Jools Topp, one half of New Zealand’s most famous lesbian sister comedy yodeling duo, talks about some of her life’s most treasured gems – her horses.
On a sunny autumn day in Helensville, 45 minutes north of Auckland, Jools Topp is atop her desert-bred Arab horse, Intrigue, moving him this way and that with barely a shift in posture. “Now I’m going to ask him to canter,” she says, and at an imperceptible signal, he moves from a dead halt to a fast, three-beat pace in the space of a few seconds, then slows effortlessly to a stop again. In her checked shirt and flat-brimmed hat – an outfit that she laughingly describes as “so, so gay” – Jools is every inch the horsewoman, energetic yet quietly controlled.
While Jools is best known as one half of New Zealand’s beloved comedy duo The Topp Twins, she has always been as passionate about horses as she is about performing. Raised on a dairy farm in Ruawaro, just outside Huntly, she and sister Lynda taught themselves to ride while simultaneously teaching themselves the tunes they heard on their neighbours’ gramaphone. “We didn’t have a gramaphone and Mum wouldn’t let us take the guitar with us, so we’d have to remember the tune and ride like crazy home, pick up the guitar and try it out,” she laughs. “If we didn’t get it, we’d have to ride back and have another listen to the song. It’s a wonder we became performers!”
Today, Jools is the proud owner of Liberty Circle Ranch, a 17-acre block where she lives with her partner Mary, fellow animal enthusiasts Michaela and Teresa, seven horses, three dogs and a smattering of cows and chickens. On this autumn day, Whitefeather, Jools’ spaniel, busies himself sniffing at every nook and cranny, while inside the house, a gentle-eyed Bull Mastiff lounges on a custom-built doggie sofa, wearing socks to protect a cracked paw. “They take up most of my life, the horses and the dogs and the farm – there’s always something to do,” Jools says. “I lived in Grey Lynn for a while, but what do they say: ‘You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl’ – and that’s pretty much me!”
Liberty Circle is also the setting for Michaela and Teresa’s natural horsemanship outfit, NZ Horse Help. Here, they run workshops and weekend clinics teaching riders to better understand their horses and training them in the graceful style that Jools rides in – that of the vaquero, or Spanish cowboy. “When you think of cowboys, you think of rodeos and yahooing around – and it’s not like that at all,” Jools says of this style of riding. “It’s about as natural as you can get… although that word’s been bandied around for a long time in the horse world and a part of me thinks if you really wanted to call it natural, you just wouldn’t ever catch them! But [the vaquero technique is] all about getting a good partnership going with your horse.”
Standing in the arena, Jools signals Intrigue to run, riderless, in circles around her, first one way, then the other. This way of working with horses, she explains, centres around using voice and body language to communicate your wishes. The famed ‘horse whisperers’ – including Buck Branneman, who inspired the title character in the Horse Whisperer book and film – borrowed heavily from the technique, and it is currently experiencing a surge in popularity as more and more horsepeople seek out holistic methods of training and riding. “Basically we’re using really natural methods to get the horse to do something highly unnatural – because when was the last time someone threw a dead animal on the back of a flight animal and climbed on its back?” Teresa laughs.
Another aspect of natural horsemanship that Jools is involved in is the ‘barefoot’ movement, or the practise of specially trimming the horse’s hoof rather than using the more traditional metal shoes. One of the founding members of HOOFNZ, an organisation that trains barefoot trimmers and provides information to curious horse owners, Jools is herself trained in the techique and keeps herself busy trimming the hooves of hundreds of horses from the surrounding area. “There isn’t a day goes by when I’m not doing something with a horse!” she says.
All this experience has given Jools an extensive insight into the horse world and she speaks authoritatively on the role of the horse in society and the place it occupies in New Zealand. “We have such a great history with horses here. The whole country was broken in by the horse and it’s so much a part of our history and our psyche that we still call our vehicles ‘horsepower’,” she says. “It’s one of the animals that went to war with us! The horse had no say in the matter – there was no part in the war for a horse to be a conscientious objector.
