It was, as many of us can recall, a spectacular opening to the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
A lone horse and rider galloped into a vast arena filled to capacity with thousands of cheering spectators. Pulling up, the horse reared before bounding forward as his rider cracked a stock whip to signal the arrival of the 120 horses and riders pouring into the arena. Watching around the world were an estimated 2.1 billion people, as the Australian Stock Horse took pride of place – putting its best hoof forward for the world to see.
But this extraordinary breed had been immortalised in the nation’s history long before that memorable day. Celebrated in A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s iconic poem The Man from Snowy River and in the movie of the same name, the origins of the Australian Stock Horse stretch back to the arrival of the first white settlers.
In the beginning: In January 1788, the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. With them they brought nine horses – primarily of English Thoroughbred and Spanish stock. Not long after, Arabians were introduced to the gene pool as were the Welsh Mountain Pony and Timor Mountain Pony, breeds valued for their hardiness, and the South African Cape of Good Hope Horse, a descendent of Barb and Spanish horses.
Not only did imported horses need the stamina necessary to withstand the arduous sea voyage, they also had to possess the strength and endurance required to work in Australia’s diverse and often rugged landscape.
Over the following years, weaker horses were culled and only the strongest were used to breed the sturdy saddle horses required by explorers, stockmen, troopers and settlers, not to mention bushrangers! During the 1830s, more Thorougbreds were imported in order to improve the local stock. The end result was a strong, visually striking horse that, taking its name from the colony of New South Wales, was dubbed the Waler.
Such was the Walers’ size and hardiness that they were the natural choice for the cavalry, being well-suited to carry men with their heavy packs and weapons – which is why in the 1850s, nearly 400,000 horses were shipped overseas to serve the troops. Subsequently, British troops rode them during the Indian Mutiny, they served in South Africa’s Boer War, and perhaps most famously, they were ridden by the Australia Light Horse regiments during the horrors of WWI.
The contribution of these horses earned them the respect of many. English cavalry officer Lt Col RMP Preston DSO, summed up the Australian Light Horse in his book The Desert Mounted Corps in these words: “The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world.”
Changing times: While they share similar ancestry to the Waler, the modern Australian Stock Horse has been refined through selective breeding. Today the breed’s attributes combine temperament, agility, conformation, soundness, intelligence and a willingness to take on anything asked of them, with the Waler’s legendary endurance and strength remaining a constant in the Australian Stock Horse breed.
In the mid-20th century, somewhat controversially, some American Quarter Horse blood was introduced, but many breeders preferred to stay true to the classic bloodlines.
However, it was not until 1971 that a push began to give the Australian Stock Horse formal recognition as a distinct breed. On the 28th of April that year, a group of enthusiasts met in Sydney NSW to discuss the formation of the Australian Stock Horse Society. Several weeks later, with the foundations firmly established and more than 100 riders and breeders in attendance, the ASHS was launched on the 15th of June in Tamworth NSW.
International recognition: Today the Australian Stock Horse Society has nearly 9,000 members. Valued for their performance and versatility, the breed has been exported to the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, achieving worldwide recognition. The Society now has Australian Stock Horse breeders in all of these countries, ensuring the breed’s profile will continue to grow internationally, as well as nationally.
A quality breed: One of the world’s most versatile breeds, the Australian Stock Horse is a superb working and performance animal. Their quiet and friendly temperament, speed, agility, great stamina, and athleticism, is coupled with a sharp intelligence – characteristics that make them ideally suited for just about any discipline. From polocrosse, campdrafting and show jumping, to pony club, endurance, eventing and dressage (the Australian Stock Horse Crown Law represented Australia in both World Championship and Olympic dressage competitions) this breed excels.
Still used today for station work and mustering, often in harsh terrain, the Australian Stock Horse has the innate ability to understand and respond to the movements of cattle and other livestock. Conversely, this horse is just as adept at taking centre stage and performing at the ever-popular Australian Outback Spectacular. The inherent traits of the Australian Stock Horse make it suitable for all ages and disciplines, and riders of varying abilities, including beginners.
Keeping it real: To ensure that the bloodlines of this Australian icon are protected, the Australian Stock Horse Society has strict rules regarding registration, recognising Australian Stock Horses that are descendants of the same breeds as those horses ridden by the Australian Light Horse in WWI, and breeds that resided in Australia prior to 1945. The Society currently has more than 190,000 registrations (a number of registration categories are offered), with the heritage of many of these horses tracing back to fourteen foundation sires.
The Australian Stock Horse is sound, sure-footed and agile, and ranges in height from 14 to 16 hands. The Australian Stock Horse Standard of Excellence is the benchmark for the breed’s desired characteristics, which include: a good length of rein, fine gullet, well-defined withers with a sloping shoulder and strong, rounded hindquarters.
Health and care: While many other horse breeds require considerable and sometimes specialised care, the Australian Stock Horse is low maintenance by comparison. There are no particular considerations, other than the usual basic animal husbandry practices. Regular grooming, and care of hooves and teeth are standard, as is access to clean water and good quality feed, supplemented with minerals and grains if necessary.
This breed doesn’t suffer from any specific health issues and life expectancy is generally between 20 and 30 years.
There can be little doubt that if you’re looking for an exceptional, no-nonsense all-rounder with plenty of ability and intelligence, you’ll find all that and more in an Australian Stock Horse.
The Australian Stock Horse truly is the breed for every need.
If you’d like to know more about this iconic horse, call the Australia Stock Horse Society on 02 6545 1122, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their informative website: ashs.com.au.