The Australian thoroughbred is, of course the British thoroughbred, modified to a greater or lesser extent by the Australian environment. In the first half century a few different elements – mostly Arabs of the highest quality – were added to the mixture, but these have been continually diluted by the import of thoroughbred stallions from England, the United States and New Zealand.
Every horse in Australia is of imported origin. Although seven horses came with the First Fleet in 1788, only two of these survived more than a few years. Saddle horses and light utility horses formed the majority of the importations during the eighteenth century, and some of these were no doubt absorbed into the thoroughbred breed.The history of the Australian bloodhorse dates back no further than 1795, when the ship Britannia arrived with a cargo of good-quality breeding mares from the Cape of Good Hope. Rockingham in 1799 was our first imported English thoroughbred stallion. Daughters produced by his matings with Cape mares are our oldest colonial taproots. The family of Myrtle (by Gemma-di-Vergy) traces through a daughter of Rockingham to a Cape mare.
Many of our early importations were Arabs and Persians, and the Oriental horse was to influence the Australian breed until 1830 or later. After the 1820’s the influence was mainly from England, and each fresh arrival played his or her part in the steady improvement of our stock. Of the 400-odd stallions imported between 1800 and 1880 more than 90 percent were English – or Irish-bred thoroughbreds. The record then parallelled that of the English horse, which founded to a large extent on Arabs or Barbs, had, by right handling, improved conditions and selective breeding methods, shown improvement to the stage where fresh infusions of Oriental stock were no longer of benefit.
The Blue Mountains crossing and subsequent exploration opened the inland for pastoral development. Pioneers seeking breeding stock for horses which were to play such a big part in this development secured them from the best sources obtainable – England and the East. During the nineteenth century the English horse was to become the best of his kind in the world. As this superiority became more apparent and transport around the globe easier the colonial breeders turned their attention more and more to the mother country.
This then was the pattern. In the early 1800’s importations came from those sources which presented fewer transport problems. Vessels picked up livestock at the later ports of call such as the Cape of Good Hope. Trading vessels plying India found the shorter passages favourable. It must also be remembered that in these early days the Arab horse was still highly prized, his important contribution to the English breed being fresh in the minds of breeders. With faster transport and less risk of loss, and the growing realisation of the worth of the English horses, Oriental horses lost favour.
The growth of the Australian nation and its changing needs dictated the types of horses which came here. The first call was for “some horses”, preferably utility types. With the settlement secure and industry increasing the Government of the day stressed the need for horses “fit for draft”. Life was grim in our first twenty years, and the progeny of our early sires were used for drivers purposes. Consequently one finds records of their sons and daughters being sold for use in the chaise (carriage), for hauling heavy loads, as well as for saddle. The fact that certain stallions which may still be traced in our stud books today were used to beget carriage horses should not be used as proof of their lack of breeding. After the Napoleonic Wars the seas were safer, and with settlements securely established in New South Wales and Tasmania, private individuals commenced to import and breed different types of horse-flesh to suit their own needs – racehorses, carriage and hackney horses, stockhorses, draught and plough horses.
The method employed was that of “breeding up”, mainly through the influence of imported sires to effect an improvement in each generation. Not only with the bloodhorse but with other breeds this practical method of pure sire over impure mare was employed. Three such generations reduce the tainted blood to one-eighth of the pedigree, after ten generations the doubtful blood reduces to less than a thousandth part of any thoroughbred pedigree. The wider influence of good stallions speeded the development of our pure breed, although pure-bred mares came direct from England as early 1802. Many Arab mares, which were then also known by the term “full blood”, were brought to Sydney and Hobart, and “Arab mare” or “mare imported from England” were the taproots of many of our colonial racehorses.
About the 1820 period came Old Betty, Manto, Spaewife, Cutty Sark, and other know English mares. They, and the thoroughbred matrons to follow them, became the foutainheads of large pure-bred families. At this stage in the development of the thoroughbred, English breeders had not yet realised the full value of their product, and with mounting fortunes from the primary products of the new colony, the colonial squattocracy bought the best procurable to found their studs. Classic winners and outstanding performers were brought to Australia and New Zealand.
Entertainment was not the only purpose for which bloodhorses were required. The expanding civilization called for horses of endurance to conquer the big distances. It became the practice to use blood stallions to breed stock and troop horses. It is striking evidence of the improvement in our breed that, within thirty years of the arrival of the First Fleet, horses were being exported from Australia back to India. This export trade was to grow to important dimensions later in the century, when the ‘waler’ became the most sought after remount for the cavalry in India and other countries. Taking his name from the parent State, the waler, typical of the Australian stockhorse, was mainly of thoroughbred origin. So the colonial-bred ‘bloodhorse’ carried the explorer, the trooper, the bushranger, the stockman incredible distances, accomplishing feats of endurance that are hard to believe today. J.C. Byrne had this to say; (1)
….the race of horses at present in use in Australia is not to be surpassed in the world for symmetry and endurance. It is hard to say exactly how they are bred, for there have been large importations of mares from Chile and Peru, stallions of the Pure Arab breed from India, and also from England and the Cape of Good Hope. Much pains have been bestowed on the breeding of these animals, and the result has rightly rewarded the exertion.
It is difficult to find ‘mares from Chile and Peru” in Australian racehorse pedigrees today, although the rest of Byrne’s comment is still demonstrated in Australian stud books.
Breeders in many countries now look to Australia for breeding lines of the highest class.