When a gangly young Warmblood came trotting into horse trainer Susi May’s life nine months ago, little did she know just how quickly the bond between them would grow, CANDIDA BAKER writes.
Susi May, her horse Hercules and I are walking along the beach. It’s a perfect day. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky; the sea and sky are as blue as can be. We’re chatting away about this and that, when suddenly it dawns on me that Hercules, Herc for short, is actually loose beside us. As in nothing on him of any description.
He’s just mooching along, eavesdropping over Susi’s shoulder, having a lovely time.
I honestly can’t quite believe what I’ve witnessed over the past few hours, and not for the first time it makes me aware of how complicated we often make our relationship with horses.
Susi credits her success with Hercules to clicker training, something she learned from her coach seven years ago and has used ever since to start, train and educate horses.
“What I love about clicker training is the connection and the communication that is established. The best whisper is a click,” she says. “Coordination and timing can be tricky and it isn’t something you can learn overnight, but clicker training is an amazing tool. The first very important step with clicker training is to get the horse to stay out of your space, you teach them they are not to receive their treat inside your personal bubble.”
Born in Austria to parents from the Czech Republic, the family was sponsored to Australia when Susi was five. Between the ages of five to 12, Susi and her mother moved frequently. But even though there wasn’t a sign of a horse on the horizon during those years, Susi can’t remember a time when she wasn’t horse-obsessed.
“I was obsessed even as a baby,” she says. “My grandmother used to give me little felt horses, and I loved them. I think it was just beamed into me this lifetime. I didn’t just ‘see’ them, they were literally inside me, and I just desperately wanted a horse.”
Fortunately when she was 12, the family moved to a property near Toowoomba, and Susi got her own horse, starting her mother on her horse journey as well.
But when she was 16 her life changed direction for a while. She left home, and after a year saving money backpacked around Australia fruit-picking and doing seasonal work for three years.
For a youngster on the move, life wasn’t always easy, and at one point Susi fell on hard times, living under a bridge with five Canadians, working when she could, and even resorting to pinching food if she had to in order to survive.
“One evening I remember I had this packet of two-minute noodles, and I had no way to prepare them, except to try cooking them on a barbecue in the park. There was a Kiwi family making dinner nearby and the smell of their food made my mouth water. When they came over and asked me if I’d like to eat with them, I couldn’t believe it. My Canadian friends were so mad at me when they realised I’d just eaten a meal!”
But travelling constantly, and living on her wits, wasn’t a way to live forever. After a bout of illness, Susi went home to recuperate, and to contemplate her next move.
Inspired by the kindness of the Kiwis in the park, she decided to move to New Zealand when she was 19, and for two years worked in hospitality before eventually coming home.
“I came back to Australia with the intention of creating a good career for myself,” she says, “and I landed a job as stewardess on a cruise ship when I was 21. I’d promised myself after New Zealand that I wasn’t going to date any more New Zealanders, but then as fate would have it I met Sam, and he was a Kiwi too! We’ve been together ever since – for fourteen years now. I worked my way up to purser on the cruise ships, and Sam now works on oil and gas rigs.”
After travelling the world together, working on cruise ships and yachts, they got to a stage where they wanted a more settled life. The couple bought a property together in Teven in the Northern Rivers, where Susi did an equestrian coaching certificate, working for the Byron Bay Equestrian Centre as a coach and at Tassariki ranch in South Ballina as a coach and trail guide.
“Finally I was able to get back into horses,” she says. “I bought Tommie, a Thoroughbred who’d been in Japan racing. They brought him back to Australia to retire him, and then decided to give him one last run in the Ballina Cup in 2008 – which he won!”
With Tommie, Susi started her clicker journey in earnest, and the ex-racehorse loved his new mixed life galloping along the beach one day, learning dressage the next. But life never remains static, and after Tommie had an accident, which damaged his wither, Susie had to reassess. “About eight months ago Hercules came into my life, and with our now five-year-old son Liam, and Sam being a FIFO husband, having two horses was difficult – especially with the drought, so Tommie retired to a property nearby, and Hercules and I began our clicker journey together,” she says.
And what a journey! This gangly, over 17hh three-year-old Warmblood whose hooves are the size of dinner plates is already attracting attention throughout the horse world with his endearing, quirky nature and his apparent ability to absorb information.
It all started, says Susi, with groundwork. “I actually didn’t even intend to start riding him this young, but Hercules literally almost asked me to get on him,” she laughs.
These days, at the age of three, Hercules is already a seasoned beach campaigner, and Susi has used the beach as her main training ground, because she says: “It’s such a great environment for horses because it’s stimulating, great for their bodies and their minds, and it’s a wide open space.”
Perhaps this is where Susi and most traditional horse owners might differ slightly – because it’s exactly the wide open space that might, for me at least, set off a series of what if’s. What if the horse takes off? What if it doesn’t come back? What if it spooks at that truck coming down the beach?
But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, because Hercules, only eight months into his training, takes everything in his (massive) stride. He potters off from us occasionally, taking himself down to the water like a giant dog, then coming back for a click and a treat.
Over a couple of hours Susi and Hercules entertain, inspire and amaze me. She shows me how she’s teaching him to Spanish Walk. She rides him bareback with just a neck rope up the beach, she canters him with the saddle and the halter, and then with the saddle and bridleless. She swims with him. He rolls over for her and she sits on him in the sand, while he turns his head gently towards her. When we’ve finished playing – and there’s really no better word for it – and we’re ready to start walking back to Tassariki Ranch where Susi is based, Herc decides to knock her hat off, and it ends up flying down the beach with me chasing after it. To be honest I don’t know who was laughing more – Susi, or her horse.
But at least Hercules liked me. Apparently he doesn’t take to most people, but I’d gone armed with my essential oils, and Susi was impressed at the effect they had on Hercules, who was keen to indulge his sense of smell with a wide range of scents. He even let me give him a hug, so perhaps he was laughing with me not at me. Although I have my suspicions.
You can contact Susi May for clicker training via Instagram Susimay22 or Facebook Susi & Hercules Liberty Clicker Training or by email email@example.com