It’s 4.30 in the morning, and in Ebenezer, an hour and a half northwest of Sydney, a young girl in pink gumboots and a polar fleece jacket is skipping around the back end of a pony. Her mother, holding a comb between her teeth and occasionally sucking up spit, braids the grey tail of this athlete. We’re in a fluorescent-lit stable. The family are preparing for a competition an hour away. I’m not here to talk to either of them, though. We agreed on this two weeks ago when I started sourcing subjects for the article. To be honest, the mouthy adult who answered their household phone was delighted that I might want to profile ‘their’ Miss Jones. He listed the championships the elite competitor had taken. He boasted of her pure Arabian breeding.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘that’s why I want to interview her.’ I found Miss Jones, known in competition by her stud name, Mirabelle Have You Met Miss Jones? in an edition of The Arabian Horse online magazine, which featured a shoot of her both in action with her rider, and laden with tri-coloured championship ribbons.
In real life, Miss Jones is surprisingly rotund for an athlete, but her coat is a glossy gunmetal grey. She asks me if I’m okay to stand for the interview and apologises that the talk has to be so early in the morning. When I ask her about the sport she champions, she tells me her job is, essentially, to look pretty and behave succinctly. I ask her to explain what ‘looking pretty’ involves.
‘Um, basically I take a nap, and these people gloss me up.’
Getting prepared for competition includes having her hooves stained black and coated in a clear varnish. For this, her owner places her feet on towels to prevent the drying polish from attracting dirt. The lacquer is then covered in hairspray because apparently this makes polishing dust off before presentation much easier. Along the crest of her mane sits a row of black rosettes – plaited hair rolled up into the shape of a flower: I comment on how perfect they are.
‘Yeah, they’re actually sewn together instead of being tied up with elastic bands. That’s how the professionals do them.’
Today Miss Jones, with her dainty head and beady black eyes, will be hoping to win enough first places in a regional competition to qualify for a position at the most selective competition in the state: the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Miss Jones’s sport is called ‘hacking’.
‘It’s basically a sport that combines how an equine literally looks, behaves and moves, with how well we respond to cues from our riders,’ explains the medium-sized pony. ‘For example, we’ll enter the ring with maybe six other competitors and the judge will stand in the centre of the ring. The judge watches us and calls out different commands, like, “Trot!” and “Halt!” Then they pick their favourite equines. I’ve never not been picked.’
From there, the grey pony says the selected athletes will each be individually tasked with a ‘test’ or a series of commands in an order that they perform one at a time. Once the selected competitors have performed this test, the judge will award ribbons to the equines and riders they determine to be most impressive. This entire process is called a ‘class’. Miss Jones and her rider will be participating in different classes throughout the day. I ask her how hard it is to remain clean from 4.30am until 5pm.
‘So hard. Like, if I poo – which I do at competitions when I get nervous – they have to have a bucket of warm water ready to soak my back legs with, so I don’t stain my coat.’
If her coat soils, that could mean losing points in competition. I ask her what else can compromise points. ‘Misbehaviour,’ she says. She adds that her rider sometimes takes a crop into the class with them to keep Miss Jones on her toes. She adds, ‘You know, no one ever really asked if I wanted to compete. Like, I’m good at it, and I was totally bred to do it, but yeah...Sometimes I couldn’t be bothered. So the girl gets her crop out.’
I ask whether she feels being smacked with a crop is difficult or patronising. ‘I guess. I mean, I know what I have to do, so it’s kind of rude to tell me to do it like that. But it’s like, whatever. You can hit me, I don’t care. You’re like, what, eight? I mean, it sucks – who wants to be hit? But they’re not going to stop feeding me because if I look thin then I get less points in a competition. It gets really shitty when they put some heavy person on my back to threaten me, but I just do what they say. And then that heavy person just tells the little person they’re not doing their job right. So really, it’s great.’
