Like most of you budding McLeod’s Daughters out there, Robyn Rosenfeldt has dreamt of escaping the city, sliding on a pair of chaps and mustering cattle in the High Country. She finally got her chance at Jillaroo School. It’s high time you took yours.
Admit it, women of Australia. At some point in your life you’ve fantasised about being a Jillaroo. That’s okay; you’re not alone. There’s something attractive about the idea of living on the land, galloping around on horseback, mustering cattle and just generally looking tough.
Think McLeod’s Daughters. You know the look: strong, independent young women driving utes, catching men with lassos and fixing fences, all while looking sexy with a well-placed smear of dirt on the forehead for authenticity.
Having spent some years travelling the outback, visiting rodeos and doing some fairly tame horse riding, I decided it was high time I learnt more. I wanted to know, not just how to ride a horse properly, but the rest of the skills needed to work a farm. I wanted to learn how to be an authentic Aussie Jillaroo. And, I won’t deny it, I wanted to wear chaps and crack a whip.
MOVE ‘EM OUT!
When I turned up in Tamworth to meet the Jillaroo bus, the street was filled with overseas backpackers donning brand new Akubras and dropping in “G’days” and “mates” whenever they got the chance. Just what sort of token Aussie experience had I signed up for?
Luckily not all those would-be Crocodile Dundees were coming with us. As the road snaked out of town into the New England hills, we left the sealed bitumen behind and drove up through some beautiful countryside. I sat back, relaxed and studied my fellow prospective Jack-and-Jillaroos and realised I was one of only two Aussies on the trip.
Arriving at the property, we were shown the tin shed that was to be our home for the next five days. Bunks lined the walls, leaving a small space for a kitchen and a couple of couches for hanging out. Being last off the bus, I was last assigned to a bed and found myself with a top bunk by the toilet door. Greeaat. Luckily there was also a collection of swags, so I could sleep out under the stars instead.
No time for standing around chatting, though. It was bags down, work clothes on and up to the sheds for an introduction to Natural Horsemanship. At Leconfield Jackaroo/ Jillaroo School, this means treating the horse with care and respect, reassuring it and showing it love with everything you do. You work with the horse, gently communicating what you want from it, rather than forcing it.
Effortlessly, Steve our instructor pressed the inside of his horse’s thigh. The horse lifted its leg. We learned how to clean hooves, which brushes to use for different parts of the horse and how to place and remove saddles, remembering to respect the horse at all times. Steve worked his horse with ease and grace. I wasn’t convinced I could do the same. I’ve ridden some, but have never been too sure about horses. Never been able to read them very well, to know what they’re thinking and how to approach them.
After lunch we were each assigned a horse, which is when I was introduced to my beautiful new friend, Cheeky. Remembering all Steve had said, I was connecting with Cheeky using love and respect, which worked well. I was able to clean her shoes of stones, brush her tail and coat and put on the saddle, all things I’d never done before.
Once Cheeky was saddled up, we had another lesson in Natural Horsemanship with Tim Skerrit, the owner of the property: how to control the horse, how to mount and dismount, stop and start, turn left and right, all things I’d just been guessing at in the past. We were taught clear signs and signals to let our horses know what we wanted them to do. With these skills fresh in our minds we headed off on a beautiful trail ride through the property, receiving a lesson in bush tucker as we went.
HEAD ‘EM UP!
The following morning brought our chance to learn the tricks that make you look like a real Jillaroo. This was the bit I’d been waiting for: whipcracking, lasso throwing and horseshoeing. Now, horseshoeing might not sound that exciting, but the thing is, you get to wear chaps! I spent more time strutting around in my chaps having my picture taken than shoeing any actual horses.
The whipcracking takes a few goes to get right, but once you’ve got it – wow. Instant cowgirl. The lasso throwing wasn’t quite what you see in wild westerns. We weren’t exactly galloping along on horseback; we were standing stationary in a paddock making casts at a bull’s skull attached to a pole. And even then, missing. I guess you have to start somewhere.
That afternoon we took Mustering Sheep 101. Again, it was a fairly tame experience. No galloping or chasing, just a gentle ramble round the farm, gathering in the flock. It was a good opportunity to work on the Natural Horsemanship techniques, though. Once we had the sheep in the pens, the pace stepped up a bit. We had to catch a sheep, sit it on its hind legs, check its eyes and teeth. This involved jumping into the pen, fixing your eye on the one you wanted, chasing it round, grabbing it by the wool and getting dragged around for a bit. Once it held still, you’d grab its front legs and flip it onto its bum. And yes, it was as difficult as it sounds. At one stage I found myself underneath a sheep, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the approved technique.
We loaded a couple of the sheep into a truck bound for the shearing shed and all piled in behind. The shearing shed was exactly like the Tom Roberts painting, worn wooden floor, corrugated iron walls and all. Taking the old mechanical shears, we took turns clipping the excess padding from old sheepy. Unfortunately for old sheepy, some of us were better than others and he was left with a few scarlet scrapes. Still, nothing compared to what one poor sheep back at the farm was about to experience.
