Clayton Hellyer thumbs the two black leather bands on his right wrist that carry the names of the dead.
They are the men he served alongside seven years ago, shoulder to shoulder, on the frontline in Afghanistan as part of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
“The bottom two are ‘Akka’ and ‘Jonesy’,” Hellyer, 29, explains, softly running his fingers over the names. “Akka was the first guy killed on our trip. He was an engineer. Jonesy was our cook and was killed just before he returned to Australia, in a green-on-blue situation when an Afghan national army soldier killed him. It’s pretty devastating that your cook can get shot and killed like that.”
Then there’s the tattoo on Hellyer’s neck. It carries the name and date of another of his lost mates.
“That’s for my best mate, Sam,” he continues. “I lost him one New Year’s Eve after he returned. That’s what these others are. All these boys I have lost. The bottom two happened in Afghanistan and the others are mates who have suicided. I’ve lost four times the mates back here than I did overseas because of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and depression. They all served. There’s one name missing because he only passed away a few weeks ago … Mate, I’ve been at that point a couple of times in my life as well."
What’s stopped him is the big bay gelding that nudges gently into him in the chilly wind at Bandanora, the historic 1000-hectare property outside of Mudgee that Racing NSW purchased last year for retired racehorses.
Vashka is the poster boy of the new stable; a former Godolphin sprinter trained by John O’Shea that won eight of his 18 starts and about $500,000 in prizemoney. None of those details matter now because you can't put a price on what the horse means to people like Hellyer.
“He doesn’t judge,” Hellyer says. “You can tell horses your darkest secrets and they won’t judge. He will walk up, nudge me. He wants to say hello. He knows who I am.”
Vashka is one of about 200 retired racehorses that are part of Racing NSW’s horse welfare program, which is funded by one per cent of the state’s racing prizemoney.
It prepares racehorses new social skills for a for life beyond the track, whether it’s in show jumping, polocrosse, pony clubs or police horses. There are programs and stables set up all around the state.
It's important work because, at the other end of the horse lead, are humans also in need of love and support, whether they are ex-service personnel who have been exposed to the horrors of war in places like Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan; members of the police or emergency services; or prisoners at Racing NSW’s stables at St Helier’s Correctional Centre in Muswellbrook.
Big, sensitive animals training small, sensitive humans to get on with their lives.
“Racehorses are bred and trained for a specific purpose,” says the program’s head trainer, Scott Brodie, who in another life was part of the NSW Mounted Police. “What they’ve learnt is superfluous for the rest of their lives. Just like people who are in the services. When they get into the real world, none of it is necessary. They don’t have the same structure. There are some obvious parallels.”
Brodie has seen the magical connection made between horse and human countless times. It starts with the “join-up" when they are in a round yard. With time and patience, the simple drop of the person’s shoulders can be enough for half a tonne of horseflesh to stop dead in its tracks and then calmly walk towards the person like they're greeting an old friend.
“You can’t lie to horses,” Brodie says. “They are a mirror to who you are.”
Max Streeter, 50, who served with the United Nations in the Middle East and then East Timor, remembers when it first happened for him, about four years ago.
“That first time, in the round yard, I learned something that no counsellor, no psychologist, could ever teach me,” he says. “They’d tried to, and I’d been to many, but when you are in that yard with a horse, you have to be in the moment. You are with a 500kg animal that could hurt you if they want so you have to be entirely present. Everything else that’s in your head is gone. If you can be in the moment with a horse, you can apply that to the rest of your life.”
When Streeter returned from serving in East Timor in 2003, he struggled to pick up the threads of his life. He was diagnosed with PTSD. One morning, he was standing in the middle of the local supermarket and he panicked.
“I just didn’t know how to get home,” he recalls. “I dropped the groceries, went home and didn’t leave the house for 12 months. It was that bad. In one year, I went from 74kg to 110kg because I just ordered fast food to the door.”
In the early months of being in the horse welfare program, Streeter and half a dozen vets stood by as a 30-year-old horse came to the end of his life.
“One night, Archie went down and wouldn’t get up,” Streeter says. “He had struggled and there was nothing left to be done. He had to be put down. We all reacted differently but for me it was a flood of tears. Scottie had to console me. It was the first time I’d felt anything in years.
“I had seen a lot of death after the fact, especially in East Timor. For me, there were justice issues about how these people had died, why they had died and when was justice going to come to their families. That impacted on me quite a bit.
