Chapter 20: A Workin’ We Will Go

My plan was to get Satts prepared to partner me to work other horses. Breaking in and training can be hard on the body for a fragile little flower like myself. Although I have never been seriously hurt by a horse and never had any injuries worse than big ugly bruises, it is still a physically demanding way to earn a dollar. You get pulled around, so your shoulders ache. You’re always exerting yourself in positions that strain your back. Your knees get worked overtime with all those hours in the saddle and your legs become weary from miles of traipsing through sand arenas. And that’s not counting the rope burns, the crushed toes and the love bites. So being able to work from a horse that can take a lot of the physical strain for you is something any trainer can appreciate.

 

My other horses were able to do the job to some extent, but they were not ideal. LJ was getting too old and his knees could not take being worked more than a few days in a row. Chops was only 14hh and although she was wonderful to ride she was too small to stop a 16.2hh Clydesdale ready to leave the scene at high speed. Besides, I had really screwed up early on when teaching her to work other horses. 

 

She was proving to be great at first. I was so impressed with her boldness for such a sensitive horse that I got greedy and pushed her into working tough horses too early. She had helped me with about half a dozen settled horses and had taken to the work with gusto.

 

But then a lady sent me an Anglo Arab gelding that was pretty sure of himself. He commanded all within his sight. I found him difficult to get moving forward when working him from the ground. So one day I rode into the round yard on Chops with a flag in my hand. Bruno came up to Chops like he was going to initiate her into his harem and I bopped him on the nose with the flag. I then started to direct him around the yard at a trot. Chops was doing terrific and listening well. But Bruno was not putting much effort into moving. I manoeuvred Chops to come alongside his hip about 2 metres to the inside and I flapped the flag above his back. Bruno flung his head in our direction as if to tell me what orifice I could insert that flag. Then I raised the flag high and came down pretty hard on his rump. Bruno jumped forward, spun around and charged at Chops. I managed to bop him across the nose again, but Chops was turning and heading for the hills. She got nailed in the hip. I kept trying to flag Bruno away from us while at the same time trying to get Chops to turn to face him.  I guess it would have been comical if I hadn’t been in the middle of it. Eventually, Bruno backed off and Chops stopped trying to escape over the fence.

 

That one mistake of presenting Chops with a horse like Bruno too early in her career and at the same time pushing Bruno too hard, was the ruin of her. After that, she was only good for working horses that were pretty quiet. She lost her confidence and if a horse threatened her she would back off no matter how much I pushed her into the fray. It was a mistake I promised I would never repeat with Satts.

 

Now that Satts was back in work and I had been riding him quietly around the paddocks and the horse trails, I could feel him gaining the focus he had lost while playing at being a racehorse. I could also see that he was becoming physically stronger. The ligament injury that had forced his retirement from racing did not seem to bother him at all.

 

I began introducing him to the things I would need him to know and be okay about in his new life as a working horse. I had already taught him how to neck rein before he left for racing, so I was ahead of the game in that respect. But I needed him to be good about being ridden with a flag and have that flag flapping like a politician’s gums around his head and his body. He needed to see it change sides and still not be bothered. He had to be okay when I picked it up from the fence and when I dropped it on the ground. He had to know when I was directing the flag to another horse and he was to ignore it or when I was directing the flag at him to do something. I spent a lot of time shaking that flag at gates and trees trying to get them to move and then suddenly turn the energy of the flag towards Satts and get him to move from it and then back to the tree or stump. He needed to know the difference between when the flag was talking to him and he needed to do something and when it was talking to another horse and he didn’t need to bother about it. It sure helps to have a smart horse!

 

Another project was to get Satts feeling unbothered when I threw a rope from his back. He needed to be settled if I swung a loop above his head, around his side and when I threw it 5 metres away on the ground or at a post. The flag work helped prepare him well for this task. The hardest thing about the lariat for Satts was not to tuck his tail and run when the lariat got under his tail. This really bothered him and I spent quite a bit of time getting him to accept a rope grabbing tight around his hind end. The big breakthrough came when I taught him to back up into the loop around his rear. He discovered that when he backed up into the rope I released the tension in the rope. It was his way of controlling the rope. Although I had no intention of roping Satts’ bum, it has been known that when you have another horse on the end of your rope, it can occasionally position itself behind your saddle horse before you have time to do anything about it. More than one trainer has been bucked off their super quiet and experienced saddle horse when this has happened. I knew it could never happen to me (…again), but I figured it was best to be prepared.

 

Then it came time to get Satts okay with dragging a tarpaulin, a jump rail, a horse rug, tyre etc. This proved a bigger challenge than the rope training. I started on the ground with dragging a chaff bag on the end of my lariat. Satts took to this pretty quickly. From both sides and with all sorts of objects to drag, Satts was doing great – even at a canter. But the real challenge was when the object was being dragged along the ground from in front of him. If I faced him to the object and dragged it towards us, he tried to turn tail and run. It really scared him. Coming at him from behind was okay, but coming from in front was a matter of life and death. But time, patience and consistency paid off and I was able to ride him while dragging objects from all directions and even being able to use my rope to flip a chaff bag from the ground and into my lap while he trotted around as if he had been doing it since birth.

