Sunday, 13 December 2009

Whole Lotta love

Back from Leconfield and a week on horseback, and I'm just about walking straight again (I was using muscles where I didn't know a person had muscles). Aches, pains, bruises and scratches aside (including a rather neat mark from a calf's hoof on my thigh!), what a fantastic week. It turned out I really didn't have to have horseriding experience, as my horse knew what was what without my input. Tim (the school's owner) paired me up with Lotta, a beautiful tall chestnut who was (mostly) a sweetheart. In fact, she and I had a fair amount in common: she liked to eat all the time, hated going up hills, and didn't suffer fools gladly - the fool in this case being me! We'd be riding off to muster sheep or cattle, and she'd stop and look round at me with this expression on her face that just told me to stop trying to direct her and let her get on with it. By the end of the week, though, we'd reached an understanding - she sometimes listened to me, and always let me check her hooves and groom her, and even had a bit of a nuzzle and a whinny, bless her heart.

When we weren't riding out to far-flung parts of the farm to round up sheep and cows, we were doing all sorts - wrestling sheep to the ground and shearing them, putting in fencing, shoeing horses, slaughtering and butchering sheep, lassoing, whip-cracking and calf-wrangling. The latter was indeed the most rugged part of the course - especially when I was paired up with Philipp (another glasses wearer) and we were told to take off our spectacles in case they got broken in the scrum. The plus side, of course, was that we couldn't see the hooves coming, but the minus side was that we couldn't see the damn animal all that well! Still, we got it down on the second attempt (once I'd got hold of the tail and hung on for dear life), and then they castrated the poor little bugger. It was all very red in tooth and claw, with that outback spirit of no-nonsense make-do-and-mend. Plus we ate the balls later on that evening - just like crackling, and rather tasty!

Sadly, without the Jackaroo school the farm wouldn't be viable - there just hasn't been enough rain for too long; all the horses and cattle have to be fed extra because the pasture won't sustain them on its own, and that's 400-plus acres. And that's not their only problem - during the week there was a haze of smoke on the horizon from 5o bushfires in the Tamworth area, and it's only the start of the summer. The previous week they'd all had to spend Saturday night fighting a fire on their own property too. What makes up for the harsh existence, I guess, is the slow pace of life and the amazingly beautiful scenery. Certainly the staff seem to like it - they're all backpackers who've stayed for months to get experience, notably Robbie, the manager, who was in road construction back in Holland but now shoes horses and castrates cows with aplomb! And we pupils had a great time, eating round the campfire and being woken at 6.30am from our wooden bunks in the shed with country music.

For me it was a truly memorable experience, and despite being kack-handed at just about everything we tried (except the sheep - I was quite good at that!), I wouldn't have missed any of it for worlds. Tomorrow I'm off to Canberra and a post-Impressionist exhibition that's on loan from the Musee d'Orsay, but I might well be hankering for the cowboy life...

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