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  • Writer's pictureFran Cleland

Jodie harnesses her power within to tackle life head-on

ABOVE: Jodie McKeone showing her skill with four-in-hand. Picture: LINDA MACE

JODIE McKeone is unstoppable.

She was born into an extraordinary family of talented master saddlers and harness makers who have been involved with horses from breeding through to training, teaching, performing and competing. As such, horses have been her life.

“We grew up on our property on the southern tip of the New England tablelands of NSW,” she said. “We were about 45 minutes south of Branga Plains where Shirley Pye McMillan bred fantastic jumping horses, including the fabulous Witchery Grub.

“We learnt a lot about riding big horses over jumps when helping muster the cattle and sheep on her beautiful property. Both my brother Cody and myself were lucky to be members of the Walcha Pony Club. We had so many accomplished instructors and competed through to State Pony Club Championships in sporting, showjumping and eventing.

“We were also members of our regional showjumping club at Armidale, our Regional Harness Club at Moonbi and regional breed groups. The Ag show circuit was always competitive as the show season lead into Sydney Royal Show. We loved (the old showgrounds at) Moore Park and having access to Centennial Park.”

Growing up in a family business that bred, trained and supplied horses and other animals to the Australian film industry meant Jodie and her brother were constantly exposed to all facets of the equine world.

The youngsters developed knowledge, experience and skills to be able to meet all the different needs film and television production required.

“This meant we had everything at the ready for all styles – harness, English, colonial, Australian, Western, endurance, harness racing and racehorses,” she said.

“Each of these changed through history, so learning either through research or physically from our parents or others the types of tack, style, fashions and even techniques required became part of our education and daily life.

“Every day was different, we always had a responsibility to look after ride, drive or wrangle all sorts of animals, including mules, camels, dingos and birds.”

The youngsters had to act as doubles for characters at different times.

“Sometimes my brother had boobs and sometimes I had a beard,” Jodie said. “My favourite memory is portraying Lawrence of Arabia on a Toyota Landcruiser commercial riding a camel named Pamela on a salt lake in South Australia. We were clocked at 35km/ hr next to car whilst filming.”

ABOVE: Showing Shepherds Hill Larry at Adelaide Royal Show. Picture: JULIE WILSON

Amongst the daily routine of looking after animals, school and helping with the training, Jodie really enjoyed riding and driving.

The youngsters started driving donkeys, snigging logs out of the bush for firewood or building infrastructure on the property. They also learnt teamwork, as the donkeys were attached as a pair but both youngsters had a donkey each to drive.

“You had to work together and communicate to achieve the correct and safe result,” Jodie said.

“Harness driving has always been a part of our lives, either in films or competing at shows in light and delivery sections.

“Mum (Evanne Chesson) competed in the first combined driving event that the local harness club ran at Moonbi.

“As a family we participated combined driving events over time in singles, pairs and four-in-hand. It is a sport that the whole family and friends can be a part of. There is only one driver but there is a whole team behind that person to help achieve everything required.. Everyone in our family can and does drive. The current team also involves my children who also drive and have driven at royal shows.”

ABOVE: Jodie McKeone training with Boyd Exell. Picture: LINDA MACE

Combined driving as a sport is attracting a lot of attention worldwide.

It is well established in the European and US culture and draws big crowds and trade shows at events.

Australian Boyd Exell is the current world champion and based overseas, as is fellow world championships Australian team member, Tor Van Den Berge.

Jodie, who is now based in Central Victoria, says anyone wanting to compete at international level has to move away from Australia, but there are events on home soil that provide a taste of competing at the highest level.

“The Battle of the Borders event held on the lovely Carbery Estate at Mullengandra NSW on the first weekend in December would be the closest you get in current times to the same vibe and atmosphere,” she said.

This year, after the event there will be a clinic with Tor Van Den Berge. The growing interest in combined driving is shown by the fact that entries to the event filled in less than 48 hours and the clinic was extended for extra days to take on the demand of drivers and enthusiasts’ hunger to learn.

“My passion is seeing drivers and their horses firstly driving safely and having fun. It is also satisfying to see drivers reach their personal goals,” Jodie said.

It has been a long hard road for Jodie, especially after a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. The recovery post bone marrow transplant to stop the progression has taken its toll and has required incredible willpower for her to reach personal goals.

Some of these have had to be squashed or redirected but she says this is just part of life.

“You cannot go forward if you are not prepared to constantly self-assess and evolve,” she said.

“The last year has seen some of those goals continue to develop.”

This included her family taking a four- in-hand team, which were all new at either working together or going to their first season of events, to their first event, the Battle of the Borders last December.

“We had lots of fun and it was fantastic to see the driving community after the Covid lockdown,” Jodie said.

“There is great pride in competing with horses that you and your family have bred, raised, started and trained. We also travelled and competed at Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne royal shows with great results, including the light horse championship with the Friesian mare Asante Sane of Brackenhill.

“In between these events we are helping others with getting their horses started, giving lessons, starting and training our own horses.

“If you open your mind to be observant, horses and other animals teach you empathy and compassion which I love discovering every day.”

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