They see rubies, the descendants of horses introduced by European settlers, as symbols of a rugged individualism that they believe is being lost in modern Australia. Maguire’s lobbying for the rubies is part of a backlash to a growing movement in Australia to correct historical narratives that cast white settlers as conquering an “empty” and untitled continent.
Instead, there is now broad acceptance of Indigenous people’s careful guardianship of the land for tens of thousands of years, before their territories and culture were stolen. These efforts have been buoyed recently by the protests against racism in the United States, which have inspired activists around the world to tear down symbols of colonialism.
In Australia, rural residents, who make up less than 30 per cent of the population, have often been at odds with city dwellers and urban politicians, seeing them as out of touch and incompetent in their management of the bush. In New South Wales, which is led by the center-right Liberal Party, former politicians with financial interests in tourism operations that depend on the rubies helped drive a 2018 bill protecting the feral horses.
The move by the state, Australia ’s most populous, dismayed Australian and international scientists, who said it would set a “disturbing precedent”. In the state of Victoria, which has a center-left Labor government, officials say they intend to proceed with culling hundreds of horses after Maguire lost a legal battle there.
But leaving them to thrive in the bush, scientists say, would come at the expense of creatures and plants far more precious and rare. “Our native animals are our brothers and sisters,” said Richard Swain, an Indigenous alpine guide who advises the Invasive Species Council, a conservation group.
But the stakes are immensely high, he adds, when plants that have survived hundreds of millions of years in the harshest conditions are at risk of being wiped out in favor of the descendants of a common farm animal. “In the blink of an eye, a couple of cowboys comes in, wave their whips around, everyone gets all misty-eyed, and those lineages are relegated to the trash can,” he says.
In the United States, park authorities spend more than $50m annually to manage booming mustang populations, which are protected from culling by federal law. In late May, Benedetto and a handful of other activists gathered at Maguire’s property, from which they made their way on horseback towards the foothills of the Australian Alps.
Horses arrived in Australia with the first European settlers, and their feral descendants now number at least 1 million. Image credit: All photos by Jason Edwards. ALL THE ABORIGINAL students perched on the steel fence around the dusty arena want to ride a piebald horse called Allan.
A three-year-old desert crumby, he’s steady and surefooted, with just the right amount of spunk to test new riding skills; he’s also the unlikely poster boy for a unique learning program. “Before we started offering the Certificate II in rural operations, most of these kids didn’t have a good attendance record,” says horseman and mentor Chris Barr, a teacher at the Ontario School in Central Australia.
Twice a week the class travels to the remote outstation of Cholera, south-west of Ontario (Hermannsburg), which Chris aims to make as much as a working environment as possible. The students catch and gently break in wild horses, build fences, sleep out in swags and learn how to make saddles and bridles.
Emulating their historical forebears, six students atop obliging mounts proudly wore Light Horse uniforms. “Half the horses had only been ridden for three months, but they all performed fantastically and the success of the ride entirely turned around community attitudes,” Chris says.
Before that, steeds that make up one of the largest wild populations in Australia were often left to die of thirst or starvation in the summer heat each year. THERE’S NO SUCH problem in Kosciusko National Park, where cooler year-round temperatures and summer Snowbelt sustain lush grassy plains and whispering creeks within the headwaters of the Snowy, Murray and Murrumbidgee river systems.
Our largest populations today are in the rocky ranges and arid plains of the Northern Territory and tropical grasslands of Queensland. “We would like to see the state government acknowledge that the Snowy Mountains crumby has a permanent place in the park and to legislate to protect it.
The News believes that the hard-footed beasts have an impact on the sensitive alpine and subalpine environments where nationally threatened sphagnum moss bogs support delicate creatures such as the she-oaks kink and corroborate frog. There is also concern about the horses role in degrading water sources, spreading weeds and compacting soils in spots where they congregate in the park’s north-east and south.
Rob believes that wild horse management is “tangled up with the dispossession and lingering resentment that cattlemen feel about losing their High Country grazing leases”. Member groups of the Australian Crumby Alliance (ABA), formed in 2009 to lobby the government for humane management, have found homes for about 960 horses in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA during the past decade.
Along the busy Bruce Highway that fringes the Clement State Forest north of Townsville, two people died in separate accidents involving horses and the Queensland government moved to protect public safety. Ecologist Dr Dave Berman, who has studied wild horses around Australia since 1984, believes they pose one of the greatest land management challenges of our time.
“They need to be tackled on a national scale and that approach needs to be holistic,” says Dave, who readily admits that his first showjumping horse was a crumby. We need to work with all the interest groups to find an agreed approach and consider all the methods available to manage our feral horses,” he adds.
Revered for their stamina, agility and sure fondness, former rubies compete in a variety of arenas, from endurance riding and pony club competition to bush racing and showjumping. People such as Erica Jess up, co-founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, report increased demand for rubies captured during trapping operations in national parks.
Catherine McMillan, a portrait artist and crumby enthusiast from the NSW South Coast, prides herself in having owned a number of these “heritage horses and currently has one in training. There was a huge outcry when an aerial cull was first mooted in May 2013 on Tempe Downs station, south-west of Alice Springs, to protect waterholes and cultural sites from feral horses.
They seemed to think that trucking was a benign option, but a lot of horses are killed or injured in the yards or during transport,” Sam says. Whichever side of the fence you sit on, wild horses are now an established part of the Australian landscape, just like feral donkeys and camels, deer and pigs.
For Antoinette Campbell, whose husband is Banjo Paterson’s only great-grandson, joining one of Peter Cochran’s riding treks in the Snowy Mountains in October 2015 was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “To read Banjo’s poetry and then experience the horses in the High Country, one cannot help but feel an amazing connection with these magnificent animals and the rawness of the plains that are their home,” she says.
The Australian Stock Horse was a breed that came about after years of environmental and human selection. Among this foundation stock were Arabian, Barb, Thoroughbred and Iberian horses along with Welsh and Timor ponies.
The use of Thoroughbred stallions over the condition-hardened local mares produced a tough but elegant horse with a good length of leg which can still be seen within the breed today. Lapland, Lawson and Wentworth relied heavily on their horses in 1813 when they crossed the Blue Mountains for the first time.
The Water was considered to be the finest cavalry horse in the world, winning International acclaim for its endurance, reliability and hardiness. Although none of these Waters were to return home, their absence from the gene pool did not affect the horse population in Australia.
Head alert and intelligent with broad forehead, full, well-set eyes, wide nostrils. Sloping shoulder, not too heavily muscled, a well-defined wither slightly higher than the croup.
Hindquarters strong, rounded and well muscled, nicely sloping to give a full line from croup to hock. The hooves hard and in proportion to the size of the horse, with a wide heel and feet straight.
However, the most notable success of this horse can be witnessed in Camp drafting, the ultimate test of speed, intelligence, agility and cattle sense. Australia ’s close affiliation with the horse resulted in its presence throughout Australian folklore.
Stories such as ‘The Man from Snowy River’ and ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ depict the character of these pioneers and their horses.