Working Horses, Working Cattle – An Insider’s Ethos

By Tamara Nowlan

Working with animals is one of the most enjoyable, soul-fulfilling activities for me. It is just me and my horse and my dog, and a crew of young people I have educated. We work together with the cattle in an almost wordless synchronicity, in amongst the rugged beauty of my Australian landscape. I am at home, I am at peace, I feel there is nothing more that needs to be done, nothing else to think about. I feel a completion inside of me that my work – which helps bring peace to my soul and to the planet – is done. At least for that day, I feel that I am enough.

I struggle to bring to words the feeling of wholeness that this part of my life brings. Especially considering the myriad of ethical issues that go with an industry that forms a large part of my core identity. How do I manage to be okay with the fact that most of the cattle I work with will go to slaughter? And that most of the people around me have no idea how they are negatively affecting the animals? How do I consciously ask my horse to work in this way that requires a level of effort probably only still asked for within the Army? And how can I be okay with cattle grazing land in a way that, in many instances, is not long-term sustainable? My beautiful Gaia, my Mother and nurturer of all that means anything to me, above all, how do I come to terms with the fact that most everywhere I look, she is being raped?

I am now 37, I have two beautiful little girls and have been living with my husband since we met at age 20. I have struggled through mental illness and my husband being told that he had stage 4 Melanoma cancer – and to go home and get his affairs in order. All while maintaining ‘normal’ life; working, raising children and paying the bills.

I think these things are important to know, because all learning for me has been layered. I could not have come to peace with life as I now have, without these experiences. Also, the many, many, many animals I have come in contact with, and our Earth, has taught me in equal parts about myself. What I think, what I believe, what I do, how I act and react, what I take for granted and how, by continuing to heal the very fabric of myself, I can do my part to help heal the world. I am a seeker – a seeker of continual open-mindedness and expansion of my awareness.

This has not been an easy journey, as for many of us, and perhaps I could fill a book with the many life experiences that have shaped this mentality, but for the sake of this article, I will limit my words to a few experiences around horses and cattle – and maybe a little magic as well! Because we all need to believe in the impossible sometimes.

My husband and I have spent most of the last seven years managing cattle stations across the length and breadth of Queensland. We started out managing a small place (20,000 acres) in southern central Queensland and worked our way to my husband’s dream of managing a big place (750,000 acres) in the Northwest of Queensland on the Northern Territory border. We have worked in some of the harshest conditions in the country, been tested beyond our greatest limits, and experienced our happiest and gut-wrenchingly hardest times in this period of our life.

Coming to terms with where our food comes from can take some doing. Especially for those of us who are vegetarian because they can’t, in good conscience, take animal life to sustain their own – and I would like to say, that is a fair call. I have taken life, and no matter whether it is to put it out of it’s pain, or for food, I have never found this to be easy.

In questioning the rightness on such a large scale (as the cattle that I deal with are mostly bound for slaughter), I had to ask myself, why are the cattle incarnating in the first place? What are they wanting to experience? What karmic links do they have to the land, the people who own them (because the cattle we handle are largely owned by others, or big corporations) and what are they wanting to experience in the future? And indeed, is Australia really a suitable place for sustainable beef production at all?

All I have in answer to these questions is what I feel; how I have interpreted the animals’ communications to me, and ongoing observations of the land and the people I work with. I expect anyone who reads this to make their own discoveries based on their own OPEN-MINDED experiences, for these are just mine and may not be in alignment with any others.

I find that bovines are one of the most uncomplicated, beautiful, joyful and happy beings on the planet. They can find fun in just about any situation, they are the epitome of glass-half-full. Given any kind of chance, they can be an absolute joy! I’m not really sure what they think about being eaten, but they do seem to know this is what they are here for at this time. This is a complicated topic and not one I’m going to go into here, because there are many variations of a cow’s life on this planet.

Cattle are also one of the best reflectors of our own shit you could imagine!

For those of us with horses, we already know that each horse, to varying levels, will not tolerate ‘bad behaviour’ in whatever form it may show up – whether that is lack of clarity, neediness, self-absorption, or abuse in any of its forms. Well cattle – when kept in large numbers on large tracts of land – have more in common with wild horses than domestic ones. They tolerate far less and, given half a chance, will follow their natural instincts. I have noticed that working cattle can and will bring out the worst in people. I surmise it is the result of something like the combination of pressure to get a big job done, with the fact that ‘violence begins where knowledge ends’. This seems to be the human paradigm, in a culture where escalating violence is still acceptable.

