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Rodeo life: family, horses and friendships

The Horton Valley is renowned for its horsemen and women, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s also where Australia’s biggest rodeo family has its base. Eddie and Karen Gill run their rodeo operation from “Campfire” where they breed the horses and bulls for Gill Brothers Rodeo. 

“Australia has a pretty big rodeo scene,” says Eddie Gill. And he should know. His family are circus, show and rodeo people as far back as their recorded history goes. “My grandfather, Jack Gill, and that started bucking horses in the circus travelling all over Australia,” explains Eddie. Jack Gill’s wife, and Eddie’s grandmother was Gladdy Gill. “She was from South Australia. She died at an early age of cancer. She was a lady bronc rider and a good lady bronc rider too. She’s an Australian champion as much as my grandfather was.”

“Stan Gill, my grandfather’s brother, he was a good rider. His wife was Kitty Gill, one of the most popular lady bronc riders of all time. It’s been in the family for a long time.” It was Eddie’s grandparents’ generation that evolved the family business from circus to rodeo. “When we was kids, my father used to do whip crack so we were in the arena helping with papers or helping with comedy acts or just doing different things. And it just slowly evolved into as time went by. As dad stopped doing the whip act, I started doing the whip act. 

Eddie says show families educate the younger generations in the trade. “That’s how show families work. They sort of evolve. So kids come through, they’re educated as things go. It’s a long apprenticeship but it’s just life. That’s just what you learn.”

“You just know how to do that. You get up of a morning and pack. You move to the next place, you set it up. It’s just life for us, which people don’t understand,” he says. This was Eddie’s lifestyle up uThis was Eddie’s lifestyle up until 20 years ago when he, wife Karen and brother Malcolm, bought “Campfire” in the Horton. Having the property as a base for breeding livestock has clearly been a good move for the successful couple, but Eddie still misses full-time life on the road.

“For me I’d rather be travelling [full-time] because that’s what we always done. You want to be on the move and that a fair bit.” He says a life on the road has its own rhythms, although very different from the routines of most Australians. He gives an example. “Get up. Truck broke down 5k out of town. Get under, fix that. Horse needs doctoring. Doctor that. Got trouble in the camp, that’s got to be sorted. So you know, there’s that many aspects to it.”

These days Eddie and Karen are still on the road for nine months of the year. Even though they miss the full-time travelling life, Eddie says the travel is the most challenging part of the rodeo business. “It’s like when we go to Wagga, we got to have camps to spell the stock. So you’ll go from here to so far and there’s the unloading. Sometimes you get there in the middle of the night, and it might be raining and wet. And you know, whatever, you’ve still got to unload, you’ve got to make sure the stock are well housed.”

Stock welfare is one of Eddie and Karen’s main preoccupations. They say there’s a misconception that rodeo practices are barbaric. Far from being hard on animals, Eddie says, “The animals are the centrepiece of rodeo.” He jokes that rodeo people aren’t horse worshippers, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that way. 

“The country’s forged off the back of a horse. Most countries in the world are forged off the back of a horse, or a camel. Our grandparents or great grandparents, when they were travelling from town to town, there was no trucks, there was no cars. It was wagons, the horses were the centrepiece of that. So what we inherited from our grandfather was horse knowledge. To appreciate the horse.”

“Every head of livestock that we have is in peak condition, because they are athletes. They’re actually performers. That’s what they do. So anybody knows that if you’re taking poor animals they can’t do the job.Our aim isn’t for our livestock to throw riders, or maim riders. It’s for our livestock to perform to the best of their ability.”

Eddie and Karen say their horses often spend more time in retirement with them, than the amount of time they’ve worked. “We have horses here like Apache Warrior. He retired when he was around 20 year old because he went blind. He had won bucking horse of the year, but was quiet as a lamb. A big, beautiful Appaloosa horse.” Apache Warrior lived quietly near the Gills’ home until he was 33. He is now buried a stone’s throw away near the timber church in the Upper Horton. “I tell you, you shed more than one tear when they go. Because they become your life, they become everything that you’re doing,” says Eddie.

The other aspect of rodeo life that stands out for Gills is the camaraderie. “The days of the event is probably the most enjoyable part because of the people who you work with. It’s good camaraderie in rodeo. You don’t see a lot of nasty stuff go on. Everyone supports each other,” say Eddie. Karen agrees. “There’s probably not many other sports in the world where you’ll see your main opponent go and help the other fellow on. He might beat him for the title but he’ll be on the back of the chute helping him, helping him get ready. And he’s happy for him if he does a good ride. Because that’s how close they are,” Karen says.

Eddie says rodeo as a whole is very family orientated.  He and Karen have not long returned from running the APRA National Finals in Victoria. “We took our camp down there, but there’ll be 30 camps with kids and the kids are all playing together. Like I know when we was kids, every other cowboy’s kids we were all friends with. We all rode steers together. It’s a family orientated thing. If you get nastiness that comes out of rodeo it generally doesn’t last long because it’s not required. It’s not tolerated really in the industry, because it’s a family sport.”

Eddie says, “I’ll tell you, you won’t get a better lifestyle. We know people from as far south, to as far north and as far west as you can. We know people everywhere and are friends with people everywhere. Those relationships also mean Eddie has a mentoring role in the industry that he loves. “Because we’re heavy players in rodeo as far as we’re at the high end of rodeo, then you become, a lot of the time the go-to people for advice or for assistance.” This isn’t something that the Gills mind. They see it as important to future of rodeo. 

Eddie says, “It’s just business. It’s just life. But I understand it.”

By Jane Harris