Brumby Country

I’ve never felt so small and incompetent, which is weird because I’m small and often feel incompetent. This is the closest I’ve ever got to a horse, and the first time I’ve ever straddled such a magnificent creature, which is strange given that horses follow me through life.

Sherry, my equine companion for the three-hour trail ride through the Snowy Mountains, looks similar to the chestnut racehorses that pass my house most days. I don’t have a great relationship with ‘the sport of kings’ – my dad’s relationship with bookies far deeper than with me. Yet, in Melbourne’s inner-north-west suburb of Flemington, every single day it’s impossible to ignore horseracing. We turn onto Racecourse Road to get to the shops, our local cafe is a converted heritage-listed stable, and the preeminent Victorian racing track is at the end of our street (parking restrictions apply).

Over a morning coffee we can see the sunrise gleam off the CBD in the distance and hear horseshoes hitting bitumen from round the corner before trainers steer horses directly past our verandah. Blinkers attached to bridles remind me of the hats in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but also of how actual religious or military groups use uniforms to manipulate (figuratively and literally) what society sees. It’s easy to look at the glamour of horseracing and ignore the less noble effects; the grounds on which class welfare plays out (compare daily punters at the TAB, slaves to their addictions, forever looking for a win with people at the Melbourne Cup, knocking back the VIP tab at private marquees, frocked up and looking to be seen), where these majestic beasts face annihilation once they are no longer useful.

Sherry is an ex-racehorse saved years ago from being shot or sent to the slaughterhouse. Sherry now lives on the property where we’re staying for a few nights. ‘Snowy Wilderness’ is a retreat for brumbies and humans alike. Before I mount her, Sherry stubbornly plants her hoofs into the ground, anxious to leave her holding pen. I’m grateful for her reservation (it mirrors my own secret reluctance).

Her owner, Justin, pulls her forward, kisses her snoot, rubs her mane. ‘You’ll warm up to it once you’re out there,’ he whispers, and I pretend he’s reassuring me.

**

We’re road-tripping from Flemington to Canberra and leave before dawn – even earlier than the stable horses and their trainers. We decide to take our time, stretch and snack as needed, and of course stop at country op-shops.

My boyfriend parks the car and runs to the toilet with the same urgency as my dash to the secondhand store. The first book I find is a once-loved copy of Elyne Mitchell’s classic The Silver Brumby, ear-marked and fingerprinted with the singular devotion of a young reader. I read a line at random: ‘Spring comes to the Australian Alps like an invisible spirit’. I flick the pages back to the beginning, to Ralph Thomas’s illustrated map of the Snowy Mountains, the setting of this story (that is, The Silver Brumby, but also mine). In the corner of the map, where a key would sit, Thomas has drawn a crude image of the continent and written two words across its centre: Brumby Country.

It’s dusk when we arrive at our first destination, Canberra, the midpoint between Sydney (the lands of the Eora Nation) and Melbourne (Naarm, the lands of the Wurundjeri People). It would have taken us ten days on horseback (thanks, Google) to reach Australia’s capital that takes its name from the Ngunnawal “Ngambri” meaning “meeting place”.

Having never ridden a horse before, why would I arrange a trip around seeing brumbies or share strange facts with my partner or read a vintage young-adult book that holds no nostalgic ties for me? Why would I write this essay, when people who read and write about horses tend to be horse people? Elyne Mitchell forged a career writing equine literature for all ages and was a renowned horsewoman. Leo Tolstoy’s love of the species translated into a novella Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse, told from the titular creature’s perspective. Frederick Henry Huth amassed such a substantial collection of ‘curious and scarce books about Horses’ that in 1887 he published Works on Horses and Equitation: A Bibliographical Record of Hippology – a book about horse books.

We’re driving to the Australian Alps, via the National Library of Australia in Canberra, because in my thirty-somethingst year, I’ve become fascinated with Australia’s wild horses, how they remain a source of political and cultural interest.

Call it the Banjo Paterson effect: how the Snowy River Pegasus flapped its wings and enchanted a nation.

