Horses bring out shy Guy’s best
AS the sun sets on a chilly winter Saturday in Toowoomba, hundreds of adults, teenagers and children meander towards rows of plastic seats over-looking the city's equestrian show ring.
Akubras, tight blue jeans, scuffed Ariat riding boots, belts with broad buckles and shirts speckled with rhinestones - country-inspired fashion is de rigueur as are conversations about grains, fillies, colts, cows and rain.
A little girl with flowing blonde hair and bright eyes squeals excitedly, her hands cradling a plastic replica of a golden dun stallion called Nugget.
They're all gathered under the tall tin roof to see Nugget's owner - a bloke called Guy McLean.
The Australian stockhorse will not make an appearance tonight though. Retired years ago, he is most likely sleeping under a tree at his home on the Fraser Coast as his best mate prepares for the evening's two-hour show.
Soon darkness envelopes the centre's tall dome roof and tin walls as two rows of fire form a ghostly path across the show-ring's floor.
The crowd falls silent. Music drifts through the cold air. McLean emerges from the shadows, lazily eyeing the crowd from the saddle of his mare.
It's nearly impossible to turn your gaze from the dark figures dancing between the flames.
As the embers fade and the music subsides, McLean faces the crowd, bowing gracefully from his seat on his steed's back.
Over the next two hours he entertains the onlookers - reciting poetry inspired by The Man From Snowy River and galloping flat-chat through a comedy routine complete with kooky costume changes and complex equine tricks.
After a short break he introduces the crowd to a frightened young colt that has never been bridled or saddled. Barely 30 minutes later the sweat-soaked horse stands calmly as McLean chats to the crowd from the saddle on his back.
Then it's the moment the gathered fans have been waiting for.
McLean heads into the ring on his star steed with his "liberty" team of three mares and a gelding following like puppets on a string - all move in unison while their master runs them through a series of complex tricks.
Finally, sweating and out of breath, McLean wraps up the show with a joke and a thank you.
A few excited fans offer a standing ovation. There's even a wolf whistle or two and a decent level of applause. But it's is nothing compared to the boot-banging ear-slamming reaction he gets from his fans in the US and Canada.
At 40 years old, the Fraser Coast lad has criss-crossed the globe countless times entertaining millions of people, his soft larrikin drawl under-pinning his passionate banter about Aussie bushmen and his gentle hands leading his trusting horses through an incredibly complex array of moves.
Along the way he's collected some of the equine world's biggest awards including the Way of the Horse and Road to the Horse titles.
Not bad for a kid from the big smoke who once struggled to find his place in life.
Born in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverly, McLean was 16 months old when he first climbed into the saddle.
That first ride was just six months after talented footballer Norman McLean and his wife Faye moved their kids to a picturesque farm on the banks of the Susan River near Hervey Bay.
"When I was born my mum told him (dad) she didn't want to raise the children in the city," McLean says, pausing for a second as he leans back in a chair on the veranda of his family's home nursing a hot drink between his calloused hands.
"They'd been on a holiday to Hervey Bay and they'd fallen in love with the area.
"There was an old dairy farm-come-piggery for sale and within two years they'd turned it into Susan River Homestead.
"I'm very glad they moved here - I would have made a very ordinary and confused footballer if we stayed in Victoria."
Outshone by five popular and smart siblings, resigned to wearing ugly thick-lens glasses, battling serious health problems, targeted by bullies and about as co-ordinated and athletic as a gangly new-born colt, McLean's childhood was anything but plain sailing.
"My brothers and sister are very adept at everything they do," he says.
"They found things very easy; they were comfortable in their own skin.
"I was the absolute opposite - I felt insignificant around them.
"At school I got picked on a lot, I was bullied ... I was a backward kind of a kid.
"I saw my life as not as glass half-empty, but as a glass broken on the ground - it was 'poor me, why are things so tough? Why do I have to wear these glasses? Why can't I play sport like the other boys? Why don't girls want to talk to me?"
But the youngster found solace in the paddocks surrounding his family's huge homestead.
"The horses were always something that drew me in," McLean says.
"They (the horses) never looked at me for anything else than the person I was.
"I'd ride the horses, then I'd talk to them, I'd think about them during the night and think how I could better myself so that the horses would see me as what no-one else saw me as.
"No-one saw me as the leader, no-one saw me as anyone with any real substance - I wanted that so badly.
"When I rode, I felt people would see me as something more."
McLean left the schoolyard bullies behind when he was 15, joining the family business - a thriving farm experience for tourists complete with horseback trail rides.
A few years later, a special event lit a spark in the young man's heart.
"At my brother's wedding, my Aunty Joan said it's 'your turn to sing'," he recalls.
"I said 'I can't sing but if you'll all be quiet I can recite The Man from Snowy River'.
"I just closed my eyes and pretended they (the audience) weren't there.
"I recited it like I would when I was riding my horses in the paddock - when I opened my eyes up people were crying."
It wasn't long before he was entertaining visiting tourists and industry representatives, complete with Driza-Bone, horses and whip-cracking.
Over the next few years - and with a lot of help from his four-legged mate Nugget - McLean and his little band of horses started booking gigs at country shows.
"I made a promise to Nugget when he was four years old," McLean says.
"I promised to make him famous; I promised I'd take him to the world."
Before long bigger events -like Brisbane's Ekka and the royal shows in Melbourne and Sydney - came calling.
But by the time the world knocked on McLean's door, Nugget was retired to a life of relaxation and foal-making.
"I flew away (to America) and I felt like I'd let him down," McLean says of his broken vow.
"But (toy company) Breyer has made a model of him, which is sold world-wide, so in a way I made the promise come true."
After sell-out appearances in the US and Canada, McLean realised he needed to spend a good part of each year on American soil where he has a massive fan base.
He now has multiple teams of quarter horse, thoroughbred and Arab mixes and Australian stock horses in work over two continents.
From appearances in down-town New York City to sessions at the globally-broadcast World Equestrian Games, there's one thing that haunts the horseman like the ghost of his favourite poet Banjo Patterson.
"Sometimes, even in front of an audience of 20,000, I'll look above their heads so I can't see them," he says of the crippling shyness that is never far away.
"But I'm there to share Australia with them, share what's great about our horses and our outback heritage.
"The shows are about the Australian stockman who is the keeper of our land - without the Aussie stockman we wouldn't have wool in our jackets, we wouldn't have meat on our table - it's really important to uphold and share that overseas."
While his Australian gigs can often be small and under-whelming compared to his overseas' performances, McLean never waivers from his belief that every audience deserves the best he can give.
"It doesn't matter where I am, when I'm in front of any audience I realise this is bigger than the little boy who turned to the horses to feel good," he says.
"I realise I have a real duty to this world - to share the horses.
"We don't need horses like we used to need them, but in a way we need them more than we ever did.
"We need them to learn humility, respect, trust and worthiness.
"You might feel that you're an incredible person, but it's the horse that will tell you the truth of whether you are incredible or not."
- APN NEWSDESK