The Curio Story

 Curio

Australia’s most famous buckjumper

Written by Fred Hausler and printed in Rural Press

Australian race goers remember Phar Lap as the greatest of them all, and Garryowen is just as famous in the show ring, but when the men who battle the buckjumpers gather to discuss the best that ever was, a little strawberry roan mare’s raw courage and talent places her well above all others in the hall of fame. Anyone who saw Keith steven’s famous photo of the first time Curio was ever ridden wondered how Alan Woods ever managed to get back in the saddle.

Macumba Station in the far North of South Australia holds the secret of Curio’s birth. The heart of this 4000 square mile station is some 25 miles north-east of Oodnadatta and less than 60 miles from the fringe of the Simpson desert with its seemingly endless near-parallel sand ridges, restless, shifting and forbidding.’

The name Kidman has had a long, unbroken association with this station, in itself a mere fragment of the vast sprawling empire over which the Cattle King rules – an empire which at its zenith covered a breathtaking area of 100,000 square miles.

Macumba was a strategic link in the chain of stations which reached into three states and provided part of a boundless, variable freeway along which many thousands of head of cattle and many thousands of horses of all shapes, colors and sizes moved leisurely through Kidman country on their way to southern markets.

Here is a land where you shiver in winter and sweat in summer; a land of low desert scrub, with mulga and gidgea predominant; a land where the dingo prowls among hills with strange musical names like Wanniebarcoo, Midlargunna, Ucatanna and Weebacca.

This was the environment which fashioned Curio.

It was here at Macumba in July 1945 that Reg Williams (RM) wrote the first lines in the saga of Curio, Reg was on a dual mission; 10 colored horses were to be selected for Adelaide buyers and 10 likely buckjumpers were required by the Marrabel Rodeo Committee. It was but a small consignment, and was placed on trucks to Saddleworth.

Numerically it suffers by comparision with the mobs of 2000 Kidmans which during and immediately after World War 1 arrived at Kapunda by road, but it included Curio, the most famous animal that ever left the quiet, unpolluted inland for the outside world. None knew it then!

Upon arrival at Saddleworth the horses were walked to Marrabel in charge of Johnny Cadell. On the journey there Curio, as though loathe to be parted from the rugged outback which had been her home, several times jacked up on Johnny, but that infinite patience and understanding with horses which seemed to be born in him enabled him to coax her southwards to her new home, Marrabel.’

Still only a 3-year-old, she made her debut as a buckjumper in October of that same year. There was no fanfare or trumpets to herald her appearance – she was just one of the string of 10 “might or might not” buckjumpers on trial for a regular place in the Marrabel team.

Noel Bottom, a rider of more than average ability, drew her, and was disposed of quickly and clearly.

However, it is doubtful if any other than Noel remembered her. He was over for Marrabel again in 1946 and by a strange coincidence again drew Curio. Once again with mystifying speed and power, Curio repeated her 1945 success.

The Marrabel committee sat up and took notice. She was served up again and this time Les Cowan, one of the best rough-riders South Australia had produced since the days of World Champion Andy Middleton, was to be the guinea pig. (Les, still a regular attendant at Marrabel, used to recount with pride the fact that his 4 secs on Curio was the longest anyone had stayed with her when she was at her terrifying best.)

Later that same day Lou Reichstein completed her hat trick when he bit the dust in the surcingle event – again very quickly. Curio had graduated. Rough-riders gave her more than a passing glance. She was a challenge that could not be ignored.

Johnny Pearce, “The Iron Man” whose 14 rides in one day of team rodeo stand as a monument to his ability and endurance, was one of those in attendance that day who was deeply impressed by the new star’s ability.

He prevailed upon Harold Rowett to elevate Curio to the role of Feature Horse and asked to be given the first ride on her. And so it came to pass! The record book reveals that Curio again emerged triumphant after a short, sharp, decisive battle. Even the Iron Man had been ‘ironed out’. Five wins in a row!

Another champion in Basil Gollan (NSW) threw down the gauntlet to Curio in 1948 but was, when the rodeo had to be postponed for seven days owing to wet weather, unable to fulfil his engagement. He had riding commitments in his home state, and to Alan Bennett, one of the greatest all-round champions Australia has produced, fell the honour of filling in.

Curio continued on her merry way and Alan joined the imposing list of vanquished champions well before the half distance had been reached.

