Moira McDowall patting her gelding stock horse.
Moira McDowall patting her gelding stock horse. Cassandra Glover

The 84-year-old loving life on the land

SURROUNDED by kelpies, horses and sheep, Moira McDowall thinks she has a better life than those in a retirement home.

The 84-year-old's friends are all at the stage where they are slowing down or taking it easy, but keeping busy with livestock is the only place where this Toowoomba woman wants to be.

Mrs McDowall and her husband Angus had been involved with working dogs and horses for most of their lives. After her husband died five years ago, Moira has continued with their passion for the animals.

"That's the story of your life as you get old. You want to have things to do,” Moira said.

"A lot of people I know have moved into retirement villages in town, and I think I've got a better life.

"I've got a nice team together, I can't do as much myself any more.”

When Mrs McDowall greeted Rural Weekly on her farm, she was with her kelpie Blue and had just stepped off her quad bike.

She flexed her hands, saying saying she was feeling the cold as she had lost her gloves.

The McDowalls moved to their property in Southbrook in 1996.

They decided to downsize from their 4047ha property in Meandarra after their four children all grew up and left the farm.

"They weren't coming home, but we encouraged them to go out and do their own thing,” Mrs McDowall said.

"It was a lot of work. And we ended up without a helper, it was just Angus and I.

"We decided it sounded too much like hard work when we were getting older.

"So we moved here and it was a great move for u. We could follow our interests and there is so much to offer in Toowoomba.”

They started off growing barley and green oats for the horses to graze on.

"We had a poll hereford stud when we got here,” Mrs McDowall said.

"But we decided to sell the stud and we haven't had cattle since.

"We sold the stud in the late '90s, we only had it for a couple of years.”

Moira and Angus started out on the family farm in the Traprock area as fine wool growers.

"You can't live with sheep, particularly merino sheep, timber country and hills without good working dogs,” Mrs McDowall said.

"They've been part of our life forever. Angus had a heap of dogs, anyway, for all of his young life.

"He went jackarooing out west and then became a stud overseer in Tambo area, and he always had good working dogs out there, too.”

Mrs McDowall said the creation of the Working Kelpies Council in the 1960s was when people started recording their dogs, and kelpie studs began.

"There were people around here who had been working with dogs but realised they hadn't really put them down on paper,” she said.

"You used to get one from here and one from your neighbour, and never really recorded where you got them from.

"When we first joined we thought 'well some of these dogs aren't wholly kelpie'.

"Because we were out in the bush you used what you had, like you do with every other part of running a property in the bush in Australia.”

The McDowalls' kelpie stud, Clan Kelpies, trains dogs for both sheep and cattle.

"They are thought of as sheep dogs, but then the wool industry got into serious trouble for a long time and sheep numbers shrank when the wool prices disintegrated. More and more people got into cattle, so the dogs had to become more and more dual purpose. So now they're used for cattle too,” Mrs McDowall said.

"We sell as many for cattle as we do for sheep. Which in itself is a challenge.

"Because the dogs that work cattle have to be more direct, because of the nature of the beast, and the dogs that work sheep in scrub country have to be more circumspect because otherwise the mob will just blow apart and disappear into the trees.”

Mrs McDowall said she likes kelpies as working dogs due to their independent nature.

"It takes a lot of skill. Dogs are often working on their own initiative because they're out of sight, you can't tell them where to go,” she said.

"We had kelpies that would go out a kilometre from you and they'll put the sheep together and bring them out.

"You could never guarantee they brought 100per cent of the stock out but it was a tremendous help in managing the stock.

"I used to just sit on horseback and whistle so they knew where you were.”

Mrs McDowall said the advantage of having a working dog that is recorded in a stud is that you have some anticipation of what their working style will be.

"The inherent ability to do responsible things without direction is definitely bred into the dogs,” she said, "which is why having a proper stud book is so essential because you can trace exactly the type of dog you want.

"If you want a more forceful direct dog, you go for that line, or if you want a dog that will disappear into the scrub on the hill and bring you out some sheep, then you go for that line.”

At Clan Kelpies, they start working their dogs from 8-10 weeks of age.

"We take our pups out in the yard with the sheep, and we take the pup's mother to give them a bit of direction,” Mrs McDowall said.

"At about 8-10 weeks you'll see a sheep will break away from the mob or something, and it's like a light bulb goes off in their head and they race around and block them off.

"The more instinct you have bred into them, the better the dog will be, but some of them don't start until 12 months old.”

Mrs McDowall said a good connection with your working dog was essential.

"Good working dogs are very people sensitive,” she said.

"Sometimes you get the situation where you'll get a big loud person who will shout at a quiet calm dog, and the dog will probably not co-operate, because they don't like being shouted at or they find it frightening.

"We have always selected to have naturally friendly dogs that want to please you, and that sets you a fair way ahead off the base to breaking them in.

"Breaking them in is just about being able to keep on a thought line with them when they're out of sight.

"The mateship with a working dog is very important.”

Mrs McDowall also breeds stock horses on her 162ha property.

"We've bred them for a long time. We bred them for work, they were work horses,” he said.

"We're not one of the big front studs, we've never campdrafted with them or anything like that.

"We used to do our stock work in the timber country on horses. People use bikes mostly now.

"But the trouble I find even riding around here on the quad, if you're moving stock around, and you're watching the stock to see where they're going, you're putting yourself at risk with all the stuff under the grass with logs and stumps and things.

"When you're on a horse, the horse looks where he's going and you can look at the stock. In some ways it's preferable, but motorbikes are so much quicker I suppose.”

Mrs McDowall said her stock horses were an infusion of thoroughbreds and old heritage horses.

"Like the dogs we chose these horses for their temperament,” she said.

"A lot of my horses are good polocrosse horses. I also sell them to pony club.

"My stock horses are very versatile.”

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