The brumby as heritage

Firstly, an apology for throwing my posting schedule to the wind – I’ve been on holidays! But I hope you will forgive a hard-working PhD student a well-earned break, and now we can happily pick up where we left off! In this post I’m returning to the topic of the brumby, which we have looked at several times already on the blog.

In May this year, the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) published a post on their website outlining the key principles of the Burra Charter,[1] a framework that outlines best practice management of Australia’s heritage. While the Burra Charter is most frequently cited with reference to built (or tangible) heritage, the ABA feels that “it supports our values, for example, where cultural values conflict, the Charter requires that Co-existence of cultural values should always be recognised, respected and encouraged. It is not one culture above another; both have equal value and need to be in balance.”[2]

As Laurajane Smith has argued, heritage is not simply about the past. It refers to a process of meaning-making and engagement that is manufactured in the present, as well.[3] According to Smith, ‘heritage’ is not the sites or the buildings that are commonly associated with the term, but the meanings we ascribe to them.[4] The ABA’s citation of the Burra Charter, a foundational document governing Australia’s cultural heritage, offers an opportunity to consider the brumby in the context of ‘heritage’, and to shape a broader discussion of the horse in this role.

The ABA’s invocation of the Burra Charter may be somewhat simplistic, however it illustrates what Simon Cubit has referred to as a ‘tournament of value.’[5] In this context, the environmental concerns of those opposed to brumbies in National Parks in Australia are set against the claim that horses (particularly brumbies) embody significant cultural heritage values of Australia. These claims bear closer examination. In the first instance, as Cubit argues, nature is a cultural construct,[6] and therefore the environmental values usually ascribed to National Parks could be, if not negated, then at least problematised. On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts might cancel the other out.

However, to further consider the contentions of brumby advocate groups such as the ABA, we must ask in what context the horse is to be considered as heritage. Is it every horse? Is it only wild horses? How did the association between brumbies (or horses generally) and Australian heritage begin? While the horse as a species unquestionably provided Australia with advantage and benefit in the process of colonisation and settlement, it was not the wild horse populations that rendered these services, nor even necessarily their ancestors, given that feral horses were being considered a pest as early as the 1860s.[7] Therefore, the claim that brumbies are part of Australia’s heritage seems factually questionable.

In the case of wild horses specifically, the conjuring power of the brumby as an animal of romance and myth could be argued to originate with A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’, in which a nameless man, on trusty steed, rounds up a herd of wild horses. Though the poem itself might not have been distinguishable from similar verses of the time, its continued repetition and ongoing visibility renders it now part of our heritage, particularly in the sense that Smith conceptualises the term. That is, the ongoing engagement with the poem, and its dissemination across several genres – film, festivals, even the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics – renders us familiar with its tropes. It has come to be recognised as ‘heritage’ through the processes that shape such discourses – frequent repetition and continued visibility. Thus the Man from Snowy River has become part of Australia’s cultural iconography, and the brumbies with which he is forever associated (though they were never referred to as such in Paterson’s poem) are now also described as part of our heritage.

This is a fascinating discussion, and there is certainly much more to be explored on the topic, of which this is only a starting point.


[1] Australian Brumby Alliance, “The Burra Charter”, posted May 12 2015, accessed August 25 2015

[2] ABA, “Burra Charter.”

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 1.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 3.

[5] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[6] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395.

[7] Dale Graeme Nimmo and Kelly K. Miller, “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 408.


4 thoughts on “The brumby as heritage

  1. Excellent start to a fascinating topic! I look forward to reading your further thoughts on the issue! I think that the brumby is undoubtedly part of Australia’s heritage (at least according to Victorians and New South Welsh folk), but the history of how it came to be there is a fascinating one (from a pest to an icon!).

    • Your point about to whom exactly the brumby represents ‘heritage’ is a good one. I’d like to get more of a handle on the sentiments of WA, which does have a significant wild horse population. In fact, according to the ABA website, they’re present everywhere except Tasmania.

      Perhaps the reasons the fascination with brumbies is so strong in NSW/Victoria is that this is where the debates about culling have been most heated. I was in far north Queensland last week, where the brumby population extends into the Daintree rainforest, onto the Tablelands, and well up Cape York, and while talking to a local about my PhD he told me his neighbour, who runs cattle, routinely shoots brumbies on his land. Very matter-of-fact and unsentimental!

      • I look forward to your research in this area! When I posted my photos and story of the starving brumbies, I found that my Tasmanian horse friends were very pro-culling in order to avoid these natural (and slow) deaths, which surprised me.

  2. Pingback: New and exciting terrain! – horsesfordiscourses

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