I have seen and been part of some pretty ugly, stupid things, and it makes you wonder how a mostly good human can get things so wrong! For example, when I was much younger, a senior worker bashed a heifier stuck in the cables with a big stick, because she kicked him when he was trying to get her out. He absolutely lost it! And when I stepped in and said, ‘Hey, come on stop it’, he raised his stick at me and said, ‘You want a bit of this too?!’ I held my ground for a minute, as this behaviour was so out of character for him, that I couldn’t believe it was true. But his eyes told me the insanity of the moment was indeed real, so I walked away, knowing he wasn’t going to stop on my account. However, there must have been enough of a reprieve to allow sanity to return, as he did walk away from the heifer pretty soon after I withdrew.

I know for a fact that he had a particularly hard life growing up – violence begets violence, and it takes almost a super-human effort to break the cycle. It requires unconditional love and an openness of spirit to allow for a new link in the brain to develop. So that maybe, when our flight and fight are about to kick in, it can be short-circuited to a more beneficial behaviour or reaction.

I find this is what all of our animals are constantly asking of us and giving us the opportunity to develop. They are constantly showing up, unconditionally loving us, forgiving us and giving us a space to grow and develop in, if we choose to use it as such!

Another interesting paradigm for those who have not experienced it, is how different species can come together in a somewhat unnatural way, to co-create some of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life! Namely, working cattle on horses. Now I’m not going to say it is all fun times, beautiful sunsets and joy, where horse and rider are always united and such. Because the truth is, most of the people I’ve seen on horses are not in tune with them, whether they are working cattle, jumping, dressage or otherwise (including me at times). But what is fascinating, is watching horses CHOOSE, (although not always) to come to work, day in and day out, and love their job no matter the discomfort they continually endure. These experiences have helped to define how I interact with horses, and helped me to stop seeing them as souls that we are only taking advantage of.

There is nothing quite like riding a horse who loves their job and is very good at it! The experience for me is ‘next level’ and I have been so fortunate to have had several horses in my life like this. My current main partner Tangles (Tangled Destiny), was born on the same night, with the same father as another one of my horses (Kachina). Their mother line is also strongly related. From the moment Tangles was born, she has had the most wonderful attitude to life – she is plucky, happy, both emotionally and physically strong, has a very strong constitution (can go all day), a quick brain, desire to problem solve, and a natural talent for understanding how to work with cattle and get them where we want them. Every day that I go out with her, I know there isn’t a job we can’t get done; whether it’s separating cattle one at a time out of a mob, or bringing individuals together into a mob and educating the cattle to move off pressure, to walk out in a mob together in an orderly fashion, or getting around ones that might break out from the mob really, really fast!

In this video, my husband was driving the buggy and able to get very rare footage of me at work! Here we are educating weaner cattle how to stay in a mob and walk along in an organised fashion. And Tangles is very sure where the cattle need to be!

I try to swap my horses around to give them time to recover from their big days. Sometimes, because of things out of my control, I have to ask Tangles to go again sooner then she and I would like. I don’t complicate it with mixed signals when I ask her to come. I don’t say, ‘Do you want to come with me today?’ when I know she would rather not. I say, ‘I’m sorry love, I know you are tired and I tried to have this work out differently, but I need you to get the job done today. I will spare you as much as I can. Look here is a lovely feed I have made you, whilst we saddle.’ And then that’s it. Neither of us think about that moment again. I am always, always conscious of my horses now, no matter what the work load. They remain my partners without whom I could not get my job done – and they are treated accordingly.

Another story I would like to share is the time a beautiful, big, strong grey ‘plant’ horse (owned by the station, not privately, so has had many different riders), showed me that his life is filled with beauty and purpose. For the most part I would try very hard to not have anything to do with the station-owned horses. Because invariably, I would have little control over their lives in the future, and I would much rather not raise their expectations of humanity or their life, and then have to leave them when I move on.

