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Chilla - A Larrakin and a Legend

This article is supplied courtesy of Karen Thrun, author of "Australian Legends, Our History of Outstanding Quarter Horses". Please take the time to visit her website - www.quarterhorselegends.com.aumr_jj

On Saturday 3rd January 2009, the body of Australia's legendary horseman, Chilla Seeney, was carried by horse-drawn hearse to his family's grave site in the little town of Monto, Queensland. Chilla (Charles Alfred) Seeney was laid to rest after losing his long battle with Parkinson's disease and passing away on Christmas day. He was 80 years of age. Chilla was "seen off" by more than 300 of his friends and relatives, a testament to the kind of mateship and respect this charismatic character commanded throughout his colourful, and often controversial, life.

Chilla Seeney was a well-recognised "mover and shaker" in the Australian performance horse industry during its heyday - first throughout the early years of rodeo and roughriding, then in campdrafting, and later with the formative years of the cutting horse industry. He was a man of action, driven by what he called "the three Ds" - desire, devotion and discipline, and coupled with this, a fearless competitive spirit. For Chilla winning was everything and with that fierce determination he excelled at every sporting event he set his mind to.


It began with a brief boxing career that saw him awarded as a Golden Gloves finalist and Queensland's 1948 Welterweight Amateur Champion under the legendary trainer, Snowy Hill. Chilla's father encouraged his boys to spar or use a punching bag, which was usually an old sugar bag filled with tree bark. At the Queensland State Boxing Championships, Chilla's opponent was Neville Poppleton, a young man from East Brisbane with a huge ability and tremendous punching power, considered one of the best welterweights of his era. Handicapped by a bad cut to his right eye, the young Monto cowboy fought courageously in the closing stages to take the title. Throughout a short career Chilla sparred with world champions, won a total of 76 from 80 matches and was never knocked down.

One of nine siblings and raised under a very strict father, this cocky young lad grew up on Bluff View station, the family's Central Queensland cattle property. It was here where he'd developed his expertise as a stockman and an affinity with horses. Chilla was sitting on a horse before he could even walk, because the sooner he learned to ride the sooner he could be put to good use. By the time he was eight he'd joined the family's droving team. The Seeney family creed was that if something was worth having you had to work for it. At fifteen Chilla accepted a job as a stockman on one of Central Queensland's large cattle stations. He started out doing odd jobs, but before long he was mustering, droving, breaking in brumbies, fencing, branding and whatever else was required.

By 1950, with a passion for the buckjumping horses of the bareback and saddle bronc events Chilla had thrown all of his energy into a rodeo career, following the circuit for most of the year. Before long his name appeared amongst the prize winners at several of Queensland's top rodeos. In his second year of roughriding, and still relatively unknown, he won his first Australian title taking out the ARRA's Bareback Bronc Riding Championship at Rockhampton in 1951. Chilla's name was continually listed amongst the top 10 at the end of each year having ridden and conquered some of the toughest and most famous bucking horses of the fifties. However, if Chilla was here today he would freely admit that several of those "outlaws" just couldn't be ridden. The late R.M. Williams, would often say, "When Chilla bucks down, either the gear is broken or the horse is a real terror."

In May 1959, Chilla (27) and fellow competitors, Ray Crawford (31), Robin Yates (24) and Bob Holder (26), set sail for a competition tour of America and Canada. They were the first Australians to compete on the tough US pro-rodeo circuit. George Williams, a US Bronc Riding Champion, was expected to collect them on arrival in San Francisco instead he left a note saying "See ya down the road" along with a set of keys for the cadillac he had left in the parking lot at their disposal. Not being accustomed to left-hand drive or driving on the opposite side of the road, the boys took nearly four hours to find their way out of the big smoke.

Learning that George was riding in a rodeo in Big Springs, Texas, they altered their plans and headed straight there, but they were in for a real shock. American rodeo was a highly professional sport the likes of which these young men had never witnessed before. They experienced a completely different style of saddle bronc riding with their first attempt in an American competition saddle. And, after seeing the Aussie boys giving exhibition rides in their Australian saddle, many of the cowboys thought it was a joke. "You guys sure are crazy," they said. A ‘flat skillet' their mate, George Williams had called it. "We took this old slide-about saddle that us silly fellas used to ride in, and went over there, and those Americans just couldn't believe we got on a horse with that saddle," Chilla recalled. Although their poley saddle had served them well the boys were soon convinced that some major adjustments were necessary if they wanted to bring Australian competition into line with an international format.

Upon returning home with one of the North American saddles they submitted their controversial proposals to the committee of the Australian Rough Riders Assoc. (ARRA), giving exhibitions and eventually taking up positions on the board. Robin Yates made several copies of the new saddle, while Chilla and Ray Crawford fought hard against the resistance for its acceptance, so that Australians could compete on an international level and have a chance at a World Championship title. "There were a lot of bitter rows," said Chilla. "A lot of people, especially older people in the bush, were resentful about what they saw as greater and greater American influence on rodeo, which they considered an Australian icon, as well as Australian life generally. Old grudges die hard in the bush." In the sixties, following experiments with several bronc riding saddles, the ARRA allowed voluntary trials of the international saddle at its rodeos. Fittingly, it was Chilla who won the first Saddle Bronc ride on the new saddle in this country, at the Gill Brothers rodeo at Benalla. In 1965 New Zealand introduced the new contest saddle to their event and the row came to a head once again. Eventually it was adopted by the ARRA as the international standard and Australians were competing in New Zealand, America, Canada and Brazil.

