Myth of the brumbies: From ‘menace’ to heritage icon

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While there is a strong love and appreciation of Australian brumbies in today’s society, over the last two centuries this has not always been the case. 

The 1896 poem the Man From Snowy River by Banjo Paterson presented a romanticised view of wild horses in the country’s alpine region and the adventures involved in capturing them at the time.

This idealisation contrasted with actual treatment of brumbies in the following period. 

In 1946, the Courier-Mail published a story saying “war has been declared” by stock owners in the Proserpine district who regarded them as a “menace”. 

“The brumbies have led many tame horses away, inter-bred with tame horses, destroyed crops and spoiled water,” it reads.

In an article published a year later, attacks by brumbies on Central Australian cattle stations had become so extensive a leading pastoralist of the time advocated for “the use of strafing planes to kill them off”. 

“He said that brumbies multiplied at such a rate during the war that they were becoming a national problem. Their ravages, and those of donkeys, camels, and wild dogs and dingoes were causing untold losses to pastoralists,” the article reads. 

IN THE MOUNTAINS: Brumbies in the high grasslands near Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains. Picture: Fairfax file image

IN THE MOUNTAINS: Brumbies in the high grasslands near Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains. Picture: Fairfax file image

Later that year this approach was reported as being “impractical”, as it was much cheaper to employ men to shoot them at a rate of two shillings and six pence a head – about $8 in today’s currency. 

Another story tells of a different method used to eradicate brumbies in 1923.

Titled “Death gallop: Butchering brumbies the North West way”, it discusses how shooting wild horses in the Far North West was once profitable due to the money that could be earned from their hides, but as the hides dropped in value stations began disposing of the animals by other means. 

“The brumbies, many of which are fine, handsome creatures, are run into a large yard. Here a man with a sharp knife makes an incision in the jugular vein near the shoulder, and the animal is driven forth, spurting blood as it gallops. The faster it gallops the sooner its strength fails, and then it crashes to the ground and dies. The object in view is to get the brumby as far away from the yard as possible before it succumbs, as there is not enough firewood to burn the carcass,” it reads.  

At a time when 1500 of horses were eaten in England’s capital every week, published under the title of “Brumbies to feed Londoners” a different proposal was made to deal with Australia’s wild horse problem in 1948. 

“Negotiators have been proceeding for some time with the object of exporting horseflesh to England for human consumption,” it said.