At 4.15am Jackie Merchant willingly stumbles out of her warm bed an hour before her beloved horses need to be fed.
She rises well before dawn to capitalise on the quiet time, to write from 4.30am until 5.30am.
Then she pulls on a coat and boots to go out in the crisp air to feed Percy, Moxie, Douglas and her adventurous pony Mrs Wilkinson.
It’s a labour of love but by the time her day job starts as a community development officer with the Central Coast Council for the past five years, she’s already put in several hours of work at home.
Home for the 48-year-old debut novelist is a picturesque property at the end of a country road at Thirlstane.
Merchant uses an encouraging tone to approach Douglas, a young horse she says is not as sure of himself or as reliable to pose for photos as her older steeds. However, today Douglas is happy to meander over by himself to say hello to a couple of strangers.
As well as her horses, Merchant shares her life and a small farm with four kelpies, one wire-coated dachshund and two cats, Maggie and Brigette.
Larer this month Merchant will achieve a significant milestone in any fledgling writer’s life, when her first book for young readers The Promise Horse is launched on July 19.
She hopes her good friend, well-known Tasmanian writer Rachael Treasure, will be there to do the honours. Treasure has become one of the country’s favourite rural romance novelists. Treasure’s post on Facebook said how much she loved The Promise Horse: “Australian writing at its finest for kids - and adults who love good writing. It's not just about horses, but also children navigating grief. Congratulations to my dear friend Jackie for realising a dream.”
Welcome praise for the ex-Sydney advertising agency art director, who said after moving to Tasmania 16-years-ago she knew it was meant to be.
“When I had come down to do an art course I felt immediately at home; it was an instantaneous thing,” Merchant said.
Tassie was the place where she could live her dream to have horses and write about what she loves.
“I’m just going to have to say you are just born that way – it’s instinctive and it’s inescapable,” Merchant said of her passion for her horses.
“When I moved to Tasmania finally I had the time and it was affordable to have horses, which it wasn’t in Sydney – I felt a real yearning to get back into it and the great thing is it connected me to a whole new community.”
Her husband at the time was Tasmanian and he worked for the department of parks and wildlife in the North-West.
Up until a year ago, when her writing took over more of her time she competed as much as she could at dressage events.
“I was a show rider in Sydney when I was young and got the bug again after a riding lesson when I moved here,” Merchant said.
Merchant said she was the only member of her family to feel so connected to horses.
“I don’t know if it’s one of those things that jumps generations,” she said.
“I think if I could explain it I’d solve one of the great mysteries. All I know is my love affair with horses has been a constant in my life.
“People often comment that getting up before dawn, in the cold and the dark to feed and change the horses’ rugs – and repeating that very same routine at the end of a long day – must be a huge drag and exhausting.
“I always answer them the same way.
“Horses, just like riding and writing for me, even if it takes me well into the night, brings its own energy, the energy that comes from doing what you love.”
Her grandmother was a keen storyteller and a great reader.
“She loved words and we did the crossword with her as little children,” Merchant said.
“Each week when she stayed with us we would get into bed with her and she would tell us a story.
“Mine was always the same, about a pony she rode to school named, Darky, and every Friday her father gave her money to buy chocolate from the shop, but she would keep it until she rode home to share with Darky, who would hear the rapper and know.”
Merchant said her grandmother’s tales stayed with her.
“When it comes to writing and crafting stories, I see them as if watching scenes in a movie, and they come together as if I am weaving a blanket,” she said.
“I studied to be an artist and I think therefore, I see and think in pictures first.
“For me, every story has a definite colour palette.
“When I think of The Promise Horse, I think of deep, red earth, the pink of galahs, orange and turquoise.
“The (next) story that I am currently weaving has its own palette of plum purple, bright red, chocolate brown and a pale, watery grey.”
Merchant explains in the biographical publicity material for her new book how right from the beginning horses captivated and fascinated her.
“...just ask my parents who had to distract a child still in a car seat from horses out the window of the car to have any chance of getting anywhere on time,” she said.
“The first horse I loved was a grey gelding named Diamond who was kept by the road on the way home from my sisters piano lessons, I would beg Mum to drive home ‘Diamond’s way’ just so I could see him from the car window.
“I hate to think how much I frustrated my teachers, constantly daydreaming about horses – which they never failed to mention in my school reports, with strong suggestions that more attention to school work might be more beneficial than daydreaming about horses and lunchtimes in the library looking at and reading horse books.
“Little did any of us know I was already working on what I was meant to do.”
Merchant said there were plenty of ponies around the neighbourhood where she grew up but none were hers. When she was 10 her parents bought an old run-down riding school and finally her first pony arrived, a kind-hearted mare named Pansy.
“Later, I did own a horse called Marksman, Mark for short, though he was nothing like the Marksman from The Promise Horse,” Merchant said.
“Initially, he was a challenging horse and to be honest, not much fun to ride. He did, however, end up being a fantastic horse and a friend, and to this day, if I could ride one of my childhood horses again, it would be him. I wish I had known then how truly wonderful he was, and that horses like him do not come along every day. I would never have let him go.”
Merchant’s book tells the story of a young girl called Harry who moved to the country with her family to try to move on from the death of her sister.
“It’s about the promise made to Harry of a horse...it’s really about what Harry learns from that horse which helps the whole family to transition,” Merchant said.
- The “Promise Horse” book launch is on July 19 at the Ulverstone Library at 10.30am. Followed by Merchant hosting a “horse and pony story slam” session for young people.