MOST urban Australia Day activities rarely acknowledge the unique role an Australian breed of horse played in shaping the cultural and military history of Australia.
There were no native horses when Australia was colonised by the British in 1788. The newcomers began importing thoroughbreds which became a profitable enterprise, but it was soon realised these horses were no match for the harsh Australian conditions.
The infant colony prioritised the development of purpose-bred farm and saddle horse which had the capability to not only carry pioneer explorers and adventurers, but also the subsequent timber getters, gold miners, drovers, transport, soldiers and militia over long distances, while at the same time still able to plough fields.
This new Australian breed was created using mostly three parts thoroughbred thrown with either a Capers, Timorese, Irish, Welsh, or Clydesdale depending on the needs of the owner.
Originally called a Brumby, these horses ran wild and free in unfenced farms across the NSW frontier landscapes, a rough playground in which to develop unprecedented stamina, flexibility and resilience.
Mustering from a wild mob gave owners the benefit of horses who were raised with a herd mentality. The colts were taught their place by the bull stallions and lead mares gave them a discipline not usually seen in thoroughbreds raised by human hands.
Many of Australia's pastoralists and squatters, while they bred thoroughbreds for the colonies' horse racing industry, also bred brumbies for the Commonwealth as remounts for wars.
The first war horse shipment left NSW for India in 1834 and it is here a new name for the Brumbies originated with the Indian army officers referring to horses from New South Wales as "Walers".
This horse shipment started a 100- year export trade with around 500,000 horses leaving our shores mostly for use in war. One of three major regions in NSW to contribute remounts to this unfolding Australian story was the Clarence River catchment.
When squatters and pastoralists moved north and settled in our region, the early work of some of these pioneers would see them breed some of Australia's best thoroughbreds, remounts and young men who would later heed the call of the Cooee marches and sign up for war.
Many of these young men and their horses together joined Australia's Mounted Cavalry troops and became known as Bushmen Contingents. They brought with them the horse skills they had learned as a young boys living on the land.
After years of combat on ancient battle fields, under horrific conditions, many of these young soldiers would come to be known as the legendary mounted troops, the Australian Lighthorse.
These mounted troops saw action on the front line at Gallipoli, Beersheba and Pozieres and all of them had with them an Australian Waler, the horse which at one time was regarded as "the best military horse in the world".
The First World War remains Australia's greatest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties with 60,000 killed, 156,000 wounded and 149,999 Walers not returning home.
The profitable remount trade ended when with the mechanisation of the Second World War and Australia's Cavalry units turned to motor transport. The need for Walers declined rapidly and later it went on to become one of the foundation lines for the Australian Stockhorse.
The Clarence River Catchment paid a heavy price for Australia's Military heritage. Diggers' names appear on cenotaphs all around the region, but the only two places the Waler gets a look in are a statue at Armidale and the Guy Fawkes River National Park where around 800 Australian Heritage Brumbies run wild and free.
The Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association was established a decade ago to educate the wider community of the cultural and heritage value of the Brumbies while at the same time managing their population.
See guyfawkesheritagehorse.com for more information.
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