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Australian bush horses and riders

Australian bush horses and riders

What makes Australian horses and riders distinctive? What differentiates their history from the histories of horses and riders in other countries? Join Carol Cooper, senior curatorial fellow and keen horsewoman, as she explores the origins and passion for bush riding in Australia.

Neale Lavis riding Wattle Grove, December 2013.
Champion equestrian Neale Lavis riding Wattle Grove at 'Strathallan', near Braidwood, New South Wales, December 2013. Photo: Diego Zambrano.

Sharing bush horse stories

Carol Cooper
Carol Cooper

I believe that our early and continuing association with the bush is at the heart of the question about what it is that makes Australian bush horses and riders unique.

I'll be presenting my thoughts and research here, in conjunction with the National Museum of Australia's Spirited: Australia's Horse Story exhibition, on show in Canberra until March 2015.

Please contribute comments or reactions and share your own ‘Bush horse and rider’ tales.

Neale Lavis and international victory for bush riding and horses

The incredible international victory for Australian rider Neale Lavis at the 1960 Rome Olympics three-day equestrian event is where I began my exploration of bush horses. How did Neale and two other Aussie farmers riding their 'Australian ponies,' rise above the longstanding equestrian traditions of Britain and Europe to win gold at this prestigious event?

Share Neale’s personal story through our tribute film, 'A bush rider's Olympic story'. Learn about Neale’s first bush pony and his success in rodeo, campdrafting and eventing before his Olympic selection. Discover his ongoing relationship with horses including racehorse breeding, Light Horse memorialisation and mountain rides with his mates.

Watch 'A bush rider's Olympic story' and learn more about Neale Lavis

Dashing horses, men and women of show-ring high jumping fame

Another instalment will recognise some of the great bush riders and horses who gave inspiration to Neale Lavis. At centre of this story, will be the Chittick family of Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales. I will pay tribute to the work of Alan Chittick in revealing the extraordinary history of the famous horses and riders who competed in show-ring horse high-jumping events, an essential and incredibly exciting feature of Australian agricultural shows in the period 1900 to 1950.

These dashing horses, men and women commanded huge followings at shows along the eastern seaboard. Try picking who is horse and who is rider from names including Musician, Mrs Stace, Maisie, Bob Chittick, Nelson Chittick, Dariel, Rowley Doctor, Thumbs Up, Lady Radium, Dolly Fogg, Dungog, Emilie Roach and Azara!

Famous national horses and riders pitched themselves against local heroes and amazing feats of high jumping were celebrated with enormous rivalry and enthusiasm.

Indigenous Australians an essential part of the bush riding story

Rowley Doctor, one of the most famous riders of the Depression years was Aboriginal and he and Jimmy Callaghan (also Aboriginal) were the only riders clever enough to win competitions with the fiery, champion jumping pony Thumbs-Up. Why was this the case? Alan Chittick says simply that, ‘they really understood horses’, but I am eager to explore this question.

While the contribution of Aboriginal people to stock work in northern Australia is well recognised, participation of south-eastern riders in almost all aspects of bush horse riding including, buckjumping, rodeo, racing, high-jumping and circus pursuits is less well known. Through an Aboriginal lens, I will be re-looking at these areas, and back further still into the 19th century, to trace Aboriginal contributions through drovers, stockmen, black trackers and the native police. 

Bush culture horse sports

Other horse sports generated through bush culture are also integral to the development of bush riding in Australia. Included will be early steeple chasing and the fine art of playing polo, which contributed to the development of the Waler breed and the formation of the legendary Australian Light Horse mounted regiments. These are subjects which fold naturally into the origins of bush horses and riders, as is the complex cult of the brumby, and the rise of the Australian Stock Horse and its much loved bush accoutrement, the stock-saddle.

Neale Lavis with his favourite Australian stock saddle.
Neale Lavis with his favourite Australian stock saddle. February 2014. Photo George Serras.

Words and images of the bush

Overlying almost all these subjects are the vivid images of Australian bush horses and riders in art, poetry and literature. Their wild spirit has been captured and celebrated as an icon of Australian life. I hope to be able to indicate something of the great depth and richness of this material.


People and the Environment

This online feature is written by Carol Cooper, Senior Curatorial Fellow, National Museum of Australia. Horses in Australia is part of the National Museum's People and the Environment program. Discover more stories about people's relationships with Australia's natural and built environments on our People and the Environment website.