School Principal’s Thrill In New Skill

By Julieanne Horsman

Thrill Ofthe Skill was bred for a life on the racetrack. Instead, the now seven-year-old mare is showing her versatility off it. Since being adopted by lifelong equestrian Diane Hickey, Thrill Ofthe Skill has become an important part of the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop and this month completed her greatest challenge so far.

Over the course of eight days, Thrill Ofthe Skill and Diane meandered their way from Narrandera to Wagga as part of the Riverina and Southwest Slopes Light Horse Association’s Memorial Trek to commemorate 130years since the Emu plume was first added to the slouch hat. The trek was meant to be held in 2021 but Covid restrictions forced it to be rescheduled.

Diane and retired racehorse Thrill Ofthe Skill.

“As soon as I saw it advertised, I knew we had to be part of it,” Diane, the Principal of Binda Public School, said. “I roped my husband into coming along with his horse and decked them out in all the gear.”

Dressed in replicas of traditional World War I uniforms, the group of 14 riders and horses as well as a support crew covered 130km of ground, stopping off at small communities along the way. After a service at Narrandera where the troopers presented a slouch hat to the local RSL, they set out for Grong Grong 18kms away. The next day it was on to Matong where they visited the local public school to the delight of the young students.

“Seeing the kids’ faces light up gave me such a buzz,” Diane said. “They were asking questions about the uniforms and the horses. It’s a great way for them to learn about the history of the Light Horse.”

Each night the troop would build yards to contain their horses while they slept in swags or floats next to them. They would be up before the sun each morning to continue their journey, calling in to Ganmain, Coolamon, Marrar and Downside before finishing at North Wagga Pony Club.

“Due to covid restrictions we weren’t allowed into any aged care facilities, but we did a “ride by” and formed a troop line outside Allawah Lodge at Coolamon and the residents came out onto the verandah and gave us a salute,” Diane said. 

The group also collected donations along the way to help fund the construction of a bronze statue in Wagga’s Victory Memorial Gardens as a permanent tribute to those who have served with Light Horse troops. The design will feature a Light Horseman and his mount rescuing another soldier and while some grants had already been secured for the project, the money raised by the trek went towards covering the shortfall.

Trek participants held a service a Coolamon in honour of Light Horsemen of the past.

Once the ride was complete there was no time to rest, with attention turning to preparations and rehearsals for ANZAC Day. Diane and Thrill Of the Skill performed with the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop at Wagga’s ANZAC Day Eve race day and again on ANZAC Day at services in Gundagai, Tumblong and Jugiong. Most of the horses in the troop are also off the track Thoroughbreds including Zarlu, Badraan, Aussie James, Hovell Street, Urbane Valour and Bang Bang.

“Thoroughbreds are highly intelligent and trainable,” Diane said. “I’m very proud of what Thrill OftheSkill has achieved and how far she has come during her time with me.

“Being part of the 7th Light Horse Gundagai Troop gives you a chance to do something wonderful with your horse, regardless of age. Our youngest member is 9 and the oldest is 74. I’d encourage anyone who wants to get involved to get in touch via our facebook page.”

Diane has long been passionate about the Thoroughbred breed with her family involved in racing. Her previous mount, Mistress Jaye, was bred by Gerry Harvey, part-owned by her brother-in-law and trained by Kris Lees then Bernie Kelly. They competed in dressage and showing together, rode part of the Bicentennial Trail and Diane’s daughter even took her to Pony Club State Show Riding where they picked up a blue ribbon. Mistress Jaye has recently been retired from competitions due to her age but still lives with Diane at her home near Gunning.

Diane adopted Thrill Of the Skill, now known as “Hillary,” directly from Albury trainer Rob Wellington after being drawn to her kind eye and laidback temperament. She immediately began schooling her as a dressage mount under the guidance of coach Helena Warren, before progressing into Light Horse training about 12 months ago.

“The horse is a testament to her trainer,” Diane said. “She’s a pleasure to handle and do anything with. My husband has two other ex-racing mares from the stable. We just love them!”

