The history of horses in Australia could fill volumes. From our first settlers, to the mounts of the Light Horse to Phar Lap, we are a culture that loves our nags, even if it just means having a flutter once a year on the Melbourne Cup. But that love affair that grew out of basic need for transport and later gambling created a population of wild horses that today is thought to range around one million. In 1880, the Australasian magazine noted that Brumbies were the bush name in Queensland for ‘wild’ horses. By the mid-1890s, Banjo Paterson’s poem Brumby’s Run was published in the Bulletin and in the introduction he explained that Brumby was the word for free-roaming horses. Where the name originated from is unknown. Possibilities include a Sergeant Brumby who left horses on his Mulgrave Place property in NSW when he left for Tasmania in 1804. More likely the term is the adaptation of two Aboriginal words which were also well known in the 1880s Baroomby, meaning wild and baroombie meaning horse.
After the arrival of horses with the First Fleet in 1788, they were imported for farm and transport, however the numbers kept were low. It was only when horse racing became popular that the population skyrocketed, from around 200 head by 1800 to 3,500 twenty years later. These weren’t your standard stock horses or Sunday rides. Imported racing thoroughbreds from England formed the basis of these numbers with the long sea journey from places like England, Europe and Asia quickly weeding out the weak from the strong. By the 1850s horse numbers had grown to around 160,000, mainly through natural increase. And the animals were strong, the offspring of the healthy horses that had survived the trip across the seas.
It was inevitable that some horses would escape or be left to the wilds of an early untamed Australia. As the pastoral industry grew and horses became vital for livestock work, a lack of fences led to losses. Some were released into the bush, perhaps by new settlers who unable to make a go of their holdings in more remote areas, simply walked off the land. Gradually the replacement of horses by machines changed Australia’s culture from a country dependent on leather manufacturers for saddles and boots – people either walked, rode or drove buggies, drays or sulkies, to a more mechanised society.
Today Australia’s national wild herd is thought to number 1 million. The majority of them can be found in tropical Queensland and the Northern Territory, but I’m sure readers will recall the wild horse helicopter shoot that took place in Guy Fawkes National Park. And in Kosciuszko’s National Park large wild mobs are a common sight for riders and trekkers. Brumbies are found in every state of Australia.
They are a part of our heritage. That mystical romantic link to the Man from Snowy River made real to us by folklore and the likes of Banjo Patterson and Elyne Mitchell of The Silver Brumby fame. They also carry the bloodlines of our history. From our early settlers and the opening up of our lands to those horses that carried our Light Horse Brigade in the last great cavalry charge at Beersheba in 1917.
They are also pests. Feral animals that, unless controlled can damage vegetation. Classed as an environmental threat, and placed in the same category as other feral animals such as pigs, a number of methods are being used to try and curtail numbers. Trapping, where horses are trained for re-homing, mustering of mobs so that they can be yarded and trucked to abattoirs for slaughter, as well as the trialling of drugs to render mares infertile. What’s acceptable differs for everyone. Those wild mobs racing through our High Country and on the arid plains of northern Australia retain a cultural status that for some is sacred. For others they must be managed for the environments sake, then there are those that see a potential monetary value. A difficult issue.