A few years ago, I started my love affair with foreign lands but at the time I wasn’t sure whether I was brave enough to begin this journey alone, so I researched ways that I could travel but with like-minded people. What I found seemed right up my street. I’ve always had a love of horses, so the Australian Jillaroo/Jackaroo School was the perfect way to spend eleven days doing something different in Australia’s outback.
After a quick stop to buy cheap work clothes, hat and boots and the all-important booze for our nights on the ranch, we arrived at Leconfield, 50km east of Tamworth in New South Wales. We were shown our rooms, I was sharing with a woman called Emily, and we were over the moon when we found out we would be sleeping in the, fondly named, Penthouse. Believe me, even though it was a dark and dingy shed, it was the best room on the farm, most of the others got housed in the sheep shearing shed. The one down side was that it was so cold at night and we wore socks, hats, and hoodies on top of pyjamas to try and keep warm. And getting up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet in the main house didn’t help things either.
We got given our horses for the eleven days. I got a lovely bay stallion that went by the name of Lightening. Don’t believe everything that the name suggests because he was the slowest horse I have ever ridden. Actually, lazy is the word, no amount of geeing him on was going to make him go any faster.
Leconfield was a working farm and as such there was a roster of different jobs to do. One of those jobs was to get the calves into their shed at night. There were two calves and their mother and every day they hung out at the top of the field. It took us quite a while to get them down to their shed, arms waving and yelling, trying to make them go in the right direction. Poor things were probably scared to death! At one point, there were three of us racing down the hill after one calf but it decided to double back on us, so we had to chase it back up the hill only to start again. It was as if the cows were laughing at us racing back and forth after them.
We had to get up at 6am to milk the cows. We had to sit on a small stool at the back end of the cow, not easy when the cow was stamping its feet almost knocking us off. I managed to get a few litres which, being a totally self-sufficient farm, was put in the fridge for use at breakfast.
In the afternoon, we rode two hours to the top paddock for our first cattle muster. A very hard task to learn, especially when you are on horseback and the cattle seemed to have other ideas. But we managed to herd them into a fenced off area where they were weighed for the owner, Brian. He was 85 years old and still riding horses, and managing his 4,600 acre farm. 4,600 acres seems huge but when you compare it to some of the other farms and sheep stations in Australia, it was actually quite small.
Day four was spent in the forest chopping down trees which we had to debark and load onto a truck. No mean feat because we had to clamber up a slope to get the trees and the only way to get them down was to slide them down onto the dirt track. Trees are heavy! Then we had to strip them of their bark and load them onto the truck to take back to the farm.
We rode to a large field near the farm and practiced trotting and cantering which was great fun, even though it took me three attempts to get my trusty steed to comply. Rather than kicking with our feet, we learned how to control the horses with our knees, a slight squeeze is all that’s required to get your mount to move but I don’t think Lightening understood the concept of move!
A well-deserved day off, so we went to town for more provisions, followed by lunch and a few cool beers at the local pub.
Day seven consisted of mustering the sheep back to the farm. We caught three of them, sheared them and watched two of them get slaughtered. It was not a pretty sight but our lesson of the day was that the farm had no choice, the sheep were no more than food and wool. Even the dogs and horses had jobs to do and we were told not to pet them. The remaining sheep looked naked after its recent shearing and appeared to be watching the massacre in terror, then it speedily retreated to the nearby field, safe for another day.
Our second cattle muster, this time we had a go at throwing the calves. They may look very cute and cuddly but when we tried to catch them, attempt to grab their back legs and throw them on the ground, we soon realised how strong they were. We learned how to separate the male and female cows and calves in order to count them, so the farm knew they were all present and correct.
With the trees that we had collected on day four we built the fence around the house. It was extremely hard work but thoroughly enjoyable. It was such a sense of achievement when the task was completed, even though I somehow managed to put my finger in between the hammer and the post. Ouch!
Today’s lessons were calf branding and ear tagging. These calves were slightly bigger than the ones before, so they were much stronger. The animals were also ear marked, so they could be identified at a later date, which meant ripping a bit of its ear out. It wasn’t over for them yet because they were branded, twice if they were male, and castrated. I felt more than a little sorry for the helpless creatures.
In the morning, we had a horsemanship lesson. We took our unsaddled steeds to the paddock and all stood in a circle. The ranch manager told us how the horse would respond if we gently ran our thumb from under its cheek to its shoulder, it would follow us without reins. We put it to the test by walking slowly back to the stables with the horses duly following. I think the real reason they were following us was that they knew it was feeding time! The afternoon was spent playing horsey games, egg and spoon races and races in and out of poles. It was great fun and I think even the horses enjoyed it.
I didn’t embark on this adventure thinking it was going to be a breeze in the park, it wasn’t but we learned a lot in those 11 days, not just on how to care for our horses but it was necessary to act as a team and to be able to communicate with one another. We were presented with a reference to say that we had basic experience in all the activities that we were involved with, so if I ever wanted to work as a jillaroo again then Brian’s reference was a good one to have. I had an absolutely fantastic time in Leconfield, yes it was hard work but I got to ride over some of Australia’s finest countryside and I had plenty of laughs along the way.