HOW A VICTORIAN FAMILY ARE HELPING RESCUE AUSTRALIA’S BRUMBIES.
Dave and Colleen O’brien, founders of the Victorian Brumby Association, are doing their part to rescue and rehome Australia’s beautiful brumbies.
THE LATE WINTER sun filters through the trees casting long shadows across the pastures where horses are grazing in a secluded valley at Glenlogie, 190 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. The paddocks run up onto a plateau and to the boundary fence above the valley, and from here a thick wall of forest starts climbing the dark slopes of the omnipresent backdrop, Mount Cole’s looming granite form. The place is Brumby Junction, a 64-hectare property that’s home to Colleen and Dave O’brien. The couple live here alongside their children Josh, 14, and 12-year-old Bridie, their four dogs and numerous other creatures that have found their forever homes here. It’s also a sanctuary and rehoming facility for brumbies that have been trapped as part of management programs in Victoria’s Alpine and NSW’S Kosciuszko national parks. There are currently 60 or so horses here, from mares and foals, to former stallions who were once the kings of wild brumby mobs. Today they are in various stages of their journey to becoming domestic horses. For Colleen, a former dressage instructor, brumbies have been her love and fascination since childhood, growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne reading Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell and dreaming of riding. “Anyone who grew up on Elyne Mitchell’s books loves these horses,” says the 45-year-old. “They’re so intrinsically linked with our heritage, our literature and the psyche of our nationhood. When so much of our heritage can only be seen in museums, one of the wonderful things is to see them in the wild.” In 2001 Colleen and Dave — who works as the CEO of an industrial textile business in Ballarat — began taking in a few brumbies a year that had been culled from the Alpine National Park. “Back then a lot were going for slaughter, and too many were dying. We just wanted to figure out a way to save more brumbies and lobby to try to get a better deal for them.” In 2007 they started the Victorian Brumby Association (VBA), a not-for-profit organisation for brumby rescue and rehoming. Since then Colleen has lobbied governments to retain managed populations of brumbies in the >
CLOCKWISE, FROM ABOVE A foal, born at Brumby Junction from a Kosciuszko National Park mare, will be trained as part of the Australian Brumby Youth Challenge; Colleen leads her riding brumby Illinga in from the paddock with Shiralee following; Bridie with dogs, Chips (left) and Bubbles; boots and rope are paddock essentials; a flaxen maned chestnut from Kosciuszko National Park. FACING PAGE A pair of curious brumbies.
alpine regions, visited wild horse programs overseas, and has rescued, trained and rehomed more than 500 horses. Their temperaments and easy trainability makes them ideal for riding. “I am still surprised how quiet a wild horse is,” Colleen says. “There’s nothing like the connection you get with a brumby you’re training, and I’ve never had that with any other horse breed. The feeling is like a rush when you see the brumby realise you are not going to eat them, and I love that.” But now there’s a new urgency. While NSW parliament recently passed the Brumby Bill, giving the Snowy Mountains brumbies heritage status and affording them some protection, it’s the reverse in Victoria. The government has endorsed Parks Victoria’s new management plan that will see the complete eradication of the small population of about 60 Bogong High Plains brumbies, and drastically reduce the remaining population in the eastern Alps by 1200 over the next three years. These horses have high heritage and cultural values, many bloodlines derived from the Waler horses that served our soldiers as World War One remounts that were bred on stations in the alpine region, and those that worked alongside the pioneers. Colleen fears that the huge numbers targeted in the plan, many in remote alpine locations, will be beyond the limited capabilities of re-homers, and that most are destined to be shot in the trap yards. “We view them as our heritage, and while we support humane management in the wild, we want them to be there for future generations to enjoy,” says Colleen. “The public needs to get behind these brumbies or we’ll lose them, and those heritage links, and that ability to connect with wildness, which is very precious.” The prospect of a flood of horses coming out of the Alpine National Park soon adds all the more urgency to Colleen’s work in preparing the horses already at Brumby Junction for their new lives. And today, down in the yards it’s vaccination
“When I ride out on my horse and have this amazing connection between us, there’s nothing like it.”
and microchipping time for a group of very woolly brumby yearlings. With Bridie on hand assisting, Colleen works with the vet, bringing the horses through one at a time, preparing these little ones who were born at Brumby Junction for their next big adventure. Most of their mothers were from Kosciuszko National Park and were rescued on the way to the knackery. In a few weeks’ time each will be going to a selected novice or professional trainer who, over the next 150 days, will train these youngsters. In November they’ll all come together again in Melbourne at Equitana, Australia’s premier equine showcase, for the culmination of the Australian Brumby Challenge — a program introduced three years ago. It’s a chance for the trainers to demonstrate their skills in front of judges, while promoting the trainability and versatility of brumbies to the general public. The event will include the Youth Challenge for the first time this year. “We have seven kids aged between 10 and 16 doing the challenge with the yearlings, and another 20 adult trainers doing the ridden challenge with older horses,” says Colleen. >
“We’re running the Youth Challenge to support Dolly’s Dream foundation [a charity set up in honour of the late Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett to raise awareness about bullying]. It’s a really fun program where kids get to build a relationship with their brumby, and all that is required is empathy and for them to have good mentors,” she says. “All the trainers then get the chance to keep their brumbies, or if they can’t, those horses are auctioned at Equitana to approved bidders only.” It’s also a means of saving more brumbies, over and above the 50 or so a year that VBA’S programs can handle. “We’re always looking for ways to save more horses. And it will be wonderful to see these beautiful foals — that would not have been born had their mothers gone to the knackery — in one of the biggest horse events in the southern hemisphere.” When the yard work is done Colleen and Bridie bring their own brumbies in from the paddock. Illinga, a silver streaked bay mare from Tantangara in the Snowy Mountains, and Max, a handsome blue roan who was once a stallion in a Kiandra mob — also located in the Snowy Mountains — are Colleen’s much-loved mounts, while Bridie has Buddy, a black from Bago. “For me at the end of the day, when I ride out on my horse and have this amazing connection between us, there’s nothing like it, and that’s why I do all of this.” Mcdowell’s Australian Brumby Challenge finals will be held at Equitana Melbourne on 15th–18th November, visit australianbrumbychallenge.com.au. For more information, visit victorianbrumbyassociation.org
Once wild stallions, these handsome boys are learning the ropes to become domestic horses. FACING PAGE President of the Victorian Brumby Association Colleen O’brien with Max and Illinga — both brumbies that have been rescued from the Snowy Mountains.
The mob of bachelor boys take off across the paddock.
Colleen and Max come up the laneway at Brumby Junction with greyhound Poppy and border collie, Chips.