Life as a Jillaroo (Part I)


Most of you might ask: what’s a Jillaroo? Wikipedia explains it as the “female equivalent of a Jackaroo” which is the Australian expression for a “trainee working on a sheep or cattle station to gain practical experience in the skills and traditions of Australian stockmen”. In North American terms it’s somewhat like a cowgirl. Except that I was in the Australian bush of the Northern Territory: that’s crocodile and snake country where Crocodile Dundee was from. And I really loved it!

To be more precise, I’d found a job for the dry season right next to beautiful Kakadu National Park, on a for Australian terms rather smallish cattle station of “just 20km2” , 90km away from the nearest village shop.
The couple running it, Vic and Shane, were Australian rodeo professionals in their early 40’s and are to me the most horsey people I have ever met! Shane had retired from rodeo in his mid thirties after having been a touring rodeo champion for several years (and probably having broken every single bone of his at least once in his life) and Vic had been Australian Champion in Barrel Racing three years in a row (that’s the girl’s rodeo event where you race around a clover shaped pattern at high speed). They both had an amazing way with handling horses – imagine Shane as the horse whisperer in person, just 100 times better than that!

We lived in a beautiful traditional Darwin house, that had actually survived cyclone Tracy in 1974. I love these buildings; they have a great feel and keep quite cool during the heat. There was a tree frog living in the bathroom and a gecko in my room helping to keep insects under control. It’s definitely a bit strange in the beginning but you learn to appreciate their work pretty quickly!

Darwin house

One thing I didn’t quite get used to was, that people have guns out there. And when the dogs were barking or chasing cattle when they shouldn’t do, Shane would fire a gun shot into the air to get their attention. The first time it happened, I was in the bathroom and he rushed out of the backdoor (just next to the bathroom window) firing his revolver.
I vividly remember that A: it was amazingly LOUD and B: given it was my first week there, I immediately thought: what had I done coming out here without really knowing where I was and with whom? My heartbeat might have stopped for a few seconds – we have all watched psycho movies and heard about travellers disappearing Down Under.
Although Australia is reported to have the lowest rate of schizophrenia worldwide, I seemed to have met them all while travelling, for example a really sweet nice girl in her 20’s who introduced herself on a train ride “Hi. Are you a model or a secretary? I’m bipolar … and sometimes I think I am followed by Nazis.” We had a strange but lovely conversation. A Tassi social worker (from Tasmania, the island southeast of Melbourne) I’d met earlier jokingly suggested this could be the convicts’ genes or the rather high drug use in the country. Back in that bathroom when the gun went off I thought “right I am not going to get in the way of an angry screaming gun man”. See, all this was popping up within split seconds. That was until I heard Vic laughing and joking that Shane might have given me a fright. Still, I never got used to him firing that gun.


Let’s get to Mustering

During my first week I had a pretty cool insight into mustering on horseback. Mustering basically means herding cattle together in order to move them to different paddocks. In Australia this is mostly done by quad bikes and helicopters on larger farms. But since Vic and Shane loved working with their horses I was lucky to work with quad bike AND on horseback, which was basically why I ended up there. Now… have you seen the movie Australia with Nicole Kidman? Remember the scene when she starts mustering on horseback, flapping her arms at the cattle and shouting at them? The herd just looks at her pretty unimpressed while stockmen are shaking their heads… Well, that would have been me on my first day!

Cattle react differently when you’re on horseback; it all depends on the right angle of approach and how you ride towards them, to make them move where you want them to go and nobody really ever explained it to me. In the end I let my horse Jake do it; he knew better than me having worked in it for years. And he was amazing. He was able to spot seconds before I saw a heifer break out and would sprint to get her back in line. And in those moments I was more or less a passenger trying to stay on. Great fun!
The longest we ever did was a good 12h trip. It was like riding through Kakadu National Park landscapes, so pretty! We were two people on horseback, Dan and me, to move about 1000 cows along a trail between two fence lines.


After two or three hours we got to the first water hole, that’s a brown, muddy puddle-like, dug out hole for cattle to water at. Dan rode his horse right into the middle after the last cows had sprinted out of the way and dunked his tin cup into it. I had wondered what he was trying to do, but hey ‘different country, different customs…’.

“Here you go, ladies first”, he said proudly offering a tin mug of brown water.

I probably looked at him in disbelief. Was that an Ozzie joke? “Ahhh, no thanks, I probably won’t drink that”.

“Are you sure?” Now HE looked puzzled.

I was more than sure! Even almost outraged…

Well, at the time I didn’t know that we hadn’t even made half way. Two hours later we crossed a wider paddock full of bushes with thick leafage and green ants. Seriously, you do not want to duck under a tree with leaves and green ants nests brushing over you or your horse. It’s like a swarm of midgies stinging you all over and for the next 10 meters horse and rider are just trying to get those beasts off them. Nasty bites! But it does look really funny if it’s someone else 😉

The cattle kept pushing back because someone had forgotten to open the gate at the other end and it was hard work on ground where you couldn’t see further than 20 meters. We had to work at a faster speed and I really started to notice dehydration, in fact I nearly came off the saddle not being able to concentrate anymore. That’s the thing, you don’t really feel it coming, all of a sudden you get headaches, a lack of concentration and you are extremely tired. Also I used an English style saddle, which meant more effort and energy to stay on when your pony sprints off to chase a cow without notice. I got worried I’d fall. So I had no other choice but to crack at the next water hole. And it really was NO fun! The metal taste of the cup was disgusting… I took just a few sips for not passing out by dehydration, out of a water whole in which cattle bathe in, kangaroos drink from (and they are full of worms!) and the year before a dead boar had been seen in it – the local vet told me afterwards… Here a picture of Dan digging in.

famous cup

The only explanation why my body actually did not react to it (and I was kind of preparing for the worst) could have been that I had vaccinated and wormed cattle and probably myself with an amount of chemicals that will probably take years to be washed out of my body again. Health and safety practices are at a different level out there although they were really good at this particular cattle station. They had made fun of me putting on rubber gloves when spraying worming liquid over hundreds of cows. Man, that stuff kept dripping all over my hands and it is designed to be absorbed through thick cattle skin! Mind you, that probably saved me when drinking that water. Later that day when we got to proper drinking water, I downed one full liter in one go; I didn’t think that was possible at all.

