Horse whisperer shares her trail craft

FOR THE campers from the city, a tent in the foothills of Barrington Tops National Park represents a week's adventure. For Jillian Sullivan and Cactus, her ginger mongrel, it represents a way of life. For nine months of the year, she drives cattle across the wilderness of New South Wales and sleeps under canvas.

Camp conditions are no excuse for slovenliness. A woman's touch is everywhere - flowers in the dunny, which is sloshed out with disinfectant daily; hot water in the shower block and food supplied with a maternal eye for detail. "So," she says, as a blackened iron billycan brings water to the boil, "who's for breakfast?"


IT IS Monday, and another urban gang have arrived for their initiation into the ways of the bush. Patience with beginners ("Oh God, I've never sat on a horse - what will I do if it bites me?") is a quality Jillian has had to develop since giving up her old life, three years ago. She ran a ranch in the outback with her husband Steve, until it became painfully obvious they were in a declining industry that could have trapped them in a downward spiral of diminishing returns and unsaleable property. Such is the lot of many in the bush today.

So they bit the bullet and sold up, gambling on Jillian's ability to impart to others her lifelong love of horses. "When I had both my girls, I rode up to the day I gave birth, then a week later as soon as I was out of hospital I made a papoose for the baby so I could sort out the sheep and cows. I just had to stop now and then to feed the little one," she said.


BY TUESDAY the heat and dust of the trail demand respite. The townies dreaming of Clint Eastwood now have a chance to play Pale Rider and bare a set of lily-white legs. Humans and horses alike cool off in a billabong as the hundred-odd head of cattle being driven to market take their own rest in some shaded pasture, up ahead.

Jillian slopes off to a secluded spot for a private swim before leading the party back to base for dinner. No Spaghetti Western, this, though. A powerful smell of roast beef wafts through the evening air as the riders brush down their mounts for the night before tucking in to hot meat and cold beer.


WEDNESDAY, AND the paying customers are treated to a demonstration of Jillian's equine understanding. She steps into a paddock under the jaundiced eye of a mare, spoilt, she explains, by mistreatment at the hands of former owners. A whip cracking at her rear, the beast circles warily: "What we're doing is getting inside the horse's mind, driving her away, like a lead mare would do in a wild herd," Jillian says. Then, after half an hour of this pas de deux, the coup de theatre - the mare puts her head on Jillian's shoulder. "She wants to be my friend, that's pretty amazing, isn't it?"

"Horse whispering" techniques form the basis of Jillian's whole philosophy. "Horses are pacifists," she says, maintaining her vigilance over tourists with bad riding habits, ensuring that even beginners are safe in the wide open spaces of the Hunter Valley. "If you treat him right, he won't want to run away from you."


COME THURSDAY and the trail leads to a natural vantage point from high ground on Jillian's rented property over the 650,000-acre ranch belonging to Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer. The nine lush pitches, where the media tycoon would seek solace in younger days in a game of polo, gleam in iridescent contrast to the scrub of the hillsides. The hundred or so staff are sheltering from the rain, perhaps in their own private, luxurious cinema.


FRIDAY, AND the serious business of returning the steers to their pens requires all the drovers' new-found navigational skills. Mission accomplished, and it is off back to the city, to nurse the sunburn and saddle sores, and tell their tales to the timorous ones left behind. Coming the other way is Steve, returning from a week's toil on the Sydney stock market to place a proprietorial arm around this Belle of the Bush. "I thought I must be crazy leaving my husband to go and live in a tent," she says. "But if you can teach someone something in your life, it's all worth it."

Annabel McGoldrick