Queensland champion, the diminutive Dally Holden, was a near-chute job at 2 secs in 1949 and Ray Crawford got short-shrift the following year. Queensland’s white-booted Johnny Roberts fared no better in 1951 and to Johnny (Warrigal) Cadell, fell the somewhat dubious honour of being Curio’s 10th successive victim. It was their first reunion, short though it proved to be, since the trek from Saddleworth to Marrabel in 1945.

The name Curio was by now a national one. Around distant campfires, in busy shearing sheds and wherever ringers and rough-riders gathred, her name became a byword. Increasing crowds flocked to Marrabel to see this rugged, tempestuous ball of fury in full cry.

The stage was set for an epic battle when in 1953 Alan Woods, the man who was destined to put Feature Horses out of business, was the chosen one to do battle with Curio. Those who were privileged to see this contest will never forget it. Fortunes fluctuated with bewildering speed. The movie camera captured this drama most faithfully for it showed all phases, but a still photograph taken by Keith Stevens is particularly revealing.

Anyone not knowing the ultimate result and viewing the photograph of Alan hovering high above Curio’s back with the offside iron most peculiarly placed, would sheerfully have laid a TV set to a grass seed about him ever getting back in the saddle. But get back he did, and he rode out the storm. In doing so he set in motion one of the most heated controversies that has ever followed a feature ride.

The decision was disputed but the fact remains – Curio was ridden. Call it a miracle if you like. Both deserved victory – one only could claim it even though the balance could have been upset by the weight of a cigarette paper. Both Alan and Curio had established their right to be acclaimed the best in the land in their respective spheres. This fact none could dispute.

Many thousands poured into Marrabel for the return fight between these two in 1954. As the strains of “Old Curio” died away, The chute gates swung wide, and action erupted into the arena. Alan, conscious of the crowd’s partisanship, was grimly determined. He survived and tempered Curio’s early attempt at a K.O. and at five seconds, conscious that the crisis had passed, settled down in his own inimitable fashion to show how champions ride on a champion. There could be no argument about the decision this time. A stunned, incredulous crowd belately but warmly joined in the applause which had earlier broken out wildly from the riders’ stand.

Alan Woods had given a superb exhibition of rough-riding. Even today, others rate him the greatest rider Australia has produced in the last quarter of a century. Alan might occasionally go under to an ordinary run-of-the-mill buckjumper, but challenge him with a feature horse or one served up as unrideable, and you were hell bent for trouble. He stopped the best horses in the land with a regularity that became monotonous.

It was not a happy day for Curio or her fans and, when she came out later in the day and Buddy Gravener was still aboard after 10 seconds (although the judges ruled that he had touched down), there were many who feared that this grand brumby mare had been finally tamed.

Spring and Rodeo came again to Marrabel in 1955, but Curio, while enjoying the former in lush green pastures, had other thoughts more exciting than Rodeo on her mind that year; at the age of 13 she was to become a mother for the first time. The rodeo did not seem quite the same at Marrabel that year. There was something missing.

Was 1956 the year of her greatest triumph? She and her six-months-old chestnut colt foal, Son of Curio began what was to prove a new era – Curio and family versus the rough-riders. Once again Curio moved up into Chute 1.

Once again the crowd waited hushed and expectant with eyes riveted, as Billy Austin screwed down rather nerviously. He knew the answer to the question which was uppermost in many minds, “Will she come back?”

The answer was quickly given. It is to be found in a flashback to the Hoofs and Horns report of Marrabel that year.

“Curio! That rugged equine rock, on which during the last decade, the fond hopes of many of Australia’s most renowed rough-riders have been wrecked, stole the show with a well staged and devastating comeback. The stirring strains of ‘Curio’ froze 8000 spectators into a state of hushed expectancy as with eyes riveted on Chute 1 they watched dusky Australian, Billy Austin, clamp down on the celebrated strawberry roan outlaw. The gates swung wide and Curio with disarming nonchalance loped on to the arena. The crowd’s sighs of disappointment were strangled at birth for suddenly it happened. There was again that well-remembered shoulder drop, twist and ‘suck back’ and Billy was with the birds. Time 2 1 seconds. Then how the welkin rang!”

Yes, Curio was back! There was an even more stirring and moving moment yet to cone. Before the applause had died down, the Son of Curio was let out to join his triumphant mother in the arena. This too was recorded in Hoofs and Horns;

“And then there swept from the still-open chute with shrill piercing neigh, pricked ears and clean prancing legs, a rich chestnut foal with an even white blaze, but six-months-old. He reached the center of the arena, wheeled with the majesty of a thoroughbred, and shrilling youthful defiance, pranced disdainfully towards the Riders’ stand, where the sole victor and the many vanquished by his mighty dam stood and watched. The Son of Curio had thrown down the gauntlet!”

