The horse whisperer

The tiniest action has huge meaning to a wild animal.

With every sense heightened by generations of roaming free, its day-to-day survival depends on honing the sharpest of instincts.

Imagine then the challenge of taking a creature that has never known a human’s touch and teaching it to happily submit to a bridle, saddle and rider on its back and perform in front of an audience of thousands – all in 150 days.

It’s a feat that would test the most experienced of horsemen and women yet at the tender age of 16, Howlong’s Jack Purcell can lay claim to doing just that.

Jack has recently returned triumphant from the finale of the Australian Brumby Challenge, an event that takes wild brumbies from the High Country of Victoria and southern NSW and partners them with professional and non-professional horse trainers for 150 days. 

With the aim of showcasing the trainability and versatility of an animal that is part of Australia’s heritage, the challenge culminates with the horses being put through their paces at Equitana Melbourne, one of the largest equine events in the Southern Hemisphere.

The brumbies are then auctioned to approved and registered bidders on the final day of Equitana.

YOU could say horses run in Jack’s blood; mountain cattlemen in his veins on one side of the family and rodeo riders on the other.

Since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, Jack has spent every waking hour when he wasn’t at school observing, riding and training horses with his mum Shelley at the family’s TJ Ranch equine education business at Howlong.

In fact Shelley, herself a national barrel-racing champion, says Jack used to pull off the flyscreen of his bedroom window and escape on the back of his pony who was kept in the house yard.

But he’s always been easy to teach and always been old beyond his years, she says.

So when Jack wanted to enter the brumby challenge despite being too young for the cut-off age, the pair submitted references and video footage that convinced organisers to allow a junior into the competition.

And the quietly spoken youngster didn’t disappoint.

Jack first met his brumby, officially named VBA Hotham, after the four-year-old gelding was “passively caught” with his family mob out of the Bogong High Plains.

That process involves a no-stress capture in hessian yards containing molasses and salt blocks and no human contact.

Getting “Clancy” to Howlong was the first hurdle; Shelley and Jack ran him up a race and into an open stock crate to transport their precious but unhandled cargo home.

The next step was convincing the little brown horse to eat the strange food and bore water on offer.

But the most momentous milestone was to come with the first contact between the boy and the brumby – known as join-up.

It was in that moment, in the first gentle, hesitant touch, that two hearts became one.

“Little actions are big actions in his eyes,” Jack explains.

“I began by just stroking him between the eyes and along his neck. The slower you go, the faster the progress.”

And so it was that a nervous brumby was soon carrying a rider, trotting over tarps, braving bouncy balls and allowing itself to be guided through all manner of obstacles that every instinct would have run from.

It’s clear there is a foundation of love and respect for the animal in Jack’s training; the often-used term “breaking in” doesn’t sit comfortably here.

“It’s a friendship, he is a partner in work, not a tool,” Jack says.

“You need to have two minds thinking the one thing when you ride and his bond with me had to be 110 per cent.”

That trust was to be tested to the extreme in the noisy chaos of Equitana where bustling crowds gathered in the brightly lit main arena to watch trainers put their once-wild steeds through their paces over four days.

Competing in the non-professional ridden section, Jack (branded the “wild card”) and Clancy surprised with a polished performance for second place in the pattern class.

But it was in the prestigious freestyle challenge the pair shone; their mainly roping display included Jack cracking a whip and dragging a dummy around on Clancy.

The performance dazzled the judges and they galloped home with first place against 20 more seasoned competitors.

Proud mum Shelley admits “to a few tears” but thoughts soon turned to what was to become of Clancy.

An emotional mother and son were delighted to learn Clancy was sold to a “good home” on 200 acres at Mount Macedon.

However the story doesn’t end there with the beloved brumby allowed to return to Howlong for a “well-earned rest with his paddock buddies” before an integration program with his new owner.

For Jack and Shelley, the past six months is part of a journey to highlight the plight of brumbies and the work of the Victorian Brumby Association to save them.

The pair are vocal in their opposition to government plans to cull our wild horses.

“The money would be better spent on training and re-homing them,” Shelley says.

Having worked with several brumbies now, Jack cannot fathom the senseless killing of an animal with so much to offer.

“They are tough, they have good feet and a lot of them connect up a lot better than other horses,” he says.

If his time with Clancy has taught him anything, it’s that patience and kindness goes a long way.

“It’s a lot like working with another person – you really have to concentrate,” Jack says.

“And if you watch and listen closely enough, you can see by their actions exactly what they are trying to tell you.”