Turning heads at some of Tasmania’s most prestigious dressage events, it’s almost impossible to look at Jo Rhind and her talented standardbred mare Xena and imagine the journey they’ve taken to get to where they are today.
Having ridden ponies as a child, getting back into horses offered a mental outlet for Jo, who worked with her husband Jarom on a dairy farm on Tasmania’s King Island.
As Jo stepped into the dressage ring, Jarom turned his hand to racing.
Following an early switch from gallops to harness racing around 2010, with Jarom obtaining his trainer’s license and Jo a Registered Stablehand, it wasn’t long before Rhind Racing was born and a small collection of horses started to grow in the back paddock.
With beautiful coastlines within their reach, Jarom and Jo would routinely take their racehorses to Grassy Beach for a gallop along the sand.
The combination of cart work, beach riding and a steady groundwork program focused on strength and conditioning offered the Rhind racehorses a dynamic cross-training program, with some amazing benefits both on and off the track.
“My husband and I are very much focused on the whole horse’s well-being”, explains Jo.
“Our horses are lunged and worked over the back so they develop correctly and have some experience under saddle. This helps them not only to perform better in their race work, but also to have a better chance at securing a bright future once they retire”.
A few years into their racing career, Jarom and Jo purchased an eighteen-month-old standardbred filly from Central Victoria, who travelled by boat over to Tasmania.
Wearied by long wait periods and transit, horses typically unload at the Tasmanian docks on ‘jelly legs’, quietly awaiting the final phase of their trip.
This was a far cry from the “fire-breathing dragon” that snorted and skittled her way down the ramp, destined for the Rhind paddocks.
“She came off the boat like a warrior”, said Jo with a laugh.
“A rearing, prancing, warrior-princess. And so, we called her Xena.”
Xena was a “lanky, awkward giraffe” of a youngster and needed some initial time turned out to mature.
When it was Xena’s turn to come in to be broken to cart, she started to exhibit signs of being a “super sensitive, alpha-type mare”.
“We popped her in an old jog cart, just to see how she’d go. She exploded, growling and making prehistoric noises I’d never heard from a horse before”, Jo recalls.
Fearing she would grow to be uncontrollable and potentially dangerous, Jarom did a lot of intensive groundwork with Xena, to gain her respect and to get her feet moving in a positive manner.
Soon after, Jo and Jarom made career change and move from King Island to Tasmania’s mainland, which saw Xena tipped back out into the paddock for a spell until she was around five years old.
By this stage, Xena had matured into a powerhouse; “bigger, fatter and bossier than ever”. Jarom started to make calls to harness trainers based in Northern Tasmania, but none wanted to take a punt on an untrialled, difficult youngster.
One day, mulling over what to do with such a challenging mare who had taken to shredding her paddock companions’ rugs off their backs, Jo found herself hanging over the fencepost in complete awe.
Xena had been moved into a new paddock and, despite a deep abscess brewing under hoof, took off into a flying trot, with all four hooves off the ground.
“I watched Xena strutting around, tail up like an Arabian, hock action to rival a Warmblood, and I decided then and there I was going to sit on that horse”, said Jo, with a chuckle.
With experience working up through the levels to Medium, Jo had a keen eye for the makings of a dressage prospect. However, nursing a recent, serious injury to her leg, Jo decided to send Xena away to be broken to saddle by a professional rather than attempting to do this herself during her recovery.
“Xena was only gone for a month or so when I got the call to come and get her. I was told she was ‘completely nuts’ and the trainer didn’t want to continue working with her”, explains Jo.
“I was really disheartened by this and, being honest, Xena put the wind up me a bit, as Jarom had been the one to do the bulk of the work with her up until this point!
“I realised we didn’t actually have many options for this horse, so decided ‘stuff it’; I was going to have to put my big-girl pants on and work with her myself.”
Jo was pleasantly surprised to find that the early rides she had on Xena were ‘pretty cruisy’ and ticked along without incident. However, Jo was acutely aware that she was praising the positives and not putting any pressure on Xena.
“I would literally reward Xena for every little thought or try and kept things nice between us. But I knew that the second I put my foot down and started to really tell her what to do, or took the workouts up a notch, we were going to come to blows. I wasn’t confident I could actually win the battle, so I avoided starting arguments”, Jo explained.
“When I finally decided that it was time to put myself in the driver’s seat and push Xena to try harder skills, it was ON. There were tears and tantrums on both sides and I was left feeling like I had no place on a horse.”