**

It’s written on the white pages of our white history that domestic horses – before becoming wild and free brumbies – were first introduced to Australia by the British. To ensure the horses’ survival, members of the First Fleet brought livestock from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay (Ka-may) – from a colony, rather than the motherland. There were seven horses in total: one stallion and two mares, the property of the government; and one mare, two fillies and a colt purchased by Admiral Phillips, the first governor of New South Wales, who founded the penal colony that later became Sydney.

Before technology enabled draught horses, and before the colonies expanded and developed alternative destinations and roads, domestic horses weren’t used for labour in the penal colony (people were). There was little use for horses beyond establishing agricultural credibility among the colonies or social standing in the community, so they were bred mostly privately. According to scholar Matthew J Kennedy, saddle horses were so scarce they ‘normally sold for prices in excess of one hundred pounds and the value of horses was to remain high until after 1815’.

It’s the first day of spring when we arrive at the National Library. After sub-zero temperatures overnight, the sun bounces off Lake Burley Griffin. It’s the artificial jewel at the heart of this artificial city, named after its American architect.

After stowing my oversized bag in the library’s free lockers, I head into the precious space and read book after book about the brumby. The etymology of the term, much like the origin of wild horses, is mixed. Managing Vertebrate Pests, published by the Bureau of Resource Sciences, states: ‘The first record of horses either escaping into the bush or being abandoned was made in 1804’. This date is repeated, time and again, omitting any reference to the man allegedly responsible: James Brumby.

When James Brumby joined the British Army, he was a six-foot eighteen-year-old with a sallow complexion. A year later, Brumby set sail for Australia, arriving in Port Jackson in 1791. Serving in the New South Wales Corps, he was later transferred to Van Diemen’s Land where he was allotted 100 acres of land and livestock in Norfolk Plains.

Brumby came from a long line of Lincolnshire farmers and horsemen. The post-medieval surname originates from the eponymous village in that English county. The name Brumby was first listed as ‘Brunnebi’ in 1086, derived from the Scandinavian ‘bi’, meaning farm or byre, showing Viking traces in this land going back to the eighth century.

James Brumby came from pasty, pastoral stock; he was such a horse person that when he died a ‘respectable settler’ in his property in Richmond Hill, his family had the hide of his thoroughbred chestnut stallion – confusingly named Buffalo – skinned and tanned to become a family heirloom. But as legend has it, Brumby let his horses roam free, unable to take them when he relocated from New South Wales to Van Diemen’s Land in 1804.

It’s hard to believe that a man who historians call ‘honest and industrious’, who became a ‘respectable settler’, would willingly have left horses behind to roam free – especially when they were worth a pretty penny. As James’s descendant Ian Brumby notes, allotting etymological responsibility to his ancestor is ‘a nice story for our family’.

How easily nice stories featuring nice white men become quoted history.

**

Justin is a modern-day horseman. His fascination with brumbies and the Australian Alps sits firmly in the camp of Banjo Paterson iconography, of our pastoral history. Before we head out on our trail ride through the Snowy Wilderness property (where it is actually snowing and it is certainly wild), Justin excitedly tells us (my boyfriend and me, our instructor, and Tina, an experienced horserider and nurse from Canberra) that he’s driving to Adelaide next week to collect a statue of the fictional ‘Man From Snowy River’ that a previous guest has made for him.

When 121 stockmen and women rode into the arena at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics to the musical score from the 1982 movie The Man From Snowy River, all eyes were on Australia. That same year, at the turn of the millennium, more than 600 brumbies were culled by aerial shooting in the Guy Fawkes River National Park to international outcry.

It wasn’t the first time Australian authorities had come under international scrutiny for culling the brumbies. The world reacted with outrage in the 1980s at news of similar aerial culls of the Northern Territory’s wild horse population. Animal rights activist and Beatles WAG Linda McCartney even made a statement:

Men who go around shooting animals should be castrated. They’re no different from rapists and murderers who should share the same fate. It’s like watching white hunters in Africa; they say they’re ‘culling’. I say ‘killing’. It’s pathetic that there is no place for horses to run. Surely, the Australian Government can find a bit of land in that vast country where the horses can live in peace.

