It’s almost forty years ago that I first saw Brumbies.
I was on a week-long wilderness ride in the Barrington Tops riding a young Thoroughbred, Bassie. It was his first trek, and he decided to jog-trot for the entire time, which did a lot for my core and leg muscles, and not so much for my sore rear end.
A rest day meant a chance to explore the Tops on the horses and as we made our way through tracks amongst the gum trees, we suddenly spotted a small herd of bay Brumbies, their colour in sharp contrast to the white snow which had fallen the night before.
The horses showed little concern for our presence, until we got too close for comfort, and the stallion went on red alert, galloping his mob off for the shelter of the wooded hills and into invisibility. The sight of them left me with a curious wistfulness – they were so free, so much part of the landscape.
Where had they come from I wondered, these particular horses? How long since their ancestors had pulled carts, provided transport and ploughed the land for their human companions? Bassie’s gangly uncoordinated moves made him seem like an entirely different creature to these small, sturdy, swift ponies.
That was in the early 1980s, before the park was turned into a Wilderness area, and the Brumbies removed – although I understand from the Hunter Valley Brumby Association that around 150 remain in the lower reaches, in the park rather than in the Wilderness area.
Fast forward to 2020, (with a few wilderness rides in the intervening decades), and here I am again, riding on a Guy Fawkes Heritage Brumby, Guy Fawkes Carnaby, now renamed Mello, through the state forest near Kendall, not far from Port Macquarie.
Kathy Holtrust, who runs Southern Cross Horse Treks has always used Arabians as her steed of choice, but recently decided to take two Brumbies – Mello and Guy Fawkes Dodge – to train up as trail-riding horses. The pair had been passively trapped in the Guy Fawkes National Park a few years before and had gone through the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, run by Erica Jessup. The Association offers the horses for sale to the public, keeping a formal register and a Stud Book and both Mello and Dodge went through their initial training with horseman Taphyl Stewart before Kathy purchased them in 2019.
As we travel through the forest, taking some winding steep drops covered with vines and branches, what strikes me is Mello’s spatial awareness. We squeeze between saplings that are only a millimetre from my leg and my mind flashes back to the Australian Brumby Challenge at Equitana in Melbourne in 2018. If one word was going to leap out at me from all the images of Brumbies competing in the Challenge, it would be ‘brave’.
Kathy agrees. “The Brumbies are much less reactive than the Arabians,” she says. “They’re quickly turning into steady and safe horses. They have great hooves, and they keep weight on well.”
I’m impressed with Mello. His walk is so free and easy, I just sit there; his trot is steady and his canter remarkably comfortable. He’s keen to have a gallop when there’s one available, and equally happy to walk along the forest tracks, his nature kind and inquisitive and obviously happy in this new life.
It’s this potential ‘new’ life for Brumbies that made the news that Parks Victoria was planning a cull by ground-shooting with ‘noise suppressors’ and ‘thermal imaging equipment’ of the Eastern Victorian Alps High Plains Brumbies so distressing – the shooting announced by Parks Victoria the same day as the Australian Brumby Alliance lost its case against Parks Victoria in an attempt to prevent the removal of significant numbers of Brumbies from the Eastern Victorian Alps and the removal of all Brumbies from the Bogong High Plains. The cull was met by stiff opposition from Brumby supporters around Australia, most publicly by Omeo horseman Phil Maguire and his wife Louise, who raised money against their family homes to try and prevent the slaughter of the Bogong High Plains Brumbies.
Despite the fact that ultimately they were considered not to have legal ‘standing’ and were therefore unable to proceed with their case, Phil is adamant that their actions achieved their goal.
“We knew from the start that Parks Victoria only had an opportunity to shoot between May and June 22,” he says, “so we don’t want the focus to be on the court case, and winning or losing, all we cared about – and still care about – is saving the lives of those horses. These Brumbies carry a priceless cultural heritage. Generations ago our family would breed Walers up in the High Country for the Waler sales, and these horses are descendants of those horses.”
There has never been a commercial goal to their desire to save the Brumbies, Louise stresses. “We don’t want to sell them, or take them off and re-home them, if you do that they’re not Brumbies anymore. We know that country, our property literally backs on to it – we don’t even have fences – they were burnt out in the last two bushfires, but we put salt out for the horses to encourage them to come on to our property.”