“You don’t get to process death. You aren’t there to process death. Whether you are a policeman or soldier, you are there to perform a duty. You are there to perform a function. You don’t have time to grieve. There are too many lives at stake. There is no luxury for grief.
“So, this outpouring of grief, after many years, was suddenly released. And I was there to help this horse pass on. That was healing in itself because I never had that opportunity. In the past, I would’ve locked myself in my room for a month and not wanted to see the world.”
Hellyer also hadn’t processed grief. He joined the army in 2006, one year out of high school, before being deployed to East Timor and Afghanistan.
Two years ago, he was sitting in a paddock at two o’clock in the morning. The phone reception was poor but he got a text message away to his sister to be passed on to his niece: “Sorry. I can’t do it.”
Hellyer was seconds away from ending his life when ‘Bart’, a brumby who had just been gelded, came up to him.
“I just felt him there,” Hellyer remembers. “And I had a conversation with him. What are you doing, you dickhead? It’s the same thing my mates would’ve been saying to me if they were there. If I didn’t have him, I’d be dead."
To look at, Hellyer appears as hard as flint; stocky build with a bushy beard and a Caterpillar truckers’ hat pulled down low and over his eyes. He doesn't say much.
But he softens when Vashka is in his arms.
“People think we save them,” he says. “They saved me.”
It takes about two-and-a-half hours to drive from Mudgee to Muswellbrook, through barren farmland ravaged by drought, and then the enormous open-pit mines as you reach the edges of the Hunter Valley.
Those scenes contrast heavily with the old stables and green surrounds just outside the minimum-security St Heliers Correctional Centre. Men in prison-issue green uniforms tend to about a hundred horses, feeding and grooming and medicating them, as well as cleaning out yards and stables.
All manner of former race horses have come through the welfare program, including punter favourites No Wine No Song, Delectation, Generalife, Mr Clangtastic, Limes, Barbed and and Astronomos. Some of the inmates know some of the horses they're looking after because they once backed them.
This part of the horse welfare program has been going for about eight years, with Arthur Inglis, the fifth generation of the Inglis bloodstock auction house and its current deputy chairman, an early driving force.
“When the inmates come down here, they’ve been locked up for such a long time,” says Janelle Bowden, an overseer who has been at the jail for 14 years but around horses her whole life. “Most love getting away from the jail environment. Some of the horses have gone on to do some really good things. So have some of the inmates.”
The Herald has been given special clearance to the stables from Corrections Minister David Elliott and Racing Minister Paul Toole. Although we are not allowed to photograph any of the inmates, we can talk to some of them.
Peter*, 26, has been in prison for four months. He will be released next week.
“Drinking,” he says bluntly when asked why he's in here. “Things around drinking. Haven’t had one for just on seven months and don’t plan on doing it when I get out. It just leads to other stuff. I just want to get home to my family. But once I do get out, I’m going to try to train horses.”
The horse in the round yard on this day is Cheazel, a mare sired by the great Octagonal, although she wasn’t good enough to get to the races.
“But my favourite is a mare over there,” Peter says, pointing towards the stables in the distance. “I’ve been training her for the last month. She was a green horse but I wanted to teach myself patience. That's the lesson here, man: you are teaching the horse but also yourself. You have to be stuck in the now.
“I’ve learnt to control my frustration, really. In the past, my patience has been pretty limited. Every day, the horse learns something new. And so do you. What you put in, they will respect you back.”
Another inmate, Billy*, 55, has been in this prison since September. Before that, he’d spent a year in a maximum-security jail.
“They reckoned that I shot a bloke in the leg,” he says. “I go up for parole on April 4, 2020. I’m here until then. But it’s OK: you can’t even see the jail from here”.
Billy knew about horses well before he found himself in jail. He tells me he’s a farmer on the outside, with hundreds of cattle and horses waiting for him when he gets out.
“I know what horses can do for people," he says. "It's good to see some of the others get so much out of it."
That's the plan they are working on at Muswellbrook: giving inmates the chance to also leave as genuine horsemen, if not better people.
Just as we’re about to leave, Peter comes back and taps me on the shoulder. He's got one last thing to say and it sums up everything we've seen in the past two days.
“Make sure you put this in there, man,” he insists. “It’s about getting a second chance. Them and us.”
* Not his real name.
Lifeline 13 11 14. www.lifeline.org.au.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467. www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au.