Tim O’Brien’s bush horses join National Museum of Australia’s ‘Spirited’ exhibition

Tim O’Brien and palomino Roxy at Boggy Creek, Tumbarumba. Photo: Heidi Pritchard, National Museum of AustraliaCanberra Life: Your home for the Canberra arts

A resourceful bushman, Tim O’Brien once used his four dogs to keep warm while injured on the ground on a remote Snowy Mountains cattle station after being thrown from his horse.

The fourth generation cattleman and shearer is riding high these days, about to join the National Museum of Australia’s Spirited exhibition which honours horses, in Canberra from January 15.

But years ago, while riding a young horse to move cattle between Tumbarumba and Corryong, he fell and was knocked senseless. He came to unaware of what had happened and waited hours before he was discovered lying on his back, hanging on to the reins of his horse.

“Lucky I couldn’t get up because if I did I would have headed in the wrong direction, because I lost all my bearings,” O’Brien says. “It was getting dark near the middle of winter, I had four dogs with me, laying on me keeping me a bit warm, it was cold.”

Eventually he was found and taken to hospital. He recovered and, growing tired of working away from home as a shearer and stockman, developed a horse show at Tumbarumba.

O’Brien’s journey is typical of the bonds between people and their horses which feature in Spirited.  He will show his close relationships with four horses in shows at the museum’s loop amphitheatre.

The O’Briens came from Ireland to Tumbarumba in the 1880s after gold had brought settlement to the area. These days he runs an Angus cattle stud. He has bred and trained brumbies which he trapped with his father for the forestry commission. They lure the wild horses into temporary yards with a salt block.

“Because of the high rainfall the area lacks in salt up here. That’s how we muster most of our cattle out of the  mountains as well, using salt.”

He bred a foal from a brumby mare and palomino stallion brought from a neighbour for $50. He named his buckskin horse ‘Minstrel’ and has developed his training methods from there.

“We used an old-fashioned method, we roped her, whereas now we know a lot more and work a lot more on their natural instinct to want to be a herd animal,” O’Brien says.

“You present yourself as a leader and they want to follow you because you are the leader of their herd, so to speak.

“You put pressure on a horse. I might step in on its hindquarter which makes it want to face me and I will take the pressure off [by walking away] and the horse realises  I am not going to hurt them, but is comfortable to look at me and be with me.”

These days he performs with Ramjet, a quarter horse gelding he brought from a neighbour [“he’s named Roger”] for $250. The early training was to prepare for the Man from Snowy River bush festival at Corryong.

“To do those challenges you have got to be really good and your horse needs to be good, so that got him started. I started teaching him tricks, so I could do all those challenges. I could ride him around without a saddle or bridle. He lays down, picks things up.”

The skills form O’Brien’s Boggy Creek show, which draws groups of between 30 and 60 tourists.

“What we do is real Australian,” he says. “We have pack horses, working dogs, I’m a shearer so I shear the sheep. There’s a lot of history in what we do, a lot of comedy too. We have kids here, school groups, pre-school up to seniors.”

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