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….
Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners