When the 11 ships of the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove in January 1788, they carried assorted convicts, including women and children, British Naval officers and crew, supplies and provisions and the beginning of the colony’s horse breeding program. The five horses, consisting of two stallions and five mares, were loaded aboard at Cape Town as the fleet journeyed south, and were most likely of Arabian blood.
When they were led ashore from the Lady Penhryn, and got the first glimpse of their new home, the history of horses in Australia officially began. Not all of the original seven horses survived, but they did reproduce, and when further ships were sent to the burgeoning colony, other horses were sent to join them. Horses were essential to the urgent business of settlement – Australia was a vast, largely unexplored country, and none of the native animals could be used for carrying riders and pulling carts. As the need for horses grew, so did the need for different types of horses for different types of work.
These included coach and draft horses. Luckily, the land accepted them and provided food for these most foreign invaders. But it was a harsh land, and horses had to be bred tougher to withstand the hardships that had killed their First Fleet forebears. From this selected breeding program, which included horses from the British Isles, Europe and Timor, came the hardy Waler, a sturdy horse that could pull coaches, carts and plows, and be useful as a riding horse as well. Named for the place where it was bred – New South Wales – the Waler became just the kind of sturdy, hard-working horse the colony needed.
The English Thoroughbred was also heavily added to the early mix, producing the Australian Stockhorse, a fine riding horse with the stamina and strength to cope with managing stock in the outback. Over the decades, many horses were turned loose or galloped to freedom, and soon Australia also had its own herds of wild horses, known as Brumbies. Because horses in Australia had been specifically bred to withstand the harsh landscape and weather, the wild horses thrived. Banjo Patterson’s poem, The Man from Snowy River, is about recapturing a young thoroughbred colt that had gone wild with the bush horses.
The Waler became famous as the horse that carried Australian troopers into war. They were hardy and agile and easily took to carrying artillery, and adapted to any terrain. The British Army in India eagerly took them, and in1898, they proved their worth in the Boer war, becoming known as the finest cavalry horses in the world. But while their courage and stamina in WWI were lauded by returning soldiers, only one of the 136,000 horses shipped out with the ANZAC forces returned to Australia. Most perished, but many had to be left behind because of strict Australian quarantine laws. Only Sandy, the horse belonging to Major General Sir William Bridges, was allowed to complete three months’ of observation in England until he was declared free of disease and shipped home in 1918.
But while work and transport were the primary consideration in early breeding programs, recreation was also a factor. in the earlyl9th century, settlers started to hold horse races at Hyde Park in Sydney, and started a national obsession that came to its pinnacle in 1861, with the first Melbourne Cup race. The prize was zo sovereigns, and the winner was Archer, a 1oo-8 outsider. This thrilling race became an institution in Australia, and today horses, owners, and jockeys from all over the world compete.
Australia loved all horse sports, and sent its first equestrian team to the 1956Olympics. While the Olympics were held in Melbourne, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm, because Australia’s strict quarantine laws were again the barrier and would not allow horses from all countries into Australia. The first Australian medals were won four years later in Rome. When the Olympic Gameswere held in Sydney in z000, horses from overseas were quarantined under observation until the Games, so the equestrian events could finally be held in Australia.
Today, horse racing remains one of Australia’sfavorite sports, and while horses no longer rule the roads, they are still in daily use in the outback as stock horses alongside motorbikes. The Quarantine rules for horses have been strengthened, but still an outbreak of equine flu occurred in zoo7, causing some events to be canceled as horses could not be moved from the flu-affected areas.
The history of the horse in Australia equates with the history of settlement. You had to be tough to survive in this harsh land, but the horses proved themselves up to the task and continue to thrive.