Caity Mankey share her love of country with Murray River Horse Trails


The bus pulls up at Strathmerton Station and coughs a cloud of acrid diesel into the country air, but that doesn’t take away from the serenity. Instantly at ease, I drag a long breath of gritty dust and the smell of hay in through my nose until it engulfs me. Padge yells ‘Whacko Bluey! Away with the fairies!’ and we are off on our next adventure.


The canary yellow car skims over the ruts in the gravel road and swings a left into a eucalypt lined driveway; sun-browned pastures give way to a sandy jumping arena punctuated by striped poles. The green paddocks are filled with plump, healthy horses, their coats turning after the cold winter. We make no haste grabbing reins, saddles, crops and horses, desperate to ride but going nowhere fast. I sink comfortably into the soft leather saddle, worn smooth over the years by thousands of legs. We walk, trot and canter through hectares of pristine Bahmah Forest, talking, laughing and singing. Kangaroos crash through the scrub startling the horses; they skitter but don’t ever lose their footing, their memory of their surroundings is engrained deeply on their minds.


The hours pass too fast and the sun is sinking under the horizon, splashing orange and crimson across the land. Rugged up against the cold in mismatched thermals, we sit around the campfire with the guitar and the strummer singing the songs Padge and Deb wrote themselves. Our breath stops clouding the night air as the heat ripples out from the central fire. I stretch my limbs; they’re stiff and saddle-sore from wrapping tightly around Welly’s broad stomach. By the fourth day they’ll be permanently bowed, like brackets, in the shape of the saddle.


The nights are silent here. There’s no electricity or mobile phone network; the only light is from the moon and the soft glow of dying embers. The only sounds are the soft treads of horse hooves or the occasional whinny until morning breaks with the song of birds. We’re up again ‘At sparrow’s fart!’; the sun is yet to open her bright eye, but mine are wide and alert, shining with the happiness of being back here, in my special place – in my Eden.


This is a piece I wrote about Padge and Debbie’s Murray River Horse Trails for a Year 12 English assessment. It doesn’t refer to The Duke of Ed, but it encompasses just how incredibly life-changing my journey made me feel, which for me is most important.

Aspects of The Award show through; I recall the image of my classmates squashed onto saggy couches wearing multicoloured thermals and singing along with the guitars very fondly. At the time I wrote this, I was The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award captain at Toorak College and lived for the days when we packed up all our stuff and made the journey to Northern Victoria for four days of horse riding in the Barmah Forest. I found the school environment difficult, and escaping my small, insular hometown was always foremost on my mind. From a young age, I had been known to have an insatiable urge to explore; to learn from experience and self-guided adventure. I made my way through The Compass Award and onto The Duke of Ed as I progressed through school, and did not hesitate in accepting the position of captain when the opportunity presented itself to me. The Duke of Ed was the perfect way for me to include exploration and self-discovery into the delicate balance of hectic school schedules and the pressures and demands of adulthood.

The Duke of Ed has assisted in building my confidence and communication skills, as well as preparing me for what might come in the future. The knowledge and information I have gained through years of watching Padge and Deb at work have set me up for my future as a veterinarian. Not only do I know how to handle horses and basic horse medicine, but I can also talk to people and communicate my thoughts coherently thanks to years of chatting to strangers from the back of a horse. Through Padge and Deb I have met and made friends with countless people who, like me, have had their lives changed by being part of such a wonderful and rewarding experience.

I no longer visit Padge and Deb’s farm for Duke of Ed purposes; the bond we share and the inexplicable pull I feel towards the country keeps taking me back, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a week. Regardless of when I turn up, I am welcomed with open arms, and this relationship is one I will treasure forever.  Padge and Debbie have become my mentors, teachers and most importantly my friends.

I believe every child should be given the opportunity to experience what I have had the privilege of experiencing and I thank The Duke of Ed and everybody involved for providing students with a means of fulfilling their potential.

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