A diamond in the rough. Finding the hidden horseman

 

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When I first started working with the inmates at St Heliers prison, I would go up for a week at a time in order to train the inmates in the skills required for them to do their part in the retraining of the ex-racehorses from the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust. Horses donated to the Trust, go to St Heliers to let down before we commence working them. Most racehorses, when they leave the track, have had no socialisation since they left their mums as foals. Generally, for most, if not all of their lives, they are wrapped in cotton wool, stabled and spelled in individual yards so they don’t get hurt. Because of this, they miss out on learning the critical social skills required to be a horse. Imagine keeping a kid in an isolated room, sometimes letting him see other kids, but not allowing him to play, touch or interact. You feed him what he needs, you keep him immaculately cleaned and healthy in the body, lock him up from say, one until twelve years of age, give him very little education and no communication skills and then send him to high school. The result would be terrible for the kid. Well that’s where a racehorse often is at the end of his racing days. At St Heliers, we have big paddocks where we put five or six horses in together, often with a horse that has already been socialised or better still, an old tough draught horse. Let the old fella teach the young fellas how it’s done.

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Once they have had six months of lessons from the other horses and time to let down from racing, the inmates start to work with them. The inmates do around six weeks with each horse; natural horsemanship for want of a better word. Work in hand and lunging usually, no riding. The inmates do courses at the local TAFE in horse management, stable maintenance, farriery etc. In the first group of inmates I was involved with, there was a guy named Digger. Digger was a nice bloke, very polite and respectful – a fair effort when you consider I am an ex-copper. Digger was there when I gave all of the boys as a group, a lecture on what we do, how we do it and what was expected of them. Digger was quiet when I started to work hands-on with the horses. He stood back and carefully watched what I was doing and unlike some of the other boys, he wasn’t going to tell me what he knew and what he had done. Digger was fit with a hard look about him, and between you and me, about 10 kgs lighter than he is now. He seemed to have respect around the place, he was a trainer who worked out in the gym, did some boxing, and was always eating an egg to get his protein intake up. Gradually I got to work with all of the guys and Digger was one of the last. I asked him what he knew about horses and he told me he had done a bit with them as a kid. So Digger comes into the round yard with a horse they had christened Cranky. Now I knew Cranky’s reputation, the inmates didn’t know that as a racehorse, he was known as Evil. Cranky had his ears back constantly whenever a person was around and he would turn his backside to you if you went near him. He had bitten one inmate on the head, causing a nasty gash and scaring him out of the program. Digger was in the round yard working with Cranky under my instruction. He had chosen Cranky as his horse as he knew he had issues and had felt sorry for him. We were in the yard working on getting Cranky to lunge in a halter; he kept stopping and presenting his backside to Digger. Now Digger was very passive towards the horse and he needed some assertiveness. Eventually, with a bit of instruction, Cranky was lunging around the yard but quickly knocked up and decided he had had enough so he put the breaks on and was going nowhere. Very passively, Digger tried to encourage him forward, I gave him the spiel, be as firm as you need to be but as soft as you can be. Digger was too soft, not what you would expect for a tough bloke who had been in and out of prison all his life. I tried to talk him into a little more assertiveness, but he just wasn’t getting a result. After a while of ignoring Digger’s efforts to get him to go forward, Cranky decided to back up. Well that was it! Digger flogged him with the lunge whip and Cranky surged forward out of control, “Steady mate, steady.” I called to Digger, “Whoa, whoa.” I preceded to explain that there are a lot of grey areas between black and white and you need to just do what needs to be done, not over do it. Digger was red faced, fired up and a little embarrassed. In jail, you can’t let anyone get on top of you. This was the issue I assumed, conditioned reflex when someone is having a go at you, attack is the best line of defence. I went back to the hotel that night and couldn’t get that episode out of my mind. Digger had a very good feel and he could make a horseman but he needed to learn to control his emotions. The more I thought about it, the more I thought to myself, ‘I bet this is the way he leads his life. It’s probably why he finished up in jail.’ The next morning at the prison, I had decided that Digger could make a horseman and I was going to do my best to make it happen. Digger came up to me at the beginning of the day while I was standing by myself and said, “You know what happened yesterday? That’s how I live my life, that’s how I got here.” Who would have thought?…. We sat down and talked about him and where he had come from and Digger started to loosen up. He had a long-term girlfriend, whom he was loyal and seriously committed to and they had a son. At some stage, Digger’s good mates had started to warn Digger that they felt his misses was up to something shifty. Initially they didn’t go into detail, but told him to keep an eye on things. Digger wasn’t concerned, as he couldn’t see any issues and life went on. A mate started to warn him that another mate may be making some moves on his girl and Digger wouldn’t have it, “He is a good mate, he wouldn’t do that to me.” And after all, he trusted his girl. His mates kept giving him the heads up but he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to believe it and he did nothing proactive, didn’t raise it and went on with his life. One night his girl was staying away from home, they had been having a few issues, but she had sworn there was no-one else. Early in the morning, a mate turned up at Digger’s house and forced him to get into his car, “You need to see this.” he said. He drove Digger to where his girl was staying and he went into the house and saw his mate’s wallet on the table. He then found his wife in bed with his best mate, All his denial became an uncontrollable rage and basically he flogged the guy to within and inch of his life. Digger got eight years for the assault, which they also called a home invasion. Some would say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The reality of the situation was that had Digger taken some action earlier, instead of doubting the honesty of his mates, he would probably not be in jail. Sure the relationship might have been over, but he would be out on the street. In a much smaller way, this is what Digger had done with the horse the day before. Digger told me he had worked as a stockman in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, “The things I have seen done to horses I won’t even tell you about, but I always believed there was a better way. I like what you do and I want to learn how to do it.” he said. Digger had committed and I could tell that his loyalty would not allow him to let the horses, or me, down. He decided to stick with Cranky and committed to him as well. Long before I had turned up, even though Cranky had some bad traits, Digger believed there was good in him and he was going to prove it to everyone. It was about a month when I returned to the prison for my next visit and I was working in the yard with a horse. Digger was standing watching from outside, with a horse standing quietly beside him with its head basically resting on Digger’s shoulder.