Since that time, the plight of the brumbies has received increasing public attention. The current New South Wales government is still refining its new wild horses management plan. News outlets report each week on potential culls and trappings, along with stories about those like Justin who rescue brumbies.

People are becoming more engaged, and more divided, about what defines nature and how to maintain natural ecologies. It’s a combination of globalisation, increased scientific awareness of environmental causes, and discoveries about the devastating impact of industrialisation. Conservationist and Deakin University Associate Professor Don Driscoll is firmly pro-culling. He explains that Australia’s 400 000 feral horses degrade many of our ‘protected’ areas, and that horses are a major threat to many threatened species in the Australian Alps. Driscoll’s own work indicates that brumbies put the endangered Corroboree frog at high risk by damaging its habitat.

**

At the National Library, I take the grand marble stairs to the weighted silence of the Special Collections area. I collect my request: This ferral Australis!,a limited-edition mockument, printed and bound by artist John Hinds in 2014. The foreword reads:

For millions of years before the introduction of the first feral Homo Sapiens, this primordial and isolated continent of Australia peacefully evolved many unique species of Flora and Fauna. Successive invasions of Homo Sapiens have led to catastrophic disruptions and the evolving of new hybrid ecosystems. This book toys with ideas of Feral-ness, or is it Ferality?’

Of the four domestic animals included, the horse (equus) is the first. The art-work is a faux-colonial document, a ‘highly political work’ and as only ten exist, it could be considered a rare breed. The book is wrapped in tissue, stored safely in an archive, handled with care and only released upon request under the protection of Special Collection staff.

Horses were domesticated around 3000 BCE, long before white settlers delivered their equine cargo onto these Southern shores. And now, only 250 years since horses were introduced into this ecology, onto unceded territory, Australia has the largest wild horse population in the world.

There are arguments that ‘brumby’ has Indigenous origins, from ‘baroomby’, the Pitjara Aboriginal word for ‘wild’.

‘Brumbies’ are great untamed creatures broken in by stockmen, written about in books, attributed to legend – not introduced and released on this land via European lineage. ‘Feral’ connotes something dirty or uncivilized, something other; something damaging to that which is relatively untouched. None and all of these descriptions embody everything the brumby is in the contemporary Australian conscience: Brumbies are wild, wild contradictions. 

Besides the Rugby Union team and a few bakeries, there are no brumbies in the nation’s capital. Canberra strains with compromise; a man-made city of artifice and artifacts, designed to be Australia’s capital in the early twentieth century. It’s the concession ‘in between’ spot to placate Melbourne and Sydney, a through-line built on bureaucracy and tourism. On our way to our accommodation, we pass the National Dinosaur Museum and I wonder, as we head toward the sixth extinction, whether humans will be memorialised, or if we even deserve to be.

Even though we are staying on farmland outside the city centre, and Canberra isn’t exactly bustling, I am desperate to move away from words and towards the experience in the Snowy Mountains. As we’re heading to Justin’s property, situated on the lands of traditional custodians, the Ngarigo people (with groups such as the Walgalu, Ngunnawal and Bidhawal also with connection to the land),  I recall a collection of thoughts posted recently on Twitter by Allan Clarke – Muruwari man and investigative journalist at NITV. Clarke suggested reframing the way we look at the land we pass through, playing a game called ‘decolonise your mind’. It’s a ‘simple mental exercise we can all do’, he said, with simple rules:  take a moment to ‘imagine all the land I’m passing through how it was before invasion … that this was once just us mob here’.

As a passenger in the car, I’d been thinking this way. But when I was driving, in control, it wasn’t really on my mind. Looking at the roads we drive through, how they cut through the land as if sliced with a scalpel, I wonder how this place looked before. As the GPS guides us, I consider how the maps – now programs – we follow were etched by those who ‘discovered’ the regions; how plans of the area divide plots into owners and property into public and private geography. Once they weren’t there; we weren’t there. My parents are migrants from the biggest colonial perpetrators, England and the Netherlands; I know this isn’t mine.