Children Lining Up For Equine Assisted Learning

By Julieanne Horsman

Withdrawn, anxious and barely able to make eye contact. When 17-year-old Max walked into the paddock at Bringing Smiles to Life, he was a troubled young man. After traditional methods failed, Max’s mother put her faith in Heather Cambridge’s new equine-assisted learning program in a desperate attempt to get her precious son back on track.

Fast forward just three months and Max is a different person. He’s confident, happy, and always the one who offers to stay back and pack up the float, clean tack or help in general. He aspires to become a jackaroo and owes his transformation to the healing powers of horses, in particular a six-year-old retired racehorse named Line Up Girls who is affectionately known as Frankie.

Each session is designed to assist participants by offering them tools to better manage their mental health. This includes breathwork, learning to regulate emotions, progressive muscle relaxation and anxiety de-escalation.

Retired racehorse Line Up Girls is helping Max become more confident and resilient.

“One thing we do every time is talk about boundaries and communication,” Heather said. “We look at the horse’s ears for signals, maintain a safe distance from the rear end, take note of body language and signs that indicate the horse’s mood. Some of the children who come along are in out of home care and they are angry, but they must learn to be calm around the horses. We also do a lot of grooming and hoof care to strengthen that bond with the horses as well as leading exercises, cavaletti and obstacle courses. We set goals with the horses and sometimes there is resistance to requested tasks but that provides an opportunity to talk, troubleshoot, find resilience, take another approach, and grow in leadership. When the horses do what they are asked, the clients are so proud of themselves. It’s wonderful to see.”

Heather was inspired to start her equine-assisted learning program after suffering the tragic loss of her husband four years ago. Her horse, a Standardbred named Fred, was a shining light during one of the darkest times in her life and she wanted others to have access to that same healing power.

“He just rescued me,” she said. “He stopped me from diving into a big, black hole and helped me pick myself up and move forward. I love working with horses and wanted to create a special resource for the local community, so I decided to study as an Equine Interaction Experience Practitioner and give it my best shot.”

Heather, who has a diploma in counselling and mental health, launched Bringing Smiles to Life at Wingham with just Fred, but soon decided he needed a friend. Despite initial reservations about taking on an off the track Thoroughbred, Heather had stumbled across Team Thoroughbred NSW on social media and reached out.

Heather on the day she adopted Line Up Girls from Team Thoroughbred NSW’s equine welfare and rehoming property at Oxley Island.

“I was really interested in the work of Team Thoroughbred and wanted to give a retired racehorse a quality home,” she said. “I went out to the farm at Oxley Island and had a look at some horses. There was one I liked but the Farm Manager Bernie and Rehoming Coordinator LaToyah said there was another one better suited to what I planned to do. I trusted their judgement, had a ride, and ended up taking Line Up Girls home. He was perfect from the day he arrived. He got on well with Fred and was very patient and relaxed.”

Heather renamed the six-year-old former Gary Moore then Jenny Graham-trained gelding “Frankie” and began handling and groundwork with him. She made sure he was safe with some obedience and flexion exercises before he was introduced to her clients. Frankie’s first chance to shine was with Max and the two hit it off straight away.

“Max originally worked with Fred and when he switched to Frankie he really had to step up because of his size,” Heather said. “Max took it all in his stride and I started observing some really tender moments between the two like Frankie smelling Max, turning into him, following him around.”

So far there has been plenty of interest from the community in Bringing Smiles to Life and most of the participants are under the age of 18. Many have tried traditional therapies like counselling and psychology but Heather’s program, which operates under the motto of slow, calm, and gentle, has a unique effect.

“I listen and ask questions and they can bring up anything they want to without any judgement,” Heather said. “I try and get them to recognise what they can learn from each situation. Understanding the value of verbal and non-verbal communication is important for these kids.”

Heather balances her time at Bringing Smiles to Life with her role as an Occupational Therapy Assistant at Manning Base Hospital’s Mental Health Unit. She is hoping as her equine-assisted learning program grows in popularity, she will be able to devote more time to it.  She is also desperate to find a more permanent base in the Taree/Wingham area either with undercover facilities or space for her to erect her own shelter so the program can run in all weather.

“I just want to build the business and help more children,” Heather said. “I genuinely believe that’s what I am on this earth to do.”

For more information search Bringing Smiles to Life on facebook.