SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — What sort of self-respecting cowboy doesn't know how to ride a horse?
Apparently, the Australian kind. Many jackaroos and stockmen on the country's huge cattle ranches, or stations, have grown accustomed since the 1960s to rounding up herds with helicopters, motorbikes, and four-wheel drives.
That's beginning to change, however, as a growing number of ranches are getting their stockmen back in the saddle to improve the quality of the meat and to economize on fuel costs. In many cases that means sending staff back to Cowboy 101: How to handle a horse.
"The young generation have not grown up riding, as happened in the past," says Tim Gallagher, operations manager for one of the biggest cattle businesses, the Australian Agricultural Company. "We organize an induction week for all new staff, and a big part of that is teaching them how to ride, how to shoe a horse, how to fit the saddle.
"Some are starting from scratch - even those who come from the country and grew up with horses on the farm."
While some ranches train up their own staff, there are also a handful of agricultural schools which teach budding young jackaroos and jillaroos, their female counterparts, the rudiments of life on the land.
The largest and longest-running school, Leconfield Station, is at the end of a dirt track in northern New South Wales. It's now so popular that about half the 1,000 students who sign up each year are European backpackers, keen to live out their Wild West fantasies. Along with their Aussie counterparts, they are taught the realities of life on a cattle ranch, from mustering and whip cracking, to lassoing and fencing.
Wannabe cowboys, some of whom have never ridden before, spend up to six hours a day on horseback, leaving them saddle-sore and exhausted. The toughest test of the course comes when the students have to help catch and castrate a young bull.
There are about 5,000 jackaroos in Australia, but more are being trained up as fast as possible to meet a desperate shortage of "ringers," the name given to experienced stockmen.
Behind the trend is the realization that using helicopters and vehicles in what was known as the "rip, tear, and bust" method of mustering traumatizes livestock. That, in turn, affects the quality of the meat and the price it fetches from increasingly discriminating consumers. The Australian beef industry is worth $8.5 billion a year, with meat from the country's 26 million-strong herd exported to the US, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia.
"There's more emphasis now on the temperament of the cattle. It's about producing quality beef," says Mr. Gallagher. "Stress makes the meat darker and tougher. You can taste the difference between stressed and nonstressed cattle. The industry went through a stage of using only bikes and choppers, but we're now going back to horses."
That means cattle barons are looking around for any hands who can still ride.
Some quit the cattle industry because of mechanization, while others were lured to much higher paying jobs in Australia's booming mining industry. A young jackaroo will earn about $19,000 a year, with no sign that salary levels are rising.
"It's almost impossible for the farming sector to compete and it's becoming enormously difficult for properties to find jackaroos," says David Inall, executive director of the Cattle Council of Australia. "Young people are more attracted to the city, where they go to university or find white-collar jobs. Jackaroos are not yet a dying breed, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find them."
Foreign backpackers can help, but most come to Australia on 12-month working holiday visas and are only allowed to work in a job for three months.
Despite the jackaroo shortage, the legendary Victoria River Downs cattle station, in the sparsely populated Northern Territory, is dramatically expanding its stables.
"Even up until last year, we had very few horses," says Jim Kerr, the ranch's manager. "We've now got about 50, but we've got another 20 on order this year. Eventually we want to build up the number to 150."
Established in 1879, the station is known across the Outback as "the Big Run." It covers more than 5,000 square miles of flood plain and savannah woodland along the wild and remote Victoria River, home to giant saltwater crocodiles.
Canny cattle learn to thwart mustering by helicopters by simply hiding behind trees. To prod the most stubborn, the pilot has to land the chopper and chase the beast into the open before taking to the air once more - a time-consuming business.
"You wind up with more and more cattle that don't respond to helicopters," Mr. Kerr says.
Heli-mustering, as it is known, also tends to separate flustered cows from their calves, leaving the youngsters vulnerable to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and dingoes.
The expense of maintaining sophisticated machinery such as helicopters is another consideration, and the rising cost of fuel has also propelled the return to old-fashioned horsepower.
The vastness of many stations, however, presents its own challenges to those on steeds. One of the most famous, Anna Creek, is the world's largest cattle ranch, covering an area the size of Belgium. It would take weeks to cross such distances, so horses are sometimes transported by trucks to far-flung corners of large stations.
"Bikes and choppers are useful tools but the machines are a bit quick for the animals - they rush them too much," says Mark Perkins, livestock manager for the Colonial Agricultural Company, which has 125,000 cattle on eight ranches covering 8,000 square miles.
Sometimes motorcycles are a bit too quick for the human drivers, as well. As one veteran stockman put it, "a dirt bike can't see holes in the ground."