Amongst the rolling hills of Allora Queensland, tucked away within the black soil that envelops the land, lies ‘MaMa Valley Station’.
This family operated horse training facility is run by Horse Trainer Joe Maher and is home to his fiancé Rose and their two tiny jockeys Charlie and Polly.
As the morning frost settled across The 107 acres of cultivation land, Joe turned the kettle on and I had 1 million questions for him.
Having started his first horse under saddle over 15 years ago, there was a lot that I was intrigued to know about this second generation horseman. So often as we look into an established horse training operation, we have our own preconceived notions that may or may not be in line with the reality of setting foot onto the property and meeting the people behind the gates.
I was already aware before speaking with Joe, that he was the youngest person at the time to win the snaffle bit cutting futurity on a mare that he had spent eight months training himself. So I knew he had plenty of stories to share, but it was the vulnerabilities of day to day life that I was most intrigued by.
Having learned from acclaimed Australian cutting horse trainer Phil Webb every school holidays from when he was 12 till 18, the teachings were fresh in his mind to become a fierce competitor from a young age. I truly believe that it is this level of dedication and drive that seems to come with those individuals that really succeed within this field.
They are the ones that yearn for the life of starting work in the dark and finishing with dirt stained pants. They are the ones with a mind like a notebook and who feed the horses before they feed themselves. Every time.
Joe then went on to work for legendary Australian Horseman Ian Francis for six months.
It was from here that Joe took the teachings of mentors around him and created a path of his own.
‘I love the challenge of starting horses under saddle. It’s rewarding. And I also really love the different people that you meet along the way’.
With an excess of 15 horses in his training stables at any given time, my initial thought went to the injury rate of working within this industry. Joe pondered on the question for a minute, as if his day to day inner workings were just that – day to day. ‘Probably monthly id have a young horse trip or fall over onto me but I avoid getting on any that buck by preparing them more on the ground’.
As a professional trainer for the public, Joe is up at the crack of dawn every morning feeding and preparing young horses for the rest of their ridden careers; and so I posed to him the question of responsibility, once these horses leave his property.
‘I have given up on a horse, yes; I have to remember that while I may be able to ride that horse, my client may not be suited to it. And I’m not in the business of wasting time and money on both ends’.
Having worked in the Northern Territory as the head Stockman on ‘Carlton Hill’ for two years (a cattle station), It goes without saying that Joe’s eye for what will make a good mustering and cow horse is on point. As he told me of his time on Carlton Hill I noticed an old grey horse grazing in the paddock. I remembered a photo that I had seen of this grey gelding with red paint on him. This was the horse that Joe had used to propose to his fiancé. Will you marry me was painted on.
‘Yeah, that’s Nurophine. I had him up at Carlton Hill and he was too old to muster any more by the time I was leaving. So I bought him for $500. He won a novice and open draft that year. He won me $2800! He’d be my favourite horse.
As with every horse trainer, everything is deliberate. I was interested to know about some of the simple advice that Joe maintains and follows to keep himself safe and to maintain a quality of horse that he presents to the public.
‘I always try to be firm but fair- this is a team sport BUT I am the captain of the horse and I like to remember that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. I suppose you can look at it like this – a little a lot is better than a lot a little’
Having been involved within the horse industry for his entire life (and wearing many hats during his time) Joe is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of the equine world. I was curious, Is there ever a point that any horse trainer gets to that they feel their program is complete.
‘You’ll never have everything figured out when it comes to horses! And the second that you think you do, they will remind you pretty quickly that you don’t!’
A pattern began to emerge as I probed further into Joe‘s life.
I was fascinated by how often Joe mentioned stories of seeking out the knowledge that he needed.
‘If I ever feel like everything is getting a bit too much, I usually call mate or sit down for a cuppa. If I ever start to get frustrated at the situation I take a step back and really think about what I’m trying to do. I can’t exactly outmuscle something five times my size!’
He continued on, telling me about a mare that he was currently training for the futurity and how this mare was different to the others.
‘She was stiff and wasn’t trying’
Joe was at a loss. And so he decided to pick up the phone and call world class horse dentist and chiropractor Wilba Thornberry. Within one phone call Joe had followed every bit of the advice from Wilba and describe the mare to me as ‘Like a slinky now!’ It was humbling to learn that even those within the thick of the industry go through similar experiences to those riding horses for recreation, that they too ask for help- A part of the professional industry that the every day rider is often not privy to.
‘If things don’t go to plan I just have to think calmly to be able to set myself and that horse up for our next movement. I don’t want to make the same mistake again’
With so many young horses munching away on their breakfast in the stalls outside, I wondered what advice Joe may have given to his younger self when it comes to starting horses.
‘I probably would tell myself not to rush a young horse. They’ll be ready when they’re ready. In my younger days I would put too much on a young horse in a forcible way. And that horse just wasn’t ready to learn. I would probably tell myself not to hop on a horse and think I’m going to teach him everything the first ride! I also wouldn’t expect horse people to pay on time!’
As an extremely competitive campdraft rider, Joe is away throughout the year competing.
It is within the competition space that Joe gauges the true success with his horses.
‘Even at a horse event, you may not win, but if other competitors or spectators comment on my horse I know that I must be on the right track. My greatest inspiration are my peers and other horse people who are always trying to improve themselves’
Since the day that Joe and his futurity winning mare BFP Ultra Banks entered the arena for the biggest cow horse event in the southern hemisphere back in 2009, and won, Joe has continued to evolve as a horseman and emerge into the highest version of himself both professionally and personally. Because let’s face it, when horses get in your blood, professional life and personal life become synonymous with one another.
As Joe and I finished our cups of tea, he adjusted his hat and excused himself back to his arena; where he spent the rest of the day immersed in the complexities of education and the simple smell of horse.