Everyone’s equestrian journey is different; some of us are lucky enough to have horses all of our lives, others find that life circumstances see them entering or returning to the equestrian world as adult riders. For veterinarians Kim Johnson and Ben Fell, the latter was the case when they moved into their dream Yarra Valley property in 2015. After years of study and finding their way in the working world, the couple were finally in a position where horses could become a part of their lives.
Both had experience on the veterinary side of horses and Kim had ridden as a teenager, however, Ben was new to riding, having only been on a horse once or twice before. “Ben had expressed some interest in getting horses to trail ride, and keep as pets and keep the grass down,” begins Kim. Initially, they welcomed back Kim’s first pony, Amber, who was nearing 30 years of age at the time. The search then began for a horse Ben could ride.
“I was out at a farm call one day at Coldstream Park Warmblood Stud, and I mentioned to the owner that I was looking for a nice, quiet, riding horse; something really reliable and safe. She said, ‘You have to come and meet George!’”
A 15-year-old thoroughbred from a saleyard is probably not the first horse you would consider when looking for a ‘first horse’ for an adult beginner rider, but as Kim explains, sometimes the perfect horse can be found in the most unexpected places.
“George had been purchased by the owner of Coldstream Park about six months prior from the saleyard. He ended up at the sales, we think, due to drought and financial hardship; there was certainly nothing wrong with him. The reason the stud bought him was that someone had commented on his photo from the sale’s Facebook page saying they knew him. Apparently he’d done work as a clerk of the course horse, and he’d been a really quiet horse that people had learned to ride on. So he was bought sight unseen; the owner of Coldstream Park said he looked like a nice horse that deserved a chance.”
Although he needed a little TLC, over the space of six months it was found that George was indeed quiet, safe and reliable — and subsequently he was recommended to Kim. “I went and tried him out and had a ride on him, and he was just really cool!” she says.
Researching his brands on the Australian Stud Book confirmed that he was an off-the-track horse who raced under the name He’s A Man. There is very little information on him, as his age means he raced at a time before mandatory microchipping and the keeping of more detailed records that is now enforced across the state.
So, towards the end of 2015, George came to live with Kim and Ben — and over the next five years an amazing relationship developed. “It went from me riding first and then Ben learning to ride on him,” explains Kim.
“He did not have education in the strict sense of the word, but someone at some point has put a lot of effort into him, because he’s very well trained in terms of his manners,” says Kim. “He had just basic buttons, but they were there. He’s never, ever tried to take off or do anything naughty. What made him really cool to learn on for Ben was he’s actually really well voice-trained. If you say, ‘Whoa’, he’ll stop!”
“We bought him with the main intention of me learning to ride on him,” chimes in Ben. “I’m really lucky to have George, because when I first started I was the master of the ‘pull and kick’ kind of technique of riding… and he was so forgiving and patient. I couldn’t have asked for a better horse to learn on.”
Ben’s first ambition may have been to enjoy some trail riding, but once he saw what was on offer in the equestrian world, he knew he wanted to do more. “I saw people riding cross country at horse trails, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do that!’”
Kim and Ben joined Yarra Glen Adult Riding Club, which is part of the Horse Riding Clubs Association of Victoria (HRCAV) network. HRCAV, which spans 254 member clubs with over 6000 individual members across Victoria, parts of NSW and South Australia, offers riders the chance to compete across various disciplines against riders of their own skill level. Competition levels mirror Pony Club, from Level 5 through to Level 1, plus an additional Advanced grade.
The HRCAV disciplines were new to Ben and George alike. “It’s not like we went and bought a schoolmaster,” says Kim. “I might have put my grandma on him, as he’s so quiet, but he was green in the sense that he hadn’t seen a cross country jump or show jump before. He didn’t really know how to get around the corners in an arena.”
However, Ben and George have since gone on to learn the finer details together, working their way up through the HRCAV ranks with a little help from Kim. “Even though we’re vets and I’d ridden as a teenager, we didn’t have much of an idea how to train a horse,” says Kim. “I had never trained a horse before, but with George it’s just happened!”