At Home with Guy McLean

The two-time winner of the prestigious colt-starting competition Road to the Horse speaks to editor Amy Herdy about stage antics, Australian cowboys, and his favorite horse.
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The two-time winner of the prestigious colt-starting competition Road to the Horse speaks to editor Amy Herdy about stage antics, Australian cowboys, and his favorite horse.

Guy McLean, 38, is an Australian horseman and two-time winner of the prestigious colt-starting competition Road to the Horse. He grew up the youngest of five boys on a 1,600-acre ranch resort in Hervey Bay, Queensland, and was first put on the back of a horse when he was 16 months old.

Tell us about receiving the Jack Brainard Horsemanship Award.

Winning the Jack Brainard award meant more to me than winning the championship buckle and everything else. All I’ve ever wanted since I was a little boy is for people to see me as a horseman. To think that this man could look upon what I was doing and see that that horse believed in me that day…well, I’ve won a lot of trophies, but that will be the most beloved.

What’s it like to perform in front of thousands of spectators?

Now I just get excited. I know everything that I’ve done at home is enough, and I believe in that. I was more nervous at Road to the Horse than at any other time, because you have expert horsemen judging you. But riding in front of 20,000 people is exciting. I look up, and I don’t see faces. I’m just there with my horses. My eyes are focused about a foot in front of my horse’s head. I’m seeing what he’s seeing.

I go into a zone when I ride and when I train, and I try to bring that crowd into the zone with me. That’s something I wish everyone could find. I feel like I’m sitting in my horse, and it’s the most amazing feeling when you have that. I see a lot of people when they ride, they’re sitting on top of the horse—and the horse tries to get out from under their legs—that’s why they buck and rear. My horses hunt that spot right underneath my shoulders. I feel more athletic and fitter because those horses become my body. When I ride, I feel 20 years younger…I’ve never had a horse say to me, “Your best is not good enough.” I enjoy showcasing my life to the world. If no one were watching, I would be doing this at home. I’m just so lucky to be able to do this for a living.

Do you have a favorite horse?

Every one I’m on at the time. I’m learning to love them all for who they are. The most famous horse I have is Ozzie from last year [the colt he started in the 2012 Road to the Horse competition and ultimately bought]. He gets more laughs for the look on his face. The horse that made me believe in myself was a stallion called Nugget, a little dun colt that I paid $200 for. He believed in me before anyone knew my name. He was the horse that said, “You and I can do anything together.” And I’ve been hunting that relationship with horses ever since. He’s 18 now and lives on my property, Nugget’s Rest. I could go out tomorrow after not touching him for six months and ride him bridleless and saddleless.

The truth is, I try to distance myself from Nugget, because I can’t imagine life without him. So he’s retired, and he breeds me a wonderful foal every year. He’s even a Breyer model now. Just today, I signed five of his bellies. There are thousands of kids carrying around his doll now, which is amazing to think about.

Do you arrange acts to try and outdo yourself?

This year I gave the very best that I had. Every time I go in, I give 100 percent of who I am. I don’t ever go into that arena and say this is Guy McLean, the entertainer. No, this is Guy McLean doing what he is most comfortable doing in the world. Maybe some people are elitist about it, putting themselves on a pedestal or whatever. I just tell people, “I’m just like you. I love these horses with all my heart, and I just have a little more dedication, time, or desire.” My audience typically walks away feeling like they know the personality of every one of my horses. Every time you see me with a different group of horses, you’ll see a new show. I’m hoping my very best will evolve and change.

I felt some peer pressure to change last year, and some this year, too. But I wasn’t going to change what I’m doing to hunt buckles…I just ride for me. I knew my colt would come out with an open heart.

What attracts people to horses?

I think it’s because they see you for who you are. A president or a little boy with no money, it doesn’t matter to them. Horses don’t see us for what we have, they see us for who we are. That colt—I had to prove myself to that colt in the moment, and I loved that. Here, in the United States, they didn’t know who I was three years ago, and now I’m treated differently. That feels hollow. Horses, on the other hand, have such honesty in them. And they’ll fill in for you. The payout they give us, the way they look at us with no judgment in their eyes, they can make the weak be strong. They’re the most amazing animals in the world, and I can’t imagine my life without them.

How are Aussie cowboys different from American cowboys?

For starters, we call ourselves stockmen, or cattlemen. American cowboys ride upright and use big bits; he controls his horse with one hand so he can hold his rope. An Aussie doesn’t carry a rope but uses a stock whip. Our roots from England created light contact with the bridle with one hand, so I can crack the whip with the other. We also ride in timbered country, where the branches are low, so our saddles don’t have horns. We have to get low on a horse. I respect both styles. Growing up, I tried to emulate the riding in the movie The Man from Snowy River (1982).

How did you learn to crack a stock whip?

I was 5 or 6 when my dad first gave me a whip. I use it as much as a cowboy uses a rope. You can use your stock whip to control a herd of cows from a lot further distance than you can with your voice…It’s an important legacy.