Jarom saw how much his wife was struggling and offered to step in. Having a background working with big, strong cattle, excellent timing and the confidence to sit through ‘spicy-mare’ reactions, Jarom had a few rides on Xena which helped her to push past her initial protests.
“I was really grateful that Jarom was able to help and Xena came back to me with a much better attitude”, said Jo.
“Although she was still certainly a sensitive and hot horse, I gained enough confidence to get back on Xena and to start taking her out by myself”.
The first event Jo and Xena tackled together was an Adult Riders Series, a long two-and-a-half hours’ drive from home, in the thick of a Tasmanian winter.
“It was such a miserable day, with pelting rain, wind coming in sideways and very boggy surfaces in the grass arenas”, Jo recalls.
“Xena was just amazing and didn’t put a foot wrong, despite the conditions. She won the Preliminary Series and the Off The Track classes, which was a real confidence boost!”
“I felt such a surge of confidence and decided to register Xena with Equestrian Australia. I picked the show name ‘My Goodlookin Gal’, as a take on her father’s racing name: ‘My Handsome Fella’”.
Registering Xena was the start of a new phase. The pair trained hard and moved from strength to strength up into the Official class draws.
“People would always mistake Xena for a Warmblood and were quite surprised to see her freeze brand”, said Jo.
“Despite this, I’ve never felt discriminated, nor any prejudices against Xena because she’s a standardbred”.
“We had to stay at Preliminary-Novice level for the first year or two, simply because her trot is so big, bouncy and the swing through her back was just unreal.
“I don’t come from a Warmblood background, and I have short legs, so I found her trot tricky to master.
Xena and Jo chalked up many wins across their first few years of competition, including Top-Ten placings at the EA Tasmanian State Dressage Championships and many Champion sashes in other open dressage events. Jo cites the progression up to Elementary as a “real game-changer” for the pair.
At the 2022 Hygain Equestrian Tasmanian State Dressage Championships, Xena and Jo were ready to show off how well their training had been consolidated, when disaster struck.
“I caught a bad case of diverticulitis and was really crook coming into the Champs”, Jo recalls.
“I was vomiting and so exhausted in the lead up to the big day, from spending hours in the toilet and generally not getting any rest, that I nearly scratched.
“My amazing friends dressed me and propped me into the saddle, but I had nothing left in the tank.
“Despite the fact I could barely hang on, Xena literally carried me through the test and tried her heart out for me. We even managed to place just outside of the ribbons, in a huge class in the Elementary.
“I went straight to the hospital afterwards and was put on a drip. That was a defining moment for me; Xena had made such a transformation from a mare that nobody wanted and who challenged me in ways I could never have imagined, to being my biggest supporter”, says Jo, overwhelmed with emotion.
“Xena wasn’t this darling horse I instantly fell in love with. She would snarl at me, lash out and made me question everything I thought I knew about horsemanship.
“We had to grow to like each other over time. It’s taken many years, but we’ve really connected on a deep level.
“I’ve never had a horse’s back give so much power, strength and swing; it’s incredible. Xena is truly one-of-a-kind and I’m very lucky to have her”.
Jo considers her journey with Xena to be an example of the value of persistence, patience and “not getting too big for your boots”.
“Horses are the ultimate humbler”, Jo laughs.
“Just when you start to think you know it all, one comes along and knocks you down a few pegs and reminds you that there are still lessons to learn”.
Over the years developing Rhind Racing, Jarom and Jo have dedicated themselves to ethical, conscientious training of standardbreds both on an off the track.
Jo has also provided the foundation retraining for several standardbreds who have gone on to enjoy a range of equestrian pursuits, from the dressage ring, to stockman’s challenges and even a role as the Clerk of the Course’s trusty steed.
Jo hopes her story with Xena helps to reassure other riders of green standardbreds, whilst also creating an understanding that great partnerships aren’t built overnight.
“Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forwards. You really have to have faith and listen to these horses”, Jo explains.
“What I love the most about standardbreds is their work ethic, which is second-to-none, and their willingness to please”.
After a relatively quiet season training at home master higher-level movements and avoid the brunt of a very sustained wet season in Tasmania, Jo and Xena are set to step out into Medium soon, with their sights firmly set on the big dream to one day wear dressage tails in Advanced together.
“Xena is the kind of horse who will continue to push past barriers and take me as far as I want to go.
“I defy the best dressage riders to give a standardbred a go – it’s a challenge, but a pretty darn awesome one. They can really move and are just so talented and trainable!”