Australia’s wild horse is known as the Brumby. It is an extremely strong and hardy animal that has managed to survive in harsh conditions for over 150 years. It is found in many areas throughout the country, but the most common ranges include the Australian Alps (southeast) the Northern Territory, and Queensland. The current population is around 400,000 with an approximate 20% increase during years with ample rain.
The first horses arrived in Australia in the year 1788. It is thought that they were Cape horses, or Barb horses imported from South Africa. As settlers continued to arrive, they brought with them many other breeds of horses including Timor ponies, British ponies, many breeds of draft horses, Thoroughbreds, and Arabs. The horses were used for transportation and in clearing and farming the land. Due to poor fencing, many horses escaped and became feral.
As time went on and machinery replaced horses in farm work, people turned the horses loose to fend for themselves. As the herds grew, there were occasional round ups of the horses to try to domesticate and use them as stock horses.
The term Brumby is thought to have originated in the early 1800s. The most common story about the origins of the word has to do with a man sharing the name. Supposedly a soldier and farrier named James Brumby moved from Australia to Tasmania in 1804. He is said to have left behind a band of horses, which became known as “The Brumby’s Horses,” and was later shortened to just The Brumby’s or Brumbies. Another version says that the name may have come from the Aboriginal word “baroomby” which means wild. Another tale says that the name came from Baramba, which was the name of a creek and station in Queensland that was abandoned in the 1840’s, leaving the horses to free-range. Others say that the word came from the Irish words bromach or bromaigh which means “colt”.
Due to the many breeds the Brumby is derived from, they have no standard appearance. An exception to this is the Panarge Brumby. These horses are found on the coast south of Geraldton, Western Australia. They carry a gene which gives them a “mealy” colour, or a lightening of the coat on the underside of their bodies and on their muzzle. These are a unique group of wild horses and are being monitored to ensure their survival.
As for the rest of the Brumby population, domestic mares continue to escape and join feral bands which adds new blood to the herds. Brumbies do have a characteristic hardiness which allows them to survive in harsh conditions. They pass that on to subsequent generations.
Brumbies are a rich part of Australian history, and not always in a “romantic” or good way. They have been known to destroy rangeland and habitat with overgrazing. They tear down fences, carry disease and pests, breed domestic mares and damage precious water supplies. Because their only natural threat is drought and wildfire, they maintain a strong population that must be kept in check through regular culling. This must be done not only to protect the land on which they roam but also for the good of the horse population, which can be subjected to starvation or death during times of famine and disease. The most common methods of keeping the population in check include fertility control, relocation to a different range and euthanasia.
The National Parks Service shoots many of the horses, oftentimes from helicopters. Many horse lovers and animal rights activists oppose this and are trying to come up with alternatives to killing. There are now adopt a Brumby programs as well as “re-homing” charities which tame the animals and find suitable uses and homes for them. The issue remains that all of the control methods are costly.
Brumbies are not a complete nuisance, however. They have many positive attributes as well. They can be used for meat, hair and hide, and can replace stock horses, though that is not common. They serve as a symbol of history and are a popular tourist attraction. There are Brumby training camps for troubled youth for the benefit of both the children and the horses. There are also stockmen competitions what test the ability of a horseman to catch and lead a Brumby in a given time limit.
They can also help native wildlife populations through some of their behaviours. One example is when they paw up water in a dry creek bed during a drought. This provides other animals with hydration. They have also been collared and studied to determine more closely their impact on native flora and fauna
- The Canberra rugby team is called the ATC Brumbies
- Elyne Mitchell wrote the Silver Brumby Series for children and young adults which was later made into a movie starring Russell Crowe and Caroline Goodall
- Famous Australian poet Banjo Patterson wrote about them in the poem “Brumby Run”
- Banjo Patterson also inspired the “Man from Snowy River” movies which feature Brumbies