 

The progress Satts had made was enough to make me think I actually knew what I was doing. But I wanted to be sure I didn’t repeat the mistakes I had made with Chops. Satts was sensitive, but he was also bold. He had come a long way. In the process of teaching Satts the things I needed him to know, other things developed between us that I had not taught. I hardly ever used a halter or rope on him now. He came up to me when called and followed where I lead. I could direct him with a little energy to where I wanted him to wait. He would ground tie and wait patiently while I walked away to get something from the tack room or house.

 

I could direct Satts with pressure I had never taught him. For instances, if he walked away I could stop him and have him back up by grabbing his tail – something he had never had a lesson in. Satts had never had a lesson in ground tying or following at liberty or coming when called or backing up when I touched his tail. To me, it indicated that Satts had a bigger picture of our relationship than just “I press button A and you perform behaviour B.” It occurred to me that Satts had learned that pressure and energy from me had intent and meaning and it was his vocation to try to make sense of it and respond accordingly. He was not just performing a bag of tricks I had taught him. He was interpreting my actions in a way that made sense to him. So while I had been teaching him lots of different behaviours, he was also learning things far outside those lessons that go to the heart of the relationship between horse and human.

 

I was very excited about starting Satts with another horse in the round yard. My aim was to make it easy for him to gain his confidence, so I volunteered Chops for the mission. They knew each other really well and although Chops was higher up in the pecking order, she threatened a lot without ever following through. If Chops decided to assert herself with Satts it would take almost nothing to call her bluff. I saw it as my priority to look after Satts’ confidence and make sure he listened to me. If things were going awry I would forget about Chops and take care of the horse under me. I had invested a lot of time and hope in Satts and I needed to make sure he developed into a quality working horse.

 

The first step was to work them together at liberty in the round yard. This would give Satts confidence with working in close proximity to another horse, but at the same time to listen to my direction.

 

For a minute or two, I let them get familiar with each other in the yard. There was some squealing from Chops, but Satts followed her around like a bad debt. When I started to move them around together, Chops held the lead. After changing direction Chops again went out in front, flicking her head at Satts as she went past. Soon I asked Chops to change direction, but Satts was to maintain the same direction. As they started to pass each other, Satts tried to turn to go with Chops, but I blocked him with the flag. After several laps, Satts settled in the rhythm and didn’t seem at all bothered by passing Chops going the other way. I figured this deserved a little break for both of them and called them into the middle where we all rested for a couple of minutes. Then I sent Chops out to the fence while I asked Satts to stand behind me. Satts shadowed me as I followed Chops around the yard. Every time I asked Chops to change direction or slow down, Satts was with me like fly paper. Then it was Chops’ turn to stand by my side while Satts was working out on the track. I don’t think I could have asked for the work to be going any better. Both horses were listening and working well.

 

I gave them both a few minutes of rest, but added lots of rubs and scratches to the mix. Finally, I slipped the bridle on Satts and stepped up into the saddle. I turned Satts away from Chops and walked to the fence to collect the flag.

 

I held the flag high in my right hand and passed it over to my left side and back again. Everything seemed okay, so I repeated it with a little more vigour. As I walked Satts around the yard I started swinging the flag as if I was swatting a fly. Chops was not bothered by this because she knew it was not about her, but nevertheless, she kept out of our way. As I trotted and cantered Satts, Chops was aware that there was nowhere she could stand where she would not encounter the man with the flag every few seconds, so she decided to stay ahead of us. I was not driving Chops, but she was intent on staying out of our way.

 

I brought Satts back to a walk and Chops parked herself by the gate. I approached her with a gentle wave of the flag as if to tell her she needed to not be at the gate when Satts and I got there. She walked on. I pointed Satts across the round yard to get in front of Chops. It was enough to stop her halfway and turn her in the opposite direction. I repeated this a few times and I could tell Satts was picking up on the job. Despite the fact that Satts seemed to work out what I was trying to do I decided I had better change the job because I didn’t want him believing he knew what I was asking and start to pre-empt what I wanted. He needed to stay listening to me and not just doing the job because he thought he knew what coming next. I needed to make the work a little less predictable for Satts.

 

I turned him away from Chops and asked for a side pass to the fence. When we got there, I climbed out of the saddle and stepped onto the fencing rail. I sat on the fence and scratched Satts’ wither. Chops wanted in on this and wandered over. It surprised me that she did not tell Satts to get out of the way. She just found a space to squeeze through and sidled alongside.

 

After a short time, I mounted Satts again from the fence and flagged Chops to move on. We followed behind. The next lap I moved Satts up to a trot and pushed Chops along harder. We cut her off on the other side and had her trotting in the opposite direction. I then flagged her into a canter but told Satts to follow her at a walk in a tiny circle in the middle of the yard. Initially, Satts wanted to go with her and I had to drop the flag while I worked on him coming back to the walk. I firmed up pretty hard on the reins and told him to stand quietly while we watched Chops lose a few kilos. Even though he was doing what I asked I could feel him bubbling away underneath me. When I felt him hit a good spot, I dismounted and picked up the flag again, then got back on.

 

As Chops slowed to a walk, I urged Satts alongside her. He was on the inside, so he could easily out pace her. As we caught up to her rear, I reached across and petted her croup. Satts was easily out walking Chops, so I petted all along her back as we made our way to the front. Then I stopped and petted both horses. It was a good way to finish Satts’ first day of his new career.

