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The National Museum of Australia's new equine exhibition, Spirited: Australia's Horse Story, will trace how people and horses have together helped to build the Australian nation.

A man on the right looks into a video camera, while filming a horse, at left.
National Museum multimedia producer Jeremy Lucas working on a short film for the new exhibition. Photo: Laura Breen.

In the making

Spirited: Australia's Horse Story is due to open at the National Museum in Canberra in September 2014, with a smaller version to tour around Australia from July 2015. The exhibition is part of the Museum's Horses in Australia project, which commenced in early 2013. It will present stories of the powerful bonds and enduring relationships that have formed between Australians and their horses.

The experience

Silver cup with gold trim and wooden base.
Melbourne Cup won by Tim Whiffler, 1867. National Museum of Australia.

The exhibition will trace how horses have enriched our lives, built our society and shaped our environments, offering visitors the opportunity to discover the powerful bonds that link us with these beautiful animals.

It will draw together objects from the National Museum’s National Historical Collection, including icons of Australian thoroughbred racing, historic horsedrawn vehicles, tools from a 1920s saddlery shop, a World War One Australian Light Horse uniform, equine anatomical specimens and trophies and equipment from the nation's leading international equestrians.

Film, sound and sculptural elements bring the majesty and character of the horse into the space, with specially produced audiovisual elements profiling contemporary equestrians talking about their lives with their horses.

The exhibition will offer a range of experiences for visitors, including:

  • a children’s trail and a specially designed family activity area
  • an extended equine encounter beyond the exhibition, into the Museum's galleries to discover treasures like Phar Lap's heart and the Sunshine stripper-harvester
  • a comprehensive website with extra information about Australia's horse history, behind-the-scenes stories, videos and visitors' horse tales.


Australians have lived with, loved and depended on horses, almost since Europeans first settled on the continent. These beautiful animals have been trusted companions, partners in the thrill of the chase, reliable workers, a way to show off and the source of pleasure, freedom and adventure for thousands of people. The exhibition will use objects from the Museum's collection to explore the themes below.

Australia's first horses

Australia’s first horses traces the arrival of the horse in Australia, and explores how they remained relatively scarce – the preserve of elite and wealthy officials, settlers and military officers – until the 1830s.

Watercolour image showing a man on horseback chasing cattle through a small creek.
Stockman, The Australian Sketchbook, by ST Gill, 1865. National Museum of Australia.

Exploring, surveying and law and order

Exhibits on exploring, surveying and law and order focus on the role of the horse in the expansion of British and European settlement during the 19th century. Horses carried explorers into the inland, enabled miners to get to the goldfields and were indispensable to law keepers and law breakers.

The pastoral station

The pastoral station explores the horse’s importance on sheep and cattle properties in Australia. The horse became an indispensable companion for managing stock and getting around, as well as a means of recreation and, for those pastoralists who prospered, a symbol of wealth and superior taste.

Wild horses

Exhibits about wild horses will examine the history of feral horses in Australia. Horses escaped into the bush from the earliest days of British settlement and many pastoralists soon came to see them as pests. Today, although most feral horses are found in central Australia, the brumbies of the high country figure large in the national imagination as symbols of Australia’s bush heritage.

Copper wire model of a horse and rider.
'Horse and Cowboy', 1999, Tristan Young, Ltyentye Apurte community, National Museum of Australia collection. Photo: Katie Green.

On the road

On the road considers the important role horses played in moving people and things across the continent, especially the transport of wool and other goods from properties to towns or hubs such as paddleboat jetties and railway stations and around cities and ports.

The heart of the exhibition

A series of exhibits will explore the ways humans and horses understand each other: how we communicate, form a powerful bond, and work with and for each other.

We'll also explore the range of horse breeds that live in Australia, with a special emphasis on those kinds of horse that have come to be seen as distinctively Australian.

In the town

In the town explores how horses’ physical capacities shaped towns across Australia. Settlements flourished within riding or buggy driving distance from rural holdings and villages and inns were spaced across the landscape according to the distance a team of coach horses could travel before needing rest, food and water. At each town, trades people such as coachbuilders, merchants, blacksmiths and saddlers gathered to service the needs of horses and their owners.

Horse health and welfare

Exhibits about horse health and welfare will examine the work of equine veterinarians, the impact of horse diseases such as equine flu and Hendra virus, and efforts to ensure the good care and safety of horses that began in the nineteenth century and continue today.

On the track

On the track traces the history of horse racing in Australia. Racing developed as one of colonial Australia’s most popular sports, with races enthusiastically supported at both small country tracks and during the big city racing seasons. Today, the Melbourne Cup is merely the best known of hundreds of horse races – including flat, hurdles, trotting and pacing races – held across the continent.

Printed image of a soldier on horseback, holding a sword in his right hand and a Union Jack flag in his left. 'Come on boys / Follow the flag' is printed on the poster.
World War One recruitment poster by James Northfield, 1916. National Museum of Australia.

On the battlefield

On the battlefield focuses on Australians’ use of the horse during war. Cavalry units were popular across Australian during the 19th century, but by the Boer War they were superseded on the battlefield by mounted infantry. During World War One, horses played only a minor role in combat but they were important in propaganda and recruitment and the Australian Light Horse became part of Australian legend.

Across the city

Across the city explores how horses were once a ubiquitous presence in urban life in Australia, and their sounds and smells pervaded city streets. Horses pulled people around in omnibuses and hansom cabs, delivered goods and supplied residents with their daily staples such as bread, milk, ice and groceries.

On the open range

On the open range explores the role of horses on the vast rangeland properties of northern and Western Australia, and the unique crafts and sports that have emerged from the skills associated with stock work and droving.

In the ring

In the ring concludes the exhibition by considering the history and current popularity of a wide range of horse sports and competitions.

Australians have always challenged each other through tests of their equine expertise and riding and driving skills, and today, although most people no longer use horses in their work or as transport, thousands of Australians keep and ride horses.

Long developed traditions of bush riding, together with high quality equine bloodlines, have produced both distinctive national sports such as polocrosse and campdrafting and enabled Australians to excel in the international arena in sports such as showjumping and three-day-eventing. A pony club exhibit will focus on contemporary stories of young people learning to ride.

The back view of a person riding a horse.
Brook Sample competing in the Tom Quilty Endurance Ride, Queensland, 2013. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

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Exhibition concept drawings

Exhibition designers Bannyan Wood are presenting a series of concept drawings to the National Museum. Click on the images below to view our progress.

People and the Environment

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.