Horses hold a special place in the hearts of Australians – reflected in the fact that we boast the second highest number of horses per capita worldwide. Horses were instrumental in exploring, pioneering and farming the country. They provided reliable transport, quickly became entrenched in sporting culture, and also went to war for Australia. There’s no denying that horses have had a huge impact since their arrival just 225 years ago.
T I M E L I N E
1788 – Arrival with the First Fleet
Horses came to Australia with the First Fleet in January 1788. Purchased in Cape Town, they comprised a stallion, four mares, a colt and a filly. Later ships brought more horses to New South Wales, helping to meet the colony’s increasing demand for saddle and work breeds.
1801 – Brumby’s wild horses
According to tradition, when soldier and pastoralist James Brumby was transferred from Sydney to Van Diemen’s Land in 1801, he was forced to release a number of horses into the bush. Known as Brumby’s horses and later as ‘brumbies’, the word came to mean wild horses. Mobs of brumbies that most famously roam the Australian Alps today are descended from lost, abandoned or escaped horses that in some cases belonged to early European settlers like Brumby.
1810 – First official horse race
Australia’s first official horse race took place at Sydney’s Hyde Park in October 1810. D’arcy Wentworth’s horse, Gig, ridden by his son, William Charles Wentworth, won the three mile race on the first day. On the second day of racing, Mrs Macquarie presented the Ladies’ Cup, valued at 50 guineas, to Captain Ritchie for the win by his grey gelding, Chance – the fastest horse over two miles.
1844 – An Australian breed
Different breeds were mixed in an attempt to come up with a strong, versatile horse suited to Australian conditions. The result was the New South Waler, a horse capable of fulfilling many needs. In 1844 an important trade developed exporting Walers (as they became known) to India where the horses’ characteristics also satisfied the needs of the British Army.
1854 – Stagecoach services begin
Australia’s legendary stagecoach company, Cobb & Co, commenced services as people sought regular transportation to and from the gold ‘diggings’. Routes were divided into sections between 10 to 30 miles so horses could travel quickly and then be swapped for a fresh team. Cobb & Co coaches carried passengers and mail for 70 years.
1861 – The first Melbourne Cup
On 7 November 1861, a crowd of 4,000 gathered at Flemington to witness John Cutts ride Archer to victory in the first Melbourne Cup – a pairing that went on to win for a second time a year later. The race has become deeply ingrained into the national psyche: it attracts more than 100,000 spectators while the rest of the nation is said to stop whatever it is doing to listen to the race call or watch it on TV.
1890 – Bush hero captures the colt
Banjo Paterson wrote The Man from Snowy River, one of Australia’s most famous poems in 1890. Reflecting the emerging Australian identity, it told the story of a horseback pursuit to recapture the colt of a prizewinning racehorse that escaped from its paddock to live with mountain brumbies. The riders gave up the chase except the young hero, who spurred his horse down the “terrible descent” to catch the mob.
1917 – Legendary charge at Beersheba
Australian Light Horse were mounted troops with characteristics of both cavalry and mounted infantry. In the Palestine Campaign of 1917, 800 light horsemen of the 4th and 12th Regiments rode Walers as they charged the Turkish trenches at Beersheba, winning an important strategic victory of World War One. Regarded as the finest cavalry horse in the world, the Waler is recognised as part of the base stock of the admired Australian Stock Horse.
1930 – Champion Thoroughbred
Phar Lap, Australia’s most famous racehorse became the darling of Australian race crowds during the Great Depression of the 1930s – winning all four days of the 1930 Flemington Spring Carnival including the Melbourne Cup. Suffering an untimely death in 1932, Phar Lap remains an Australian sporting icon and a national hero.
What other events could be added to this list? Please contribute via ‘comments’.