from its hooves. Ben stepped through the rails into the yard and the horse hesitated, but the breaker clicked his tongue and gently rapped the stockwhip on its legs, coaxing it forward, reminding it of the lessons earlier in the day until it snuggled into the stockman’s shoulder.
Delivering a constant monologue of praise, Ben stroked a bag over the horse’s rump and along its body and neck, talking quietly before slipping the bag over its head to cover its eyes and lifting the reins over its head. He took a handful of mane in his left hand, the monkey hold tied between the d-rings on the front of the saddle with his right and locked the near side rein over his elbow, pulling the horse’s head towards his back so the momentum of the circling horse jumping would swing him onto its back.
He eased his left foot into the stirrup and rested his weight in the iron to let the horse feel the extra burden. Ben bounced lightly on his right foot for a moment before leaving the ground to swing effortlessly over the horse and settle lightly into the saddle. The horse stiffened and spread its front legs wide, adjusting its balance as the rider moved around in the saddle, familiarising the young horse with the sensation of a man on its back, shuffling back and forth and swinging from side to side for several minutes while maintaining a firm hold on the reins to keep the horse riveted to the spot. Finally, he pulled the bag from the horse’s head.
Freed from the blackness of the bag, it stood wide-eyed, quivering, legs splayed, blowing through flared nostrils, rotating its questioning ears, searching its surroundings, feeling the weight on its back. Ben continued to talk softly, running the bag over its neck, along its back, across its flanks and rump. Eventually Ben loosened the tight hold on the reins and shifted his weight forward in the saddle. The horse gave a hesitant leap and halted, responding quickly to the feel of the bit in its mouth. Ben slapped his boots against the heaving ribs. The horse jumped forward again, and again it responded to the touch of the tightened bit.
The ballet continued for around half an hour until the horse was cantering around the yard, responding quickly to commands delivered through the reins, the shifting weight on its back and the softly spoken encouragement of the rider. “Like a rocking chair,” Ben enthused as the horse cantered around the yard. “Open the gate.”
Norman threw the gate wide and watched as the freshly broken horse cantered easily down the slope onto the plain and turned to follow the edge of the timberline before disappearing over the rim of a nearby gully. He was still watching when the horse and rider returned after about an hour and cantered into the round yard. “He’s a little beauty,” Ben said. “Quiet as a mouse. He’ll do you for tomorrow.”
Norman delayed breakfast deliberately. He wasn’t looking forward to riding the freshly broken horse on its first day out. He agreed that Ben should saddle it and ride around the yard a while before they set off. He also agreed that Ben should ride it to bring the other saddle horses into the round yard. He also offered to saddle Ben’s yellow bay and prepare everything while Ben took the new horse to move the house cows to the top paddock. In fact he was willing for Ben to run the new horse as much as he liked before they set out. He even offered to take one of the older house horses from the long yard he thought needed the exercise, but Ben thought it best he have a fresh mount.
“We both needed fresh horses and the yellow bay’s a bit skittish and might be a bit much for you to handle. You take this bloke,” he said, handing Norman the reins of the freshly broken animal.
Norman eased the reins over its head, grabbed a handful of mane in his left hand and the monkey hold on the front of the saddle with his right as Ben moved alongside to hold the bridle headstall in one hand and the horse’s ear in the other to prevent it rearing or jumping away. Norman tentatively fitted his foot in the stirrup and swung into the saddle. He shuffled into position and held the tightened reins firmly before nodding towards Ben.
“You OK?” Ben asked.
“Yes, just fine,” Norman squeaked and Ben freed his hold on the horse and walked away.
Norman sat, frozen, looking squarely at the mane between the flicking ears as they took alternate duty towards Ben’s departing footsteps and Norman’s laboured breath over the sound of the squeaking saddle leather.
Ben mounted and moved off. Norman clicked his tongue and both ears rotated. He shuffled in the saddle and eased the tension on the reins. The horse lunged forward towards Ben’s departing horse, almost unseating Norman who fell back in the saddle and tightened the reins to stop the young mare’s progress. Norman’s grip on the monkey hold became a strangle hold as he again eased the pressure on the reins and the horse moved off more smoothly. Norman watched the ears set a passage following the departing yellow bay and relaxed his grip on the monkey hold, slightly.
