St. Helena Farm, The Upper Hunter Valley, and Thoroughbred Studs


I’ve put off writing about the Hunter Valley because there’s so very much to relate. Not only did I stay on a Thoroughbred stud farm, but I learned about a part of Australia that has altered my perspective on the country. No place is perfect. This is why it’s important to visit more than once – to get beyond the idealized version of a place and have more perspective on what’s on offer.

Although I had traveled using the HelpExchange web site last time I was here, when I decided to return to Australia, my intention was to travel through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms). WWOOF issues a print directory that lists all the farms in Australia looking for workers and a description of what they do and/or grow. Unfortunately, I’ve had difficulty getting in touch with these farmers and pinning down dates to visit.  It seems that WWOOF hosts don’t respond as quickly, nor are as easily selected. WWOOF does not have a user friendly web site, either.

Starting in June while I was still in Melbourne, I was in contact with the people on one particular farm in northern New South Wales in the area of Byron Bay. The description in the WWOOF directory read, in part:

“… Work includes all aspects of gardening, composting, landscaping, building projects, property maintenance, art projects. This is a new chapter in a 127 year old Australian farming family story. Be part of it! …”

Of course this attracted me because the land of my own family farm is now 129 years old, and I thought it would be great to compare experiences. A Mr. Martin McGettigan  was listed as the contact person at St. Helena farm in McLeod’s Shoot, NSW. I sent an email, and when I didn’t hear anything in a few days, I followed up with a phone call and left a voice mail. A day later, I received this text:

“Hi there! Howz going!?!? It’s Martin, I’d like to call u … when is good time?”

Exuberance is good.

I returned the text, and received a phone call in the next few hours.

“Kimbel! This iz Mahten! From Saint Heleena fahmstay heeah by Byron Baaay!”

Funny. This guy didn’t sound like a McGettigan. He sounded like Ahnohd Schwartzenegger.

Soon, I learned that Martin was not Martin McGettigan at all, but a farm manager who just happened to have the same first name and had been working for “the excellent Mahtin Mageddagan” for a couple years. Believe it or not, this Martin was from Germany, but T.E.M.M. had helped him with his English.

It was hard to nail down any details besides what was already printed in the WWOOF directory pertaining to general farm work and the need for a good work ethic, a mature attitude and a good sense of humor. I was ready to move along up the coast right after leaving Melbourne in June (something that didn’t quite happen) and Byron Bay is supposed to be a lovely location. And T.E.M.M. was currently out of the country, expected back the first week of July, but would need to get over his jet lag, before they could discuss their needs. So probably nothing available until the end of July. But we’d be in touch.

When I got to Armidale, I followed up with Mahtin, and got this text:

“Yep great ! Talk 2 u soon …”

A couple days later, I got a phone call.

“Kimbel! Mahtin at Saint Heleena! How ah you!?”

Me: Great Martin! Good to hear from you. Are you ready for a helper?

Martin: Oh, well, Mr. Maahtin Mageddagan is just back from overseas in America tomorrow and will be tired. We will talk in a week to discover how you might come to us.

Me: Okay. Do you think it will be the end of July?
Martin: Yep. Yep. End of July. Definitely.

Me: Should we set a date for me to come up?

Martin: Yep. End of July. Once Mr. Mahtin Mageddagan returns we will talk about you. I spoke with him on the phone and he was interested in you.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take that one, but whatever.

Me: Great. That’s great. Where would I get off the train or bus? What’s the best way to get to you?
Martin: Yep. Yep. Oh, not the train. The bus.

Me: In Byron Bay?

Martin: Oh, no. Not Byron Bay. Maybe Casino. No, Byron Bay. You can stay in Byron Bay and come out to visit us.

Me: You don’t a place for helpers to stay? Do I need to stay in Byron Bay?

Martin: Oh, yes. We need to plant a vegetable garden.

Me: Shall we set a date for me to come up?

Martin: Yes, Martin Mageddagan will be excited to see you.

Me: Okay. How about the 20th? The 25th?

Martin: Oh, no, Mahtin Mageddagan will not be back until the 10th and then must rest. Then we’ll talk about you.

Mahtin and I had a couple more conversations along those lines and then I gave up.

