Part 12 “Mirrabooka” horseman of the southern cross

Over the following weeks, Mairinger had the complete attention and dedication of the four men and horses. The practical lesson at the train track had done the trick, and now the men were open and ready to learn the finer points of the art of riding.

When one has been successful at what one does, it is very difficult to surrender to the idea that it may be worth changing one’s mindset in order to rise to another level, but the men had handed themselves over to their coach – it was all or nothing. Soon they began to apply the dressage lessons taught by Franz in a practical sense to their jumping and they were all becoming truly formidable, competitive riders and at this rate, they could challenge the world.

The day arrived to load the horses aboard the ship, which would transfer them to Europe for the final preparations leading into the Rome Olympics. The men and horses had been worked hard in preparation up to this point, so they could use a break and the boat trip should be just the trick.

“Won’t it be a blessing to have some time off riding?” asked Lavis, “I could use the break. How long do you reckon it’ll take to get these buggers fit again once we get there?”

Horses are prone to travel sickness and many had been lost at sea over the years. In another time, our ancestors on their battle ships, would cross tie horses and exercise them in Piaf to keep them fit and occupied.

“After a trip like this and being locked up for 10 weeks, I just hope they don’t get crook.” replied Roycroft.

As Mairinger approached, Crago made the point, “The fellas are a bit worried about how the horses will cope with the voyage Franz.”
Morgan joined in, and as always, preparation was foremost in his mind. “Will we have time to get ‘em fit once we get there? I reckon we’ll be pushing it and they reckon it’s bloody hot and humid in Rome. How do we get them to acclimatise? They’ve still got winter coats and we won’t be able to clip ‘em until we arrive.”
Mairinger, unfazed and calm addressed his Team, “Gentleman follow me, you might like to inspect the stabling area.”

The men followed Mairinger into the belly of the ship. They arrived in a cavernous area adjoining the engine room where a line of portable stables had been set up in order to house the horses. A small riding area, oval in shape about 20 x 30 yards had been erected. The heat and humidity was immediately apparent and the noise from the engines was rhythmic and punishing.

There was concern amongst the men and Morgan stepped up, “You must be joking, you can’t bring horses down here. I feel like I’m gonna pass out now. I’m happy to work, but how can we possibly work down here?”

Just standing there saw beads of sweat form on the men’s foreheads.

Morgan continued, “You tell ‘em Franz, this just isn’t on, they’ve gotta find somewhere else.”

A uniformed employee of the shipping company approached Mairinger, “I trust the conditions are as you requested Mr. Mairinger?”
Morgan starts back at him, “No, as a matter of fact, they’re not and what do you mean requested?”

As drops of sweat dripped from their confused faces, the men looked to Mairinger. Surely he had not requested this location to work the horses?

“This will be perfect thank you.” replied Mairinger.

The employee left quickly and was happy to get out of the noisy, hot environment.

By the end of this journey gentlemen, our horses and yourselves will be prepared for the worst heat and humidity that a Roman summer can offer and the roar of the crowd will seem but a whisper. The 1960 Roman Olympics will come but once. Every minute between now and when we compete at these Games, must be utilised. We have but one chance to get this right.

Morgan piped up, “So I reckon this isn’t gonna be a pleasure cruise, Franz? Suits me.”
“I’m afraid not Laurie, it will be work as usual.”
Morgan took off his shirt, leaving him only in his undershirt, “Well then, I reckon we’d better get stuck into it.”
The rest of the men followed by removing their shirts down to their singlets and proceeded to tend to their horses.
Mairinger called to them, “Splendid gentlemen, shall we say dinner tonight at six? We’ll talk then.”

The men had committed themselves to Mairinger and though they would not generally work horses in this environment, it sounded as though there was method to his madness.

Mairinger was seated at a dinner table, awaiting the arrival of the other men.

Crago is next to arrive, “Sorry we’re a bit late Franz. Mirrabooka hasn’t settled as well as Neil would have liked.”
“And Neil?” Mairinger enquired.
“Yeah, he sends his apologies Franz. He’s gonna stay with Mirrabooka tonight, just till he settles in. We told him we’d bring him down some dinner.”
The four men sit waiting to be served, all four feel a little guilty at their comfortable surroundings whilst Neil was down at the stables tending to his horse on an empty stomach. The men inspect the menu, “Grub looks good, doesn’t it fellas?” asked Morgan.
The silence was deafening.
Eventually Roycroft piped up, “You know what fellas, if you don’t mind too much, I might give it a miss.”
“You’re not hungry Bill? Is something the matter?” enquired Mairinger.
As Roycroft got up from the table he answered, “No, I’m fine Franz, I just might give it a miss tonight and get some food down to Neil. I think I might keep him company tonight.”
Morgan also came to his feet, “Hey we’re a bloody Team. You get the grub Bill, Brian and me will get our sleeping kits. If young Neil’s sleepin’ down there tonight with his horse, so will we mate. Sorry Franz, if you’ll excuse us.”
Mairinger scraped back his chair and stood, “No I won’t excuse you men, I’ll join you. As you said, we’re a Team.”

