11 January 2023

Pirates and champion show ponies learn to trust Rick Jones

| John Thistleton
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Man, horse and cart

Attending Sydney shows, Rick Jones helped revive the multiple-class section in the horse ring, entering different combinations, starting with a pair of horses, the following year a unicorn (two horses beside one another and one in front), then a tandem (one behind the other), a random (two in front, one behind) and four-in-hand. He was challenging himself as well as his fellow competitors. Photo: Jones collection.

Johnny Depp braces himself, Rick Jones has a team of four horses at the ready, the Disney Productions crew is looking on, and a crowd of movie extras is brimful with anticipation.

The entire Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales set in Queensland falls silent.

And action!

Far from the foothills of the Cookbundoon Mountains east of Goulburn where Rick breeds and trains rare Hackney horses, people making this movie – the fifth in the multimillion-dollar Pirates series – are expecting a faultless performance from the horses, which Rick duly delivers.

“I had four horses and a big jail wagon and had to cart Johnny Depp into the town square,” Rick said, recalling the 2017 production. “These horses had to come through an archway and all the crowd were cheering and the horses had to actually push their way through the crowd.”

He and his long-time friend Graham Ware, whose family has provided the movie industry with performance horses for generations, have pulled off brilliant stunts, only to discover the footage ends up on the cutting room floor.

“We did some absolutely spectacular stuff and you think, ‘Gee, that’s going to be good’. When you watch the movie, half of it is not in there,” he said.

That’s the movie business, a sliver in the work Rick does with horses, from Shetland ponies, Australian horses and his beloved Hackneys, the high-stepping breed developed as ”roadsters” in England in the 1700s for speed and stamina. The advent of rail and cars sidelined Hackneys but as their distinct gait developed in the 1800s, they enjoyed a resurgence in carriage driving, before fading into the equine background.

Today Rick estimates Australia has as few as 100. Of the few breeders, Rick and Max Pearce, another enthusiast in the Goulburn district, are among them.

Even fewer people would match Rick’s ability to read the behaviour of a Hackney. Earlier in his career, a breeder of champions, Mary Willsallen, who founded the Australian Carriage Driving Society, introduced him to Hackneys. The legendary horsewoman would send a horse to him saying, ”This one is special”, quite often because no one else could break it in.

Man, horse and cart

Rick Jones is a descendant of Vivian Gooch, a master of Hackneys in England, who travelled to America to train horses. This photo is from the 1800s. Photo: Jones collection.

Rick understood that unless he and the horse became mates first, they were going nowhere.

“They are an interesting breed, they have to trust you,” he said. “If they don’t trust you, or people try and rush them, they’ll fight you to the end. If he is your mate, you can do anything with him.”

A Hackney and hearse carriage in the thick of Sydney’s traffic ignores furious beeping from impatient drivers because Rick has the reins. Trotting into the main arena in Brisbane, Adelaide or Sydney, his horses rise to the occasion confidently, loving the adulation as much as the crowds love their natural, rhythmic stepping.

“One year we took 22 horses to the Sydney Show,” Rick said.

“They had a night production on, Man from Snowy River, and we probably had a dozen horses in that production and carriages, stagecoach with four horses and wagons and drays. Then we had a show team as well. In those days, the show ran for 16 days.”

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Born into a horse family, Rick’s mother Gloria trained race horses, his father Tom was a heavy-horse enthusiast and his grandfather and great-grandfather had horses. His grandfather Bob Gooch was the last man to retire from the railway who worked horses until 1961. Bob and his tip dray would follow steam trains overfilled with coal, shovelling up spilt coal, which he returned to the loading area.

About 40 years ago, Rick established Cherry Farm Stud, using bloodlines from Mary Willsallen’s Dunolly Stud at Jugiong, where he sent mares to the imported sire Brookfield Golden Emperor. The stud now has Cherry Farm Alarick, an impressive 23-year-old stallion who has won supreme champion at Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra. While still teaching young horses, Rick has handed over the stud’s reins to his daughter Melissa and son-in-law Richard Bensley.

boy standing on saddled horse

Back in the day, Tom Jones would return home from work, to find his son Rick (standing on the saddle) testing his skills with a horse. Photo: Jones collection.

On a sunlit, still morning, Rick enjoys more than anything driving a carriage with a team of horses in the foothills of Cookbundoon, past the remnants of a stone fruit orchard and slate quarry. Deer, goats, kangaroos and lyrebirds are out and about and can startle a skittish young Hackney.

“The young ones always have a bit of a look, the older horses say ‘Come on, that won’t hurt you’,” Rick said. “It’s always nice to have an old one with a young one to keep him on the straight and narrow.”

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