I had helped start young horses before I had Chester but he was the easiest.
Some 25 years after I sold him I received word through a friend the old horse had died aged about 32 years, a good age for a working horse which is what Chester did best.
The man who had him for most of his life, about 25 years, a cattleman in the midlands of Tasmania where good horses are valued above just about everything else, said he was the best horse he’d ever had and he wanted me to know just how good he was.
An unhandled 18-month-old colt when I bought him at a sale, Chester proved to be a horse I’d never forget.
At first I couldn’t put a hand on him in the paddock but he succumbed very quickly to a half-filled ice cream container of oats.
After the first week he was at the fence waiting for his oats every afternoon.
A few weeks of handling and I decided to start him.
New versus old
I’d seen young horses started the ‘old’ way, that is, forced into submission and I was determined to try a better way, gently, persuasively and slowly.
I was determined to make a better fist of starting Chester than what I’d seen done when I was younger when the ‘old’ methods led only to frightened horses.
Those horses all bucked.
I very clearly remember the day I stepped into the saddle for the first time.
I was in the yard on my own with him wondering if this was the most stupid thing I’d ever done, but he didn’t flinch.
A day or two later we were riding around the paddocks and it was as if he was born to do it and enjoyed it as well. He was easy to shoe, easy to load on the trailer and soon learned to accept whatever job I gave him.
A hard lesson
Then there was the day we both learnt a valuable lesson.
I didn’t have a tractor then and so tied a rope to my grass harrows, climbed on Chester and he pulled it around the paddock for me with my end of the rope wrapped around the saddle horn – I had bought this cheap Mexican-made roping saddle to help me start in rodeo timed events.
By now I had become a little too trusting of the young horse and when I climbed off him to clear some sticks with the rope wrapped around the horn too tight to come loose, he took fright and raced off with the harrows jumping madly behind him.
He was out of sight in the scrub within seconds and here’s me thinking he would be killed or the saddle torn to pieces.
Five minutes later I caught up to him, stretched out on his side unable to move with the harrows wedged between two trees about two metres off the ground – and nothing broken.
The harrows weren’t going to come down and the rope was too tight to unwrap so I had to cut it. He waited for me to take the reins and then stand up. No damage, I almost cried with relief.
Apart from when roping in the arena, I have never since tied a rope hard and fast to a saddle horn, just coiled it and held the loose end.
He was never meant for rodeo
I did rope cattle off Chester and started steer wrestling off him but the brutal truth was, he was too slow for the job. Yes, we caught some cattle but the prizemoney was a long way off and it was this lesson which led me into Quarter Horses and the prizemoney.
In 1982, I accepted a job in Warwick and could only take two horses with me. The big champion roping horse I had, County, was a ‘no brainer’ and I decided to take a young Quarter Horse filly rather than Chester – looking back with perfect hindsight, a mistake.
I sold Chester to an old mate of mine whose son ran cattle in the Midlands of Tasmania and the story went from there.
Almost 40 years later I still think about him. The old saying is you only ever have one really good horse but I’ve had three or four and to lose them from old age or injury is almost as sad as losing a family member – but life goes on and soon it will be my turn.
My entry fees into heaven were paid by Jesus, I just hope I will see all my old horse friends there waiting for me.
John Skinner served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo based in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his small farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with 3 children and 7 grandchildren.