So we arrived at the Beautiful Cedars Shire Stud in Kangaroo Valley, a 2 hour drive southwest of Sydney, for a week long equine assisted therapy program with 7 ex service personnel. The guys were all returned vets, all suffering at different levels from Post Traumatic Stress disorder. They all had different issues but as they explained to me, “Black is Black” there is no “I’m worse off then you” amongst these guys.
One of the guys had been housebound for 3 years, one had a companion dog with him 24/7, the dog stopped his crazy nightmares. They had seen, done or had done to them things some wanted to discuss some didn’t.
Ive spent nearly 30 years going to this unique part of the world, one of the true beauties of Australia, one that most will never have the pleasure of seeing, I’ve been spoilt but the awe of this place never escapes me.
In all of my years of association with the cedars one of the constants was Archie. Archie was a 19 hand black shire gelding he weighed in at 1000Kgs, he was once credited as the biggest horse in the Southern hemisphere. A gentle giant and the first shire horse born in Australia for a century. Shire horses are the English version of the Scottish originated Clydesdale. Shires are generally bigger and in my opinion better proportioned than the Clydies. If you shaved of the immense dense feathers from around their massive legs and trimmed there beatnik beards they would just resemble a big riding horse and in fact they do ride quite nicely.
I had known Archie since he was a baby, I was the first to sit on him unbroken. I started him under saddle, rode him through the rain forests of the property, waded through the rivers, galloped like some sort of midevil knight across the never ending green paddocks. I introduced Archie to the mounted police where i rode him all around the streets of Sydney on patrol, taught him to be steered by the stirrups while carrying the drums for parade work, sat on his back with two other police mounted on my shoulders during vaulting work, and won prizes at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, we had plenty of history.
At the end of what had been a particularly cold winter, old Archie now 28 years of age, was looking every bit of those years, not through neglect, for never was a horse better cared for than Archie by his owner/mother Helene Scarfe. No, Archie was very old, most shires only live into there teens. He had dropped off in condition even whilst hand fed and on the lushest of pasture improved grass. It saddened me to see this most majestic of creatures so obviously nearing the end of his days. What a servant he had been, to the shire breed, now numbering some 300 registered animals in Australia, to the people of NSW, as a police horse and as an ambassador for horses in general, in his days of fame as the gentle giant at shows and media events all over the state.
Archie was a big part of my Journey as a horseman he was Truly a part of my life and that of my family, all 5 of my sons had sat upon his mighty back, on occasion 3 at a time..
At the start of the PTSD course I had been told that the previous week Archie had not been able to raise himself from the ground and had only gotten back to his feet with the use of a tractor. On first look I new Archie was ready to to go. I felt it could be any day and hoped it wouldn’t be too long, like looking at a loved relative in the last stages of cancer, one wants them to stay but knows it is inevitable that they must go.
On the second day of the Course one of the Soldiers found Archie down and unable to get up in the corner of his paddock, he lay beside a grove of massive Cedar trees from which the property gained its name, draft horses had hauled the valuable timber from these secluded valleys for more than a hundred years until they were replace by tractors and trucks. there were no struggle marks Archie had just lay down and couldn’t get up.
Archies hauling days were done. the soldiers gathered with me and as a group we struggled to try and get the big fella too his feet, for an hour we toiled, managing to raise his front end but unable to get his hind quarters to take any weight. Time and time again we pushed and pulled only to have him lay back on his side with a forlorn groan. The time had come, even with the the use of the tractor we couldn’t get him to rise.
The guys had been told of Archies history and there was no doubt that they felt an affinity with this great beast who had served his community as they has theirs, there was a feeling of mutual respect by all of us toward this grand old man.
The cedars is a working farm, and as on all farms, animals from time to time need to be Humanly put down, Greg the owner of the farm looked at me and i looked at him “its time mate i said” Archies beloved Helene was away for the day, Greg struggled with the thought that she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye but to leave him in this state would be unfair.
I tuned to to the men, sweaty and exhausted from the efforts of the last hour. “Lets give this morning a miss fellas, you go back to your rooms while greg and and i deal with this, you have all done your bit and we really appreciate your efforts, we will gather again for a debrief this afternoon.” I had no idea what might be the result if these scarred soldiers were allowed to watch while Greg carried out the task of ending Archies life.
The men stood fast, they were going no where, one spoke “we have been here through this and we will stay until the end it only seems right that we give him the honour of a proper send off”. Still unsure of how this would effect the group, I could see that it wouldn’t matter what i said, they were staying. Greg went to get his gun while we stayed with Archie, some patting the huge mass of horse helpless on the ground, some standing in contemplation, no doubt each effected in their own way, some maybe recalling other memories some lost in this very moment.
Greg returned, as i stood beside him with my hand on his shoulder the soldiers took up a position behind us standing quietly some at attention, some at ease. Greg looked to the sky for a long moment, He had known Archie longer than me. Greg had been at his birth and helped Helene tend to him while his mother lay on the ground for weeks suffering from extreme foal founder, Archie all 11 hands of him fed from her where she lay.
With one loud shot the job was done. As the echo bounced from cliff to cliff for what seemed an eternity, I stood with my arm around greg and we both wept, there was not a dry eye amongst us.
A send off fit for such a special creature, a troop of men honoured his life of service, gathered in a Cedar grove with one of the most magnificent backdrops in the world, the ancient stone escarpment reaching to the heavens above the lush rainforest and emerald green of the thickly grassed paddocks. We all stood quietly for some time.
After a while greg broke the silence,” ill take him and bury him now”, a grave had been prepared in anticipation of this sad day. The serviceman where not finished, they gently attached a harness to Archies limp body so he could be lifted by the tractor and carried to the grave site. The men either clambered onto the tractor or walked in procession behind it as Archie was carried to his final resting place.
An hour later we gather to de brief what we had been through. How would the course progress from here? could it ?
The first man spoke. “I served in Somalia, I have seen piles of bodies and body parts, I dealt with them like a zombi, I feel like what we have just been through today has allowed me to behave the way humans should behave in this kind of situation. It hurt and it should hurt.” Another spoke of Archies service to the community a parallel to that of the men gathered. I told of my memories and cried some more.
There was no doubt we had been brought close together by Archies passing, as a result we went on to have a wonderful and fruitful week of horse experience, story sharing, unloading by the campfire and helping each other honestly and intimately. Strangely a band of brothers for the week helped on by the mutual respect for a great and majestic draught horse who left us all better for the experience. That which does not kill us makes us strong.
Band of brothers with one of Archie’s nephews.
In memory of Cedars Archibold.