Chapter 19: The Prodigal Horse Returns

I hadn’t seen Satts for about 16 months and was a little apprehensive that he might come back to me in the same freaked out state that he was when I first met him. But the instant the driver swung the divider to his stall across, I knew he was okay. Satts stood at the top of the ramp gawking around as if he was trying to get his bearings. He made one call and received a reply from Chops in the nearby paddock. That seem to satisfy him that he was where he thought he was. At the request of the driver, Satts gingerly followed him down the steep decline until he was on firm ground.

 

I led Satts the twenty metres to the stable that would be his home for a short while. It had fresh bedding, hay and water. Once I returned the halter and lead rope to the truckie, he wasted no time in wishing me luck and hopping into the cab to make his way to the next job.

 

Before going to the house to telephone dad with the news that his horse arrived safely, I made a cursory examination of Satts. He had the greyhound frame that all racehorses have when in work. His leg was clearly still swollen, but apart from that, it was hard to tell if he had an injury. He stood equally on all four legs and did not seem to be protecting the damaged limb when he moved.

 

He took a momentary break from eating his hay to come to the door to sniff me, but my intrusion was not enough to distract him for long from filling his belly.

 

Dad had arranged for copies of the scans of Satts’ leg to be sent to my vet. So when the vet arrived two days after Satts’ arrival he was already armed with the necessary information. After a thorough examination of the leg, watching Satt’s movement and reading the report from the Sydney vet, my vet was not as optimistic as dad seemed about Satt’s prognosis. He said it was a very bad tear and there appeared to be some damage in the other foreleg too. He didn’t think Satts would ever be able to do much more than walk around the paddock. And even that may cause him some discomfort.

 

My next move was to insist on a referral to Geoff Hazard at the Werribee Veterinary Hospital. I had some experience with Geoff in the past and found him to be brilliant when it came to diagnosing musculoskeletal and leg problems in horses.

 

The next week I loaded Satts into the float and drove across Melbourne to meet Geoff at 9am. We were there for three hours while Geoff went over Satts from head to toe, took more scans and consulted with colleagues. With each minute, I was becoming less sure that I wanted to know the verdict. One vet had already been pessimistic, did I really want to hear it confirmed? Finally, Geoff met with me and said that he thought Satts would come good for normal riding. He’d be no super athlete again, but there was no reason that with rest and time that Satts would not be able to cope with light riding in the arena and on the trail. No jumping, no racing, no barrel racing or polo or cutting or reining or anything that was going to raise his heart rate! I was to take him back for another examination in six months time.

 

Satts spent another two weeks in the stable before I introduced him back to the paddock. I didn’t want the other horses running Satts around the paddock, so I put him in a paddock adjacent to the others. Over the next few weeks, I introduced each horse one at a time to Satts’ paddock. This gave Satts and the other horse plenty of time to get settled with each other before adding another horse to the herd. Overall it worked pretty well, but of course, it was going to be impossible to ensure there was absolutely no galloping and cavorting. Nevertheless, Satts showed no sign of further damaging his suspensory ligament and except for the swelling in the leg, it was difficult to detect any injury.

 

It was close to three and half months before I was certain that the swelling in the soft tissue has significantly subsided. At the six-month mark, it was time to visit Geoff Hazard again. Palpation of the lower leg revealed ongoing healing in the soft tissue, but he remained relatively even in his movement. Geoff was pleased with the progress. The scans showed a lot of remodelling of the tissue. Geoff said he would look at Satts again in another 3 months. In the meantime, Satts was to be kept rested and living the life of a spoilt horse. Geoff made mention that Satts had lost his hard-bodied ripped muscle look and replaced it with the look of an overfed show hack. At least his appearance now fitted in with the rest of my herd.

 

A couple of more visits and finally I got the all clear from the vet that Satts could begin light riding again. It had been 15 months since he arrived and I’m sure it was a surprise to him to see a saddle again. I think Satts had become comfortable with the comforts of retirement and was not expecting to ever see the inside of a round yard again.

 

I had formulated a plan that Satts could become a workhorse. He was big and strong and able-bodied enough to bear the brunt of the pushing and pulling that young, green horses can do. If his legs stood up to the workload, I was going to use Satts to work other horses from. But it was to begin with just getting him use to being a riding horse again. I needed to see what he remembered from the training I gave him and also how his emotional state stood up to the months of racing.

 

Our first session was just some groundwork with Satts wearing a saddle. His whole body froze when I girthed up my saddle, so I loosened the girth a couple of holes and walked him around in hand until I felt him soften. Then I buckled to the next hole and walked him again. I threw in a few hindquarter yields and some backing. Finally, he melted into my hand and I was able to snug the girth to its proper firmness with no sign of worry.

 

After doing a few minutes of work in hand to check out his response to the lead rope, I removed the halter and walked away. Satts watched me leave for a few strides, then looked left and took off with lightning speed like he was a fashion model being chased by a Big Mac. There was no bucking, just running. He ran so fast he struggled to stay on his feet. As I stood and watched him, I was glad the sand was not very deep and there was little chance of him damaging his ligament again. Since he had the fitness level of a pie eating contest winner, it didn’t take long for him to slow down and regain his composure to the point where we could actually get some work done.

 

That first session jogged my memory to recall what a nice horse Satts had become. I guess he was always a nice horse, but he hadn’t always had a chance to prove it.

 

The next session came the next day. I did a bit more groundwork and then rode him in a side pull. After a few turns and transitions from walk to trot to canter, it was time to open the gate and head out across the country. He seemed to be holding back going down the driveway. He was not very forward, but I put that largely down to the fact that he did not have shoes fitted and the gravel was making him a little hot-footed. When we got to the gate I was able to turn him left and walk along the grassy verge. He seemed more comfortable in his movement but was still travelling like he was towing a barge. I could tell his mind was fixated on going back to the paddock. I had not planned on doing little more than take him for a ride to the gate and back, but this was an issue that I felt needed addressing now.