I didn’t consciously book this horseride adventure to live out any kind of masculine or colonial fantasy, to further subscribe to some Australian dream – but even if I’m only here for the experience, I’m still buying into something. In Quarterly Essay in 2003, Tim Flannery wrote of the ‘beautiful lies’ Australian’s tell and are told about migration and the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Early in the piece, Flannery dismantles the archetype of that signature stockman, ‘The Man From Snowy River’:

Yet our worship of the self-reliant stockman neatly sidesteps the fact that the men of the cattle frontier were the shock troops in our Aboriginal wars. As Henry Reynolds has so amply demonstrated, during our frontier wars – the only wars ever fought on Australian soil – thousands of men, women and children were killed in battle or murdered in cold blood.

**

Justin has a number of rescued horses on his property, from ex-racers to wild brumbies donated by National Parks during previous attempts to round up, trap and diminish the Kosciuszko wild horse population. Before we arrive, he warns us that three new brumbies have found their way onto the property, naturally migrated. ‘They startle easily,’ he says.

I am visiting the Australian Alps as a tourist. When an unexpected blizzard blows in with spring’s invisible spirit, we awaken from a nap to see the ground covered with deep white dust. And, as if I’m living a Nicholas Sparks novel, the three brumbies appear, slowly grazing just outside the windows of our cabin. They’re shorter than I had imagined. These aren’t the creatures pictured on branded signs for distilleries or other businesses along the way. Their coat is short and frayed, they look like nobler donkeys, but they are still a sight to behold.

‘You’d be hard pressed to find a good-looking brumby these days,’ our instructor, Britt, tells us during the ride. She explains that as a consequence of inevitable inbreeding in the wild mob, you couldn’t even fit a saddle on their backs anymore.

But we do manage to find a truly beautiful brumby foal on the trail. It is feeding from its grey-haired mother. Britt says we can get close because it’s been on the property since birth. The foal is less than a year old with a coal coat and a bright white star on its forehead; it looks touched. Its mother mated outside the brumby line, Britt explains. This foal is part waler and totally tame.         

‘Do you know what a waler is?’ Tina asks me.

The origin of the word waler is indisputable. A breed of Australian riding horses that developed from those brought to the colonies, walers were a mix of various ‘good blood’: part thoroughbred, Arab and the horses initially imported from the Cape of Good Hope. Walers were beautiful, practical creatures used by stockmen and the military alike. These horses were important during the peak trade period, when Australian breeders shipped out to various armies. And before we turned our guns on them, horses were fundamental to the famous Australian Light Horse Brigade of mounted troops serving in the First World War.

Humans repeatedly turn to killing, to culling, in order to exterminate their problems. Brumbies aren’t the first wild creatures at which Australians have aimed guns. In the 1930s, the Western Australian emu wars saw headlines such as ‘Emu War Justified by Damage Done’. People were encouraged to turn on the native bird due to the apparent destruction it was causing to crops. The Western Mail were photos of about 400 dead birds culled by men with machine guns. As time passed, monetary incentives were offered to exterminate the creature that sits beside the kangaroo on our national coat of arms.

Britt informs us that National Parks put a stop to rounding up brumbies and giving them away because people were taking advantage of the scheme: ‘They’d say they were going to break the brumby in for their kid or grandkids, then take them to the abattoir for 60 bucks and turn them into dog food’.

‘Brumbies are just horses,’ she sighs. ‘They just want to eat and slowly move their way through the day. The pigs are the real problem.’

‘And people?’

As my question lingers, I look at my hands clasping Sherry’s reins and wonder what it is about human nature, what it is in our instinct that leads us to dominate and control. I realise that at some point during the ride – between giving her compliments and guiding her in the direction of the track – I’ve stopped being frightened, and I’m actually riding a horse. I’ve taken control. When I hop down, looking up but feeling bigger than ever, Sherry looks me straight in the eye as I gratefully pat her long face.

Back in the main shed, Tracy and Britt tell me I’m a natural. With pride and melancholy I look around this great land, the peaks and sputtering of snow, the trees that creak like doors, the horses milling about, snacking on grass. With all that has come before, it’s both difficult and easy to predict what could come after, and what damage can, and still may, be done.

This essay was originally published in Island 156 (2019).

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