The Wild Horse Race

Written by Toni Tapp Coutts

The following is an extract from My Outback Life, the sequel to the bestselling A Sunburnt Childhood, this new book captures Toni’s time living the Gulf country of the NT, running a cattle station with her husband, raising her children amongst snakes, centipedes, and saltwater crocs, riding in rodeos and making new friends at the Heartbreak Hotel.

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For those who didn’t have horses, there were usually a couple of foot races in the middle of the arena and a tug-a-war, as well as a wild bull race. This involved taping a $50 note to a bull’s horn and letting it loose in the arena full of young men keen to get the money and spend it at the bar. This event is not for the faint-hearted. The bull would trample over guys and chase them up the rails, not dissimilar to the Running of the Bulls in Spain. These were the days when no one wore safety helmets or safety vests, so it was all pretty dangerous fun.

The wild horse race was another highlight. It involved putting a brumby – an unbroken horse – into the chutes and when it was let out two people had to saddle it, get on and race towards a finish line about 150 metres away. This was really wild, dangerous, and exciting, as one person would cling to the head halter trying to keep the horse from bucking and bolting while the other tried to get a saddle on it, tied tight enough to climb on and ride it to the finish line.

One year my sister-in-law Traci McHours and I decided we would enter the wild horse race at Mataranka Rodeo. We lined up with the judge to take in our very calm and broken-in horse Bambino, and went into the last of the six chutes to wait nervously for the judge to yell to open the gates. We thought we had this in the bag, because none of the others suspected what we were up to.

Everyone was primed and ready to go, and the announcer was talking us up as the first ever women to enter a wild horse race. Bambino was sensing the tension and getting a little frisky. As the judge yelled ‘GO!’ the gates flung open and six horses bolted out of the chutes with one person for each horse holding onto the halter. Traci and I decided that I would hold the horse firm while she, being younger and fitter, would get the saddle on and bolt up onto his back and ride to the finishing line. We had to win: Bambino was a seasoned veteran of rodeos and campdrafts. Not only did I ride him in many competitions but my kids also rode him in the novelty events. But not this time – Bambino got spooked with all the other horses rearing and bucking and dragging the blokes around the arena, so he decided to do the same. He reared and tried to pull away as Traci and I hung on to the bridle; we tried to calm him as he spun around in circles with Traci chasing him with the saddle, trying to throw it on his back. We were laughing hysterically while hoping that we didn’t get trampled to death by one of the other teams. We got the saddle on but couldn’t tighten the girth enough, so when Traci went to leap on the saddle slipped down and under his belly. The arena was a sea of soupy dust and bucking horses and loud, cheering crowd. Bambino was not impressed and our sneaky plan did not quite work out the way it should have. We came last and decided that we would leave wild horse racing to the men. There were easier ways of winning prize money.

About the Author

Born and raised in the Northern Territory, Toni Tapp Coutts has had a varied career, from living on cattle stations, riding in campdrafts and barrel racing, to owning a variety store in outback Borroloola and a dress boutique in Katherine. She is a breast cancer survivor and Councillor on the Katherine Town Council. Her first memoir, A Sunburnt Childhood, was published in 2016 and quickly became an Australian bestseller. 

Having grown up on the massive Killarney cattle station near Katherine, NT, Toni Tapp Coutts was well prepared when her husband, Shaun, took a job at McArthur River Station in the Gulf Country, 600 kilometres away near the Queensland border.

Toni became cook, counsellor, housekeeper, and nurse to the host of people who lived on McArthur River and the constant stream of visitors. She made firm friends, created the Heartbreak Ball and started riding campdraft in rodeos all over the Territory, becoming one of the NT’s top riders.

In the midst of this busy life she raised three children and saw them through challenges; she dealt with snakes in her washing basket; she kept in touch with her large, sprawling Tapp family, and she fell deeply in love with the Gulf Country.

Filled with the warmth and humour readers will remember from A Sunburnt Childhood, this next chapter in Toni’s life is both an adventure and a heartwarming memoir, and will introduce readers to a part of Australia few have experienced.