What Phil and Louise achieved in a short space of time in terms of financial and public support was extraordinary, and what they hope is that they have bought a permanent reprieve.
“Once the window is closed for this year’s shooting, the current management plan runs out next June,” Phil says, “and there will have to be community consultation. We believe that we’ve created enough publicity and outcry for Parks Victoria to take how they manage Brumby populations very seriously.”
(The million-dollar question remains however, as to whether Parks Victoria, with no legal impediment to stop them, may shoot through winter anyway.)
Jill Pickering, President of the Australian Brumby Alliance, is resolute in her belief that the presence of Brumbies in the National Parks of Victoria should continue in sustainable numbers.
“It‘s critical that Parks Victoria separate deer impact from horse impact,” she explains. “It actually became clear during the case that it’s the deer that wallow, pull up plants and rub on trees, but Parks Victoria don’t want to acknowledge the difference between horses and deer. It’s estimated that there are a million deer in the Victorian Alpine parks, which based on the 2019 Cairns count, minus recent bushfire deaths in the same area means there are 300 deer to one Brumby, and yet somehow it’s Brumbies that are facing extermination. We urgently need another independent count of Brumby numbers since the drought and bushfires.”
The opposing arguments for and against the continuing existence of Brumbies in our National Parks are pretty simple – the anti-Brumby groups believe that Brumbies are part of the feral animal problem in Australia that pose a threat to returning the land to what is often referred to as a ‘pristine’ environment. (In Victoria, for example, Section 17(2)(a)(iii) of the National Parks Act provides that exotic fauna must be controlled in national parks, with Brumbies being classified as exotic fauna.)
Those for the Brumby argue that the National Parks in Australia have already been manipulated and changed beyond repair since the first white pioneers arrived to build their new lives. In Australia, that evidence is perhaps clearest in both the Kosciuszko National Park, and the Alpine National Park where the sub-alpine plains were used for grazing for cattle for well over a century, and where mining, the development of hydro power, the creation of numerous ski resorts and the continued presence of four-wheel drive vehicles, hikers, skiers and fisherfolk have already permanently changed the eco-system. It is an eco-system, Brumby supporters argue, that has created a symbiotic relationship over the past 150 years between the horses and the flora of the parks.
Justine Curatolo, President of the Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia Inc, believes that a large part of the misinformation surrounding Brumbies is related to a lack of knowledge about the benefits of nomadic herbivores.
“In Europe, where they are undertaking ‘rewilding’ programs they’ve discovered that landscapes with wild horses are recovering much more quickly than those without,” Justine says. “The natural principle is that wild horses promote vegetation regeneration, and we can see this in areas after the bushfires have passed through. Due to the nature of their monogastric, single-chambered stomachs, their seed dispersal and seed regeneration through their nutrient-rich manure is very high compared to other large herbivores.”
It’s impossible to mention the word ‘bushfire’ without paying tribute to one of the most-recognisable stallions of the Kosciuszko National Park. Cooma-based photographers Michelle and Ian Brown have been photographing Brumbies in the Alpine Parks for years, and like many other lovers of the mountain Brumbies, have been devastated by the disappearance of the great Paleface, his son Bogong and their herds.
“We’ve had to accept that they perished in the fires,” Michelle says. “Paleface was so strong, so beautiful – he was the Silver Brumby of our time in a way, and those of us that love the Brumbies miss him terribly.”
As a species which allegedly (according to Wikipedia) numbers no more than 400,000 Australia-wide, the Brumby is considered to be only a moderate pest, and yet somehow seems to attract more than its fair share of negative attention from authorities, which is curious to me because an obvious difference between horses and other feral animals, is that once rehabilitated, Brumbies adapt to their domestic life remarkably well.
To put the figure of 400,000 in perspective there are, for example, 1.5 million feral camels in Australia, and over one million deer in the Alpine National Parks alone, according to an ABC news report. According to the then Federal Department of the Environment feral pigs have been considered to be the worst mammalian pest of Australian agriculture since 1987, and according to their figures there are five million feral donkeys in Australia.
Horses arrived here in 1788 with the First Fleet, and by 1860 there were 160,000 in Australia. For a long time it was survival of the fittest, gradually resulting in the appearance of the Waler – so-called because it had its origins in New South Wales. The Waler soon earned the title of ‘breed’, developing into an extremely hardy horse. (In the First World War 120,000 horses, many of them Walers, went to war – only one, Sandy, came back.)