This boy’s name was Trojan and he was started by a friend of mine, many years before I came to meet him. For about 6 months I had seen him be ridden for many days straight (this was before I was managing and could prevent horses in my care from being treated like this), often with riders who didn’t know how to ride, and certainly knew nothing about working cattle. He had a little arthritis developing and some old healed saddle sores on his back. I had admired him from afar without encouraging interaction with him, as at that time, I was dead against the idea of ‘plant’ horses having many different people and being ridden all of the time. In my mind it was like a cross between treating them like a prostitute and a motorbike. Well, Trojan was about to be very clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It was close to finish time one afternoon before shift change, where the plant horses would be run in; the ones needed for the next shift coming in to be caught and the remaining put out. They always had trouble catching these horses, as it was a combination of inexperienced humans, and for many of the horses, a desire not to go back to work. I mostly avoided this experience, because I had my own horses, so didn’t need to participate, and also because I hated it!

This one day however, there were not enough experienced humans to get the job done, so I grabbed a nose bag and some halters and walked into the yard of skittish, jostling horses. The very first horse to walk out to me was Trojan. He held his beautiful head proudly, his eye absolutely beaming, gently accepting the little grain off the palm of my hand, and seeking the halter to be placed on his head. In that moment, he sent me a very strong picture/feeling of the importance he felt in his job. And his job, by the way, was to educate all these young people as much as he could – not just in how to do their job, but to get to know themselves. He showed me that he could bring these people back to themselves and keep them safe when they otherwise would not be.

It took me several hours to digest and come to terms with our dialogue. In truth, it probably took much longer, and indeed I am still getting wisdom from it. It was a very humbling experience.

I would like to share another story about my love of the land and how everywhere you look she is talking with you and listening to you. She is also talking back, she will tell you exactly what’s happening if you ask and open up enough to listen.

This particular story is the hardest of all to tell. It speaks of my lack of control of my own emotions and abuse from my own hands. It brings back some of the deepest heartbreak of my life, and the most out-of-control I have ever been. It occurred at a time when my life fell apart around me and despair was the focus of my mind.

In 2016, just after we had moved to manage the big station (750,000 acres) on the Northern Territory border, my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma cancer. We had 2 surgeons tell him to get his affairs in order, spend plenty of time with his kids, it doesn’t look good. And yes we’ll do surgery to make him more comfortable, but that’s about all we can do, it’s not at all likely we can stop the cancer at this stage. Our girls were aged 3 and 5 at the time – and he was my everything. I would have to go into much greater detail for you to understand the depth of our bond, but suffice it to say he means as much to me as my children – and any parent will know the inconsolable pain one would feel in the loss of a child!

We got lucky though. He had a brilliant surgeon and was very fortunately invited to be a part of a trial for a drug with really positive results. However, during the 2-month gap between his surgery and starting the medication, he grew a 3 cm tumor on his spleen – deemed inoperable. He started the meds and we had to wait two months to see if they would work. It was during this 2-month gap that this event occurred – I was super stressed and still didn’t know if my husband would live or not.

We were managing the big station, raising 2 little girls, 12,000 head of cattle, more than 60 bores (motors that pump water to troughs around the station), 7 workers and the usual gathering of machines and workshop. It was our first time on such a big job, in a region neither of us knew – we were a long way from Kansas, Toto! To say we were stressed would be a massive understatement. I had never known such terror as I did at that time – and we all know that we are most susceptible to our worst behaviour at such times.

My husband loves to use working dogs. He does much better on his four-wheel motorbike with a pack of dogs working cattle, than he does on a horse. At this stage he had 6 dogs, including 3 young ones. They were very well-bred and had huge instinct. These are not pet animals. They were bred for a purpose, and that was what their instinct drove them to do. They demanded a strong and supremely focused leader, and I was not that, especially at that time.

Whenever my husband, Jake, went away for a treatment or check up he would fly to Brisbane or Townsville and be gone for 5 – 6 days at a time. I would be left to look after everything, including his dogs.

His three young dogs had not yet done enough work to appreciate not working when they didn’t have to, and this particular day my attention must have been particularly bad, because they took off and went to round up a small mob of young steers not far from where I was running them. So of course, all the dogs went. None of them had been worked the way they were used to, over the last few months; it had rained, was a little cooler than normal, and they were up for some fun. Luckily our dogs are not bred to bite or hang, but to round up, otherwise it would have become very dangerous for the cattle, very quickly.

