The early morning sunshine drives a shaft of light into the misty river flats. The BHA expedition horses have long finished their nosebags and most are saddled up for the day’s ride into the upper reaches of the West Kiewa River Valley, the Red Robin Gold Mine battery, beyond the hidden tracks of Swindlers Creek and up the long climb of Paling Spur. Todays destination is Young’s Hut site at the western end of Young’s Tops, in the Alpine National Park. Brumby country!
The modern brumbies running on Young’s Tops and the Pretty Valley area are direct descendants of a commercial mob that was first established by Osborn Young in the 1880’s. From the mid-1840’s there had been increasing demand for the highly regarded “Waler” horses (horses exported from the Colony of New South Wales) for the British Army as remounts in India and later the Boer War and First World war. This trade would see well over half a million horses leaving this country as remounts for armies around the world. There was also constant demand for coach horses, funeral horses, post horses, carriage horses and hacks.
Osborn Young took out his first High Plains license, the Bundaramunjie run, in 1879. A horse breeder and cattleman who had settled in the Benambra district, Osborn built a horse breeding enterprise based on his numerous High Country grazing licenses. Stewart Hollands of Benambra recalled in Tor Holth’s book, Cattlemen of the High Country, that “Osborn had more horses than anyone ever had on the High Plains, estimated at 1900 head.” “I suppose Young might have had 1500 or 1600 horses – might have had more” reckoned Charlie McNamara. “Bill Chapman and old Jack Mac broke in 300 horses into saddle in one mob without stopping, took Young’s cattle down to Sale and they averaged him £5 a head and the next month he took his horses down and they averaged him £17 a head. They branded over 300 foals.
Osborn’s daughter Bella, recounted in Tor’s book that “Mum’s brother, James Gibson, when I was about 2 or 3 years old, said that he helped with a mob of horses – there were about 1100 head. Horses had to be brought down from the High Plains on account of the snow so some would be brought into the paddocks and some would be just driven off the tops – they’d still be in the mountains.” “The horses were broken in and then taken to the sale. Some went to Gippsland, most went to Wodonga. ”
Charlie recalled the Wodonga horse sales in Tor’s book. “We’d start from Young’s hut and get down to Paddy Duane’s at Tawonga, then on to Kiewa where we camped at Billy Canoy’s. Following morning it was on to the Blazing Stump Hotel at the junction in Wodonga. These Pendergasts from Manero, they’d bring a mob of horses down that night. They used to have bells on. You could hear them coming – dongle, dongle, dongle. This old Pender used to come down – he had a big black beard down to his waist. And he had a son with him – they used to call him “straighty” ‘cause he was shot through his knee and couldn’t bend his leg. The next morning we’d go into the sale yard in Wodonga to sell them. I used to ride them around the ring. With the sale over the Penders and I and other wild buggers, we’d get our horses and gallop up and down Dean Street in Albury with our hats in our hands – we’d get stopped by the police.” Charlie McNamara continued with his grandfather’s horse business right up into the 1930’s.
The High Plains horses were managed, they were branded, moved off the tops for winter, bloodlines kept fresh with new stallions, but mostly they had the run of the summer pastures on the High Plains. Young, along with the Tom and Mick McNamara, and others, built Young’s Hut around the 1880’s, as well as yards, wing fences and horse traps. The McNamaras had horses on the High Plains from early days before Young, and took over the lease after Young retired.
As the horse trade faded with the advent of the motor car and the trade in war horses disappeared, the great mobs of Young’s Tops and the near by High Plains had also diminished, but many survived. The remaining horses went wild and became the brumbies of today, with a peppering of new bloodlines from time to time when domestic horses were turned loose with the “ bucks”. Brumby runners occasionally help themselves to a few horses, a true test of horse and rider, flat out through the scrub on the tail of a horse keen to stay a wild one. I’m sure Kath remembers well riding the great Dodger, Buff Roger’s brumby runner. For a while in the 1990’s we would run into old Ces camped at Charlie Mac’s hut, always had a few mares and foals around the place. Ces built sapling trap yards and used salt to lure the horses in. Kirk’s Bazaar, the grand horse market in Melbourne built in 1840, where the agents would source their army remounts, is today known as Hardware Lane, and few of the lunchtime coffee crowd would know of the link between the cobbled lane and the brumbies still running free on Young’s Tops and Pretty Valley. But they can join our packhorse expeditions into the heart of brumby country, camp at Young’s Hut site and see the descendants of Young’s horses running free. All of the Mount Fainter rides get into brumby country.