- Published: 29 September 2020
- ISBN: 9780143772910
- Imprint: Random House NZ
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 288
- RRP: $60.00
Wild Horses of the World
IN SEARCH OF SILVER BRUMBIES
The decision to begin my world trip in Australia was an easy one. Not only does Australia have the largest population of wild horses in the world, but it is also home to the legendary Snowy Brumbies — the genetically isolated herd I was first introduced to, as a child, in Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby books. From a young age I was fascinated not only by the behaviour of these fictional horses, but also by the animals they co-existed with and
the landscapes in which they roamed. As an adult, however, having been to Australia three times to learn about Brumbies, photograph them in the wild and tame them first-hand, it shocked me to realise that many of the challenges faced by the fictional silver stallion Thowra were not only based in truth but also continue to be a matter of life and death today. Stallions do fight to the death, bitter snowstorms really can wipe out entire herds, fire is a very real and constant danger, and often their biggest threats are from humans.
Having tamed wild Brumbies alongside my sisters in 2016, for the Australian Brumby Challenge, I knew that the management and legislation surrounding the Brumbies left much to be desired. But that wasn’t why I was returning to Australia — this time, I was more interested in the horses’ behaviour and their life in the wild. I particularly wanted to understand what life was like for Snowy Brumbies in the snow; something that made it hard to plan the trip. While I used to imagine the herd living in snow-covered mountains all winter long, I knew from previous trips that the reality is vastly different. At the altitude where the horses graze during the long winter months, snowfall is scattered and intermittent; to get the kind of photos and stories I was after, I would need to wait for a blizzard. And finally one came.
As the ‘storm of the season’ raged in the Snowy Mountains, Mum, Amanda and I booked last-minute flights, arriving in the town of Tumut 14 hours later, at the tail end of the blizzard. Driving into the heart of the mountains we passed the skeletons of blackened gum trees, the last reminder of a fire that had destroyed 68 per cent of Kosciuszko in 2003, leaving over half the Brumbies in the region dead. The weather worsened considerably as we climbed in altitude. Even near the Yarrangobilly River, where snow rarely falls, a thick blanket of white covered the ground and the road was icy. Driving slowly, so that we could see through the swirling snow, we rounded a bend and there before us stood two Brumbies.
As I hurriedly pulled on my snow jacket and winter hiking boots I kept an eye on the horses, hoping that my fumbling wouldn’t spook them. But I needn’t have worried; the bay stallion held his ground while the chestnut colt advanced towards us with his ears pricked. Unlike most wild horses he showed no fear, and boldly watched us as he inched closer. Soon he had his neck outstretched, sniffing my camera; I was frozen in place, worried about startling him. However, there was no chance of that. For the next hour the colt shadowed us as we hiked all over the clearing and often reached out to nuzzle us.
Face to face with the wild Brumby colt near the Yarrangobilly River.
While our encounter with the young colt had been dreamlike, it was also the stuff of nightmares. Later that day, a park ranger told us that they were considering targeting the inquisitive Brumby in future trappings because he’d become a nuisance; often stealing food from nearby campgrounds and on one occasion even poking his head inside a tent. This curious colt, who’d undoubtedly tamed himself, was a timely reminder of the importance
of observing — rather than interacting with — wild horses. People had dimmed his wild instincts by feeding him, and because of this, his life and freedom were both at risk.
After encountering the two bachelors, we returned to our 4WD and continued on, hoping to find more Brumbies. This high in the mountains, near the Great Divide, the storm was in full force and we had to strain to see any sign of life. Then, in the half-light, in which the snow gums seemed to fade, we saw the faint outline of five Brumbies standing buffeted by the wind. Setting out, we hiked through knee-deep snow to reach them. Shrubs and fallen logs beneath the blanket of fresh powder made walking difficult and we were unable to mask our approach; startled, the Brumbies raised their heads and spun away, fading like shadows into the mist. Chilled to the bone, exhausted and thoroughly disheartened after a long day — we’d left New Zealand less than 24 hours earlier — we drove back down the road to find somewhere below the snowline to camp for the night. It had taken us hours to find a second band of Brumbies, yet we’d had mere seconds in their presence. I was beginning to wonder just how easy it would be to get the photos and stories I was after.
In the last of the evening light we set up our swags, then tried to make dinner. Soon realising that our camp oven was out of gas, we resorted to munching on a few nuts. Sleeping under the stars, beside pockets of snow, in temperatures of –3 Celcius seemed like sheer insanity, especially with hunger a constant reminder of our stupidity. By 7 p.m. I was layered in thermals and inside two sleeping bags, yet I was still cold.
Tucked up in a swag as I write notes under car lights.
It made me wonder how much colder it must have been in the 1960s when an extreme snow event wiped out the majority of the Brumbies in nearby Namadgi National Park, leaving the population so unstable that the government went in and culled the surviving 33 horses. Shivering, I lay there for what seemed like hours before finally checking the time. It was only 9.17 p.m. As I shut my eyes for a second time I had no doubt it was going to be a long night.
The next morning we woke before dawn to a heavy fog. Heading out in search of Brumbies, the visibility was still virtually non-existent but this time, luck was on our side. Rounding a bend we saw the silhouettes of 20 wild horses grazing near Dip Creek. We began hiking closer, along a shallow creek bed, but the freezing temperatures and deep snow were too tiring. Collapsing in the snow, we waited for better light.
A band of iconic grey Brumbies near Kiandra; the youngest horses, including the yearling in front, are still more black than white.
Dawn came slowly, muted by the heavy mist. As the sun filtered through the fog I recognised a roan stallion and his palomino lead mare, one of the last ones of this colour in the mountains; I’d photographed them in the same region in 2016 and they grace the cover of my book Saving the Snowy Brumbies. It was fascinating to know that they’d returned to the same wintering grounds two years later, and also to see that the stallion had also won several new mares. As we watched, the horses moved off, following the fringes of the gum trees to a nearby hill before making their way down to a glade. Setting off after them, we observed from a distance as the horses split into three distinct bands. The roan stallion had a band of eight, a big bay stallion had just two mares, and the rest were a group of playful bachelor stallions, without mares of their own, who caused havoc amongst themselves.
After sitting with them for several hours, we headed deeper into the mountains. Up near Kiandra, where grey Brumbies are prolific, we spotted 10 horses dozing on the hillside above Racecourse Creek. Again, reaching them meant a long hike out and a battle with steep inclines. Thick scrub and winding creek beds obscured by snow made the journey more difficult and several times we had to pause to catch our breath. Finally we crested the hill, and saw with immense relief that the horses were still resting in the sun. Three were even lying down, enjoying the calm after the storm. The Brumbies were varying shades of grey, black and white, which gave me an idea of their ages. Generally the darker a grey horse is, the younger it is.
There were two stallions. The band stallion (these are dominant males who are generally the only one to mate with the mares within the band) was only about 13 hands high, but although small he was obviously
in charge. His satellite stallion, who hung out on the outskirts of the band, was a bigger and thicker-set steel-grey. Although the satellite challenged the band stallion a few times, the smaller grey was able to assert his dominance with just a flick of his head, a high-pitched squeal and striking out with his foreleg.
This was the first time I’d observed interactions between two stallions roaming with a single band and I found it fascinating, although my observa- tions raised more questions than answers. As my knowledge increased over the course of my travels and I was able to compare herds from different countries, I was able to see patterns forming; in hind- sight, I had missed many key behaviours, both in how these two stallions interacted with each other and within the dynamics of their band.