History of the Breed
The Waler is a rugged breed of horse that was formed in the very early years of Australian Colonial history; possibly with roots stemming as far back as from those horses who first arrived aboard the Lady Penrhyn in January of 1788, along with the First Fleet.
Horses were indispensable to early Settlers, and as the first Australian Colony was established and began to develop, demand for horses boomed. During this period only horses representing the best of their breed were imported due to the high cost of travel, and only the hardiest of stock survived the exhausting journey from their homelands to Australian shores.
These included Draught types such as the Clydesdale, Percheron, Suffolk Punch and the English Cart Horse, now known as the Shire Horse; Coaching breeds, including the Cleveland Bay, Yorkshire Coacher, Norfolk Roadster and Lincolnshire Trotter; Ponies, including the Timor Pony and many Native British Ponies, most numerously the Welsh Pony; early Thoroughbreds, strongly influenced by Galloway and Hobie blood, Arabians, Barbs, the Cape Horses of South Africa, now known as the African Cape Horse, and horses from Valparaiso, Chile. Amongst them came the highly esteemed Alonzo: a steely grey of whom arrived aboard the vessel Tiger, boasting to have sprung of Andalusian blood, and purchased as a brood stallion for the colony of New South Wales in 1828.
From these diverse breeds, Australia’s own horse began to emerge. They were the first Walers, a nickname conceived in Calcutta around the mid-1840s to describe the horses imported from New South Wales to India.
In their infancy, the Waler was a working horse; used to work the land and for transporting goods, pulling coaches and as a means for personal transportation. They could cover long distances tirelessly at a steady pace, and needed little more than what the earth provided as nourishment. Eventually the Waler, thanks to selective breeding, further developed into four distinguishable types that have today been labelled based on their roles at War: Pony, Officer, Trooper and Artillery.
In 1816 the first Australian horses were shipped to India, purchased by a Mr. Alexander Riley, beginning the demand amongst private buyers for Australian-bred horses. By the 1830s they had caught to the attention of the British Army, and by the 1940s a steady trade was established for Walers to be used as remounts for the cavalry, artillery horses, and as carriage and sport horses for both the British Army and the Raj in India. The Waler was also fundamental in improving the Indian Cavalry, and the Indian Country Bred horse.
During the First Anglo-Boer War, Australia dispatched a total of 37,245 horses overseas for use by the Australian Infantry Forces in South Africa between 1899 and 1901 (figures from the Major-Genera William Truman's Report of the Court of Enquiry on the Administration of the Remount Service
Department of the War Office, Boer War).
In 1904, at least 10,000 Walers were shipped from Australia to Ujina, Japan, and a further 25,000 in 1905. In September of 1905 a fleet of large steamers shipped thousands directly to Manchuria for the
use of the Japanese Army against the Russians in the battle for Manchuria and Korea.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw a staggering 121,324 Walers sent overseas to the allied armies in Africa, Europe, India and Palestine. Of these, 39,348 served with the First Australian Imperial Force, mainly in the Middle East, while 81,976 were sent to India. It was this remarkable event
that gave birth to the legend, and the tragedy, that was to become Australia's Great War Horse.
October 31st, 1917, marks the epic event that the Waler today is most famous for; when two regiments of the Australian Lighthorse, the 4th, Victorians, and the 12th, from New South Wales, charged over six kilometres of open ground against the Turkish and German defences of BeerSheba, Palestine in a remarkably daring and desperate attack to save the British from a disastrous defeat. It is renowned as the last great successful cavalry charge in history.
Of the astonishing number of Australian horses that bore the burden of this campaign, only one came home; a bay gelding by the name of 'Sandy', the mount of one Major-General W.T. Bridges.
Of the remaining veterans, the aged and battle-worn were destroyed, while, as Australia's strict quarantine laws had forbidden their return, healthy animals were to be sold to the local population. Many of these horses were also destroyed, as troopers solicited to have their horses shot rather than leave them to starve.
Walers were again used in the Second World War by the North Australia Observer Unit, and a small number were also sent with the army to Papua New Guinea and Burma. For a time after, remount trades to India continued, but by the 1950's it had ultimately dissipated, and thereafter commercial breeding of Walers rapidly declined.
Some breeders simply abandoned their stock on their station properties, while others destroyed their horses, to be replaced by more fashionable breeds and motorised means of transportation. The pure lines of the old Waler horse gradually began to dilute through extensive cross-breeding to the more modernised Thoroughbred and Arabian types, along with a host of other recently imported breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse (imp. 1954). By the 1960’s the Waler, once eulogised as one of the greatest cavalry horses in history, became an anachronism, and was pushed to the brink of extinction.
During the mid-1980s the Northern Territory Government’s 'Tuberculosis Brucellosis Eradication Scheme’, which aimed to eradicate all feral animals from the Territory, a large number of horses were being mustered and trucked to abattoirs or culled from helicopters. It was established by the foundation members of the Society, (now founders of WHOBAA), that a number of the localities on which horses were being slaughtered were once properties from which Walers had been sold, or used as Remount, Stock and working horses, and had been turned out to run feral after they were no longer required.
In 1986 the Waler's salvation set out on a campaign to find what remained of the breed, and the first herd of descendants was discovered where once there had been a remount station, near Alice Springs. Their efforts saw several truckloads of Walers saved from eradication and relocated to domestic homes across Australia. Similar achievements continued over the years, resulting in a number of horses from various isolated localities being saved and secured.
Today, some Walers are still brought in from the wild or off outback stations, and there are now several Waler Studs throughout Australia, preserving the number of horses with the Waler bloodlines and attributes, and it is thanks their efforts that this iconic Australian breed has slowly begun to re-establish itself, and is once again proving it's courage, hardiness and loyalty, not at war, but as recreational and competition mounts.
Photographs by Christiane Slawik and Julie Wilson
Written by Kayla Mills, based on research and documentation by Janet Lane and Peter Fischer