St Helier's heavy horse: Muswellbrook hosts field day to keep heavy horse traditions alive

Leroy, a two-year-old Clydesdale, has hooves the size of dinner plates. He stands as tall as an average man at the withers, and his mane falls to his nose which, when it's not curiously exploring everything around him, fits neatly in two cupped hands.

He's big. He's tall. And he's curious like a child. 

He knows when he has done something clever, like walking through a tunnel for the first time with only a few gentle words of encouragement from his driver, John Sercombe Doyles Creek, trailing behind at the end of a long rein. This kind of work, Mr Sercombe explained, was about communication with the horse, rather than force. A few words prick up Leroy’s ears. The big, gentle horse baulks a once, then steps cautiously through. On a return trip, he almost can’t wait to show off what he has learnt.

Leroy is mischievous, roguish, and knows how to get attention. At work, he plays up for the camera, presses his nose into the lens and nibbles at the microphone. He is young and inexperienced, but a seasoned performer for a crowd. When the tack and harness come off, he is playful. He shakes hands and wraps his great head and neck around Kylie Sercombe, Mr Sercombe’s spouse, in a dusty and docile hug.

"They are so gentle, they are just a crowd favourite," Mr Sercombe said.

The Clydesdale is one of a handful of heavy horse breeds that came into their own in the 18th and 19th centuries. They came from Europe, arrived in Australia with colonial settlers and, through crossbreeding, led to the Australian Draught Horse.  

They were strong and sure-footed, with a fast and long gait which made them ideal for the kind of nation-building work characteristic of the time. There was scrub to be cleared for farming, roads to be built, and machinery to be hauled. Someone had to do the heavy lifting.

It is that working tradition that will be recreated at St. Helier's Exhibition Ground outside Muswellbrook on Saturday and Sunday, May 19 & 20. Obstacle courses simulate the working terrain to haul ploughs, snig logs and pull slide loads in a test of skill for horse and driver.

"It's very important to keep this sort of thing alive because it is what built the nation, really," Mr Sercombe said. "We get asked by 80 year-olds all the time, 'can we come and pet your horse?' - it really invokes memories for them to remember how their fathers and grandfathers used to do it."

The field day has been held at St. Heliers for the past 22 years and is expected to draw between 50 and 80 horses over the weekend. Classes will commence around 8.30am on Saturday and Sunday, May 19 & 20.