Running on horse power

John Mullenger and his horse. Photo by Taylah Broadley.
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John Mullenger has rubbed shoulders with film stars and other celebrities but at the Royal Melbourne Show says he prizes his horses above all, writes Taylah Broadley.

John Mullenger grew up on a farm with no power, but plenty of horses. His father would take droves of horses to Laverton North to farm the area. And once a month, his mother would take a horse drawn carriage 14 miles down to the local store to get groceries.

“I can vividly remember when I was a child, everything was done with horses,” John told the crowd gathered to watch him working with horses at the Royal Melbourne Show. “They were used for everything”.

This is his second year showing off his horses and a lifetime of knowledge at the annual event.

John was “born and bred into the horse industry” and, with a love of horses passed through three generations, there was no doubt that he would ever do anything else. For almost 50 years, he has been able to make a living doing what he loves. Based in Edgecombe, north of Melbourne, the 70 year-old farmer runs his business, Dominion Park Equine. He breeds and sells horses, breaking them in and shoeing horses and building and restoring horse-drawn vehicles.

He has a reputation that precedes. “I’ve been in the film industry for quite a while,” John says modestly.

The farmer has worked with animals on The Man from Snowy River, and, more recently, worked with more than 60 horses on the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Asked his opinion of Johnny Depp, he says simply, the star “was okay”.

Throughout the demonstration, John attracts a crowd, captivating them with the story of his twin Clydesdales, Zig and Zag. “When the foaling alarm went off, and one filly foal was born, I said, ‘good’ and I went off and had my coffee. Then I went back and there were two,” he told the crowd. With about a 10,000 to 1 chance of getting twins in that breed, the three-year-old Clydesdales are rare.

John has had hundreds of horses, and now has about 40, although he says he’s not counting. When asked for a favourite, he couldn’t pick, but mentioned a big stallion at home. “My favourite part of waking up in the morning is looking out my kitchen window and seeing him every morning,” John says fondly.

All his adult life John has been to shows across the country, showing his horses and judging others. He has about 25 judging badges from shows, including about five from the Royal Melbourne. John exhibited his first horse there in 1972 and has come back every year since with a lot of winners under his belt. He took part in chariot races at the show for some years.

This year, John brought eight horses to the show and has been staying with them in a truck on the grounds. At his side is his wife, Patricia. They have been married for 48 years. They met when John, a butcher by trade, was working in the shop near where Patricia would wash windows. “I’m not a horse person by any means,” Patricia says, adding that even so she couldn’t see herself doing anything else.

During his demonstration, the pair work together like a well-oiled machine. John is clearly the man in charge, while Patricia helps on the sidelines. Outside the show, it’s much the same. While John takes care of the horses, Patricia will wash the harnesses and the vehicles.

The pair have two adult children. While he can’t say that Jason will continue the family business, taking more of a liking to trucks, he says and Courtney is “passionate about the breeding of horses”.

As well as running his business, John is president of the Victorian Tradesman’s and Delivery Horse Group. “We’re a very, very passionate horse group,” he says, “and we are dedicated to preserving all the vehicles, carts and so forth.” The group was founded in 2008 and educates younger generations about horse-drawn vehicles.

John talks about wanting to slow down. “Unfortunately I can’t go forever,” he says. “I just wanna scale down, and maybe just do half of what I do.”

But whether it’s the successful business, film industry, carriage restoration or the Victorian Tradesman’s and Delivery Horse Group, his relationship with horses will never change. Much like his relationship with technology. With no computer, and a modest phone, John lives much like his parents did, with a trust in horses and their ability to get the job done.