Instead, I’ve depended upon HelpExchange again, the program that I used last year.  The web site is easy to use, the descriptions of places are clear, and one can post reviews of hosts – and read other reviews. As a HelpEx-er, I can be reviewed, as well, so that hosts see that I’m not a complete flake.

So for the next location, I decided to please myself and found a Thoroughbred stud at Sandy Hollow, NSW in the upper Hunter Valley. Turns out that it’s difficult to get up the coast from Armidale without doing a whole lot of backtracking, sometimes all the way to Sydney again, then up north and east. So I decided to do the simple thing and head back the way I came. Unfortunately, I waited a little too long and ended up not being able to book a ticket due to a full train. As luck would have it, K. and her daughter R. were driving right through Muswellbrook where my new host could retrieve me.

Armidale is surrounded by orchards, and R. and I stopped on the way out. I loaded up on Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples, Packham and red Anjou pears, and more to bring to my new host.  We had a little delay getting underway since we had to stop at the orchard and then stop in Tamworth to get K. who had been seeing clients that day. Then, we had to make sure that P’s truck was set up at the place it would be displayed for sale. Then, we had to make sure everybody’s things fit in to the truck we were driving, since R. had a load of things for her new Sydney digs, and K. had things along for her week-long stay there, and I, of course, had my two bags as well. I made good friends with the door and steadied the pile in the back seat when we rounded sharp corners. The only mishap along the way was running out of gas in Scone, just 20 minutes out of Muswellbrook.   By the time a nice person stopped, took K. to the gas station, went home and got a gas can, then brought her back, we had been sitting for an hour, which put us late into Muswellbrook, and left my host sitting in the Hungry Jack parking lot for quite awhile.

On the road to Sandy Hollow, I saw my very first open-cut coal mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I thought I was perhaps a football game under bright lights, because the only other place I had seen lights that bright were at football or baseball stadiums.  My host said it looked like Mordor. I agreed. That I could only catch glimpses of what was on the other side of the strategically planted trees added to the creep factor. There were lights. And there was machinery moving around – very large machinery – and there was a pit. A deep, deep pit. A shockingly deep pit that absorbed all the high wattage lighting. M. remarked that the mines run 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year. Don’t even close on Christmas Day.

Her property is about half an hour from the mine. She pointed out that it had been larger until a flood took a bridge out and a new road was built and bisected it. Periodically, the river sneaks up and bites off a bit, as well, so a couple paddocks have shrunk. But in all, it’s about 135 acres that contains a house, stable, hay shed, various pens, yard and paddocks, as well as a loading and vetting area. M. owns seven mares, has about a dozen yearlings (the kids) and there are various pregnant or dry mares that come and go depending upon the owners’ needs. The facility is referred to as a stud farm, which is a little misleading since she hasn’t had stallions on the property for years. (But she once had three serving mares.) But a “stud” is a general term that refers to not only the facilities that have stallions standing, but also those who offer broodmare agistment.   Besides the horses, there were also two cows, Pippi Longstocking and Mrs. Grey, who were also pregnant. I couldn’t help but wonder as we pulled in the drive if horses get all hormonal and emotional when they’re pregnant, just like humans. Do their boobs hurt? Do they feel like crying a lot? Tired all the time? Just wondered. I never did ask the questions.

It’s funny, because M. says that she is not maternal at all – with the exception of her own children. I pointed out that she is now a mid-wife of sorts, and that her nursing experience serves her well. She didn’t disagree. But didn’t agree, either.

I grew up with horses, and the main reason I accepted P. and K.’s invitation to come up to Armidale and pursued M.’s place in Sandy Hollow was just to be around them, and possibly ride them. As it turned out, the weather didn’t cooperate when I was in Armidale, so we didn’t get to ride. And at River Ridge, there weren’t any horses that I could ride, anyway, something that M. made clear before I went. That was fine.

What I didn’t anticipate was the re-learning. I don’t know what I thought – it just didn’t occur to me that I might not be confident around horses any longer. And these horses – Thoroughbreds – aren’t like the steady American Quarter Horses that I grew up around. Quarter Horses were bred to be fast (quarter mile racing), they also were developed to work cattle. Thoroughbreds are bred to run. Run fast. For longer distances. And while we had some big horses come and go through the family farm, these ponies are long-legged and long-bodied. Again, they are supposed to run fast. Really fast.  And they do. Even when they’re pregnant. Don’t think for a minute that that slows them down a whole lot.