I sped the bike over to where they were, even though they were bringing the cattle towards me as per how they were trained. I managed to call the older dogs off, but the younger ones just wouldn’t listen. I was boiling mad by this point, completely enraged at the dogs, at the seeming injustices of my life. My fear and pain that I held just below the surface was all coming to the fore. The longer the pups wouldn’t come, the more out of control I got.

I parked the bike some distance away from the mob – tied the older dogs to it and the one pup I had managed to wrangle away, and then ran back to get the last two. Somehow, I managed to get hold of one as it went by, and I punched her twice in the head – losing one diamond out of my engagement ring. I then somehow caught the other one and began to drag them by their collars back to the bike – still white hot with rage. Although 12 months old, they weren’t fully grown and while dragging them I straightened up to my full height. Through my rage I never noticed that I was actually choking one of them – Jake’s best young bitch. By the time I got to the bike she had passed out. Luckily it must have only just happened, because as soon as I released the pressure, she began to breathe. But it was some minutes before she came back to consciousness.

I dropped to the ground sobbing at the consequences of my loss of control, and the sheer pain I could no longer contain streamed out. I stayed there a long time. Crying to the depths of my soul for my life at that time and what had transpired that evening.

After some time, I felt a gentle breeze and my spirits begin to lift, and I looked up. There above me was a massive, massive mob of hawks all circling, swooping, gliding and moving the air around above me. Gently, seemingly petting the energy to and fro – only above me, some coming quite close, others way up high. They seemed to be there for me. I’m still not sure to this day exactly why or the symbolism of it, but I know they were there for me. And they helped me to get up and go on, to know that the sun will come out, that everything is in fact okay. This was the magic.

After I stood, I looked out over this incredible piece of land that we were lucky enough to be looking after and felt as blessed any human being could. The dogs lay quietly as they waited for me. I saw once more the rugged beauty, I felt the endless stretching of my soul as it extended freely into this mostly uninhabited land that I called home – and I felt lucky and at peace for the first time since Jake was diagnosed. I was going to be okay. This was also the magic.

This land, my mother, had spoken to me again. She held me deep to her heart and breathed life into me once again. But most of all, she forgave me for my humanness. And I now know that even though we are polluting the planet terribly, we are not stronger than she. That somehow, together, we are co-creating and she is already beginning to heal herself. In that country, out there near the centre of Australia, the heart of our mother beats strong and pure and no-one is unaffected by this. Even though I can look around and see bad land management strategies almost everywhere, I know she will recover, as we all are, from our traumatic pasts – extending back many lifetimes.

And we will do it together – Earth and us.

It is this experience, and others like it, that continue to keep me humble and realise that I am no better or worse than anyone else. This would not be the last time, or the first, that my animals bore the brunt of my pain, before I made the rule to not go near them – under any circumstances – until I could control myself.

I started life as a victim and became an abuser. I know this to be true about myself. I wish it weren’t, but it seems to be a path I share with many. I feel the only value to come of it, is to do my best to reach out and try to share forgiveness and unconditional love for those also acting out of their pain and disconnect. There are so many – all across the world – generations of pain, screaming to be released.

So this is a bit of the story of how I come to terms with why I do what I do and how I do it. I get to show young people a mature way to react and act, in very trying circumstances. Cattle are going to be going to slaughter for a long time yet, and honouring them and handling them to the best our human knowledge will allow is important – and sharing this knowledge is even more important. Our horses continue to show up and partner with us in the most unexpected ways, and our dogs continue to be perhaps the most loyal, loving and forgiving creatures that god ever created. And our beautiful Gaia will continue to respond to us, helping us to find loving ways, and hopefully continue to evolve with us.

And whilst we keep asking Gaia and our fellow earthlings ‘What next?’, we will be shown the way….

AUTHOR BIO: Tamara Nowlan is a truth seeker, and lover of land, animals, and humans. She and her husband Jake are passionate about finding better ways for all beings and Gaia to co-exist harmoniously. They have recently left the cattle station to focus on growing their own herd and land, so they can have more control over what happens with and to the animals. They also want the best possible environment/example to train young people.

