Australia on Horseback: The Story of the Horse and the Making of a Nation
Horses in Australia
A horse is not a dog. That’s pretty much the key to it. The dog wins us over with an unblinking, loyal devotion, the horse by its unfathomable acquiescence. The dog, for all its big eyes and ball carrying, is a scrounger, a hanger on, a camp follower.
The horse’s range of cross-species interplay stops short of lolling-tongued adoration, but it will turn its considerable strength uncomplainingly to all manner of burdens. Burdens that might aid its human partners in creating higher culture; be they the galloping rush of war or bending to the steady strain of harnessed cargo.
The horse is a doer. It makes an impression. Cavalry is all about speed, weight, and impact. A rider on a horse is elevated, commanding. The horse-borne venturer spares his legs and adds miles.
The horse also has a central role in the story of colonial Australia: a fetcher and carrier, tiller of fields, weapon of war, bearer of bandits, and exploratory vehicle; best supporting animal.
Cameron Forbes quotes explorer Ludwig Leichhardt in his abundantly referenced Australia on Horseback: The Story of the Horse and the Making of a Nation, the vanished adventurer recalling the unexpected advantage provided by the horse in early encounters between mounted Europeans and first Australians, encounters made fearsome by the indigenous assumption that horses shared the attributes of a more familiar semi-domesticated quadruped.
“The natives considered our animals to be large dogs, and had frequently asked whether they would bite (which I affirmed, of course); so that they themselves furnished us with a protection, which otherwise I should not have thought of inventing.”
Native Australians would master first their instinctive apprehension and then, of course, the subtle ways of horsemanship, most famously in the working of stock loose reined in the outback’s red dust, but first – and with ringing and tragic irony – in pursuit of their own people as deputised mounted trackers.
The violent and often fatal confrontation between white and black in the early years of colonial occupation absorbs the early chapters of Forbes’ book, a work that takes the horse as a unifying device for various themes, vignettes and perspectives of the Australian story.
It’s a hit-and-miss approach, not so much for the quality of the content as the convincingness, or otherwise, of that organising device: the horse.
Forbes says a lot about the early Black Wars of occupation, the massacres, and the random killings that cruelly cleared this country for “settlement”. It’s sad and shameful reading, and a solid contribution to the growing documentation of this long forgotten aspect of the Australian story. But it’s a telling that sits a little oddly in this structure: a book that often rests its claim to be telling the story of “Australia on Horseback” on the recurring but thin coincidence that its cast of characters quite often arrive in a saddle.
The structural task is a simpler one for Nicholas Brasch in his Horses in Australia: An Illustrated History, a book that rests its narrative burden on “180 stunning images” as much as on the sometimes slightly hackneyed prose that accompanies them.
But Brasch tells a simple and fascinating tale, one that lacks an ambitious historical conceit of the type attempted by Forbes, but is the more straightforward – “from Cobb and Co to Black Caviar” – without it.
Both books have a single and considerable advantage, that there is most certainly a story to be told here: a neglected thread from a familiar weave of events. The tale of the horse in this country is sometimes cruel, sometimes heroic, sometimes simply a series of dull and dutiful events, but the horse’s input has been an uncomplaining constant, a sentient subtext, a contribution for which we ought all fell a little tug of gratitude and wonder.
In the case of Forbes’ work, the occasional fragility of the idee fixe is a quibble that fades as the book moves on through tales of exploration made possible by stumbling, emaciated but unstinting equine cooperation; of bushrangers who flash through the bush and towns on gleaming thoroughbreds of uncertain provenance; of gold rushes, war, and, eventually, naturally, the track.
Both books begin at the beginning, with the ponies of modest pedigree that huddled on the tossing decks of the Lady Penrhyn, an equally unassuming component of the First Fleet. The horses joined to convoy at the Cape of Good Hope and bedded down in the wind and wet and cold, stamping their hooves above the little ship’s other cargo, the colony’s first female convicts.
Brasch quotes the Account of Live Stock in the Settlement of May 1, 1788, for the colony’s first equine headcount: one stallion, three mares and three colts.
Better stock would come in short order and steady quantity. By the turn of the 19th century a handful of imported thoroughbred sires were sowing the seeds of the Australian bloodstock industry, bloodlines that still fill the stables of racing trainers, and carry punters hopes.
They had utility, they were a thing of dull necessity, but horses also became sources of status and standing, objects to be prized and nurtured … or stolen.
It is when Forbes deals with his several tales of well-mounted bushranging that we get a sense of a quality of that old life that is hard to grasp with the modern sensibility of a mechanical – never mind digital – world.
This world of Ben Hall and Ned Kelly was one in which the horse was a key element: perhaps the most valuable possession, a necessary, essential component of daily life. And a living thing.
The relationship between human and horse is a tremendously complex and subtle one, a thing of the body, mind and spirit. It can be based on an instinctive affinity – one that was probably more common in the 18th and 19th centuries – but it must still be refined, cultivated, learned.
Clear communication between horse and rider is set in a series of mute riddles, a living braille, a subtle language of weight, hand, leg and will. All of it resting on the horse’s strange but abundant desire to do what it can to divine human meaning and quietly offer co-operation.
A wonderful phrase from Forbes captures a sense of this depth: “Kelly has been described as eloquent on a horse.” And in its way this quiet evocation of Kelly’s graceful skill also sums the intention of these histories: to reveal a fresh aspect of the familiar.
So it is too with war and its loss.
For the horse perhaps the most tragic moment of our time together as Australians at home and abroad came in the First World War. Horses dragged guns and stores, dashed into hails of gunfire through some of war’s last conflagrations of cavalry … and in the end?
Major General William Bridges, shot through the thigh in Gallipoli, was one of only two Australians whose bodies came home after the fighting of 1914-18, fighting that would kill more than 60,000. The other was an unknown soldier, now interred at the Australian War Memorial.
And Bridges’ horse? Forbes tells the story: “Sandy, the general’s charger, was one of 6100 horses shipped to the Middle East. Australian sent a total of 31,348 walers for overseas service with the AIF and another 81,987 to India. Sandy did eventually return, the only horse to come home.”
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning …
* When Jonathan Green isn’t riding Merlin he presents Sunday Extra on ABC Radio National.