Heavily promoted by radio, newspapers and Hoofs & Horns magazine, full-time rodeo champions became household names. The star roughriders were treated like celebrities, signing autographs behind the chutes and receiving copious amounts of fan mail. Their fans would travel the country to watch them ride. In the early days of Australian rodeo the cowboys travelled by train, their arrival often hailed by a fanfare at the station. "All the town's people knew we were coming on that train and we were bigger than the Beatles!" Chilla once told a journalist. And, just like the Beatles, they were chased from town to town by adoring teenage girls.

Often at a rodeo dance the local girls would get a little flirtatious with the visiting cowboys and if you weren't careful you'd find yourself with an invitation to step outside by some of the more feisty local lads. Chilla's boxing skills had come in handy on more than one occasion. "It was one thing to face these blokes in the ring with a referee, but quite a different thing to be out the back surrounded by a mob of their mates. And a lot of them were pretty tough characters. Those fights aren't on my record, but I didn't lose any of them," boasted Chilla.

These were ambitious, athletic, good looking young men and Chilla was no exception. He became a very popular and well-known personality on the circuit. Country music artist, Slim Dusty sang his praises in Rodeo Riders. Following his trip to the States, Chilla developed his individual ‘persona' - straw hats and western boots, "lucky" red shirts and blue denim jeans held at the waist with a shiny trophy belt buckle, a roughrider's number-one accessory. Not a common sight back then, the influence came from Casey Tibbs, a world champion bronc rider from South Dakota, and it was a trend that quickly caught on here.

After seventeen years of competition and a good number of these spent chasing the Australian Saddle Bronc title and coming so close on several occasions, Chilla's persistence was finally rewarded with a Championship win in 1967. To maintain his lead against his strongest rival, Jim McGuire, he had to rodeo solidly throughout the season.

In a rodeo career that spanned twenty years Chilla also excelled in the events of calf roping and bulldogging (also known as steer wrestling). It was through Chilla and several other top ropers that roping was initially recognised and established as a major rodeo contest. Partnering with the first love of his life and one of the best of the early timed event horses, a pony mare named Baby Doll, Chilla claimed the Calf Roping Titles of 1965 and ‘67. The pair achieved the Runner-up position on three other occasions (‘62, ‘63 and ‘66).

Baby Doll, standing at 14.2 hands, was a highly-intelligent little dynamo and knew how to rate cattle. Her reputation was so great that she was constantly borrowed by other leading riders, especially international competitors, carrying several of them to victory. Chilla once explained why she had the edge, "Baby Doll's secret weapon was her height, or lack of it. Being lower to the ground than bigger horses, the flying dismount was easier and quicker, and so was the remount. When you're looking to save a tenth of a second, that's important." Having the use of top horses like Baby Doll could often mean the difference between eating or going hungry for a rodeo competitor. Many agree that for the timed events there was no better trained dual-purpose horse in her day. Chilla and his little mare were also a popular choice to team up as bulldogging hazers with fellow competitors.

While in the States, Chilla had picked up some tips for training trick horses from Glenn Randall, who'd trained the famous Trigger. Back home Chilla applied them to Baby Doll and the pair were a constant source of amusement both in and out of the rodeo arena. The crowd loved the way Baby Doll would always gallop back across the arena to Chilla once he'd dropped his steer in the bulldogging and allow him to make a running remount. Fans would gather around insisting that he ask the mare to perform her repertoire of tricks. Stories abound about the tricks he taught her, even down to selecting his partner for the evening's dance. Trained to nod or shake her head on cue, she had this "uncanny knack" of always selecting the prettiest girl from the line up! At other times, without any prompting, she would jealously butt in on Chilla's conversations with friends and take up a guard position standing as close to him as possible. Chilla would just shrug it off saying, "She's worse than any woman!" All he had to do was whistle and she would come threading her way through the crowd to him no matter where she was on the grounds. When she wasn't required she would be waiting loyally at the gooseneck. They had an amazing rapport.

Chilla's other rodeo companion was Chico, a first cross QH stallion by Vaquero, owned in partnership with Dally Holden. Chilla hauled his horses from one end of Australia to the other in an old one-ton Dodge truck. With Baby Doll taking centre stage in those days, Chico was used as a campdrafting horse or to demonstrate reining and cutting to promote the Quarter Horse throughout the rodeo circuit. It was not unusual to see Chilla and Chico giving cut out exhibitions without a bridle and the stallion could even run a campdraft course bridleless. Over the years the pair took the winning position at many big drafts including the 1967 World Title Campdraft at Mareeba in North Queensland.