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Eventually, my focus went from the horse I was working on to Digger. “That’s not Cranky?” I enquired. “Yep,” came the reply with a cheeky proud smile, “that’s him.” “No way!” I replied in awe, “I can’t believe it!” This guy was a horseman, some people are born with it. Digger had been taken off track by outside influences and he would always have to control his temper, but he had what it took, he could get inside a horse’s head. Digger became the backbone of the program in prison, as he was passionate and committed.

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I decided that when he got out, I would employ him immediately, but I hadn’t seen him ride. When Digger had about two months to go on his sentence, I turned up with a saddle. “I want to see you ride.” I said. He was apprehensive about getting into a dressage saddle as he was used to a big western or stock job. Digger had become an expert at working in hand and I knew all he needed was to learn to sit still and he would ride as good as anyone. I put him up on Cranky, “Okay, put your legs here, sit up straight, relax your shoulders.” he did this well, “Now just do the same things you have been doing on the ground.” Cranky rounded into a nice frame, he bent calmly around Digger’s inside leg and walked off in a dressage frame. By the end of the lesson, Digger and Cranky could have won a preliminary dressage test – really! This was the horse’s first ride off the track and Digger’s first time in a dressage saddle and I couldn’t have been prouder. Digger now had two months to work on his riding before he would be released. I left Cranky with him, I couldn’t have done a better job myself so why would I take the horse away? Digger came to work with us at the TRT.

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                                                    Digger part of the team

On his first day, we did an exhibition at Equitana Sydney, what a culture shock. From the prison with a few inmates, all just existing from day to day, to assisting in front of a crowd of hundreds in a team that was earning respect. Digger took it in his stride and I think he felt he had arrived where he needed to be. Digger worked with us for two years, training dozens of horses.

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                            Digger re trained dozens of ex racehorses with the TRT

He finished Cranky’s training and we found him very good home. Digger had completed a farrier’s course in prison therefore saving us tens of thousands in shoeing costs. Unfortunately, we don’t pay that well.

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                                       Cranky once his retraining was complete

Digger had a new girlfriend who had a couple of kids. She had been the wife of a mate whom he was looking after, who had died of cancer. She was a great lady and really good for Digger, eventually one thing led to another and they became a couple. Digger was being loyal to his mate in looking after his wife and kids and she had a good man. They had a child and eventually Digger had to move on. He needed to make the money he could, working for himself. He had given me two good years on the outside and became a great mate.

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Digger would do anything for me as I would for him. I wished him all the best and off he went, he now works for himself as a farrier and horse trainer. Recently he helped me out at a course for soldiers coming home from conflict with PTSD, I can’t tell you how proud I was of him. He was a teacher and I heard him give the same advice that I had given him, “Be as firm as you need to be, but as soft as you can be.”

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                               Digger up the front with the soldiers he is a teacher

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