“And horses can still stop a nation – just look at the Melbourne Cup! Horses do these weird things to us all the time and it’s quite magical. Sometimes I think we forget that when we’ve just got an old pony out in the paddock. We don’t think that his great-grandfather helped save a soldier in the war; we forget about all that magical stuff.”
In Jools’ eyes, horses have indeed given her something magical. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, her horses played a huge role in her recovery. It was while working in the arena with Milo, a squat little miniature horse, that she got the phone call confirming her diagnosis. While a mastectomy and chemotherapy prevented her from riding for six months, she would still steal as much time as she could with her horses. “They were a big part of my healing,” she muses. “The people around me, of course, did the most; everyone was most gracious with their help and their support – but to feel my horse blow his breath on my face…” Her words trail off. “I’d be as sick as a dog and I’d go down in my jammies on the ride-on lawn mower – just to see them was really exciting.”
The conversation turns to the role of animals in medical care – dogs that can sniff out undiagnosed tumours and predict epileptic fits. “It’s just amazing!” Jools exclaims. “We’ve got to remember that our animals have much greater senses than us – and they’re not dumb! People say, ‘Oh, that’s just a dumb animal’, but most people who own an animal don’t think that. They know that their animal is intelligent. And now we take miniature ponies and little dogs into old folks’ homes and there’s a real awakening to the fact that there’s some merit in animals healing us. We certainly relate to that here [at the ranch], big time.”
Animals also occupy a special space in the GLBT community, Jools says. “I don’t know too many gay people who haven’t got a pet. It’s something we pride ourselves on! We’ve got these images of people and their pets, whether it’s a little Chihuahua with a pink collar on going for a walk with the gay boys, or the dyke with her bloody beautiful big Lab – and a knee brace on, from being knocked over by the Lab!” she laughs. “There’s these images of horsey girls, too: that we’re rugged and we probably wear a little bit of eau de cologne… the horse world is full of gay people, whether they put their hand up or not!”
The relationship between women and horses is also a special one, she says, pointing to the thousands of girls who beg their parents for ponies every Christmas and the success of books and TV series like The Saddle Club. Girls, she says, stay attached to their horses “for a long time”, while boys, as they grow older, are more likely to swap out their passion for horses for cars. “I really think it’s all about power – I think women feel naturally so powerful on a horse,” Teresa chimes in. “Certainly in the States, where I’m from, men have the powerful positions… and a woman on a horse feels very free. It’s a sense that you don’t grow up with – unless you’re Jools Topp!”
“The thing about the horse world is that there’s no judgment about who you are or where you come from or what sexuality you are – they’re more likely to judge your horse than what you’re wearing,” Jools muses. “There are a lot of sports in the world where people say, ‘You can’t do that because of the shape you are, or because you’re not tall enough’… but anyone can ride a horse and anyone can look after an animal. And the thing about a pet is that they don’t judge you, either – there’s something really beautiful about that.”
In return, she says, pet owners have a responsibility to help their animals adapt to and function in the human world – and it’s here that Liberty Circle Ranch and NZ Horse Help come in. As well as assisting riders to improve their bonds with their horses, the ladies offer them new techniques to deal with any problems that arise – a process that is more about reading and adjusting to a particular horse’s body language than following any hard and fast rules. “We can’t try and make every horse follow the same programme. Some horses might be genuinely frightened of going into a horse float and some horses are just saying ‘Nah, you can’t tell me what to do!’ If you did the same thing to both of those horses, you might be in trouble, because the horse who’s genuinely fearful needs to get over the fear,” she says. “Our job at the ranch is to offer people something that they can then offer to their horse.
“At the end of the day, horses can be dangerous. People get hurt every week – we hear about people getting bitten by dogs or scratched by cats, but when a horse hurts you, it’s usually a trip to the hospital or a broken leg or a concussion! It’s a pet that has to really be respected.”
But with the right tools and techniques and a healthy dose of respect, the relationship between people and their pets can be, in Jools’ words, magical. “Sometimes it just doesn’t matter what breed the animal is or how it looks, because we love them and click with them. I think with most people who have an animal, it’s like that – there’s a picture on the wall of that animal, in a frame,” she says with a smile. “And who knows? Maybe they’re angels and they’ve just got fur on them. And they’re just here, helping us along.”
| Anna Loren