Many of you have heard of the Horse Whisperer – at least, you have heard about the book and the movie. There really is a horse whisperer, and his name is Buck Branaman. He presents clinics and classes, training people how to train horses.  Watching a documentary about him called “Buck,” I finally heard the explanation that made me understand horses and their horsey behavior.  Horses are herd animals, so they function as a group. But more importantly, they are prey animals. The first thing that humans do to horses is present leather things (that smell like an animal) to put on them, and put a large, heavy thing on their back (a saddle, also made out of animal skin) exactly where a predator would leap on them. And then, we get on top of them. Just like a predator would. And we hold their heads so that they can’t run, and running is their best defense against predators. Watching these animals at River Ridge illustrated everything that Branaman said.

Brood mares are different than your average pleasure horse. Besides the fact that the Thoroughbred is a singular breed, many brood mares are never saddle broke. In general, they have to be halter broken, if for no other reason than to lead them up to sale. But in many cases, these females never race. They might have conformation flaws, or have good conformation but are slow. Or maybe they haven’t been handled a lot and never taught good manners, so of course it’s a great idea to get them bred, which means that they’ll be poked with needles and have their privates prodded by vets a lot, and that’s sure to improve a gal’s temperament.

The first thing you do with a horse in the morning is feed it. I was relieved that mornings there didn’t start as early as they did when I was growing up. B., the part-time hired man arrived around 7:30. He and M. would have a cuppa (as they say here) and plan out the day. M. had warned me that Plan A might become Plan B and Plan Z (or rather, zed) by the end of the day, so this daily con-fab was important.  Moving horses to different paddocks, moving the cows to different paddocks, planning for a vet’s visit, or the ferriers visit, or the dentist’s visit, or going to pick up some mares a few hours away, or sorting out rugs (that’s a big horse blanket) or scooping poo out of pens or yards or cleaning up the vet area or untangling manes (did you know that vegetable oil spray works great for that?) or any number of things. B. was in charge of the big stuff, like filling feed bins, hauling hay, repairing water lines, preparing irrigation pipes, all that. I generally followed along and did as I was told. Or tried to do as I was told. Or did what I thought I had just been told. At times, the language barrier got in the way (pronunciation, vowel sounds, terminology – i.e., go get a head collar – what’s a head collar? – this! – oh … a halter – no, this is a halter – wait, aren’t those the same thing? – No.  – Um… okay.)

A couple days after I arrived, M. had to go to Sydney and I was left in charge. Right. Essentially, being in charge for meant that I fed the horses and kept an eye on them, and had key telephone numbers available just in case anything looked fishy.  Or horsey. Or something. True to form, the morning that M. left, I walked out to feed a mare who, the day before, had started to trash her rug. Well, she had finished the job – the thing was torn and hanging on her in pieces. She was oddly still, and I thought she looked like she was standing funny (peculiar) and sure as shit, she had a lovely laceration on her hind leg, crusty and bloody complete with a ribbon of flesh peeled back. My first thought: “Oh, I can get that rug off of her. I’ll just …” and the second thought : “Oh, I’m going to run like hell toward the house and pray that M. hasn’t left yet so that she can deal with this.”

The second choice was the right one, because I came to find out that this particular mare did not like to be caught, and didn’t much like wearing a rug, and was generally a little bit onnrey, as we said in Missouri. M. was able to get the rug off of her, and slap a little goo on the wound, which I was to check and re-goo in the evening.

I am constantly amazed by the people who are HelpX and WWOOF hosts, and the faith that they place in people who are complete strangers. M. had known me what – 3 days? – before she left me on the farm by myself with a couple dozen horses. Granted, I had the vet’s telephone number (which I ended up using – another mare presented herself with a hoof abscess) and B.’s number, and the number of the couple who ran the art gallery/coffee shop up the road, and, and, and. Still. I guess this goes back to what J. and M. in Bendigo and I talked about – 99 percent of people are exactly what they appear to be. M. is less optimistic and dropped that percentage to 90, but I still say 99.

M. returned from Sydney, and all was relatively well at the farm. One mare with a gooey hind leg, one mare with a bandaged abscess, the rest just fine and dandy and another one nearly ready to pop.

More about that to come.

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