Curio did not take an active part in the 1957 rodeo but her fans were warmly appreciative of the appearance of her and her son, as they rushed on to the arena through a guard of honor composed of riders whose hopes Curio had halted in years gone by.

Riders who formed the guard of honor were Australian champions, Alan Bennett and Ray Crawford, together with Johnny Cadell and Les Cowan. Curio, with ears cocked forward, she broke into a canter, followed by a more sedate high-stepping Son of Curio.

Alan Henschke, a fine all-round horseman from Mildura – rough-rider, pickup man, stockman, campdrafter, steer wrestler, roper.. you name it was set the task of stopping her in 1958.

The contest didn’t go the distance. In essaying her lethal suckback with nearside forefoot anchored wide, she left her feet. Alan, a grand sportsman, was in no doubt as to what would have happened. She slipped and the result was no-ride.”I was lucky,” he said, “she had me done when it happened.”

Curio was a freak for contorted effort. She was the only buckjumper whose head and tail seemed to be heading in the same direction as she wound up for the KO. It was as though she wanted to look up and see for herself whether her hindquarters were sufficiently high in the air. She need not have worried as they were, and her hind legs were even higher.

It was left to her son to uphold the honor of the family and he did his job well. It was an auspicious debut – for Son of Curio – not for Mildura rider, Max Healey, who won the draw from the hat.

Son of Curio, unrestrained and sensing freedom, burst tempestuously into the arena. There was a flash as an equine rocket, on twinkling hind feet, pawed challengingly at the sky. Then, as though conscious of an irritation near his withers, this breeding experiment exploded. Healey hurtled earthwards. in 1. 2 seconds a dream had become a reality.

In 1959 Curio was again the feature horse. Brian Gill, a “death or glory” rider from the famous Gill family, was drawn to meet her. Although still comparatively young, he had been cradled on buckjumpers and was able to match it with the best of them.

The story followed a now familiar pattern. True, the crowd was larger – 11,000 was an all time record – but the silence was just as deep, just as intense. There was still that same air of expectancy. The booths were deserted. All eyes were on Brian as he clamped down carefully.

Then the gate swung wide and Curio flashed from the chute. Monentarily it seemed as though it was not to be – but then it came., She stretched herself with girth almost touching the ground. A convulsive tremor, sudden and devastating, swept through her body and Brian, kneeling far above her wither, had had his moment. Curio drifted away from beneath him and all was over. Only two seconds and she had the job done. The stillness was swept away by a spontaneous burst of acclamation.

Son of Curio

On that day, too Son of Curio nobly played his part. The first two riders drawn to ride him declined the honor,the third draw Ron Lacey, winner of a WA Buckjump Championship was given the task. Ron made the young fellow fight but at the end of eight seconds he became Son of Curio’s second victim.

It was very cold at Marrabel in 1960, but 12,000 braved the cold nor-easterly to see their 19-year old idol usher in a new decade. She had swept out of the ’50s in a blaze of glory.

Great was the jubilation from the riders’ stand when it was announced that well-credentialled and powerful rider, Noel Toomey from Kingaroy, Queensland, had drawn the ride on Curio. Noel was having a good year as his position on the riders’ standings showed. They wanted an indirect share in the victory which they confidently anticipated.The preparations for battle left her placid and unmoved, but there was nothing strange about this.When the gates swung wide and the storm in all its tempestuous fury broke, no human sound intervened. Sharply she swung to her near side, gave Noel three vicious swipes in the seat of his pants, and at the end of three seconds she was again free.

The pent-up feelings of the crowd broke loose and warm, prolonged applause followed her as she careered triumphantly pass the grandstand. It only died away after Curio had passed from sight through the northern escape gate.. Fifteen minutes later, although a third of the program remained to be decided, 4000 spectators had departed or were in process of departing. Such was the magnetic appeal of Curio.

In 1962, she was granted leave of absence. However, she still came along, for her son was to be her stand-in.Son of Curio, whose three victories in a row were full of merit, Noel Toomey’s name was drawn from the hat, Noel had a score to settle with the Curio clan and was most unlikely to let Son Curio call the tune. His large, powerful frame was well balanced early and the chestnut horse, spoiled by easy victories, soon found himself in trouble. At eight seconds, in desperation he swept into the riders’ enclosure. Miraculously no one was injured.

