Early on a sunny August morning at the Hunter Valley Brumby Association sanctuary at Booral, Jack Searl is in a purpose-built yard gently holding a lead rope attached to his brumby, Luna, who he met 24 hours earlier.
Just being in the yard with the untamed beast, seems to an outsider, precarious.
Will 21-year-old Jack make a wrong move, will the brumby tussle at his hold, will the work be a step too quick?
“Every horse, every animal is different,” Jack tell us as he guides Luna in easy half-circle turns.
“Some take five minutes, some take five hours, others might take you five days to learn that one single step.
But you can’t push them, the worst thing you can do is over pressure because as soon as you crack them, you’re sort of done.”
This a tedious job, which requires patience, calmness and persistence to overcome what may be a tenacious personality.
“It’s all about building positive notes,” Jack says.
“Especially with these guys, they’re completely opposite to a domesticated bred horse.
“They’re out in the wild, they don’t know what’s going on, have never seen a human before, never had a hand on them.
“You’ve got to take the right approach with it and finish on positive notes all the time.”
Searl, who lives at Largs, is among a group of four horse trainers who are embarking on an eight-month journey to turn brumbies rescued from the Kosciuszko National Park into rideable and workable horses.
The trainers met their brumbies – all mares – during a three-day break-in camp at the HVBA property at Booral, near Stroud. Hunter Valley Brumby Association, led by president Kathryn Massey, launched the Brumby 250 Tournament last month to help raise awareness of the breed.
Four trainers were individually selected for the invitational challenge and have been given 250 days to take a brumby from unhandled, to competition ready.
Wild, free, rough and rugged, the brumby has a storied place in Australian history.
In the 6,900-square-kilometre Kosciuszko National Park, the estimated population of about 6000 was facing a 90 per cent cull only a few years ago when a draft government strategy recommended the cull over a 20-year period.
But the brumby’s place – and value to the nation – in the Kosciuszko National Park appears to have been secured through the Brumby Bill, which was passed in NSW Parliament in June and ensures the breed remains in the park.
Outside of the Kosciuszko, though, the breed is classified as a pest.
And through time, the brumby has been portrayed in film and literature to have a certain mystique and unpredictability; feral and unhandled.
But for Massey, they are a “clean slate” in the most pure form, free of inherent traits of domestically bred horses.
She started Hunter Valley Brumby Association in 2009 to promote brumbies as a breed of choice, to protect local herds and offer a rescue and rehoming service. She’s a passionate woman, who hopes her love for the breed will be shared among others by holding the tournament.
It’s a task the trainers will embark on in their spare time, in order to achieve a common goal. In April 2019, they will attend the working equitation nationals, in Stroud. Then appear at the Stroud show where they will perform in front of a panel of judges to see who claims the top gong.
For the trainers, it’s not so much about the competition, but the opportunity.
The task at hand
Break-in sessions are short, Searl and the other three trainers - all women - take breaks regularly.
Not for themselves, for their brumbies. They’re careful not to push for too much, too soon.
Jane Tudor, of Branxton, is here with what she describes as probably the least amount of training experience, despite being the oldest of the bunch. She’s 48, and shares a love of horses with her two teenage daughters.
“I rode a lot as a child, but then moved out of the country and went to uni, the city, jobs and marriage and things, so was out of horses for a long time,” she says.
“I got into training because the kids’ horses need training. I started working on our own horses, and that’s where I learnt and developed a few techniques. Going to other trainers and having lessons and clinics . . . I’ve sort of picked up what I know today.”
Jane says she was “surprised” at being asked into the tournament, having never worked with brumbies before. But she knew of some brumbies that had come out of the local brumby association and decided to chance her arm.
“My initial reaction was, ‘I can’t do that, that’s not something I can even consider doing’,” she recalls.
“But then I sat with it a bit and thought, ‘oh well’.
“To me it feels like it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“They’re flighty, as much as you’d expect them to be. Very weary and scared in a little way, because they’re trying to protect themselves. So we have to be mindful of that not to push them too far, too fast.
“I understand that from domestic horses, they have the same flight instinct. They call it fight or flight. Horses will either run away or stand their ground and try to kick you.”
Searl’s brumby, Luna, appears to take the runaway option at one point in the yard.
“She’s not harder to crack, but just a lot more hesitant,” he explains.
“A bit more defensive in letting me in compared to the others. But once she comes around and lets me in, she’s got a lot of potential in her.
“Just reading her body language and her movements and styles, she will be quite a stunning mare.”
While Searl’s Luna might be coming on a little slower, by the middle of the second day the trainers are able to walk their brumbies a short distance in a straight line - some out of the yard and around the property.
Progress is being made.
“It’s actually very easy, it’s a lot easier than people think,” says Massey, who is overseeing the four trainers.
“But you need to go about it with care, compassion [and] empathy that they are a wild animal, that they’re still getting used to people [and] they’re completely unhandled.
“But if you go about it with a lot of patience, very slowly, quietly and calmly, then they come around very easily as we’ve seen here in the last 24 hours.”
Billy Fish, 23, from Mandalong, says horses have been her “opportunity”, after basically leaving high school in Year 8 to pursue training. After eight years with a trainer, and a stint working as a chef, Fish started her own business, which she has run for a year.
“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t run into horses,” she says.
“Working with brumbies they teach you patience, understanding and require a lot of time, but when you get a brumby on your side they are one of the most loyal horses you will meet, they’ll do anything for you.”
Fish says she will donate her half of her brumby’s sale back to the brumby association. In April, the trainers can either keep their brumby, or let the association find it a new home, most likely on a local farm.
“I wanted to to be a part of this brumby challenge to be able to help get them recognised, because everyone writes them off,” Fish says.
“I want to show people they can be more than just a horse out in the wild.
“They can do just as much as a well bred thoroughbred, show jumper or cutting horse.”
The four trainers, one of which, Hannah Pikkat, has been drafted in late, are unsure of what the next eight months will look like.
They’re optimistic, excited and eager to let their brumbies guide them, not so much them guide their brumbies.
But they are under no allusions that it will be an easy task, and express a desire to communicate and share their journey together.
“At the end of the day the four of us are all mates,” Searl says of possible competitiveness in the Brumby 250 Tournament.
“We’re all working together, we’ll all keep in touch and some of us we’ll help each other.
“We’re all different, everyone’s got a different approach, touch, feel.
“As much as it is a competition, I’m not really in it to win it, just there for the joy ride of it and to get it out and advertised.
“To give them a bit of a recognition – the brumbies.”
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