‘Do you have a working relationship with your rider, though? Or is it one-sided?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, I mean, we’ve had our better moments,’ she says, shifting the weight of her rump from one back leg to the other and snorting at the end of an exhale ‘We’re a team, but like, I’m most of the team. But I mean, without her, I wouldn’t really have a sport to be the champion of, I guess. Weird.’
I ask if she ever feels that through her misbehaviour, she might compromise her life as a competitor. Whether her resistance sometimes comes at the cost of her livelihood. The halter around her head clinks as she shakes her head.
‘No way. I know I’m lucky because I’m not a racehorse or anything. Like, no offence, but I’m not going to end up at a meat factory or anything because I’m sellable: I’m trained. If this family wanted to sell me, they would market the fact I’m lazy by telling people I’m “great for beginners”, that kind of stuff. Also, I’ve been bred to look good. In this sport, that automatically puts me at an advantage.’
‘So you’re glad you’re bred to be a champion?’ I ask.
‘I guess so. I mean, if I wasn’t bred to be this, what would I be? Maybe I’d have to work harder. Maybe I’d have to be a trail-riding equine with strangers on me that shred my mouth and sit on my kidneys. Maybe I wouldn’t be alive.’
The interview is cut short by the arrival of the man I spoke to over the phone. He introduces himself, and pats Miss Jones with a clap against her flat coat, explaining they have to load her into the transport now. He asks whether I got everything I needed.
I get into my sedan, draw my fingers over my eyelids, before pulling out of the property’s cast-iron gates. Through the puff of condensation from my exhaust, I watch the lights in the stables switch off against the deep blue air of an early morning.
I drive southwest, through the Blue Mountains, to a small working cattle station in a city called Lithgow. The sun breaks halfway up the mountains. I reach the residence of my next interviewee at about ten. Compared to the iron assemblage at the mouth of Miss Jones’ establishment, this place is unassuming: a once-white metal gate, patched red with rust, sits at the entry. After unlocking, it yawns open and hits an old tyre, placed in front of a fence picket to prevent the gate from ricocheting against metal. A cattle grid in matching rust rattles beneath the car as I drive over. I pull from my console a handdrawn map on the back of a phone bill. Somewhere on this property grazes my second champion, who represents equine athletes in a field marked by three barrels and a stopwatch.
‘I hear all the time that what I do is less of a sport than the others. I’ve been asked things like, “Well, if it’s not in the Olympics, then is it gunna be as hard as a showjumping course? Are you as famous?” And every time, I say the same thing. I say, “Mate, do you see racing in the Olympics? I don’t. There’s a whole section in the bloody paper for that. You know how fit those guys need to be?” Now, I’m not saying I reckon racing should be a sport – it bloody shouldn’t, it’s a disgrace – I’ve seen what it does to competitors. I’ve had mates who were in the industry. But the point is, you can’t disqualify a sport just because it’s not in the Olympics. Sporting – I mean it’s in the name – all sporting is a sport.’
Hank – tall and glistening chestnut – leans against a tree. A vein-lined shoulder muscle bulges around the grey birth-marked trunk, and his skin wrinkles slightly beneath his slumped weight. ‘Ah. Excuse me a minute,’ he adds. He rubs his shoulder against the bark, groaning a little, rocking his weight from his rump to his chest. Allowing the subsequent rocking motion to aid his scratch. His lip curls up in delight, exposing pink flesh and gums, and green-stained teeth. Hank stands as the State Champion of barrel racing: a sport where an equine is required to run around three barrels – placed triangularly on a field – in a clover shape. In barrel racing, the fastest time will win. It is not judged against any subjective points of view, only the clock. The paddock we’re in isn’t far from the arenas where Hank practises standing starts – a movement from a standstill to a gallop – and tight turns around old 55-gallon drums. Here in the paddock, we can look out to the central block and see the white corrugated roof of the sand arena he calls his second home. The sand is too deep in some parts, Hank told me earlier while we were walking around the training space. The problem with uneven sand is that it prevents him from running at the same pace safely. He could break something, or stress a tendon if he takes a turn on a sudden pocket of sand, and slides in ankle-deep. While Hank stands as the State Champion of barrel racing, there’s no denying the facilities he uses are run-down. When he’s done scratching, I ask him how he manages to trump competition that come from properties where arena sand is perfect. He snorts.