It is generally accepted that the span of life of a horse is approximately one third that of a man. As Curio was at this time over 20, her challengers should have been drawn from the ranks of those who were over 60. But it was not so. As each year passed, the dice were more heavily loaded against this gallant mare, for the average age of her possible challengers had not increased. As the veterans moved out the “up and comers” moved in. They remained forever young.

Curio was 21 in 1962 – the year that Col McTaggart won three Open events at Marrabel. In winning the Open Buckjump, Col had stopped Our Special, sire of Curio’s Special, the yearling foal of Curio. The day started well for the family. Son of Curio showed that he had profited from the lesson handed out to him by Toomey in ’61. He was seen in a much meaner and more menacing role, with the result that Brian Elliot was not part of the act for very long.

But it was Curio the crowd wanted! again she donned the mantle of Feature Horse and was drawn by a young Queensland rider, Doug Edwards. An eager, silent, confident crowd waited and watched as the routine preliminaries were gone through …They wanted her to win… She burst from the chute with her customary fury, anchored her forefeet and kicked up high behind. All was in readiness for the final sacrifice. But then she left her feet. Victory, when within her grasp was denied her.That was the last appearance of Curio as a Feature Horse. It should have been her last appearance as a buckjumper. As a Final Horse she was to make two more token appearances. To her army of fans who flocked each year to Marrabel in ever larger numbers, she had become a symbol of something beloved and indestructible. The temptation to keep her before the public was very great. Then, too, each spring, as though scenting battle, she seemed to be jumping out of her skin. In 1963 Curio and her son made Rodeo history; they were No 1 and No 2 of Marrabel’s Final Horses. Son of Curio ferociously twisted himself to destruction and he and Brian McPherson crashed heavily. Curio was next! She still had the power to halt sound and movement for the crowd could not, or would not, believe that she was vulnerable to age. Ron Brewer from Melbourne drew her. They left the chutes like the ‘Blasts of Hell’ on the rampage. But there was not even a suggestion of that devastating suckback. There was no deviation of course. Twice she exploded – somewhat less violently – in that first mad rush, but Brewer was always in complete control. At the 10 second whistle there was a stunned silence, and then generous applause for a courageous rider burst from the crowd. The ride was awarded 81 points – second best for the day. Curio was still a good exhibition horse, but the years had dimmed her brilliance.

More than 16,000 came to Marrabel in 1964 for what was to be Curio’s last appearance as a buckjumper. I had hoped that she would have been retired in all her glory before those who had never seen her buck at her terrifying best began to doubt the merit of her unique record. It was not to be! She was again ridden for the full 10 seconds, this time by Dick White, who was at the time South Australia’s outstanding rough-rider. He did the job almost casually!

Curio was but a shadow of what she had been The spirit was still willing but the flesh was now weak. Gone was that grinding, pounding spread of forefeet, with simultaneous lift of hindquarters, high in the air, and hoofs, even higher.

Gone was that convulsive, sinuous shudder which rippled from step to stern. The whirlpool of destruction, as exemplified by her famous suckback and lightning shaft to the off, was something of the past. Even her tail, for long a buckjumping barometer, no longer waved high in comtemptuous triumph. The end of an era had come. From now on her sons were on their own.

Curio passed away in 1970

How much Marrabel in particular and rodeo in general owe Curio can never be assessed.During her lifetime , attendances at Marrabel trebled. she made rodeo to what it is today, and it’s people like me who seen her in action will always remember the legend,Curio.As a Feature Horse she created a legend that will continue way beyond our time .

During the 25 years of her association with Marrabel she worked ,in all ,less than 5 minutes!.Her leisure hours were many ,for neither she or her 4 sons , Son of Curio, Curio’s Special, Curiosity, and Curio’s Fairwell, were ever asked to work anywhere else but at Marrabel.In between rodeo’s she watched (within sight of shute 1)the seasons come and go, deservedly she lived life to the full.And so now her remains are buried within the rodeo grounds at Marrabel , her home forever,and her resting place is marked for all to see by a bronze plaque.

Her spirit remains unconfined .It lives as a legend and has become part of Australia’s heritage.

From out of the desert she came unbroken and untamed! She left us still unbroken and untamed. Her passing was peaceful – she did not suffer. Curio became in her own lifetime a legend – a legend that is destined to live long after we who loved her are forgotten.