Jun 3, 2009

A Breed You Should Know - Waler


I am resurrecting this feature because I picked up a little pocket book of horse breeds to read before bed and, like the crazy I am, started making lists of esoteric breeds. I realized in doing so that I am not so very interested in the history of the breeds themselves. I mean I am in a passing sense, but I'm not a historian and I don't feel like I have much to offer in terms of rehashing the same facts. What draws me in are all the weird, little vague details that many of my older books include. My newer books are devoid of such odd tidbits and as such, they just come across as sterile. Vintage horse books FTW!!

So, without further ado -- The Waler Horse. Horses were not indigenous to Australia and so this breed was developed from the myriad of different horses shipped into the Australian colonies during the 1800s. For the most part the Waler was a type of horse, not a breed. It wasn't until 1986 that a breed registry and stud book was founded, along with a set of breed guidelines. Until then, the Waler was simply a mutt, a combination of Thoroughbred blood, some Spanish blood, a bit of pony and some draft added in, for good measure. But the fact that this unique combination of crosses morphed into a separate breed cannot be denied. It is only a sturdy, hardy horse that could thrive in the harsh climate, under difficult work conditions and limited food and water. As such, the Waler was particularly sought after as remounts for the British Army in India. The horse was the backbone of the Australian army in the Boer War and, perhaps more importantly (and tragically) during WWI.

Over 120,000 horses were shipped overseas to forces in Allied armies in Africa, Europe, India and Palestine. From Wikipedia's excerpt of the Australian Light Horses' performance in the book The Desert Mounted Corps: "… (November 16th, 1917) The operations had now continued for 17 days practically without cessation, and a rest was absolutely necessary especially for the horses. Cavalry Division had covered nearly 170 miles…and their horses had been watered on an average of once in every 36 hours…. The heat, too, had been intense and the short rations, 9½ lb of grain per day without bulk food, had weakened them greatly. Indeed, the hardship endured by some horses was almost incredible. One of the batteries of the Australian Mounted Division had only been able to water its horses three times in the last nine days - the actual intervals being 68, 72 and 76 hours respectively. Yet this battery on its arrival had lost only eight horses from exhaustion, not counting those killed in action or evacuated wounded.… The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world…. They (the Australians) have got types of compact, well-built, saddle and harness horses that no other part of the world can show. Rather on the light side according to our ideas, but hard as nails and with beautiful clean legs and feet. Their records in this war place them far above the Cavalry horse of any other nation. The Australians themselves can never understand our partiality for the half-bred weight-carrying hunter, which looks to them like a cart horse. Their contention has always been that good blood will carry more weight than big bone, and the experience of this war has converted the writer, for one, entirely to their point of view. It must be remembered that the Australian countrymen are bigger, heavier men than their English brothers. They formed just half the Corps and it probable that they averaged not far off 12 stone each stripped. To this weight must be added another 9-1/2 stone for saddle, ammunition, sword, rifle, clothes and accoutrements, so that each horse carried a weight of 21 stone, all day for every day for 17 days, - on less than half the normal ration of forage and with only one drink in every 36 hours!The weight-carrying English Hunter had to be nursed back to fitness after these operations and for a long period, while the little Australian horses without any special care, other than good food and plenty of water were soon fit to go through another campaign as arduous as the last one!…."

And yet, after all the hardships the horses faced and survived through, Australia's quarantine laws made it impossible for any of the 120,000+ horses to be repatriated after the war. Actually, that's not true. One, on record, made it back -- Sandy, the mount of an officer who died at Gallipoli. What made me take note of this breed is the passing reference to an Australian government order to destroy the animals after WWI, since they couldn't bring the animals back home. It seemed tragically ironic that such animals would face such sacrifice, help their riders through the horrors of war and then be summarily killed. Now, I have since done some research and am not totally convinced that there was any such order. It seems like it is possible some officers did kill their mounts, but many more ended up being sold to the British and Indian armies, and a large number ended up just being sold into lives of labor in places like Cairo. Therein lies a bright spot -- a Ms. Dorothy Brooke, the wife of a British army major general, arrived in 1930 Egypt to discover the streets filled with hundreds of emaciated, sickly horses being used as pack horses. Lo and behold, these were same (now elderly) horses who had served in WWI and left behind to be so ill-used. The Brooke Hospital for Animals was born to provide free vet services to all animals in Cairo (however, this has since been expanded).

You see what random, eye-catching bits of data can lead to?

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