Working Horses, Working Cattle – An Insider’s Ethos

14 thoughts on “Working Horses, Working Cattle – An Insider’s Ethos

  • February 23, 2020 at 6:26 am

    This is full authenticity wrapped in grace as I have ever read. Thank you Tamara for your witness in this life. This article showed me the way today.

    • March 1, 2020 at 1:05 am

      Thank you so much Anne for your comment. As Jini mentioned in her comment I was unsure of whether to publish such an article. I’m humbled to have been able to help you!

  • February 23, 2020 at 7:21 am

    What an amazing glimpse into your world! Are you originally from Australia? Just curious? Your vulnerability is palpable and refreshing! Your comment about VIOLENCE BEGINS WHERE KNOWLEDGE ENDS….is absolutely profound and should be written across the skies and spread like wildfire! I was sexually abused as a child multiple times by multiple men and became a bully in my ways towards the world until I realized the pain I was inflicting on people and animals had nothing to do with them and had everything to do with what had happened to me in the past! Dogs have always been there for me but horses really brought me to a place of healing & peace! I believe we all lose control at some point in our lives and your circumstances definitely were intense! It never makes it ok but the old expression we are only human is a reminder that we were not incarnated to be perfect…but to keep striving to grow and learn so the knowledge is there to combat the violence! Your perspective on the animals and your messages from them is so deep and seems to come from so much love & experience…how can we not be open and learn from you! I myself feel so satisfied after a hard days work around the small chunk of land we care for and even though I ache and have pain it still feels so good, so I can relate to animals feeling this same way! Purpose is powerful and a hards day work can be very rewarding! As I get older and learn …I realize judgement is a part of and a gateway to violence, it’s negative and does not serve me well! It’s a constant struggle to be open to others ways with animals, regardless of what that is, but the more I practice this the more peace I feel! Thank you for the small glimpse into your unique life and the beautiful writing you shared! I always appreciate reading about others lives and the way others interact with animals in different parts of the world! ✌🏼❤️🐴

    • March 1, 2020 at 1:14 am

      Hi Michelle,

      I love reading your comments on other posts! Thank you for commenting on mine!
      I’m so sorry to hear about your childhood, however it’s powerful to find community to help us feel uplifted to overcome whatever it is that we are facing, isn’t it?!

      And yes, I’m born and bred Rural Australia. I’ve grown up mostly doing what it is I’m doing now!

      I completely agree about Judgement! I was brought up in a heavily judging home and it was more than just second nature to me. My life is profoundly better without judgement! I still catch myself from time to time going to slip a little – and then I remind myself of who I am and what I’ve been through and try to find the grace of no judgment at all! And I think it might be all humans at this time are feeling the struggle to constantly shift our awareness to be ever more open and accepting! I’ve found the trick now is to try not to get lost in someone else’s ‘rightness’ and try to make it my own – and by discovering self worth I have been able to assess better which things might fit into ‘me’ rather than me trying to fit into a perceived better way of living!

      Thank you again Michelle and I look forward to hearing more from you within LTYH!

  • February 23, 2020 at 11:12 am

    This brought me to tears. Thank you for being so open and honest. Keep writing, you are telling the world things we all need to hear. Thank you.

    • March 1, 2020 at 1:19 am

      Hi Kate,

      I’m humbled that you were so moved by my story, so much so that you commented, Thank you! As I’ve said previously, it was hard to share to a world I didn’t really know, but trusted who I think Jini to be and felt that it could be more helpful than harmful to share.

      I’ve often thought to share some of my family’s story, but often wondered whether it was worth sharing? Would it really be helpful or worth putting out in the world when there are so many people already filling the void’s with their thoughts? At the moment we are preoccupied with very basic needs like settling our family into our new life and finding a more permanent home for ourselves. Once this is achieved hopefully I will be inspired to continue to write.

      Thank you again, I’m very grateful for your words!

  • February 23, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    I became intrigued with Tamara’s perspective through reading her comments on my and Kesia’s posts here on the blog – so I asked her if she would write about this topic for us. Her perspective is SO unique and I really wanted to know MORE about the way she views and moves through life. I am so very pleased she was willing to share so deeply with us. At one point, I didn’t hear back from her for a while and I thought, “Uh oh, is she having a vulnerability hangover?” When I felt into it, I just felt I should give her time.

