Australia's Wild Horses

The Brumbies

Brumbies are free-roaming, feral horses which roam the unfenced regions of Australia. The first horses to arrive in Australia came in 1788. Only the fittest survived as conditions were harsh in the new colony.

There are several explanations as to how the name came about.

  1. The name could come from a Sergeant James Brumby who arrived in Australia in 1791. Brumby was a soldier with the New South Wales Corps. He was also a farrier and may have been responsible for some of the horses in the early days of the colony. When he moved from his property at Mulgrave Place in New South Wales to Tasmania in 1804, he left some horses in New South Wales. These were recognised as 'Brumby's horses' and so unclaimed horses came to be known as 'brumbies'.
  2. Another explanation for the word is derived from an aboriginal word for 'wild, 'baroomby'.
  3. And finally, Baramba was the name of a creek and station in Queensland. The station was established in the 1840s but later abandoned. The horses were left to fend for themselves.

The first recorded use of the term is in 1880 when the Australasian magazine, Melbourne, stated that brumbies was the bush word in Queensland for 'wild' horses.

'Brumby' is also an American regional English word used to describe people whose behaviour is inexplicable or whose views are extreme. It is believed the term arose in the south-eastern part of the USA, primarily Georgia and Tennessee.

Young BrumbyCredit: Wikimedia

The brumby is descended from the original horses brought to the young colony in 1788. Horses were first used for farm work and transport. Later, horse-breeding supplied the remount trade. There was no time or place for recreational riding or racing in the early days of the colony. By 1800, it is estimated that Australia had about 200 horses. In 1810 when horse-racing began to gain favour, there was an influx of thoroughbred imports. By 1850, Australia had around 160,000 horses, mostly due to natural increase.

By the 1840s, wild horses spanned the continent. It is believed many were released into the wild for various reasons and left to fend for themselves. After World War I, there was less demand for horses and unwanted animals were often set free. During non-drought periods, natural increase has been estimated at 20% per annum.

Fences were inadequate or non-existent and, as machinery took over from horse-power, some horses were simply set free and abandoned. So there were a number of horses that became feral. Brumbies are a mixed bag with a variety of types, shapes and colours. Heavy horses such as Clydesdales and Shires escaped as did thoroughbreds so brumbies are not consistent in type or any area although most have had to be tough to survive. It was not uncommon for thoroughbred and Arabian stallions to join the brumby mobs and in days gone by some of the brumby mobs consisted of fast, strong horses which had great appeal to the station stockmen.

BrumbyCredit: Wikimedia - Author Cgoodwin

Today there are still some very nice types which are caught and tamed, going on to lead very useful lives as riding mounts in all equestrian pursuits. Because of the quality of the horses in some mobs, in the past 'brumby runs' were organised to capture the best for work on the stations.

Tales of the exploits of  these men and the horses they coveted caught the imagination of poets, authors and artists. These stories are told in poems and stories. Banjo Paterson's immortal 'The Man From Snowy River' was made into a highly successful film featuring Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, Jack Thompson and Kirk Douglas. Slim Dusty also set the poem to music. Another author to write about the brumbies was Mary Elwyn Patchett who wrote a series of children's books based on a 'silver brumby'.

Brumbies are viewed both as a resource and as a pest. There is heated debate as to the best way of controlling the brumby. On the down side, brumbies damage fences, compete with domestic stock and native animals for grass and water, overgraze wilderness areas, foul water supplies and make mustering more difficult. Soil loss, compaction and erosion, trampling of vegetation, reduction of plant species, ring-barking of trees, damage to watercourses, spreading of invasive weeds and various detrimental effects on native species are other concerns.

Where brumbies have been eradicated or culled, there has been an increase in the number of native animals endemic to the region. This suggests that brumbies complete for available feed and water, particularly during times of stress. Brumbies may also pass on exotic diseases. They are seen by some as incompatible with fragile ecosystems as they damage and destroy endangered native flora and fauna. Brumby stallions also steal or mate with domestic mares.

Brumbies are hunted for pet meat and are sometimes sold into the European horse meat market, contributing millions of dollars to the Australian economy. The hides and hair are also used. Some are domesticated, broken in and sold as stock horses, pony club mounts, trail horses and pleasure horses. However, there is a limited market for these horses.

Brumbies are most numerous in the Northern Territory with the second highest population occurring in Queensland. Culling and/or mustering is a hotly debated issue. The methods used are sometimes suspect. Culling and/or mustering protects the brumby mobs as much as it protects the interests of the farmers and cattlemen.

Control method options include fertility control, ground and helicopter shooting, mustering and trapping. All are costly and most are traumatic to the horse. Injecting the horses to make them infertile is one option but it is costly and difficult to treat animals repeatedly as the effects are effective only for the current breeding season. Shooting by trained marksmen is not a humane option in mountainous country where wounded horses might escape. Shooting from a helicopter is the most effective and most cost efficient method but is not acceptable to any animal rights groups. Mustering is labour intensive and is done for either of two outcomes - to relocate the horses or for slaughter for sale. Horses may be lured to a suitable area for capture by feeding. Various charities and groups have tried passive trapping and re-homing of brumbies but the problem is not easily solved.