 

I stopped Satts about 30 metres past the gate. I sat quietly on a loose rein and waited. He called back to Chops in the paddock, but there was no answer. Satts began to look around. After a few seconds, he turned his shoulders to the right and made a move towards the gate. I picked up my right rein and continued his turn. At first, he pulled on my rein every time he became lined up with the gate and then tried to spin quickly through the turn to get his nose pointing back at the gate. But I kept turning him. I was waiting for a change of thought. Just when I considered he was never going to give up on trying to make his way back to the gate, I felt a lack of rushing and softening through his turn. My reins dropped quietly on his neck and he stopped, facing the other side of the road. I didn’t care where he was pointed. I only cared that he was no longer trying to get back home.

 

We rested for a few moments before I nudged Satts forward where he was facing. But after the first step, he veered right again and looked to the gate. My right rein asked for more turning until he again let go of the thought that the gate was the most important thing in his life. When I put slack back in the rein we stopped, facing the gate. But with my left rein I asked him to about face and look up the road. A few moments of rest and I ask him forward again.

 

It took maybe seven or eight repetitions of the same exercise before Satts gave up the idea that he needed to be heading home now. We rode on for about another hundred metres before turning back. Satts was clearly glad to get home and see his mates. Although I could see there was potential for a problem developing with regard to being homebound, I figured today was not the day to be doing too much about it. It was Satt’s first ride in more than a year and I didn’t want to make the experience too much like work. There would be plenty of time and plenty of projects in the coming weeks and months.

 

Overall, I was pretty happy with how Satts handled the session. Obviously, he had picked up some bad habits; with a lack of focus being number one. But dad’s trainer had not done a bad job of keeping Satts settled and sensible. He had neither turned him into a fruit loop nor killed his personality – which I found to be fairly uncommon in retired racehorses. But most important was that I didn’t feel Satts favour his injured leg. I was sure Satts would go on to be the working horse I needed.

Chapter 18: Satts The Racehorse

A couple of days after Satts had left my place I got a phone call from my father letting me know the horse had arrived safely at Rosehill in Sydney. The only other comment was from dad’s trainer who thought they brought the wrong horse because Satts looked like a late gestation mare.

 

Despite being anxious about Satts’ future I had enough on my plate to keep me occupied and not linger too long on the matter. My research was running in high gear. I had just published an important paper in the journal “Endocrinology” and I was riding a wave of popularity among the ivory tower fraternity. Requests for speaking engagements and collaborative studies were arriving daily. It made me wish I had included a request for funds for a personal assistant to my last grant application.

 

In addition to all that, I was asked by a neighbour to help her with a troublesome horse. I really didn’t have the time, but since Satts’ departure, I was yearning for another challenge. The horse was actually not so bad. My neighbour had been to a few Parelli clinics and was trying out her new found skills on her horse. Unfortunately, she had not done enough of the training to be clear in her own mind about what she was doing and she was passing this confusion onto her horse.

 

The horse was fairly simple and it was obvious that most of the problem lay with my neighbour. To be honest, it is a project that could have been dealt with in a week, but from the very start, I enjoyed the company and chose to drag out the training as an excuse to spend time with her. It was soon clear that she also enjoyed our time together and I no longer needed to find an excuse. It had been more than five years since my divorce and this was the first time I had kept company with anybody

 

So life was good. I was at the top of the world with my work and my private life was invigorated. This is why Satts did not pre-occupy my thoughts to a large extent.

 

One evening about three weeks after Satts returned to Sydney I received a call from dad. The first couple of minutes were taken up with the usual preliminaries; “how are ya son?”, “how’s work?”, “d’ya need any money?”

 

But then dad got to the meat of why he was calling.

 

“Kevin tells me that he sent Satts to a fellow for pre-training. He says Satts settled in pretty well, but he can’t take the reins. The training bloke nearly flipped him over the first time he gathered the reins. The vet and dentist looked at him and couldn’t find anything wrong.”

 

“Dad, Satts has a good mouth – not a racehorse mouth. Tell those blokes to lighten up on the contact. He doesn’t need somebody hanging on the end of the reins. He thinks he is being asked to run backwards. They have to stay off his mouth.”

 

Dad’s response was, “Well, I guess that’s okay for a riding horse, but a racehorse can’t react that way. Jockeys need to use the reins to balance in a race. They can’t have a horse that won’t let them use the reins.”

 

This made me a little irate.

 

“Listen dad, it’s not the job of the horse to be okay with bad riding. A good trainer and a good rider will feel what they have under them and adjust the way they ride. It’s not the horse’s responsibility to take care of crap riding. Tell Kevin to find a bloody trainer and jockey who have good feel for a horse and they will get along fine with Satts.”

 

I added.

 

“Satts came to me a monster because of what bloody Kevin put him through the first time. I managed to turn him into a really nice horse that is safe and a pleasure to ride. If you’re going to listen to Kevin, I can’t help you and you’ll never see Satts on a racecourse. He just won’t make it. You might as well cut your losses now and retire him. Or you can listen to me and you have a chance of finding out what sort of athlete he really is. If Kevin does what he always does, he will get Satts to respond as he always did. Do you remember how that turned out?”