‘There are equines who do what they’re told when they’re told ’cause they’ve been biologically designed to be the best at turning ’round barrels and jogging ’round an arena: there’s no choice for them. It’s winning, breeding, or sales – that’s what they’ve been born into: some shiny stable with all the facilities and all the pressure to boot. You know, it’s said they breed poor bastards for this stuff. But I dunno if you always can. And I mean, compare that to the fact all equines know humans compete because they’ve decided to do something they love.’
Hank lifts his left rear leg and cocks it. He shifts his weight to balance on three legs, and brings his head around to meet his back hoof. He pauses, perched in this twisted position. ‘But a good human athlete in this sport does what, huh, a quarter of the work?’
His rear foot and head search for each other for a wavering second, until Hank’s hoof catches on his ear. He starts to scratch his head in the same way I wobble a finger in my ear after a shower. Eventually he rebalances on all four legs.
‘Nah, that’s not fair to say. I should have said that I reckon there are human athletes in this sport and then there are riders. True, I’ve only met two bred-barrel racers who loved what they did. One’s the National Champion: equine and human just as driven as each other. They spend all their time together: when I’ve spoken to that horse at competitions, she says her rider made the decision to be a rider from the moment she was bought. He washes her, feeds her, talks to her, watches her in the paddock to see how she interacts with her paddock-mates, he’s there when the dentist comes, when the doctor visits – and he listens to how she wants to approach barrels; he doesn’t just pull her around the arena by kicking her and dragging her head with the force of his body on the reins. You can’t match that. That human is a rider. Same with my girl.’
Hank’s situation isn’t unique for the level of competitor you might see at a local Pony Club rally, but he moved from novice games and competitions early in his career. Unlike Miss Jones, Hank wasn’t specifically bred for the sport he champions. He is one of the only non-bred equines to appear at Nationals – an Australian stock horse, bought to round up cattle on the farm where he now trains most days. While Hank still commits to work on the property, it was his irrational fear of cattle that highlighted his skills as a potential athlete.
‘I used to piss-bolt if they got me in a paddock with a heifer,’ he says.
His rider, 13 at the time, decided to commit the equine to a fortnightly Pony Club meet. She had hoped that by introducing Hank to unnerving experiences – such as balloon lancing and carrying relay batons – he might adjust to working with cattle. He didn’t, but in an environment that prioritised quick feet and adrenalin, an aptitude for galloping toward barrels and screeching around them soon pronounced itself. Again, in conversation, Hank mentions the ‘human athlete’, stating that by comparison, his girl works the property, and when it comes to barrel racing, only has to hold on tight. I ask him what a human athlete is.
‘I’m getting to that. A human athlete trains to be good at calculation and control: they train themselves. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been to comps, and met an equine with the apathy of an old nag at a knackery. Because they’re trained by one person, groomed by another person, and ridden by a human athlete. It’s the toughest thing to see, every competition, and it’s heartbreaking, because you’re watching your kind exist and compete in submission. Why should a bred equine have the heart for a sport they have no choice but to be good at?’
My final interviewee has already started lunch when I arrive; she apologises, says she didn’t know what time I would get here. It was a hard task, finding where we’ve decided to meet. The place is hidden about half an hour from Orange – a town placed two-and-a-half hours west of Lithgow – down a tyre-rumbling backwater road. Despite its distance from most things, the property is manicured exquisitely: white weatherboard home, verdant lawns seeded with a clearly European grass, and immediately behind the home, a beige-sanded arena lined with black logs. The lines are so clean it could be a postgraduate conference poster: a collection of coloured oblongs imposed on a green background. There are birds somewhere, singing enough to feel as though I’m in a simulation of a Country Style magazine. While my interviewee finishes her meal, I take the time to make sure I have the space to record on my device, and revise the notes I’ve made about her career: there’s a lot to cover in one interview. The now-retired athlete is still composed and intimidatingly quiet, as she had famously always been throughout her history of competition. Despite this, she’s bright-eyed: calm and intelligent. Hardly the nonchalant Schoolmaster I had expected. When she’s finished lunch, there’s a ring of sunflower seeds haloed around her feed bin. She doesn’t blink when three nearby cockatoos take their cue and glide in. I realise if we stay here my recording is going to have to compete with the sound of birds cracking seeds and croaking throughout the interview. I ask if we can move to a nearby bench. She says there aren’t many properties where you’ll find a bench in every paddock. As we walk over to the white seat placed just beside her, I ask if she’s comfortable being recorded. She asks me exactly what she’s being interviewed about.
