I’ve owned, started, trained and ridden Australian Stock horses, thoroughbreds (racehorses), Arabians and old nags of no particular breeding but Quarter Horses have filled the last 45 years of my life and I have no regrets.
One of those Quarter Horses became an Australian Champion and to say he was a miracle horse undervalues his ability and his versatility. His name was Millbrook Countdown or ‘County’ as he was known in all four eastern states.
It started like this; I had ridden in rodeos in my teens and was regularly thrown off bullocks and broncs on trotting tracks and showgrounds all over the New England region of New South Wales.
The parking attendant
A year after leaving the military, I was asked to do traffic control and car parking at a small rodeo. During breaks, I wandered over to see the action and realised I still had the ‘itch’ to climb on something which bucked.
A year later I was the secretary of the same rodeo and had already started riding bullocks again however, at age 29, I found the ground was much harder than it had been when I was 18. A couple of trips to the doctor and I slowly came to realise I had left my run too late.
The urge to compete was strong though so I practiced hard and trained a young horse I’d bought and started in the rope & tie (calf roping) and steer wrestling (bulldogging) events.
There’s a rule in the roping events – never put a ‘green’ roper on a ‘green’ horse – but Chester and I did alright and we caught a few steers but he was too slow for us to ever win anything.
County, a keg of dynamite
As I improved, a friend offered me his roping horse to use at rodeos – the horse, still only young, was the most alert and willing horse I’d ever sat on. It felt like sitting on a keg of dynamite, I only needed to touch the reins or move in the saddle and he was ready to explode.
My first prize money came in the steer wrestling at Hamilton Rodeo in the Derwent Valley and I was improving at such a rate, my friend, offered to sell me the horse for $1,000. Brian was already a rodeo champion in Tasmania but had trained some rather good horses and took one, Millbrook Alley Cat, to an Australian Quarter Horse Championship in two different disciplines and County was excess to needs.
Marion and I talked about it really hard. In 1980 it was a lot of money considering my wage at the time was about $8,000 P/A but it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We had to extend our home loan but County and I were a winning combination and prize money soon helped bring the loan under control.
Back home in rodeo country
In 1982 we moved to Warwick, Queensland and County came with us.
County and I started to compete but I quickly realised I was a part-time roper riding against professionals, some of whom had won at the world’s biggest rodeos in the USA and Canada.
I was on a hiding to nothing.
The only hope I had was to learn to compete in the team roping event which suited people like me who had an office job, had very little time for practice and didn’t need to be super fit.
Team roping is where a rider ropes a steer around the horns, dallies (or wraps) the loose end of the rope around the saddle horn and changes the direction of the steer while the other rider ropes the two back legs.
It’s an event grown out of real cattle work and still used in open country away from yards where an animal may need treatment for injury or help with calving. Once the hind legs are caught, the animal goes to ground, the head rope can be released and whilever the rope is held tight, the animal cannot stand up. Loosen the rope, the animal stands up and walks away and the loop which had been holding the back legs falls away.
Winning within six months
It was during the Christmas holidays in 1982/3, County and I started practicing team roping. Before long we became proficient at both heading and heeling.
Six months later, I won the team roping at Gladstone, central Queensland, the start of a wonderful series of wins and places from Queensland to Victoria.
County took to team roping like he was born to do it and was so good, many of the travelling cowboys would want to compete on him when their own horses weren’t available.
At the Australian Quarter Horse Association presentations in 1985, Millbrook Countdown was awarded the Australian Roping Horse of the Year, 1984.
As it turned out, 1984 was when I started organising the Rodeo church services in Warwick and other places then started supporting those rodeo people who were holding bible classes at rodeo grounds around the country and were considered unofficial chaplains.
In 1985, Mark Tronson made contact and in due course, Pro-Rodeo appointed an official chaplain.
He has since officiated at a whole bunch of rodeo weddings, christenings, sadly, several funerals and counselled hundreds in need while speaking regularly in churches at rodeo time right around the country.
County is no longer with us but I have no hesitation is saying he was the best horse I ever rode.
John Skinner is a retired journalist who has written ten biographies on famous campdrafting competitors. He was an Australian infantry soldier wounded in Vietnam, served six years as a Police Officer, was CEO of the then Australian Rough Riders Assn (Pro-Rodeo based in Warwick, Qld). He and his wife Marion retired to a small farm 25km south of Warwick 20 years ago. They have three children and now seven grandchildren.