 

A week later dad tells me that he sent Satts to a trainer in Cobbity, south of Sydney.  Two weeks after that the news is that the trainer likes Satts. He was riding the horse himself rather than send him to a pre-trainer. Satts had settled in really well and was being given light work to get some condition on him. The new trainer told dad that Satts didn’t need any education. He was good about the barriers; he listened to the rider and was really sensible. But what most surprised him was how bold Satts was about squeezing between other horses. He said most green horses needed to be pushed hard to convince them they can fit through a narrow space, but not Satts. He was full of confidence.

 

The biggest problem was going to be finding a jockey that could ride a horse with a super responsive mouth. Dad’s trainer talked to a lot of jockeys and put several on Satts during training sessions, but none seemed to get along with the horse. Finally out of pure frustration he gave a new apprentice a try – only fifteen years old. The kid had come through pony club and done a lot of camp drafting. He had good balance and unusually quiet hands. It worked a treat. He found that the faster Satts travelled the quieter he needed to be on his back and Satts would settle quickly into a rhythm. It sounded like the horse and the kid were working each other out and it suited them both.

 

One evening I got a phone call just before I sat down to eat.

 

“Is this Ross?”

 

“Speaking.”

 

“Ross, this is Doug, your dad’s trainer.”

 

“Oh, how are you? This is a surprise. How’s Satts doing?”

 

“He’s great. That’s why I’m calling. Your dad said you really loved the horse, so I wanted to let you know what a fabulous job you had done with him. I heard from different people that he was a mongrel and should have been put down. Well, you proved them all wrong. He’s going so well.”

 

“Thanks Doug. You don’t know how relieved I am that he is doing well. He’s not easy and you seem to be the right bloke for him. He a super horse, “ I responded.

 

Doug said, “We stretched him out in a barrier trial today. He was running third with about one and a half lengths between him and the horse running first at the 250 mark. Then young Steve told him to go and the bloody kick on that horse was tremendous. He passed them and took the lead in about four strides. It was like they were standing still. Steve said he had to hold onto his mane for dear life because of the acceleration. I think we’ll be able to win a race or two with him for your dad. We’ll give him another trial next week and if he does okay in that we’ll start him at Hawkesbury in a 1000m run in about two and half weeks.”

 

After I hung up the phone I was feeling a little elated. It made me wish I could see Satts running at Hawkesbury.

 

Satts did not win at Hawkesbury. The track had been subjected to heavy rain in the days preceding the race and Satts ran third. Two weeks later Satts won a 1200m maiden at Newcastle by two lengths. But he pulled up a little shin sore and was rested for six weeks. Over the coming months Satts had three wins, four seconds, and two-thirds. The highlight was a win at Rosehill. Dad was so proud to own a city winner. I still have the video clip of mum and dad being interviewed after the race by the TV commentator. Dad’s face was beaming. I was so happy for them both.

 

Then one morning I was working in the surgery halfway through an operation to remove the pituitary gland from the brain of a fetal sheep when Alex, the surgical technician, popped his head through the door and said my father called and could I call him back as soon as I was out of surgery. Immediately my heart skipped thinking something had happened to mum or some equally terrible disaster.

 

I completed what was normally a four-hour operation in three hours, changed clothes and left the sheep and fetus in the capable care of the animal technician.

 

“Dad, what’s wrong?”

 

“I’m sorry for pulling you away from work, son. Is everything okay?”

 

“Yes, dad everything is fine. But why did you call me? Is mum okay?”

 

“Yes, your mother if fine. It’s Satts. Doug called and said he tore a suspensory ligament at training yesterday. It’s a bad rip and the vet thinks he should be retired. He said his leg probably won’t stand up to the strain of racing ever again.”

 

 “Aw dad, that’s horrible. I’m so sorry for you. Will he be okay? Does he need to be put down? Will he recover enough to be rideable,” I asked?

 

My father replied, “The vet thinks he will recover in about eight to twelve months and be okay for normal riding, but nothing too strenuous.”

 

“Well, what are you going to do with him?” I asked.

 

“Well, he needs rest. I was wondering if you could take him. I’d cover all your costs – feed, vet, anything,” dad said.

 

“You don’t need to worry about covering anything. Send him down. He’s got a home for life. I’ll look after him. We’re mates,” I said.

 

Two weeks later the same truck that took him away came rumbling up my drive. Satts was home again.

Chapter 17: Moving On

It was a busy time at work. As well as the usual tasks of supervising research students, setting exams, writing manuscripts, the head of my department had chosen me to volunteer to sit on two new committees. Not only that, but I apparently had volunteered to chair one of those committees. After all the effort over several years, I had put into avoiding committee work, I was finally roped and hog-tied with all my usual excuses expired.

 

Anyway, this was the excuse I told my father for not calling him about my progress with Satts. But the real reason was that I was delaying as long as possible sending the horse back to Sydney. We had become good mates and we had shared difficult times together that gave us a bond. Well, that’s what I felt. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Satts felt he was doing okay before he met me and he didn’t need any help from me to kick some human butt.

 

I told dad that Satts was doing great. I told him about a ride a few days earlier where I took Satts along a bush track, crossed the main road and rode him around a lake reserve where people were having Sunday picnics and dads were playing soccer with their kids. My father seemed to think that was pretty impressive. But when I added that I rode Satts bareback and with just a stirrup leather around his neck, there was stunned silence.