In the meantime, out in the bush natural selection was creating a very similar horse – the Brumby – a wild horse differing in each state depending on its environment and founding stock mix, from the Percheron-like Brumbies of the northern parts of Western Australia, where horses had often come from the huge stations, to the petite ponies of Coffin Bay in South Australia. The rare Pangaré Brumbies on the coast of Western Australia, south of Geraldton, with their curious light patches of colouring, appear to have adapted well to their coastal environment, and don’t appear to be damaging their main diet of saltbush, with the Department of Environment and Conservation and the Outback Heritage Horse Association of Western Australia (OHHAWA) monitoring these particular Brumbies to ensure the careful management of this unusual breed.
When the decision was made to remove the Coffin Bay ponies from the National Park, a solution was found by providing them with their own private reserve, and a solid re-homing program – similar to New Zealand’s management of their wild horses, the Kaimanawa. All of these outcomes suggest that with a bit of goodwill Brumby populations can in fact be managed.
What Australian Brumby supporters desire is a carefully managed fertility control and passive trapping program of reduction, with no shooting or aerial culling, and small, sustainable populations to keep the legend of the Brumby, complete with all its cultural, eco-tourism and potential environmental advantages alive.
For a long time culling in any way – aerial culling, ground-shooting, Brumby-running and sending the captured Brumbies to slaughter was seen as the right of National Parks and State Governments around Australia, until in October 2000 in the short space of three days, 600 Brumbies were shot by aerial cull in the Guy Fawkes River National Park by National Parks and Wildlife Service contractors in helicopters. The public outcry, and the painful deaths those horses suffered, resulted in the NSW Government banning aerial shooting of Brumbies, and brought the plight of the Brumby to national and international attention.
It was the recent controversy around the High Plains Brumbies that took me to my second Brumby ride with Bogong Horseback Adventures who are based at Tawonga, not far from Mt Beauty. The Baird family have been running a trekking operation since the 1980s and have been at Spring Spur, their current home, since 1986.
Lin Baird, the current general manager, gave me Phoenix as my mount, an eight-year-old 14hh bay Brumby, born on their property to a Brumby mare trapped on the Bogong High Plains. With a licence to take riders into the Victorian or Alpine National Parks, Lin and his family have spent decades observing Brumbies, and absorbing some of their hardy bloodlines into their riding herd.
Phoenix was every bit as willing and sweet to ride as Mello, and I was intrigued if there was a difference starting a Brumby that has been trapped, such as Mello, with one born on a family farm, such as Phoenix.
“I think all Brumbies have a genetic tendency to be a bit more sensitive,” Lin tells me. “They’re naturally attuned to be a bit more aware of their surroundings, so they always need careful handling, but if they are started correctly they make fantastic horses, and the guests love them.”
The guests also, of course, love the sight of the Brumbies on the Bogong High Plains. “To my mind the deer are a far worse problem than the small herds of Brumbies that are on the plains,” Lin says.
My last stop on my whistle-stop research trip was near Ballarat, to Beaufort, where Colleen O’Brien runs the Victorian Brumby Association (VBA), formed in 2007.
“We have three key aims,” says Colleen, “firstly, to rescue and home Brumbies caught from the wild on public lands; secondly, to lobby and work with the government agencies who have to manage the Brumbies, and thirdly, to educate the public through programs such as our very successful Australian Brumby Challenge, and our Wild Brumby Gentling Clinics.”
On the beautiful property that houses the VBA, herds of Brumbies live in large paddocks, only gradually brought into the smaller paddocks, and then to yards as the gentling process begins. Visiting a paddock full of young (and very quiet) stallions, I was impressed with how friendly and curious they were for horses that were so recently out of the wild and not yet handled. As we walked away from the group, one of them followed me, and nudged me on the back. I stopped, and he did it again – just the gentlest of greetings. It was a beautiful out-of-the-blue moment.
I can only speak from personal experience, but both days I visited Kiandra in the Kosciuszko National Park and saw three or four small herds of Brumbies, I also saw anglers fishing in the clear-running creeks, and visitors delighted by the sight of the 20 or so Brumbies in view. Just as when I had seen them for the first time 40 years ago, something about the sight of them made my heart sing.
Surely Brumbies, an iconic symbol for the wild soul of Australia, have earned the right to be protected from inhumane slaughter in a landscape they have now been part of for over 200 years?