Central and North Burnett Times - - PULSE - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

WILL ZILLMAN Pro­fes­sional ath­lete to horse whis­perer

It’s a well-known phe­nom­e­non that pro­fes­sional sports­peo­ple can lose their way when they re­tire but NRL vet­eran Will Zillman seems to have found his. There cer­tainly wouldn’t be too many ex-footy play­ers who re-emerge as horse­men but Will al­ways had an eye on where he was head­ing. “I was work­ing on it for a couple of years ac­tu­ally,” the for­mer Gold Coast Ti­tans lu­mi­nary says. “For the past four or five years I was play­ing, I’d spend the off sea­sons learn­ing as much as I could about dif­fer­ent meth­ods of horse­man­ship. “I’d contact peo­ple whose styles I ad­mired and ask them if I could spend time with them. I didn’t mind pay­ing. I even trav­elled over­seas to some of them and I just learned so much in those years.” Will, 31, comes from a long line of horse and cat­tle­men. His fam­ily on his mother’s side has been on the same cat­tle prop­erty out­side Proser­pine, in the Whit­sun­days re­gion, for more than 100 years. “I’ve al­ways loved rid­ing horses,” he says. “And I’ve al­ways had that thirst for knowl­edge about them.” But be­ing a prodi­gious footy tal­ent way­laid him for a while. Will played rugby league in his ju­nior years but switched to rugby union at high school in Bris­bane and, in 2003, was se­lected in the Aus­tralian School­boys side. He re­turned to league the next year and was of­fered a ju­nior con­tract with the Can­berra Raiders. He played in the Queens­land Un­der-19s side and the Aus­tralian Ju­nior Kan­ga­roos in 2005 be­fore mak­ing his NRL de­but for Can­berra in 2006 at 19. “In the five years I was in Can­berra, I would have only rid­den once or twice a year,” Will says. “But when I came to the Gold Coast, I wanted to get back into it again.” Af­ter he signed with the Gold Coast Ti­tans in 2009, Will bought land and a quar­ter horse and started to read all he could about horse­man­ship. He be­gan do­ing a bit of work with horses on the side, as much as be­ing a pro­fes­sional footy player would al­low. Horses gave him an es­cape from the world of pro­fes­sional rugby league and the de­mands of the weekly win/loss cy­cle. He says horses al­lowed him to get to know him­self bet­ter. Af­ter re­tir­ing from footy at the end of last sea­son, Will now runs his own busi­ness of­fer­ing a full range of horse­man­ship ser­vices, spe­cial­is­ing in start­ing and train­ing horses and the sub­tle art of achiev­ing rider-horse syn­chronic­ity. “I work with a huge range of dif­fer­ent horses and peo­ple,” Will says. “Quite a bit of my work is start­ing horses — I don’t use the word breaking — and I’ve set­tled into a method that gives the horse the best op­por­tu­nity to do well with­out too much force.” Will es­pouses a gen­tler ap­proach than the old breaking meth­ods of dom­i­nat­ing a horse and he’s happy that’s the di­rec­tion the in­dus­try seems to be head­ing. “There’s a lot of peo­ple out there these days who’re very con­scious of the wel­fare of the horse and so many peo­ple want to re­late to their horse and have that con­nec­tion with them, so all my clients are pretty much on the same page as me.” Will is happy to share his horse sto­ries, running through some of the an­i­mals that have left their mark on him. It’s hard to re­mem­ber him speak­ing about rugby league with such pas­sion. “I love work­ing with ex-race­horses,” Will says. “There are some great peo­ple these days who take them on. They’re so tal­ented, those big thor­ough­breds. “I’m work­ing with a stock­horse at the mo­ment, a geld­ing, and he’s one of the quick­est learners I’ve ever seen. He’s a bit of a nervy horse but I’m train­ing him. He’s a real special case. “Then there was a waler. They were the horses taken into World War One by the Aus­tralian Light Horse. You can see why. They have a real calm about them. She was the most beau­ti­ful look­ing mare. “The thing I love about this work though is that ev­ery horse and client is dif­fer­ent.” But the ques­tion re­mains? Af­ter 13 years in the NRL, does he miss footy? “The an­swer is a bit of a cliche,” he says. “Parts of it I miss, the ca­ma­raderie that comes with be­ing close to a bunch of re­ally good mates ev­ery day and go­ing through the ups and downs to­gether. But this is pretty hard to beat.”

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