 

“Do ya mean you only had a head collar on him,” dad asked?

 

“No dad, nothing. No bridle, no halter, no reins – nothing! Just a strap of leather around his neck.”

 

“Ya can’t do that son. That’s dangerous. He’s a racehorse. He’s bred to run. He could’ve taken off anytime!”

 

“Funny. That’s what the lady in the Mercedes said. We just crossed the Belgrave-Hallam Rd and gone up Horswood Rd, when a Mercedes came around the corner. The driver slammed her car to a halt, jumped out and screamed at me how dangerous it was to ride without a bridle out on the roads. She said I had no control and anything could happen. So I cantered Satts in a circle around her $80,000 car and asked her if it looked like I was out of control? Steam came out of her ears, he got in her car and took off fuming.”

 

I told dad Satts was ready to go back to Sydney and begin life again as a racehorse. He said he would contact Kevin, his trainer, and arrange for a truck to pick the horse up for the long haul back to Sydney.

 

I tried hard not to think about it too much. When the decision was made to send Satts back I stopped riding him. I would go out in the evenings when I could and sit under my favourite tree with a cuppa tea in my hand and watch the horses. Satts was always the first to wander up for a scratch. LJ would be next followed by Chops. LJ had given Chops the assignment of clearing the way for LJ’s arrival. Chops was like an eager groupie who took delight at moving Satts out of the way for her master. Once LJ felt I had given him the appropriate amount of attention he deigned to allow Chops her share of the scratches. Finally, LJ would wander off to other important matters and Chops would follow, keen to find other ways to please her master. Then Satts would return and hang out. This time under the tree was always my favourite part of the day.

 

It’s easy to dismiss the value of time hanging out with your horses as unproductive. Nothing is really getting taught or learned that will make a big difference to the results of your next competition. But I think there can be great therapeutic value in hang out time. I know for me, to sit with my horses is a great time to think and unload the stresses of the world. It reminds me that life is not about how much work I can fit into a day. When you are in the middle of stuff, it is so easy to believe it is the most important stuff there is. It’s easy to think the experiment I have started will get me published in Nature. Or the rising price of petrol is going to ruin us all. Or that bare patch on the top of my head where nothing will grow means I’ll never be kissed by a girl again. But I believe “hang out” time can help put those things into perspective.

 

It helps in other ways too. One thing I reckon I’ve learned from hang out time is how to be better at doing nothing when there is a horse in front of me. We spend most of our time with horses being busy. We know it’s our job to be giving them jobs. We have to do something. It’s so hard for us to do nothing. I see in my clinics people who cannot do nothing with their horse. Even if they are not doing a job with a horse they can’t let a horse be within reach and not pet it. They have to constantly be stroking, petting or correcting. I think it has been difficult but important for me to learn to be around a horse and do nothing.

 

From the horse’s perspective, hanging out with people that having no expectations and no demands goes a long way towards learning humans can be associated with other things besides feeding time and pressure. A horse can learn that being around humans can be easy and not always something to dread.

 

In any case, I enjoyed my time spent under the tree, sipping hot tea and talking to the horses as if what I had to say was the most important thing they would ever hear.

 

A couple of weeks passed before I heard from the transport guys. We arranged they could pick up Satts on the Wednesday morning around 6:30am. This gave me a few days to double check his trailer loading skills and make sure he would be good on the day. Not all transport guys have the patience necessary when it comes to loading reluctant horses. Theirs is a hard job and I can see why they quickly reach for ropes and broomsticks. But I wanted to ensure that Satts was not going to be the victim of such methods. I had invested too much effort, energy, and skin into changing his idea that people were the enemy. I didn’t want to see that undone in 2 minutes by an over eager truck driver.

 

I was having a cup of tea when I heard the truck rumbling up the driveway. They were early – it was 6:20am.

 

When I went out to meet them, lo and behold it was the same two characters that delivered Satts. We shook hands and the first words after “g’day” were “how d’ya get on with that mongrel?” I was not surprised they remembered Satts. You’d have to have advanced Alzheimer’s to forget him.

 

I told them I’d go get him while they turned the truck around and set up the truck bays. By the time I was bringing Satts through the gate the truck was ready and waiting.

 

“Just put this halter on him would ya mate,” the bigger fellow asked? I swapped my rope halter for a tattered webbing halter with a puny cotton lead rope attached.

 

“He can go in the back one and face him backwards. There’s a clip there to hook him onto mate.”

 

Satts walked up the thirty-degree slope and into the last bay. I swung his bum around and clipped him to the chain in front of him. The two drivers rushed up the ramp to swing the divider shut, almost trapping me inside with Satts. They were so eager to make sure he was captured that they almost scared him into trying to come out again.

 

When he was shut in with no possibility for escape the big fellow said, “Well that was easy. Betta than last time for certain.”

 

They said they had two horses to pick up at Cranbourne, then back to the depot to load another horse and then straight to Sydney. They estimated Satts would be at Rosehill by about midnight.

 

I felt a wave of sadness as I watched the truck disappear down the driveway. I had a feeling of betraying a mate. But what could I do?

 

I didn’t know how Satts would take to racing. The factory setting of a big time racing stable was not something that Satts would automatically fit into easily. His temperament was too sensitive to be treated like a factory product whose relevance was counted by the fleetness he could run 800 metres. I had my doubts if Satts would survive the process and even get to a barrier trial. He was the shape of a middle-age show hack and a person could be forgiven for failing to see the athlete that lay underneath. So it was going to be a long time before he was ready to show his stuff and he might just fall apart before he gets that far.

