Angus Barrett's Droving Series - Chapter 3 - Watch Now
With women on the rise in stock camps, as ringers and station hands, and with the recent celebration of International Women’s Day, we thought it timely to hero a female drover in the third iteration of our “Droving Series”.
We put it out to you all to nominate some girls who are mixing it with the blokes on the droving trail. We got a large number of responses and chose Chrissie French, an extraordinary mother of two who went droving with her two children when they were just six weeks and 2.5 years old, as our first lady drover to profile. I met up with Chrissie over the phone a couple of weeks ago, and had a great chat about some of her droving adventures over the years.
Interview with Chrissie French
Photo: (Left to right) The family Camp at Coolac, Chrissie with Dan and 6 week old baby Carlie in her Front Pack
Q>Tell us about your experiences droving. How did it all begin?
I grew up on the land, but when I left school I started working in a bank, and then as a foreign exchange consultant. I met my now husband, Matt French, through campdrafting. Matt and his father spent a lot of time on the road. When we met, the drought was bad and Matt was doing a lot of droving because of that. He asked me to go on one of his jobs with him, which was up near Moree and I said yes! We walked a mob of cattle around Barraba, Moree and back to Young. That was my first big droving job and the whole stint went for about 2 years.
Then Matt and I got married and we bought a half share in a farm at Cooma. That went well and after I had had our first baby, Dan, an opportunity arose to buy the second half of the farm, which is something we wanted to do. But we needed to raise the funds to support it and we felt that our best option at that point was to go droving again. So that’s how it came about that we were droving with Dan, who was 2.5 years old, and Carlie, who was just six weeks old.
Q> How long were you on the road with the two small kids?
That particular stint was about 22 months in which time we walked the cattle (owned by Hannaford Pastoral Company at Braidwood) over 5,500 kms. The cattle were unloaded at Boorowa and walked to Young, across to Harden and then down through the Kosciusko National Park via Gundagai and Tumut and back through Cooma, Delegate and finally back to Harden.
Q> What are your memories of droving with the kids? How did you juggle the demands of being a mum, a wife, a drover and a farmer?
One of the hardest things was keeping Dan safe! I remember I used to tie him to my belt! Generally, I’d lead Dan on his amazing little stockhorse pony (called Miss Drover!) and then I’d have Carlie with me on a front pack.
Organisation was key. Each day was a seriously strict routine and we had to be careful to plan when we were going through towns. Food supplies had to be well organised, but most important was water. Matt would often have the water cart and he’d sometimes have to go a long way to get water, which meant I was left on my own with the cattle and the kids. That was often challenging. I’d run the plant through and tie the horses (we generally had 6 to 7 with us) to the side of the truck. It was hard having the babies and the cattle on my own, but to be honest it was even hard trying to hold down the farm on my own. It was much easier when Matt and I were together and working as a team.
Q> What was your camp like?
We had an Isuzu truck with a horse box, which we decked out and kept clean as a play area, so that Dan and Carlie could crawl around. We also had a caravan behind the truck, which we ate out of and used when other people came along.
Q> Were there times that you resented being on the road or that you didn’t enjoy it out there?
There was one day that I would have given up droving, if it had been my first day! Matt had gone to fuel the water cart and he’d left me with the mob and the two kids. The trucks on the road were really bad at that particular time (it was just before Christmas) and the dogs were at risk of being run over. The reserve that we were on is fenced now, but at the time it was open. Anyway, Dan was being led and he’d gone to sleep in the saddle and I was trying to feed Carlie. The cattle were getting restless because there wasn’t much feed and only a tiny bit of water and they started to walk. There was a big sweeping bend up ahead and a bridge and town was not far away. I had to keep the cattle from reaching the bridge or town. The cattle were moving faster than I could with Dan and I just didn’t have enough dog power. In the end, I managed to keep the cattle from reaching the bridge or town, which were the two things I was most worried about, but it was a stressful day. When Matt got home he took me to the pub for dinner and there was a sign there that said, “The Cook’s Quit!” I took that as a sign that I should probably quit too and I nearly did!
Q> What do you enjoy or value about droving?
I’ve learned a lot from droving. It teaches you a lot about life; that you can live pretty basically and that there’s a lot that you don’t need. One of the biggest lessons too has been about the importance and value of water. It’s something I think we often take for granted.
The cream of the job is getting young horses going and getting lots of miles under the belt, but I have to say we didn’t often have much time for drafting back then. Dan is 13 now and he is actually drafting his little pony, Miss Drover, who he first went droving with through Kosciusko when he was only 2.5. She’s a little ripper. She can do everything! Dan rides her in the Juvenile and Carlie rides her in the Junior.
Q> What’s it like, droving as a female?
I saw a few female drovers over the years and I’ve got some really good friends that are drovers. I think as a female that I didn’t get treated any differently. The only thing I would say is that there is a bit of a perception out there that you’re droving because you can’t do anything else. But that’s not right. There are a lot of people out there that are educated. I studied accounting while I was droving and I met a lot of other, well educated people out there, doing it as a choice and a way of life. I think that some people don’t understand what it means to be a drover. And how much droving can add value to both your stock and your farm.
Q> Would you encourage your children, including your little girl, Carlie, to go droving?
People think droving is romantic. But once you’ve done it, romantic is not a word that comes to mind. But if you have a passion for cattle and horses, there are a lot worse jobs that you can do! And if Carlie was that way inclined and she wanted to have a go at it, I would not discourage it. She could get an education and still do it.
On the whole, we’ve had some really special times droving with the kids. We’ve met amazing people from all walks of life and made some truly great friends - farmers, town folk and drovers alike.