Boot spurs don’t glint at 3am but they do tinkle.
That’s the only sound to be heard as horse breaker Tom Curtain steps lightly through a darkened room to check the temperature gauge. It will be hours before the sun breaks the horizon but already the mercury has passed 21C.
It’s going to be another hot day in the Northern Territory! Horse breaking in the Top End is hard yakka and even though Tom is more a horse whisperer than a breaker, it’s still tough on the body.
“I’ve been struck, kicked, smashed and run out of the yard by horses so many times I should be dead, “ he says.
“The other day I went to brush a fly off my nose. The horse thought I was going to hurt it, so it kicked me in the head and knocked me out.”
Tom is the owner and headline act in the Katherine Outback Experience at Riverboyne Horsebreaking and Training, which is an Off Train Excursion for guests of The Ghan.
The show is receiving rave reviews, which should be no surprise given Tom’s ability with horses and the fact he’s had several chart-topping hits on the country music scene. Even still, it does come as a surprise just how much he wins over the crowd. It’s as if he is training the audience to eat out of his hand, rather than training the horses.
“I’ve see a lot of shows like this,” declares one man, “and this is the best I’ve ever seen by a country mile.”
Such praise might astonish those who knew the young Tom Curtain growing up on Kingaroy peanut farm, who by his own admission “ran a bit of amuck.”
Yet the determination was evident early on. At the age of six he watched a TV program about NT cattle stations and he was hooked. He kept trying to leave school but his parents held him to his books “until the day I got my degree and I handed it to mum and said ‘Whack it on your wall, I’m off to the Territory.’”
The eight months were spent in the saddle and swag, mustering cattle, before being given a chance to help break in horses for Janet Holmes a Court’s sprawling cattle empire.
“The style was old school, it was slow and we were only doing three of four breakers a day,” he recalls.
Tom was always experimenting, looking for ways to speed up the horse breaking process, yet he was still essentially a breaker until he worked with a horse whisperer from the United States.
“At first I thought he was crazy. Then I tried it and not only did it work, I noticed none of the horses were getting injured.
“Americans lead the way with techniques but they have quarter horses, which are much quieter.
“Each horse is unique and the challenge each one presents is part of the attraction. You want to get to the ‘bottom of the horse’ as quickly as you can, to understand what makes it tick.”
It wasn’t long before Tom went out on his own and for the next 12 years he trained an average of 14 horses every two weeks.
During this time, his music career also took off. Tom had won a music scholarship as a schoolboy, which helped fund his boarding school education, and that latent talent came to the fore in the long hours in the saddle.
“We made our own fun (mustering) and something inspired me to write songs,” he recalls.
“Some of my mates said, ‘Oi, Tom, you should enter the Adelaide River Singing Competition. So I did and I managed to win it.”
That led to even greater success in a career that saw him with several top 10 singles from his first two albums, Smack Bang! And Heatwave, as well as being selected from the 2005 Golden Guitar finals. However, the strains of trying to combine family life with music and horse breaking saw him take time out form the music scene.
“I loved being on the road but it’s tough on your family and I had to choose.”
In time he was breaking 20 horses a month – but the entertainment bug had bitten him and he created the Katherine Outback Experience. The popularity of the shows means he is steadily reducing the horse breaking, down to about eight horses at a time.
There’s also a new love in his life; Annabel Mclarty, who was a respected urban planner in Perth before following her heart to the NT. Despite coming from a sixth generation farming family in Western Australia, she was initially dubious about moving the Territory – but is now an enthusiastic convert to the Top End.
Annabel is an integral part of the entertainment, cutting an elegant figure in clean blue jeans, pale pink check shirt, earrings and hat as she speaks to the audience. It’s a stark contrast to sweat drenched Tom who drinks from a garden hose during a break, then uses it to wash his face.
“The essence of the show is that it is not scripted and polished,” says Annabel. “We’re working with animals and anything can happen,”
On this particular day, she explains that this horse has been bred at Mt Sanford Station and has never been ridden. Yet in three weeks, it will be paired with a ringer (stockman) based on their riding experience.
“Tom has to take as much fright out of the horse as possible,” she says.
During a 40-minute demonstration, Tom mesmerises the audience. What he achieves in such a short period of time is truly incredible.
“In the old days you would frighten the horses, let them fall over, put a bag on their back,” he says.
“Today is not about force and pain. The rule is trust, trust, trust; you’ve got to build up trust.”
Similar to dog training, Tom is the dominant ‘animal’ in the yard. He commands the middle of the circle with a length of cloth attached to a pole – but makes the area a comfortable bubbles that the horse can enter.
As he works, Tom explains his methods, cracks jokes and reveals the tell-tale signs that will announce when the horse is making progress, or about to bite or kick him. The horse gradually responds, just as Tom predicts, leaving the audience in awe.
Sun bronzed and dressed in blue jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, boots, spurs and a hat, Tom tries to get the horse acclimatised to a range of movements and noises it will experience on a cattle station.
“A lot of ringers treat horses like a motorbike,” he says, shaking his head.
“Horses are just like people, they have personality and some are ignorant, some are arrogant and some you would never turn your back on because they are back biters.”
“This one’s smart but he’s a bit of a ratbag.” (Later he confesses he had spied the horses trying to bite the other horses in the yards, which is why he chose him for the show.)
The work is highly detailed, right down to getting the horse accustomed to the sound of rustling cigarette paper as a rider rolls a cigarette in the saddle.
He describes it as the bagging down process, until the horse trusts him enough to allow a saddle onto its back.
“I look at its ears, its eyes and its nose, how it’s carrying its lips, how it’s holding its tail,” he explains.
“I can tell the way it will buck, or kick or bite all by the ears.
“And if it licks its lips, it’s starting to relax.”
“I had an old maths teacher that used to whack kids with his cane and we never wanted to be in that class. Well, this horse is my students and I want him to come back tomorrow so I want him to have good memories of today. In the old days, the horse would come back on day two with its ears down. You don’t want that.”
There are many other features to the show, including working with horse Legend for the Mataranka Swag Roll, during which Tom sings his hit single Smack Bang!. Later while standing on horseback he sings Drink Drovin’, which he wrote with Beccy Cole, and at another point in the show he sings while his horse moves abruptly back and forth tracking a remote control “cow”.
Some guests are more excited to see his dogs in action, especially when they interact with the horses. Tom trains dogs to work on the stations and each one has a story, including Trev the “workaholic” and Supergirl, who sneaks away from the arena to check on her pups.
This is a show not to be missed.
The Katherine Outback Experience is an included tour for all Platinum and Gold Service guests travelling on The Ghan and The Ghan Expedition journeys.