I can’t believe how privileged I have been with the horses in my life. That’s not to say that I’ve been responsible for a great number of horses because despite starting from an early age. None were mine to take care of until I was in my early 20s. Up until that time, all the horses I rode and worked were other peoples.
The first horse that came home to me was an unbroken 3 yo Percheron x Arab gelding. I noticed in the newspaper that an auction was being held for horses that were being sold because of the terrible drought in New South Wales. About 100 horses were trucked from NSW to Victoria to be sold. It caught my eye that there were a few Percheron crosses among the horses for auction.
A friend at the time talked me into going along. But I was determined not to buy a horse. Afterall, I was studying at the time for my PhD and when was I going to have the time for a horse? My friend and I walked the stalls looking at the poor devils – so much starved misery. A big steel grey gelding caught my eye. He was called Sebastian and looked like a holocaust survivor. I checked him over and despite his condition he had good bone, good feet, a nice short back and fire in his belly.
During the auction I sat on my hands as the horses were paraded before us. A young girl led in Sebastian. He spent most of the time on his back legs and there were no bids for him. At the end of the auction, My friend prodded me to ask the owner how much for the grey bag of bones. I finally succumbed and negotiated to buy Sebastian for $25. The horse was delivered the next day and was instantly renamed Luke.
So began a love affair that lasted until Luke’s death a few years ago. From a wild 3yo to an amazing six bar horse and a long time companion on my many long distance treks. Luke was always there.
I have been asked from time to time if Luke was my favourite horse or if Satts (from the series The Story Of Satan posted last year on this page) was my favourite. My usual answer is that my favourite horse is the one I’m sitting on at the time. But in truth there has been ‘a favourite’ and I can’t imagine it will ever change. I feel a little guilty about having a favourite – a bit like a parent admitting they have a favourite child.
About 3 years after Luke came to me, I got a phone call from some acquaintances who owned a Percheron stud. We were in the sixth year of what was to be an 8-year drought. They had too many horses and needed to find some short-term homes for the mares. The deal was that if I took a mare with a foal at foot for a year I could have my choice of either the foal at foot or the foal she was carrying. I agreed.
China was 3 months old when he and his dam came to live with Luke and I. He was gangly and clumsy and bordered on being goofy. But he had the curiosity of a puppy and the brave heart of a warrior. Nothing scared or intimidated him. If he needed to know what was in another paddock and a fence was blocking his way, he would quietly walk up to the fence and gently pop over it. If a mob of kangaroos bounded through his paddock he would follow them to see where they were going, leaving mum behind.
Luke was bossier, but China was smarter. China would get a good idea and let Luke take the credit. They became great mates and even though Luke was the leader, in reality he relied on China much more than China depended on him.
China enjoyed hanging around Luke and I. Each month I’d ride Luke the 15km into town for the show jumping club rally. China would follow behind of his own free will and wait patiently in a yard until the day was over and it was time to ride home again. When I rode Luke to another town for a show, China would follow and spend the 2 or 3 weeks on the road and living in the bush with us. We were like a family on a road trip. Each day was an adventure, a challenge. I had no idea at the time of the bond that was growing between our family of three.
By the time China was a bit over 3 years old he had grown to 17hh and solid like a mountain. He was ready to start under saddle. A lot of people made jokes about him. He was not pretty by anyone’s standards and looked more like a giant oaf from a children’s fairytale. You almost expected to hear him say “fe fi fo fum”. People would ask what was I going to do with a carthorse when I didn’t own a cart?
There was nothing China could not do. He jumped 1.75m heights. He could perform Prix St George movements. He could run barrels, pull sleds, negotiate bushfires with calm, move cows, goats and sheep, swim flooded rivers. As horses go, he was a horses horse. He was my eyes when I was blind, my legs when I couldn’t walk and my saviour when I was surrounded by a bushfire.
Every horse that has come home with me has been amazing. There is not one that I am not thrilled to have shared my life with. All my horses have been important. All of them have taught me to be a better horse person and a better person. I have loved and been committed to all of them. But China was even more special. Not because of his bravery or loyalty or the things he did for me. He was special because his personality made me bond to him like no other. He could make me laugh in my saddest moments and hear my troubles when there was nobody else to listen. And he knew how to make me cry when he passed away.
It was like a love affair. He made me feel better than I was.
The name China came from the term China plate, which is rhyming slang for mate. He was my best mate. In the photo China is about 1 year old. You can see the devastation that an 8-year drought can cause.