DON’T TRY TO UNDERSTAND ‘EM . . .
Watching the butchering of a sheep is an optional activity. But, being a meat eater, I felt it would be good for me to see how a sheep is killed then butchered ready for dinner. Steve ran us through what he was going to do, then quickly and deftly slit its throat as we looked on, some through parted fingers. Others looked away entirely. It did seem a quick and painless death and the sheep had a good, happy life right up until his last moments. Although the headless body twitching afterwards with blood spurting from the aorta was pretty gruesome.
At one stage I found myself underneath a sheep, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the approved technique.
The following morning it was back to horsey business, with Tim teaching us some of the finer points of Natural Horsemanship, including how well you can control a horse if you’re completely in tune with it. A variety of games and activities helped us become more connected with our horse and understand their point of view. By the end I was able to get Cheeky to do what I wanted without using my hands, just gentle pressure from my feet.
The next activity was creatively called “pasture improvement” – which really means getting a bunch of backpackers to pay to do the weeding for you. This was also optional. But, wanting to keep in with the spirit of things, I opted in. The blonde Swedish backpackers, however, decided to laze about in their bikinis by the shed, much to the delight of a few passing farmers. I could see their thoughts ticking over: “So, while we toil on our farms every day for very little money, Tim here has blonde backpackers pay to strut around in bikinis while others do the hard work for him . . . why didn’t we think of this?”
After digging up weeds from a parched paddock in the blazing midday sun, we all had a dip in the dam before heading off to fell trees, chopping them down, stripping them of bark and carrying them up the hill to the back of the truck.
The next day – Thursday – was the day I’d been waiting for. The day to live out my latent Man From Snowy River fantasies. We were led into the hills to muster cattle, spreading across the property in small groups. Up through beautiful eucalypt forests we rode, rounding up cattle as we went, before finally bringing them together to drive them up a ridge to the top paddock.
While the group was gathered so tightly it was a bit slow and frustrating. Not being able to get ahead. But when a bull bolted down the mountain, most of the group stopped to look for it, leaving just a few of us to take the majority of the cattle the rest of the way.
This was much better. I really had to draw on all I’d learned about Natural Horsemanship. With the slightest nudges of my feet I was able to get Cheeky to go exactly where I wanted. We moved in and around the cattle, gathering them up, driving them up to the yards for our next challenge.
JUST ROPE, THROW & BRAND ‘EM . . .
Once they were all safely in, we were given the chance to wrestle a steer! Steer wrestling is huge on the rodeo circuit and a skill that would definitely augment my official Jillaroo status. However, chasing a steer around the yards then being dragged around after him proved pretty tiring. So when it came to the wrestling part, where I had to twist him round and lay him on his side, I was almost out of steam. Fortunately for him, first time, he got away. Not to be defeated, I caught him again, flipped him and . . . somehow was underneath him. Steer 1. Robyn 0.
The day wound up, as all good days should, with a bit of bull castration.
Then, at last, we had a chance to try out our recently acquired lasso skills on a living beast. I got ready to head back to my horse, saddle up and gallop after a few wild bulls, but unfortunately that wasn’t to be. Instead we formed two horseshoes – actually, that sounds misleading – we stood in a circle with one small calf standing stock still in the middle and took turns throwing the lasso from two metres away. Even then it wasn’t easy.
The day wound up, as all good days should, with a bit of bull castration. Now thankfully we weren’t all given knives and told to “get stuck in.” Tim did the deed while we all looked on. And let me tell you, seeing a sheep slaughtered was nothing compared to watching a poor little calf have his private parts cut open and his manhood popped out into a waiting upturned Akubra.
That night a weary but happy group of Jack-and-Jillaroos headed back down the mountain. Each day we felt more and more as though we belonged on that farm and that the work we were doing was actually of use.
Our last day at the farm was a relaxing one. We took the horses down to the swimming hole in the morning. Holding onto their manes, we walked with them into the water. Then, as we got out of our depth, we swam with them. They seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.
After a beautiful picnic lunch under the shade of the spreading trees, we had a go at branding. Not on animals but on ourselves, on clothes, hats, bags, whatever we wanted to take home and show off to friends.
After five days it was more than a tattooed hat that made me feel like an authentic Jillaroo. Not only could I ride with no hands, crack a whip, spin a lasso and muster cattle, I’d learned the practical aspects of farm life. As I rode Cheeky back to the sheds for the last time, I felt I really knew what she was thinking. I knew what she liked and didn’t like. And it was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye.
1. Leconfield Jillaroo/Jackaroo School
Five or 11-day courses at Kootingal, near Tamworth, NSW.
Cost // $550 per person.
(02) 6769 4328, www.leconfield.com
2. Rocky Creek Jackaroo/Jillaroo School
Five-day course. Biggenden, near Childers, Qld
Cost // $484 per person.
(07) 4127 1377, www.isisol.com.au/rockycrkfarmstay
3. Fordsdale Farmstay Jackaroo/Jillaroo School
5-day course. Fordsdale, near Toowoomba, Qld
Cost // $550 per person. (07) 5462 6844, www.fordsdalefarmstay.com