    When you write something this powerful, it is life-changing not just for yourself, but for many others. And that is a BIG thing. It can take time to settle and decide whether now is the time to put your heart/guts/core out there in such a big way. We also need to feel into whether this is the medium through which to share our ‘art’. I believe that’s a big part of why we’re here; to share our art. But that can take many forms and avenues and part of our path is to discern *which* form of expression is right for us.

    Tamara, your writing is a blessing and also intensely interesting and viscerally engaging. Personally, I would love to read either a memoir or a novel set in your world – I find it absorbing and intriguing and so very different from this side of the world… it is a feast.

    Thank you so much for being brave enough to allow us into your world xox

    • March 1, 2020 at 1:28 am

      Hi Jini,

      Thank you so much again for the opportunity to write and share my story, and to move through a long held fear of being vulnerable in a very positive way! You’re right, sharing this story has helped to change my life. At the moment I am at the biggest crossroads I’ve ever been at and have had to dig deeper than I’ve ever had to dig, and embrace, for the first time the truest essence of myself – that perhaps I am a worthy human being! Thank you again for your patience and faith in me.

      You are right about sharing our art. This past few months I have been exploring the truly creative side of myself and have come to find that it is actually a worthwhile and essential part of my being! Creating is actually a necessary part of me to allow whole body, soul and emotional health – who would have thought!

      Thank you also for your encouragement to continue to express myself – it means a lot! And when I get something together that I think may interest you, I’ll be sure to pass it on!

      Take care Jini xxoo

      • March 1, 2020 at 10:24 pm

        Creating is LIFE! And the wonderful thing about it is there are always new and intriguing ways to be creative. I’ve just started pottery classes! I love it. Don’t know how long I’ll do it… I certainly see how it will probably take a few years to do some really cool things with it… but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying myself just trying out different things and on a steep learning curve. I go every Monday for 3-4 hours and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do.

        Holding space for you and sending you love and energy through the matrix (the horses keep telling me that we do not understand how connected we all are) in this challenging, yet no doubt, exciting time. xoxo

  • February 26, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    Wow, I admire your courage in living on the land near the NT border.It is HARSH out there, and completely, utterly unforgiving. It takes so much grit and determination even to just survive. We went there on a school trip last year, driving from the lush Northern Rivers (NSW) to Darwin and it was desolate, and the heat?-unbearable.
    My respect to you Tamara!!

    • March 1, 2020 at 1:32 am

      Hi Eliya,

      Thank you for your comment!

      Yes it is definitely harsh out there, but it’s also almost unbearably beautiful! The heat is intense and there isn’t many things soft about it, but it’s the place I love most in this world so far! You do have to have a very good reason for wanting to live out there I suppose, and if you don’t have it, you definitely won’t love it and will quickly find a reason to leave!

      Thank you again!

  • March 1, 2020 at 5:19 pm

    Hey Tamara,
    Your article made me weep! I can relate so much to the quandarys and pain.
    Thankyou for the depth and honesty in your sharing. What you have had the courage to share is truly inspiring.
    Erin 🌳🐎

  • March 2, 2020 at 9:00 am

    Blessed earthsoul, clothed in the body of a woman – OH MY GOD AND GODDESS!
    Weeping with such recognition and deepest gratitude that you, not only, allow yourself to engage in such depth of communion with Life but also that you shared this immensely articulate and beautiful account!
    I have also felt this non-judgmental willingness to meet “what IS” in the animals I live and work with. ….. and their immense generosity in giving of their lives and their lives. It seems we humans have “cultured” our way out of belonging- to ourselves which IS Nature- and therefore out of belonging to Nature, which is how my mind makes sense of this weird split in behavior “dominate nature” or “nature is our victim and probably hates us”.
    Thank you so much for your sharing and your truth !
    In deepest appreciation ❤️❤️❤️

  • April 19, 2023 at 9:27 pm

    It’s interesting that you also mentioned how to properly deal with the local wildlife when taking care of livestock. I’m interested in in buying cattle working equipment soon because I’m thinking about setting up a ranch someday. I can see how I will need to buy the right equipment for that sooner or later.


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