Barney and His Mate
In 1983, I was working on a station outside in outback Queensland. A local musterer – we’ll call him Joe here - had a few score of horses on the station where I worked, though his cattle camps were shutting down so he had little use for them. One of the horses was a big Clydie cross gelding called Barney. He’d worked in the camps for a good twenty years – pulling the cook’s wagon and working under saddle dragging the roped cattle up to the branding fire. Joe had pointed Barney and his Shetland sidekick out to me in the distance (the paddocks were about 4 to 6 thousand acres, so horses were usually in the distance) and told me this and that about him, what a great horse he’d been, how strong he was, how hard he worked, how much he owed a horse like that.
Barney was blind. Totally blind. If the other horses left him, he was lost and alone in a very big paddock with a long way to water. And there lies one little miracle of horses: for some reason, the Shetland had made himself Barney’s eyes and never left him. Whenever I saw Barney, there would be the Shetland under his nose, leading him to water or grazing by his forelegs. If the rest of the herd went for a mad gallop, the Shettie would stay with Barney and the pair of them would follow at Barney’s trot, the big horse holding his nose on the Shettie’s back. Apparently they’d been like that for years, I was only witnessing the friendship in its final days.
Then Joe decided that he didn’t need the horses any longer. He mustered them into one of the sets of yards and began drafting them up – left to the doggers, right going back to the paddock. I was at the homestead when the owner’s wife came back in tears – Barney had been drafted left and his Shettie, too small to be of dog meat value, was going back to the paddock. She said Barney was standing head down and shaking and was calling and calling out in terror without his companion - she’d come back to get the money to buy him so that he could go back in the paddock with his mate. She said she couldn’t believe what Joe had done, but he said Barney would be going to the knackery with the others unless he had cash in his hand for him. Joe didn’t trust people, he consider anything sold until the cash was in his pocket, so he wouldn’t keep Barney off the trucks unless he was paid first.
When we got back to the yards, a good twenty minutes from the homestead, it was too late. Barney was standing in a yard quivering, covered in dirt and blood, one foreleg broken, his spirit completely gone. The Shettie was outside the yards calling to him, but all he could do was snuffle softly as there was too much blood coming out his nostrils. Joe had sent him up the ramp onto the truck with the other horses and the old boy had been terrified beyond reason – the jackaroo said he’d gone insane trying to get back to his Shettie and climbed out of the top deck of the truck and fallen to the ground, breaking his leg. Joe didn’t have a gun with him but we had one in the Toyota – standard equipment in a station vehicle because you often needed a gun - so he used it to shoot Barney then dragged his body out of the yards. The Shetland never stopped calling for him.
I can’t think of that horse and his little sidekick without crying – the tears are coming thick and fast now as I’m writing this – to this day I can picture him so clearly, winding his way at a trot between the mimosa bushes with his nose on the Shetland’s back. The way the Shetland looked after him amazed me – still does. The Shetland didn’t really get anything out of the arrangement, he could have had the company of other horses, but he chose to help his friend. To think of Barney in those yards, separated from his ‘eyes’ and lost in fear is just awful. He deserved to live out his days with his friend in the paddocks where they roamed together – but perhaps he could have died a sad and lonely and slower death if something had happened to his sidekick first. It was just the way he died, well, it makes me respect horses a whole lot more and think less of people.