The five men, with an assortment of pillows, blankets and makeshift beds, sat around on the floor of the stable block, eating the food they had carried from the dining room. The horses stood with their heads out of their stables seeming to be joining in on the makeshift campsite.

During the period of travel on the ship, the men and horses worked with a renewed intensity. There was an air of motivation, exaggerated by the extreme conditions and the certainty that no one else would be putting in the effort that they were.

Over time, the combinations became accustomed to the difficult conditions. It was certainly a stroke of genius by Franz to continue the schooling on board the ship. The hot conditions would no doubt help with acclimatisation and this certainly would give the horses an advantage when working in the humid hot conditions in Rome. At times, the horses in the arena seemed to work to the rhythm of the pounding engines, the rhythmic commotion had become nothing but background noise and the horses worked harmoniously as though they were in the serenity of their home arena.

Work in hand is used extensively to develop greater collection of the horses and they were working well above the level required for the Dressage phase of the 3 Day Event. Mirrabooka and Neil Lavis had come along in leaps and bounds and Franz could see that with work and time, they could make a formidable combination, even at Grand Prix level.

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The voyage was finally over with the horses arriving in England. In the unloading process, it could be seen that they were supremely fit and keen to get out and stretch their legs in a more natural environment. This was a delicate time, as an injury now could derail the entire effort. Morgan was supervising the operations of disembarkation and was bordering on rude with his direction to the dockworkers. The first horse on dock and the last horse on deck would be the most difficult, as for a short period, each horse would be left alone.

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Roycroft’s horse, Sabre, was first to be unloaded and was agitated and whinnied loudly. However, Bill with his confident handling, controlled the situation until the next stable mate joined him on dry land. Mirrabooka was the last to disembark and it didn’t come as much of a shock, that as long as his man Neil was with him, he remained calm and relaxed. The job was complete and the men were very relieved.

Sam Horden had arrived to meet the men and their precious cargo. “Welcome to England gentleman, I trust you have had a relaxing journey, recharged the batteries?”
Roycroft responded tongue in cheek, “Yeah, if you reckon riding a horse in the pit of hell is restful, then we’ve had a ball.”
Horden continued, “Well that’s all over now gentlemen, I hope you haven’t been too hard on them Franz. Anyway, you have all been invited to a fox hunt at the Duke of Doncaster’s country estate, it will give the horses a chance to have a stretch and you fellows to get a little fresh air.”
“Thank Christ” exclaimed Lavis, “that fella of mine is jumping out of his skin.”
Mairinger was quick to respond, “I’m sorry Sam, that is out of the question, these horses have not galloped in 10 weeks, to take them on a hunt would be tempting disaster. There will be no hunt.”
Horden replied, “I don’t think you understand Franz, this is a political situation. We are in England with the Duke’s support and he has influenced the Australian Olympic Committee quite a bit. We can’t afford to offend him.
“I’m sorry Sam, but I am responsible for the performance of this Team – there will be no hunt.”
Horden continued with an air of authority, “Franz, without the Duke, there would be no Team. I don’t think you realise how hard it has been to get us here, they’d much rather be spending the money on runners or swimmers – certain medalists.”

Franz was not impressed at the pressure being applied; after all, he had only the welfare of the horses in mind.

Morgan is infuriated by the insinuation that the Equestrian Team don’t have just as good a chance as any other Australian competitor at taking a medal. “You can tell the Olympic Committee that when we get our medals, we will shove them up …” Horden quickly interjects, “No one is saying you can’t do it Laurie. I understand the preparation that has gone in but the expense cannot be disregarded and any support we can get is very important.”

Mairinger realised there would need to be a compromise. He has been with Horden since before the first Team and is acutely aware of the personal effort and expense Sam had put into the project. “Very well, we will attend the hunt, but no horse will gallop and we will jump no more than a hay bail.”

“Thanks Franz, I would never doubt your judgment all we need to do is turn up.”

For the competitive Australian riders and horses, just turning up would be more of a challenge than riding flat out. It would be a day for control and discipline.

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