Scenes from Snowy River

“I hear the thundering of hooves long before I spot two wild horses racing across the horizon. Ears pricked and heads held high, they eat up the distance between us, bits of earth flying into the air from beneath their feet. The pair comes to a standstill nearby, so close that I can see their flared nostrils and trembling legs. … The scene could have been right out of Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’.”[1]

Thus writes Hannah Dunn in the latest issue of Open Road magazine, a motoring and lifestyle periodical produced by the National Road and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) for their members. But exactly what is Dunn invoking here? Because I have realised there are many ways to perceive the scenes of this poem.

David Brooks, in his essay ‘Cracks in the fray: re-reading The Man from Snowy River‘, highlights the animal cruelty inherent in Paterson’s iconic poem. In fact, Brooks begins his essay by recounting the many incidents of cruelty towards horses found in Paterson’s work, before moving to The Man from Snowy River specifically. The lines that Brooks considers ‘some of the most troubling’ [2] in Paterson’s oeuvre are those describing the Man’s horse at the close of the chase:

But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
         He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;

Brooks positions the horse’s injuries here as deliberately inflicted wounds for, rather than being poetic license, they accurately reflect the terrain described in the poem: the horse’s hips bloodied as he was spurred uphill, and his shoulders as he was ridden downhill.

I do not think it is this deliberate flagellation that Dunn is trying to evoke; nor do I think she takes into consideration any of the environmental implications of brumbies in the high country when she invokes Paterson’s work. Rather, what she is trying to convey is some sense of an authentic Australia. The fact she recites a list of the (native) animals she’s seen immediately after recounting her brumby encounter, indicates a sensibility that considers the brumby alongside the dingo, the eagle, and the wombat [3] as uniquely Australian animals.

Yet in the real world of the Snowy Mountains, it seems that all is not well with the brumbies. While Parks Victoria is currently in the consultation phase for its Wild Horse Management Plan, as is the New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service for their equivalent policy, anecdotal evidence shows the brumbies themselves are suffering.

recent blog post by scholar and skiier Jessica Hancock describes the slow starvation of a small group of these horses. The post is accompanied by heart-wrenching photographs of the animals, bones protruding and eyes dull. Published on 31 July, their plight has been updated via the comments. The last of these horses died on August 13. [4] Despite the author having reported the situation to park authorities, it seems that, in the current climate, it is politically safer for horses to be left to die rather than to humanely put them down.

So when Heather Dunn conjures The Man from Snowy River in her piece promoting horseback treks in the Snowy Mountains, I no longer see the cultural reference point she intended. Instead, I see the suffering that humans have wrought upon the horse, whether in fictional form or through ‘But our hands are tied!’ bureaucratic neglect. And it’s not the sort of scene I wish to witness.



[1] Hannah Dunn, “Riding High” Open Road July/August 2014, 52.

[2] David Brooks, “Cracks in the fray: re-reading The Man from Snowy River”, Jacket 39, 2010.

[3] Hannah Dunn, “Riding High” Open Road July/August 2014, 52.

[4] Jessica Hancock, ” Dead Horse Gap: the brumby debate”, July 31 2014.


3 thoughts on “Scenes from Snowy River

  1. Romanticisation of anything is inherently problematic, because it necessarily involves ignoring any associated inequality or injustice… so while romanticisation of Ned Kelly, or Gallipoli, or brumbies may help us to develop a national identity, it always comes at the cost of intentionally forgetting as much as preserving the past. The brutality of “The Man from Snowy River” is a great example too, because even when reading/hearing the poem, so few of us actually pick up on the animal suffering!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s