Most readers of Horses and People will be familiar with the Barefoot Blacksmith, Andrew Bowe, whose stories from the Mayfield Rehabilitation Centre can often be found in this magazine’s pages.
What some may not realise is that Andrew is just one half of the husband-and-wife team who have built the business from the ground up and one quarter of the family of four who collectively keep their property running.
Set on a beautiful piece of land nestled in the hills just outside of Yarck, Mayfield, is a rehabilitation centre, school of equine podiotherapy, working farm and family home. We are met at the entrance to the garden by Nicky Bowe: horsewoman, businesswoman, mother, veterinary nurse, accountant – the list goes on. Like the property itself, everyone in the Bowe family has many facets.
Andrew pops in to say hello, but it’s a room full of women who sit down together to talk about the family and their property. Eldest daughter, 15-year-old Sophie, has made us Melting Moments. “Sophie helps out by doing a lot of the meals,” Nicky tells us. “She’s the serious one. ‘Come on, Mum, we’ve got to do this, let’s cook dinner.’ They all have their roles.”
“Emma is my little entertainer,” Nicky goes on, nodding her head at her youngest daughter. “She keeps things light around here. She reminds us to play – swimming in the pool, running around with the dogs, nagging me to take her for a ride.”
The Barefoot Blacksmith business has grown exponentially during the lifetime of Nicky’s two daughters, and I’m curious about how she and Andrew balanced raising their children with expanding their business. “We made the children part of it all,” she says simply. “They’re my little helpers.”
The property has been the Bowes’ home for many years now. Before that, it belonged to Nicky’s parents. “I grew up as a little girl on this property and I was always outside with Dad,” she explains. It’s where she became mesmerised by horses as a child and was eventually thrown in at the deep end when a neighbour gave her an old mare. Working with horses was a passion that only grew as she matured. “To pay my way through college, I used to buy horses from the saleyards, work them and sell them. I’d buy them off the track, off trainers, anyone’s rejects,” she recalls.
It was at college that Nicky met her future husband, Andrew. “I finished school very young, so I didn’t have my licence. I used to get a lift back home from college with him. I used to have to sit in the back seat though, because there was another girl who got a lift back home and she was there before me,” she laughs. Though she and Andrew had grown up in neighbouring towns, their paths hadn’t crossed before.
Nicky needed to save farrier costs on her project horses, so she and Andrew enrolled themselves in a weekend farriery course offered by their college. It was the beginning of a long career for Andrew. Meanwhile, Nicky had finished her science degree and found that her employment prospects weren’t as good as she’d hoped. “We wanted to renovate this property, so we bought it off Mum and Dad,” she says. “We were paying that off and doing all sorts of jobs. I was waitressing, nannying, cleaning fish…”
While working on a cattle stud, Nicky met a vet who asked her to come and work for him. Nicky spent the next decade working as a veterinary nurse, only stepping down when she became pregnant with their first child, Sophie. Never able to sit still, Nicky studied accounting during her pregnancy. “And all of those things that I studied – science, hospitality, veterinary nursing, accounting – all help me in my business. They’ve all sort of come together.”
Their rehab work, which has now become such an integral part of what they do, came about organically one day when Andrew brought home a horse. “He was working every day as a farrier, and there were horses the vets told people were hopeless and needed to be put down. Andrew couldn’t fix them with shoes, so that’s when he started down the barefoot track,” Nicky explains. “Some of them were surrendered to us in the beginning – given to us because they were going to be put down and we said ‘Well, can we take them home?’ And then, there are people that just cry out for us to help them.”
“I understand that in the veterinary industry, they have a duty of care,” she says. “But, if you think about it, if a human’s in pain, we don’t decide to put them down, do we? People can live with pain. And, I suppose, that’s where Andrew and I sort of took off. We’ve looked at herbal pain relief and it’s working. So, I suppose it all happened out of necessity.” The Bowes now work successfully alongside veterinarians; many of whom have read their book, ‘The Pony That Did Not Die’.
Nicky and Andrew published their first book together in 2013; the culmination of many years of rehabilitation work and two years of compiling, writing and editing. ‘The Pony That Did Not Die: Healing Laminitis with Barefoot Rehab’ is yet another way in which the duo are attempting to share the details of their work with the wider world, with the good of the horse always prioritised. The book is self-published – there isn’t much this couple can’t do themselves!
Everyone in the family has a role to play in the rehabilitation aspect of their work. Horses in dire need are often surrendered to the Bowes, who find new homes for them once they have recovered. “I ride the little ones that no one else can ride,” 12-year-old Emma explains. One of her two current ponies is a former rehab case, now treasured by the family. “He has all the experience and the ability I wanted, so he’s going to teach me how to go to higher levels.”
“He’s a keeper!” Nicky says. “He’s a real champion.” Those that don’t stay with the family go to caring, permanent homes, but the Bowes aren’t the kind of people to hand over their horses and never hear of them again. Many of their rehab centre graduates are leased out, so the family can keep an eye on what happens to them.
Older sister Sophie plays her part with the horses, but the cattle and sheep are her real passion. “I’m in between horses,” she explains. “I’m not competitive. I’d much rather just gallop around the farm on a horse. I like helping with sick sheep, doing all the gross farm stuff.” She doesn’t, however, see herself taking on the family business. “I’d rather start fresh on a new farm. Sheep and cows; probably more cattle because they’re more profitable and they don’t die as easy.”
Sophie’s understanding of farm life is clearly a realistic and well-informed one. “I think that life experience of getting out there, seeing how people run businesses and watching their parents teach has only helped them,” says Nicky. Their busy home life certainly doesn’t seem to hold them back; both Sophie and Emma were recently Dux of their years.
Since education is such a key aspect of Nicky and Andrew’s approach to their business, it’s not surprising their daughters are so well-rounded. “We felt there was a need to spread the word,” says Nicky. “We thought the way to do it was to educate people and try to basically clone ourselves – tell them all our secrets and send them off back into their regions of Australia and New Zealand.
“We’ve had a few international students as well.” In the beginning, they hired teaching venues to instruct their pupils, but it soon became clear a facility based at their home would be ideal. The Australian School of Equine Podiotherapy, based at Mayfield, is the result of that mission. “Our aim, our ultimate goal, is to have people out there like us, doing what we do, to take the pressure off us,” says Nicky.
Not only that, they hope to improve knowledge of horse management across the board, so there are fewer cases in need of rehabilitation. “We’d love for people not to have to bring their horses here,” Nicky laughs. Their education programme has recently received a great boost, becoming nationally accredited. “It’s a big milestone,” she explains. “There’s a lot more paperwork, but essentially it’ll be the same and it will allow our students to get funding to come in.”
We take a drive around the property, Sophie zooming ahead on a dirt bike, with three dogs yapping behind the wheels, and Emma following on horseback. As parents and daughters introduce their many animals and point out their native grasses, the overwhelming impression is this is a family that is deeply tied to their land. This couldn’t be clearer when I ask Nicky what the challenges are to running a business from home. “Challenges? I think there’s a lot of advantages! You’re here and it’s your home. I think it’s the way to go, really.”
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