 

If I ever saw him again it would be either as a highly prized running machine or as the same crazed man-hating horse I first met? Both outcomes made me feel a little sad.

Chapter 16: Good Students are Born, Not Made

Over the next few weeks I had plenty of time to ride Satts in all sorts of circumstances. He was becoming more confident and bolder. In fact, a few times I felt him get the idea that he was in charge and I just needed to sit in the saddle and enjoy the ride. He was becoming so certain of how this riding caper was suppose to work that there were moments when I had to remind him not so gently that his job was not to take me somewhere, but to listen to me 100% of the time.

 

It happens so often with green broke horses that people ride them and ride them in an effort to get the horse use to be taken on rides. But in the process, they let the horse believe that his only responsibility is to head out where the rider points his nose. People forget that good training is not about miles in the saddle. It’s about educating the mind of the horse to be attentive to the rider and pliable enough that a rider can influence a change anytime he needs. One of the most strongly held myths in horsemanship is that nothing is better for a horse than miles of riding. While a lot of riding can help get a horse use to going places, it does nothing on it’s own to give you a focused, soft and contented horse.

 

This was the problem I faced with Satts. He was smart enough to learn that saddling up and pointing out the gate meant we are going somewhere. He got good at that pretty quickly. But a few times, when I wanted to change what he thought we were going to do, he expressed some dissatisfaction with my decision and told me what he thought of me in my role as leader of the expedition. It was never anything too big and was always resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties after we formed a committee to hear all sides and an independent arbitrator was called in to make a ruling that took into account the legitimate concerns and demands of both the biped and quadruped species involved.

 

All it took to overcome the problem was for me to be aware of those times when Satts was not mentally connected to me and instead was listening to the birds, sounds on the wind and his inner voices. The moment I sensed this happening I would make a change with my reins or seat or legs to make the issue a non-event. He was so smart that even I was surprised how good Satts became at staying with me on our rides after a little effort on my part.

 

I continued to ride on the cricket ovals and even occasionally in the round yard. He was coming along so well with his softness to the reins, that teaching him to side pass was simple. I always start with lateral movements from my reins, using no legs except to say, “go forward.” I don’t start with my legs asking for side ways movement – it all comes from the reins in the beginning. This is because on a green horse I don’t want to confuse the action of the leg that means “forward” with the action that means, “yield laterally.” So I always begin with the reins alone. When that becomes established, I introduce the inside leg by first applying the leg to the girth and follow that with the reins asking for a lateral step. With repetition, the horse soon learns that a touch with the inside leg is quickly followed by the reins asking for a side step. From there it takes nothing for the horse to understand to yield to the inside leg. Within a few days we were working on shoulder-in, which is designed to really helped him engage his inside hindleg and lift his back.

 

At one point I decided to play with some bridle-less riding. I had my doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to teach a horse destined for the racetrack. But the temptation to have fun with it was too great for me to resist.

 

For me, the training usually begins with teaching to neck rein. I put Satts in the round yard and had an old stirrup leather buckled loosely around his neck. For headgear, I resorted to the side pull once again. I hopped into the saddle, put my left rein into my left hand and the stirrup leather in my right hand. I started wanting Satts to turn to the left, so I passed my right hand across toward the wither which caused the leather to press against the right side of Satts’ neck while opening up the left side of the neck. At the same time I rotated my upper body to the left in the direction I wanted Satts to turn. At first Satts shifted as if to walk directly ahead. At that moment I used my left hand to tip his thought to my left with an open rein. I felt him immediately lift his shoulders and yield to the left. It was a good start. Over and over I repeated the exercise of first asking with the stirrup leather, followed by supporting what I wanted with the inside rein. Always offer how you want your horse to respond first, and then if you don’t get the response you wanted, clarify what you are asking for with your secondary aid. It’s a principle that is in everything we do with horses.

 

It took no more than about two minutes for Satts to clue into the idea of turning left when he felt the stirrup leather against the right side of his neck.

 

There was some initial confusion in Satts’ mind when I changed sides and asked for a turn to the right. But I patiently kept asking for what I wanted, while blocking what I didn’t want. Soon he was able to turn right or left without me having to touch to reins.

 

This followed the same pattern when he was asked to walk forward. The turns were always preceded by my use of the outside of the stirrup leather and turning my body, but supported if I had to with the inside rein. It took maybe thirty minutes from when I started to have Satts walk, trot and cantering with changes of directions all over the round yard.

 

The next session I didn’t bother to fit the side pull on him. I was sure he was going to be great, but just in case I decided to start in the round yard. Yep! He was great. I opened the gate and ride him down the driveway thirty or forty metres, turned around and rode back up to the yard. I turned around again and rode him all the way to the front gate and headed a little way towards the neighbour’s property. I rode him over a couple of small logs and backed him up an embankment before pointing towards home again.

 

The next day we rode towards the main road where we sure to see traffic. Satts was dressed in a bridle and training bit. As we got to the intersection, cars were whizzing past at unlawful speeds. Satts had some experience with light traffic including trucks, tractors and one or two motorbikes. But that had always been one at a time. This was different. Streams of cars and trucks were flying by in front of us from left and right. We tried to cross the road, but had to wait for almost two minutes before the break in traffic was long enough to calmly get to the other side. Satts was legendary as he patiently waited for my signal to walk on. I didn’t really expect him to handle so much activity at high speed as well as he did. But I was learning that as Satts learned more things, stuff I hadn’t taught him was being taken care of too.

