“Horse Breaking - the Hard Way” by Dave Fullarton
Des Dessaix was 16, rising 17 and he was looking for work around Queensland, Australia. Many of the stockmen in those days (1970s) moved around a lot from cattle station (ranch) to cattle station looking for the next adventure. Each cattle station had its own peculiarities in the way they worked cattle and it was always a great opportunity to see new country.
He hitched a ride from Emerald, Qld to Longreach, Qld but he was not in dire straits as he always found work and had a pocket full of money. While in Longreach he was asking around and ran into a cattle station manager who asked him if he could break horses.
Sure, Des said, not a problem. How old are you anyway the manager asked Des as breaking in older station horses wasn’t a task for just any man. 20 Des said without hesitation and the managers seemed to accept it with a quizzical look on his face. Even at that age Des always looked younger than he was but I guess the manager needed horses broke as much as Des needed a job.
Horses on big cattle stations where usually run in at about 6 months old or so and gelded, branded and wormed. This was achieved by first roping the horse and a couple of ringers (stockmen) would scruff (wrestle) them onto the ground. They would brand them and usually just geld them like a calf. Handling them never came into it so you can imagine the horse’s mindset the next time they entered the yards.
After this initial introduction, the horses were then turned out until they were around 4 or 5 years old where they were mature enough to do a days’ work from the get go. These were horse specifically bred to be tough first so it was not uncommon for them to be mostly thoroughbred type horse with maybe a bit of Arab or Draft horse in them. The Draft horse usually showed up in the long hair around their fetlocks and muzzles and in the heavy bone.
The Arab will show up when they blow snot all over you when you are trying to bridle them and the thoroughbred will show up when they buck riding them out in the morning and they try you again when you are riding home after working all day on them. Consequently, they were rank on any level and breaking them in was not a job for the fainthearted.
On Des’ first morning on the station, one of the ringers ran in 12 or so horses and the manager said, let me know when they are ready to hand them over. That is a term used when they are finished and ready for the manager to inspect.
Now, Des is a 16 year old kid and at that point he actually had no breaking-in gear to speak of.
He was able to find a few odds and ends in the station saddle shed that would suit his purpose so he separated the first horse into the round yard for a start.
The horse blew around the round yard flat stopping every now and again to see if he could climb out. Des was standing in the middle with his green hide rope (a salted cow hide that was cut in strips and twisted together to make a heavy rope) but decided that he needed a different approach. He saddled up the “night horse” which is usually a quiet horse kept around the homestead to run the horse in each morning for mustering. He was easy to catch and not prone to bucking when he was fresh. An oddity on a big property and he could also double as the manager’s wife’s horse.
Des rode in on the night horse and after some time he was able to get up beside the breaker to slip a halter on him. Not easily done as you could imagine but his perseverance paid off and he was soon able to get him haltered. He then got a pair of spider hobbles which are hobbles front and back connected by a chain down the middle. These allow the horse to stand and you can bag them down without getting kicked. Blundered on maybe but not kicked unless the hobbles break at the crucial moment.
I want to talk about these hobbles for a moment. Many people don’t use them much now and it is maybe because well bred horses are usually handled from being a foal. One of the great advantages for using these hobbles is that the horses can’t hurt you or themselves and you are able to bag or pat them all over the first time you catch them. The second thing they are good for is that it teaches a horse to not fight if they get their foot caught in barbwire or something that will hurt them if they panic. They will stand there all day because they think they are hobbled. Lastly, if you have to doctor a horse for some reason, you can always slip the hobbles on them and they will be easy to handle.
Shoot, I even have a small set made for foals. Once they learn to stand, you can hobble them with bailing twine when they are older and they will stand. Anyway, back to Des. Once he bagged a horse down the first day and lunged them a little to get a bit of control of them, he would let them go and repeat the process on the next horse.
Sometimes he had to push the night horse up against the other horse and as quietly as he could, slip on the spider hobbies on from underneath the night horse. The second day was much the same as the first and he would drive them in long rains in the round yard just to get a bit of a handle on them. He would also put the tackling on them which is really just like a girth that goes up over their back.
By that time they would have a snaffle bit in their mouth and Des tied a rope from one side of the tackling, through the dees in the bit and back to the other side of the tackling.
He then pulled the rope just tight enough to make the horse back off the bit.
On the third day the horse got its first ride which was usually just blundering around in the round yard and sometimes into it. Next day the horse got another ride and strangely enough if they are going to buck, and they usually do, it would be on the third day when they are just starting to work out what was happening. When the horses were considered broke which was about a week's worth of ridings, Des would hand them over to the manager. This had to be done individually and each horse was ridden out in an open paddock for the manager to see.
Des would canter them to the left and the right, stop them, back them up and basically try to get them to impress the manager as much as they could with one weeks work. All went as planned until he had to hand one of the last horses over. He was a big powerfully built baldy-faced brown horse and the initial hand over went as planned.
Des got off him and handed him to a jackaroo (young trainee manager) as it was going to be in his string or horses. The brown was actually a good looking big horse and as the trainee manger, the jackaroo got the pick of the horses on this particular occasion. The jackaroo got on the horse and as he went to kick him off the horse dropped his head and threw the jackaroo right there in the yard. It wasn’t so bad at the start and the jackaroo climbed straight back on him but this time taking a hold of those reins just a little bit tighter.
This time the horse took a few steps before bucking him off and sending him unceremoniously into the bottom into an iron bark (type of hard wood tree used for yard building) rail of the yards. The manager looked over at Des which was an unspoken direction for Des to take the kinks out of him for the young Jackaroo. Des climbed on him and really didn’t expect anything as he had been riding him for a week without any problems. As Des hit the saddle that brown horse blew straight up and went to bucking.
Des undid a bull tying strap from around his waist and went to walloping that horse from one side to the other. That worked for about two jumps when all of a sudden the brown sucked back and left Des sitting in the dirt in front of him. Straight away Des got to his feet, swore under his breath and caught the brown again. This time he was ready and as he hit the saddle he took a deep seat and tucked his chin. Once again the brown exploded and Des started to wallop him for about 3 jumps before that bull tying strap was thrown away as Des was grabbing for every bit of leather he could find.
He was doing better this time and started to think that he had won the war when the brown decided to suck back and once again and left Des sprawled out on the ground in front of him with a mouth full of dirt.
The manager just looked over to see what Des would do next but Des was still trying to clear his mouth. Des then led the brown over into the round yard and drove him in long reins until both of them were nearly plum wore out. Once the dizziness of the road yard had cleared from Des’ head, he mounted the brown and bustled him around the round yard with the bull tying strap again. This time the horse had had enough and all the fight had left him.
Des then rode him out into a bigger yard and kept up him while making sure the monkey strap (leather handle over the pommel of the saddle) was not too far away. All went well and Des was finally able to hand the brown to the jackaroo that didn’t actually seem real sure that he wanted this particular horse in his string after all.
Des was really only a kid at the time but he reckons it was the only horse that could actually throw him any time he wanted to and he simply had no answer for him. While he was there, Des had his 17th birthday and the manager’s daughter made a cake and congratulated him on his 21st birthday. They all seemed to be smirking so it was quite possible that they were all aware to the little discrepancy but who cares. He got the job done and got more money in his pocket.