‘Your life,’ I say. ‘Just tell me about where you started, and what happened after that.’ I click the voice recorder on.
‘Well, most people know I started as a racer. What most people don’t know is that when I was at the racing stables, my name was My Good Luck: my dad was My Good Man, and my mother was First Time Lucky. You see, humans need names so they can call us things – distinguish between us in radio commentary or on a television screen. Anyway, the point I’m trying to reach is that my parents were fast.’
‘How fast?’ I ask.
She sighs, coat gliding over the very vague appearance of her ribs. She’s still a fit equine, despite retirement. ‘Well, they were fast enough that when I failed at racing, the stable still wanted to keep me to breed other athletes – because of my genes.’
‘What does keeping you for breeding involve?’
‘Um, breeding, for me, involved two different approaches. The first was where I was held using a head collar while a male equine was sexually excited, brought up to me and told to get on top of me. Humans were also holding onto him. I remember wanting to strain against my rope, but you know you can’t resist against the amount of control they have over your body, so you just stand there and wait for it to end. And, I guess, when that didn’t work–’
She tries to explain a process she says she doesn’t understand. She recalls a human approached her from behind and inserted something into her, which caused her some discomfort. When I grimace, she tells me it’s fine – racing equines grow so accustomed to allowing people to do things to them, it was really just another process, ‘Whatever it was.’ She shakes a fly from her eyelid, and shuffles slightly, shifting the weight of her rump from one hind leg to another. ‘You know, it’s strange working out you’re pregnant, and then being pregnant when initially, you can’t pinpoint how it happened. I guess I eventually just deduced. And then about halfway through it all, I failed at being a breeder, I guess you could say.’
I swallow louder than I’d planned; in the sporting industry, we always hear of her successes, but her history before her Olympic representation has constantly been omitted. There are bits and pieces known about what she did before she found her success in flat sand arenas identical to the one sitting behind the house on this property. Today, the equine world only knows her as Sweetbones, or Sweet: towering, serpentine neck, dainty head, and dark bay. Her story of failure within the racing industry isn’t unique – it is estimated that out of 1000 pregnancies in thoroughbred Australian mares only 300 foals will race. Her reason for failure and subsequent development into a dressage champion, however, is a rarity.
Her wither twitches beneath another fly. After the miscarriage, Sweet was classed as a waste product of the racing industry. She describes the truck that transported rejected athletes to auction.
‘I mean, it’s not glamorous: they weren’t sending us away to sell us to other racing facilities. No one pretends you’re headed somewhere great. We didn’t have to look impressive. The truck reeked – you could smell it before it had arrived. I don’t know if your type can smell things like fear, um, but fear – it has many different scents. A stale shit smell is a big giveaway that something is wrong, but so’s the stink of thousands of exhausted athletes all coming from the gaping jaw of a rusty truck. What I mean to say is, you began to associate the stench of the truck with something bad happening.’
The process of selling is quick: a horse is walked around, a man speaks quickly, people bid. Any equine who doesn’t sell is often bought cheaply by an abattoir. There are 33 knackeries in Australia that slaughter somewhere between 22,000–32,000 equines each per year for pet food, meat meal, tallow, hair and hides, and two abattoirs that kill for human consumption. In 2008, a study found that 40 per cent of equines in abattoirs are from thoroughbred racing brands. Sweet remembers watching the abattoir bidder attending her sale. She remembers his smell which, like the truck she was delivered in, gave away his industry. He filled two truckloads of rejected athletes before she was taken out and paraded in front of bidders.