Here is a digression on the joy of riding Western style

If you are not exactly into horses, you can skip the greyed out paragraphs.
During three and a half months I had my own pony to work with: Jake, a beautiful Palomino Quarter Horse who was extremely fast and agile but basically had no brakes, in other words he was difficult to stop. He had been trained Western style (for those who don’t ride: that’s cowboy style holding both reins in one hand) and they wanted me to get him used to being ridden English style (with two reins in two hands). Now you have to understand that both riding styles are totally different from each other in a lot of ways! Here is just a little digressionto help you understand what poor Jake and I had to learn and how confusing this can be for horse and rider. Most English style riders don’t understand Western style and don’t appreciate the skill and horsemanship in it. And most Western riders see English riders as stiff and uptight.

I find that the riders’ cues are often the complete opposite to achieve the same result, for ex.:

  • Let’s say you want your horse to turn right. In Western style you move your right hand with both reins to the right which means the horse feels more pressure on the left rein. In English style you work on exactly the opposite: the horse feels more pressure on the right rein.
  • If you want your horse to stop in English style, along with other cues, you press your legs a little against the horses belly to make it step into a halt. Well, in Western style you move your legs slightly forward and away from its belly.
  • There are also the different saddles: when I learned English style, one of the first things I got told was: your knees are your life insurance. You basically squeeze your knees to stay on when it makes an unexpected move or when shying. Western saddles don’t really allow for that, they have a fork or swell at the front, which stop you sliding out of the saddle. 

Personally I truly think, if Western style is performed correctly, it is the more intuitive and respectful way of riding for horses. English style puts much more pressure and force on the horse.

My first ever Rodeo

I had probably only been riding Jake-no-brakes for 3 times when I got to take him to my first ever rodeo, the annual Rodeo Show in Katherine, together with a bunch of guys from the station. I was amazed how far showing went there: we even shaved the horses muzzle hair and styled their leg hair, and painted black shoe polish on their hooves. Others even put hair extensions for bushier fake tail hair! You have to understand muzzle hair is like whiskers to cats: without it they slightly bump their nose into things like food buckets missing the fine tune sensing. Sometimes it gave a funny picture, poor things…

I basically didn’t know Jake very well yet and he didn’t understand English style either 🙂 we started off with an in-hand show (basically leading him). Poor Jake hadn’t done many shows in his life and was so excited that he couldn’t even stand still. And we did a few fun games including my very first Junior Barrel Race. I loved it! Speed was Jake’s thing and I basically had to just trust him keeping balance in the turns. That’s his job when mustering. I remember thinking “damn, I can barely get him on a sharp left turn, I better go for more right turns… and hope I can stop him before he is running off the show grounds with me”. We actually became 2nd! YEY! I’m sure he liked the speedy exercises and I had won my entry money back.

The other guys had done well in reining (the Western equivalent of dressage) and campdrafting (basically working cattle through a certain course and gate). I can’t put into words how Shane showed their stallion, it looked effortless and almost like a ballet dance in Western style if that ever makes any sense. I had never seen him practicing any of it before. In Europe everyone would have practiced every little dressage step, but these were working horses and their approach was to hardly practice at all.

In the evenings I watched the professional Barrel Races and Rodeo. Shane worked as a Pick-up, that’s the guys who get you off the bucking horse once you’ve made your 8 seconds. Looked a scary job to me… Vic started on Barrel Racing and their 18 year old son did his first ever bronco ride and nearly ended up in hospital.

And here is what I learned: Rodeos are not just about horses, but also involve cattle too. You can ride broncos (bucking horses) or bulls which are the cooler option for the younger crowd because bulls are more dangerous and will actually try to harm you once you come off whereas a horse would always buck away from you.
As interesting and as much of a great lifestyle rodeos are, they can have a potentially animal harming side to them: in order to make the horses buck, they adjust a flank strap that tickles the horse’s belly and triggers it to buck. These horses are bread to buck and they naturally tend to do it. A lot of the riders wear classic spurs that help them keep balance. Riders, horses and cattle can get hurt during competitions. I saw a guy coming off his bronco. Flying through the air seemed to last forever… to then land head first into the metal bar fence. He got up looking a bit dizzy and staggered away holding his head. I surely would have been unconscious with concussion. How do they do this?

I probably would go and see rodeos again although this is a bit of a grey zone in so far as animals can be harmed. Most riders love their horses and wouldn’t want to hurt them. However riders have the choice of taking on the risk of getting injured, whereas horses and cattle don’t. Rodeo is not as extreme as Spanish bull fights where bulls are killed on purpose, dying a slow and painful death for entertainment – a total No-go for me! (sometimes the charging bulls even kill the bull fighters’ horses.)

Where do you think the line should be drawn?

… to be continued with Part II


I have been a traveller and expat for over 15 years. So far my nomad lifestyle has allowed me to live and work in seven countries including the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Australia. Moving country, studying abroad and a passion for travel has been part of most of my adult life.

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