 

Finally, it came time to try out float (trailer) loading. When Satts arrived on the truck he was a mess. The transport fellows described him as crazy and were quite scared of him when it came time to unload him at my place.

 

So it was with cautious optimism that I hooked the float to my car and led him towards the ramp. I had done a hell of a lot of groundwork with Satts by this time. He was leading as well as any horse I had pass though my hands in recent times. I knew he had to be better than when he first arrived, but I didn’t know how much better or what kind of trouble was about to erupt from inside him.

 

I walked up the ramp and into the float with Satts behind me. He stopped at the base of the ramp and sniffed all around. He looked inside, sniffed the sides, looked again, sniffed the ramp and did a poo. When the tail went down again, he lifted his front left leg much higher than necessary and slammed it onto the ramp. I waited with no pressure on the lead rope. His other leg went almost as high and again slammed down onto the ramp. Less than five seconds passed before Satts shifted his weight backwards then launched himself up the ramp and into the float. I scrambled to get out of his way. Once he discovered the chest bar was blocking his path, he stepped back to halfway out and stopped. I rubbed his neck and forehead, and then asked him to step down the ramp backwards. His movement was slow and deliberate – just the way I liked it. A few more rubs transpired while standing outside of the float and then I asked him to walk back in. This time there was no sudden lurching or nervous exploration of the smells. He walked into the float like he was passing through an open gateway. When he reached as far as he could go, he went to step out again, but a quiet hold of the lead rope caused him to still his feet and wait. A few seconds later and I asked for him to quietly back out again. Each step was like he was tiptoeing his way through a landmine.

 

I loaded Satts a couple of more times before quitting. The next day it took about thirty minutes to have him loading and unloading one-step at a time while I stood outside. If I led the lead rope past me Satts walked quietly into the float. If I lifted his tail, he slowly walked backwards until all four feet were on the ground. At any moment I could stop him, send him the other way or continue with what he was doing.

 

By the third day, I had him on a long rope and was able to sit in the car and send him into the float and stand quietly. In a further two days he was doing the same trick, but with no rope on him. I joked to some people at work that it would be perfect if I rigged up a button on the inside of the float that Satts could push with his nose and the ramp would rise hydraulically and lock itself. The only problem was that I could envisage driving down the road and Satts pushing that damn button again.

 

I knew that loading Satts onto a float was only possible because his groundwork was so good. Almost all floating loading issues are leading issues. The same was true when it was time to teach Satts to tie up.

 

When he first came to me, Satts was so reactive to the feel of a halter that I knew I couldn’t tie him up. He was the sort of horse that if he didn’t break all my gear trying to get away, he would probably have killed himself trying. But after doing a lot of halter leading work, I had to try to teach him to tie up. Most racehorses are tied in crossties. But I wanted to teach him properly. If Satts could handle being tied up with a lead rope, crossties would present no problem to him later.

 

I used a long rope clipped to his halter. In the round yard, I positioned Satts about half a metre from the fence and wrapped the rope three times around the fence post. I then stepped outside the round yard and sat in a chair directly opposite Satts with the end of the rope in one hand. I waited for Satts to do something. Once in awhile he went to pull away and felt the snug of the halter and stopped. He did this several times, but even after twenty minutes he didn’t try to pull away like he meant it.  Clearly the many hours of halter training was doing its job.

 

I went back in the yard and walked behind him. In one hand I held the end of the rope and in the other I held my flag. I passed behind him from left to right waving the flag up and down (but not at him). He almost instantly pulled away with some force. I fed the rope through my hand and allowed the friction of the wraps around the post to offer some resistance. The rope fed through about two metres before Satts stopped. He looked at me as if to ask what just happened. He had never pulled away before and the rope went with him. He was so smart to realize that no matter how much he pulled the rope would give and the pressure on the halter would still be there. What was the point of pulling back when there was nothing to pull against? I repeated the exercise a couple more times before Satts stopped going backwards and instead stepped his hind end from left to right in response to my flagging from right to left. I did the same exercise with Satts tied to the limb of a tree and to the side of the float and to a tie-up ring outside the stable. All this was to reinforce in him the lesson that life was not so bad if he went with the flow.

 

One night after Satts had been with me for quite some time I tried to replay in my mind the past several months. I rewound to when Satts was impossible to catch and the times he had hurt me. I remembered building that stupid laneway so I could run him into the yard to clean his stable. I couldn’t forget the fear in Satts’ eye when he first arrived or the cat leaping and roaring when I first saddled him. My leg almost hurt recalling Satts’ teeth sinking into me and throwing me out of the saddle. And then I remembered the first time he walked up to me in the round yard and how much he enjoyed it when I found his itchy spot. Or how amazing it was when we fell into a sinkhole and he still let me get back in the saddle and didn’t hesitate when I pointed him at the very next puddle. I almost laughed out loud at remembering how ridiculous I looked riding in cricket pads.

 

I was in awe of a horse that a short time ago was leaking urine from fear and now would let me ride across a busy road or canter in an open field with only a leather strap around his neck. The thought was tinged with sadness too because I knew I would soon have to send Satts back to Sydney. He was with me for a reason and that was to get him ready for life as a racehorse. I just wasn’t ready to let him go yet.