During his visit to Texas, Chilla witnessed his first cutting competition. Watching horses working a cow on a loose rein had a lasting impression on him. In California, Clyde Kennedy, a top trainer of reined cowhorses, inspired Chilla with a completely new attitude towards training. Upon returning to Australia he decided to apply these techniques to his own horses. He set to work on Chico and from 1960 to 1964 the good horse suffered through Chilla's trial and error.

Clyde Kennedy sent Chilla a rawhide hackamore from the States and Chilla put it to good use on Chico. But back then the locals frowned upon western gear and arguments would often arise, especially at campdrafts. He was labelled "a traitor" for riding like a Yank. At one draft in NSW, the committee voted against allowing Chilla to compete in his hackamore. "I started drafting him in the hackamore and winning," he explained, "So they put in a protest and told me Chico had to have a bit in his mouth." Instead he defied the committee's decision by trying something else to get around the issue. "I put a bit in his mouth, but I just didn't attach the reins to it!" he said.

Following the arrival of Greg Lougher and his Clover Leaf horses in 1967, and with some assistance from Greg, Chilla turned his attention to cutting competitions attacking them with the same intensity and becoming one of the early founders of the Australian Cutting Horse Association (now the NCHA). He began to utilise Chico exclusively as a cutting horse and later purchased a Quarter Horse colt, Clover Koolibah, going on to win a series of cuttings. Founded on the bloodlines of this purebred stallion Chilla established Ponderosa Quarter Horse Stud in Monto.

On another trip to the States, Chilla purchased a buckskin colt named Mr Jessie James, who was to become his most famous cutting stallion. In 1976 Mr Jessie James was the only horse in Australia to win five NCHA Titles in his first year of competition - Open Horse, High Point Stallion, Open Cutting, Novice Cutting and High Point Horse. He was awarded as the High Point Horse the following year and again in 1980. Three sons of Mr Jessie James were also campaigned to prove the siring ability of his champion stallion. Kool Jessie was the 1980 NCHA Derby Champion. The following year Jessie's Derrandloc won six out of seven Futurities, including both Moonbi and the NCHA Futurity, and was awarded High Point Novice Stallion. Jessie's Koolibah was a Futurity finalist in 1982.

In a partnership Chilla later imported Lynx Little Pep and gave a repeat performance in the 1988/89 season taking home all five NCHA Titles. Chilla went on to break his previous record by also scoring the AQHA award for Cutting Horse of the Year. Both Mr Jessie James and Lynx Little Pep were inducted into the NCHA Hall of Fame.

Sixteen year old, Patricia Murphy was Chilla's biggest rodeo fan and a good friend back in 1954. Their lives took different roads over the ensuing years. Chilla was married and divorced twice and Pat lost her husband to cancer in 1995. Their friendship was rekindled in 1997 after meeting up in Tamworth. "Chilla shared the last 10 or 11 years with me, when he wasn't on the road," said Pat. "He would come to me at the Gold Coast for peace and quiet with his failing health. Our time together was great." It was "the road" that Chilla loved and longed for and even in the last few weeks of his life he told his doctor that if he really wanted to help him he could by getting him back on the road again.

In his lifetime Chilla was an Australian and Queensland Champion in four sports - boxing, rodeo, campdrafting and cutting. His outstanding achievements were recognised with five Hall of Fame inductions - Australian Pro Rodeo, National Cutting Horse Association (Heritage HOF and Rider's HOF), Australian Quarter Horse Association, Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and the Australian Equine Hall of Fame. One of Chilla's greatest personal achievements was when he scored the highest individual points for the Australian team against teams from several other countries at the International Cutting Horse Championships in Houston, Texas, in 1994 and ‘95. He was granted life membership with the Houston Livestock Show, the first non-American to be honoured.

Chilla's friends have described him as a great mate and high-spirited man with a quick wit, who was always well-presented and very charming. "He was a likable rogue," said Terry O'Hanlon. But more importantly, Chilla was a great all-round horseman, an inspirational teacher (conducting numerous clinics for stockmen, young and old), a super-tough competitor, and one of the strongest promoters of the pleasure horse industry that this country will ever see. A young bloke once said to him, "Chilla, you're a legend" and Chilla responded, "No son, I'm history."

Rest in peace Chilla and we'll see ya down the road.


About Quarter Horses

Evolution of the Quarter Horse

We are heirs to the efforts of past generations. Their desire to have the fastest horse for a short distance brought about the creation of the Quarter Horse.

Pure speed, untempered by a mentality cool enough to handle it, or lacking the conformation strong enough to support it, was of no advantage to the practical pioneer.


Quarter Horse History

Melville H. Haskell was a racehorse man and breeder from Arizona.

He was a key player in the formation of the American Quarter Horse Association in 1940, and was there when it was all happening. His concise and comprehensive explanation of the development of the Quarter Horse from 1607 when the English settled in Jamestown, Virginia until the formation of the AQHA in 1940 can hardly be improved upon.

The following extract is taken from an article he wrote which appeared in the Quarter Horse Breeder (edited and published by M.H. Lindeman 1959).