‘I’d watched the death-row equines to see how they behaved compared to the athletes who were taken by other humans. The equines who did well for themselves had gone in there and looked calm and engaged: death-row equines had panicked because they didn’t understand what was going on: no one had explained to us what a sale was. So I tried to put on a show. I remember what I did in that ring better than I remember any dressage test. I remember bringing my head down, tucking it into my chest, and trotting at the speed of the human who was walking me.’
It paid off. Sweet’s successful bidder put her into an open paddock for a year of rest. It was the most space she had ever seen. In her heyday, journalists clamouring for The Sweetbones Story only spoke to buyer, co-athlete and companion, Jacqueline Henry. Henry has never allowed Sweetbones to be interviewed – this is the first time anyone has had an audience with her. Henry, when asked about ‘her’ rescue horse, doesn’t talk about buying Sweetbones. Instead, her interviews feature stories about the time it to took to show Sweet that she wasn’t expected to gallop during training. She has also occasionally spoken about how long it took to form a relationship with Sweet that extended beyond saddle-bound professionalism.
‘I made it difficult for us,’ says Sweetbones, ‘because during that year off, Jacq would visit me every day, and I was constantly thinking, What does she want from me? My whole life and career had relied on being told to do things and I didn’t trust she would be different.’
Sweet explains that the first time Henry put a saddle on her was a milestone in re-understanding humans and letting go of her own history.
‘There was this moment when it was as though she had asked me if it was okay to get on. I had never been asked something before. It was this desperately sad realisation, but at the time, I was nervous that I was imagining it, so I don’t think I recognised it. But now, God, now I remember, and, I mean, I can’t think about it too much. Because I get caught up knowing there’s this horrible irony that, in another lifetime, my name was My Good Luck.’
She often thinks about how many times athletes like her have been killed for not being good enough. I ask her whether she thinks that only knowing one way of living means racers accept that there is no other alternative. Sweet jerks her head up. She rubs her lips over her teeth, from one side to the other and back again.
‘I think you’re right to assume there are a lot of equines in the industry who don’t understand or question the way they’re treated. They’re immersed. But equally, there are animals anywhere who, based on their convictions, will believe something isn’t right. For me, I guess I knew what was going on was out of my control, but that doesn’t mean you can put it in your control: not in that industry, anyway.’
I brush a collection of flies from the cuff of my shirt and scratch my neck with quick irritation. The sun is more pressing than I recalled stepping out of the car, and the earth is wet. My pants are sticking to my skin. Combing makeup onto my eyelashes while ordering a fast-food lunch from a drive-through, I’d anticipated that I’d be commanding an easy profile of athletic determination, but I don’t want to ask her about training to be a dressage horse anymore. In preparing for the interview, I flicked through videos of her Olympic performances and made notes to question her about different high-level manoeuvres: piaf, tempi – but for her, I guess those movements and words mean, simply, to trust. In a last-minute Internet cram, I briefly searched for articles about other extraordinary ex-racehorses. I came across an American nine-year-old retiree, Metro Meteor, who was adopted by an artist called Ron Krajewski, and now spends his life as a successful creative. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous story: how can a horse paint? But now I recall Meteor’s curt comments when asked about his work.
‘I paint a bunch of lines: there’s no visual metaphor. The point of the work is to remind people where it’s from. When a human looks at it in their house, I want them to think about all the equines who don’t do what I do, because they are dead. I want them to think about all the things that happened to me before I was able to paint.’
Oblivious, the interviewer asked Meteor what was unique about his life before he was an artist. ‘Do you know of many other multi-million dollar athletes who have no way of understanding why they’re being beaten around a track? You don’t. Because it doesn’t happen to a human, and when it does, you have real names for it. The kind of names that tell people what is happening is wrong. Do you see now? “Racehorse” means chattel.’