The newly broken horse worked well during the morning, moving responsively to Norman’s commands, seeking out the cattle and shepherding the mobs easily as they were herded towards the holding yards. But Norman kept close to the fence-line just in case the recently captured brumby decided to make a sudden return to its wild ways. He let Ben chase down any beasts on the open plain and only moved off the fence to steer cattle towards the holding yards. Even then he was poised to quickly pull on either rein to force the horse into a tight circle and prevent any buckjumping test of its rider.
By the time the first mob had picked its way through the barrier of thistles surrounding the yard and was safely penned, Norman was feeling comfortable. Not comfortable enough to let go the monkey hold, but comfortable. He did let go briefly as he accepted the pannikin of tea from the stockman dodging the network of giant thistles, but quickly resumed his hold with the pannikin in his other hand and reins resting across the pommel and hooked behind the knee pads as he told Ben about the exemplary behaviour of the horse.
Ben leaned forward to take his pannikin of tea from the stockman just as the bullock kicked the empty drench tin at its feet. The hollow tin rattled against the fence and under the feet of the scattering cattle as they pressed to get away from the spectre chasing them around the confines of the yard.
Ben’s mount shied backwards away from the fence, dislodging his hat and providing him with an uninterrupted view of the horse’s fetlock and a face full of thistles as it rammed its rump into Norman’s horse. Ben roared as the thistle barbs dug deep into his face and was made worse when the yellow bay lunged forward to escape the horse blocking its retreat. Ben struggled to pull himself back into the saddle but when the yellow bay saw Ben’s bodiless hat sitting atop the forest of thistles it immediately headed for a safer place, crabbing sideways before spinning in ever widening circles to escape the perceived threat from the man hanging precariously, like a sailor on an outrigger’s trapeze, swatting thistles with his face as he tried to regain his seat atop the frightened horse.
Finally the centrifugal aphelion of no return was reached and Ben launched off the yellow bay to immerse his whole body in the thistles, rolling head over heels to cover every point from his hatless head to the top of his boots with the dreaded needles.
Norman’s fate was just as precarious. Once shunted by Ben’s mount, the freshly broken youngster rediscovered its wild side and its ability to buck – with gusto. It produced a flying leap forward, giving Norman just enough time to throw his pannikin of hot tea over the stockman as the back of the saddle thumped against his buttocks, saving him from rolling over the horse’s rump.
The young horse jarred onto its front legs and flicked its tail high in the air. Norman avoided being catapulted out of the saddle and over the horse’s neck by wrapping his free hand around the crupper, jamming it firmly under the horse’s tail. The move sent the horse into a wilder frenzy and Norman’s head snapped in an uncontrollable whiplash in response to a series of wild kicks and leaps until he released his hold on the crupper to retrieve the reins and further tighten his death grip on the monkey hold.
With the pressure under its tail released the horse turned its attention to a point under its belly, jamming its head firmly between its front legs to twist and kick around in ever tightening and ever faster circles sending thistles flying and stockmen scattering from its thrashing hooves. The horse straightened again and shot forward, leaving Norman stranded as his foot slipped out of the stirrup iron and only saved from shooting over the back of the saddle by his death grip on the monkey hold and the flap of the stock saddle hooking into the top of his leatherneck boot. The onlookers could hear a strange guttural, indecipherable blubbering coming from the figure on top of the equine gymnast as Norman’s legs flew around uncontrollably and the freed stirrup iron flayed dangerously.
Whether it was the thistles, the uneven, hard ground or exhaustion that took the sting out of the horse no one was sure, but when it finally stood, head down, legs spread, heaving air into its sweating body, Norman was still sitting on top, clinging to the monkey hold like a limpet.
“You OK?” Ben asked, picking thistles out of his face and hands. “That was one hell of a ride.”
Norman oozed out of the saddle and steadied against his mate before he sank to the ground like a melted cheese.
“That’s one of the best rides I’ve ever seen,” Ben went on. “For someone who can’t ride a lick you certainly put up a show this time. You keep riding like that we’ll turn you into a breaker yet. You sat through that brilliantly. How’d you manage to stay so well?
“Not sure,” Norman replied shakingly. “But I know one thing for sure. If that horse had been outside that thistle patch there it could have been a different story. I just didn’t want to fall into all those damn thistles.”
People’s evaluation of Norman as a horseman elevated slightly after the exhibition and even though he still sits astride the flattened fence post atop the round yard and watches when Ben breaks a horse, he still doesn’t offer to ride any of the beasts. However, it has been noticed that sometimes he rides without his usual handful of the monkey hold.