Horsedogs

By Terri Burke

Drovers used horsedogs in the days when their working plants numbered anything from 40 to 100 horses. They could also be found on stock camps on the big, unfenced runs, where yards were infrequent and horse paddocks unknown. Under those circumstances, a hard to catch horse was about as useful, and had the resale value of a spent firecracker. A good horsedog however, was beyond price.

For most part, the grass fed stockhorse that equates humans with bone wearying labour, is not keen on being caught. Experience has taught him that, far from being a source of treats, as the story books imply, man is, in fact, an unsparing taskmaster and best avoided - if it can be at all arranged.

The only reason the horse stood to be caught, was that in painfully acquired experience in the breaking yard, he learned that he could not beat the rope. This lesson was reinforced by hobbles, and then by work, until the knowledge became habit. In due course, ( supposing he never was allowed to discover the truth - that he could beat a man on foot six ways to Sunday) the finished article became the gem of the open camp; a horse good on the ground, and easy to catch.

Supposing however, that the breaker was careless or ignorant. Or supposing an unavoidable interruption occurred in the colts training. Then you were left with a half-smart animal capable of playing "chase -me-charlie" all day around the perimeter of the horse plant. One such trouble maker soon found a mate or three. Touchy colt or hardened rouge, at this stage neither one was to be caught without a yard, a fence to block them against , or better still…..a dog!

Horsedogs where efficient for two very good reasons.

#1. A horse’s herd instinct is strong. It will not willingly leave its mates because security lies with the mob.

#2. Horses cave easily under nervous pressure. Bamboozle and panic them and the battle is won.

The dog’s tactics are not involved. The horse gets chased and bitten on the fetlocks until he decides to stop. He can kick and gallop, but he won’t leave the mob, so the dog keeps on chasing and biting, while dodging the kicks (which, if they connected, would take his head off). In a straight run there would be no contest, for any horse can outstrip a cattle dog, but few seem capable of out-thinking them.

So the horse circles and the dog cuts corners. It dashes into the other horses, hoping to hide, and the dog follows it through and continues to bite. When the runaway stops, the biting ceases - but will instantly resume should he stir a hoof before the bridle is on. The horsedog was the ultimate civiliser for spoiled horses, and once this lesson had been well assimilated, it usually stuck, to the point where often only the threat of action was necessary. The horse could be caught simply if you whistled, whether the dog was there or not.

Some dogs were so good at their work, that they would off-side a horse for their owner by moving into a position a metre or two back from its right or off-side shoulder. This was in order to halt, with an admonitory bark, any disposition the horse had to swing its rump toward the man approaching its near shoulder with the bridle. If the horse backed up he would dart behind it and bark again. Dogs of this calibre developed uncanny instincts.

My father had one that seemed to know when it was a certain black gelding’s turn to be ridden and would poke out into the horses as they waited on camp, and lie down behind him. When the rider approached with the bridle, black Boko would stand like a craven image to be caught. Approach him without a dog and the task could take you all day.

Back in the old days of the big droving plants, hobbling 60 odd horses single handed could be a nightmare, particularly if they were hungry and continually feeding off the camp. A good horsedog was the equivalent of another man and would keep the mob blocked up until the horsetailer was finished.

Most such dogs worked equally well with cattle, padding back and forth keeping the tail of the mob moving, nipping the heels of the beast that was blocking the crush. However, it was when a man was hot and bothered and without a hand on the horse camp,that their true expertise was valued most.

Submitted by John Chandler

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