Australia is renowned for its unique wildlife. But while kangaroos, wombats and koala bears might be national symbols, no animal has been as important to Australian life over the centuries as the horse. The Account of Livestock for the first Australian settlement dated May 1st 1788 listed one stallion, three mares and three colts, horses that arrived from Europe along with the very first settlers. More rapidly followed, and by the 19th century, Australia was establishing its own bloodlines that are carried into the top racing stables today.
It’s not just Melbourne Cup winners that have descended from those early arrivals. Here, we explore some fascinating facts about Australian horses and the unique place that they hold in Aussie culture.
Stock horses mean business
Those initial four-legged settlers were tough. You can be sure that a significantly higher number set out with the First Fleet than arrived in Botany Bay eight months later, and that journey was an extreme extension of natural selection. For the subsequent decades, breeders were quite ruthless in only allowing the strongest and fittest horses to breed, and by the mid-1850s, the Australian Stock Horse had become a recognizable breed in its own right – even if the international equine community refused to accept it as such till 1971!
In the 1800s, the stock horses were used by stockmen to look after their herds of cattle – stockmen were essentially the Australian equivalent of American cowboys. Today, many stockmen still rely on their horses, but of course there are fewer working now than there were 150-200 years ago. Stockhorses are the breed of choice in Australia for dressage, eventing, showjumping and polo.
Brumbies are an invasive species
Australia has more wild horses than any other country. A strange fact when you consider there were no horses in Australia at all until those initial settlers in 1788. Known as Brumbies, there are about 400,000 wild horses roaming the outback. They are not indigenous and their hard hooves cause untold amounts of damage to the landscape, endangering the habitats of local creatures.
Deciding exactly what to do with them is the hardest challenge of all. The approach varies between states and territories. The largest feral horse populations are in New South Wales, Northern Territories and Western Australia. Victoria has set strict monitoring and control on numbers, while ACT has none at all and takes ruthless measures to keep things that way.
Meanwhile, in Victoria, legal disputes are ongoing over the culling of wild horses between the Australian Brumby Alliance and Parks Victoria. The ABA says the shooting of wild horses breaches animal cruelty laws, while Parks Victoria says it is the most humane way of managing the problem.
Gambling on horses takes different forms in Australia
Betting is one of the most popular pastimes in Australia, and the average Australian wagers more than $1,000 every year. Horses are an important part of that, but not always in the way you might think. Yes, racing is popular, and events like the Melbourne Cup attract worldwide audiences. However, the most popular type of betting is on pokies.
This is the term Australians use for slot games, and while they take a variety of themes, horse-related pokies like the 50 Horses slot from EGT are among the most played, both on physical pokies and at online casino sites. Other popular titles with a similar theme include Flying Horse Pokie from Ainsworth and Lucky Horse by High 5. You can click here to see a list of Australian online casino sites if you want to try these games out for yourself.
Phar Lap was Australia’s wonder horse and sparked a 90-year mystery
In the late 1920s, Phar Lap became an Australian national hero. A little like Seabiscuit, who captured American hearts a decade later, Phar Lap was the classic underdog, coming last in his first races, then moving up in class at a rapid rate and defeating all comers. Also like Seabiscuit, he was the subject of a movie, which any horse enthusiast should make a point of watching.
Phar Lap’s story really is like something out of Hollywood. In 1930, criminals tried to shoot him during training, and from that moment on, his owners and backers knew they were up against more than just the other horses on the track.
Phar Lap’s light shone brightly but briefly. He was only five years old, barely in his prime, when it was extinguished forever in April 1932. 90 years later, the circumstances of his death are still being debated. Some say he was intentionally poisoned with arsenic, others that he was given an accidental overdose of tonic. As recently as 2011, new evidence has been found, suggesting that his death was brought about by an infection and had nothing to do with poisoning, accidental or intentional.
The fact that people are still talking about Phar Lap and debating his ultimate fate tells you everything you need to know about how much the horse meant, and still means, to Australians and the magic he achieved in his tragically brief life.
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