THIS WRITING LIFE: Spirited – Australia’s Horse Story

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While I was visiting Canberra the other week for the Australian Romance Readers Convention, I was fortunate enough to catch the Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story exhibition at the National Museum of Australia before it closed.

Being horse-mad from birth, I can’t resist the call of anything equine and the museum was only a pleasant stroll around the edge of Lake Burley Griffin from the QT Hotel where the convention was being held. A sunny autumn day, some horsey goodness… perfect.

The museum released a great video of the exhibition which is well worth a look. It certainly got me excited!

It was rather thrilling to be confronted with more video on entrance to the exhibition, this time showing wild brumbies in action. An elderly man, who said he used to help his dad break brumbies, and I stood mesmerised by the footage in warm, horse-loving companionship. We were so entranced we watched the video loop through twice. Even when I left to take in the main exhibits, he stayed on. I don’t think he wanted to leave.

Video still of brumbies at the Spirited exhibition

As expected, the exhibition was a trove of interesting artefacts and information. Look at this: A first edition of The Silver Brumby alongside Elyne Mitchell’s typewriter.

Typewriter used by Elyne Mitchell and a first edition copy of The SIlver Brumby

The first displays were interesting, focusing on colonial life and the important role horses played in the development of the colony and agriculture. Horses were uncommon in the early years of settlement. A few arrived with the first fleet, but according to the museum guide book by 1791 only one stallion, one mare and two colts survived, and horses remained scarce for several decades.

There were some wonderful artefacts on display from Springfield station, near Goulburn, including this magnificent dress harness fitted with the Faithfull family crest.

Carriage harness with Faithfull family crest decoration from Springfield station.

From Burrungurroolong station, also near Goulburn, came this wonderful rocking horse. I would have killed for something like this as a kid. That’s a go-fast rocking horse if ever there was one!

Wooden rocking horse from Burrungurroolong station.

I thought this carved-out log trough was amazing too. Imagine the hard work involved in its creation.

Carved log feed trough.

I also really liked this forging anvil, which was used by blacksmith Samuel Sinclair, who arrived in Bermagui in 1904 to set up shop after having served as a farrier in the Boer War. I know it’s hard to tell from the photo, but this thing was HUGE and weighed 348 kilograms.

Forging anvil.

My favourite display was probably the trophy cabinet. This contained, among other things, the 1866 Melbourne Cup won by The Barb, and is our earliest known intact cup. Initially, the Melbourne Cup was a prize – a gold watch or cash – and the first actual cup was awarded only in 1865, which makes this version particularly precious. The other two trophies are the 1867 Melbourne Cup and Queen’s Plate won by Tim Whiffler. Apparently two horses called Tim Whiffler competed in the Cup that year, with ‘Sydney Tim’ taking the prize, along with the Queen’s Plate two days later.

Ornate Melbourne Cups and Queens Plate

The exhibition had its quirky items too. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s Jackson, a toy horse used in the 2007 alternate Birdsville races when an outbreak of equine influenza caused a ban on the movement of horses and shut down the normal event. In typical outback fashion, the show went on, with mock races fielded with stuffed toys.

Jackson, the stuffed toy Birdsville races competitor

And more quirky exhibits. An inkwell made from a horse’s hoof. This makes me think of the snuffbox the British made from Marengo’s hoof, Napoleon’s favourite warhorse, and was presented to the Household Brigade.

Hoof inkwell.

There was even an old horse-drawn dairy carriage, circa 1947, complete with poo (out of shot, unfortunately). One of the plaques told a great story of a bakery horse who was so habitualised that it simply set off on his route when flu kept its driver from turning up to work.

Lincoln Park Dairy delivery cart

This sculpture had so much life, and was (ironically?) surrounded by anatomical specimens, including bits of Phar Lap.

Wire man and horse sculpture

There was much, much more in the exhibition, including information on breeds in Australia, a fascinating video on the use of the whip in horse racing, medals from Olympics and other major events, pony club tales and photos (rah!), and pieces on all the various equestrian sports Australians compete in, from dressage to campdrafting and everything in between.

Definitely worth the visit but for those who missed it, never fear! The National Museum of Australia has pages and pages on its website about the exhibition. There are photos, videos, and deeper stories about horses in Australia. You can spend ages on there. A fantastic resource for those who love horses or are simply interested in our history.

And here’s my souvenir from the exhibition: Hot Chocolate the blow-up wonderhorse. What a steed!


Not quite the real thing but at least he’s house trained, doesn’t eat much, and packs away flat. Sadly, he will never, ever compete with this darling. Not in my eyes.

Cathryn as a little girl with Mysty

My first horse, the romantically named Mysty. Best horse evah. Sigh.

Yep, once a horse-girl, always a horse-girl!


10 thoughts on “THIS WRITING LIFE: Spirited – Australia’s Horse Story

  1. AvatarSue

    Wow, that was really interesting, Cathryn. Love the speedy – rocking horse too. I had a gorgeous rocking horse when I was a little kid, unfortunately dad didn’t have it shipped to Australia so it stayed in Germany at my grandmothers flat. I love museums and exhibitions of any kind, I always find them fascinating.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      What a shame you had to leave your rocking horse behind, Sue. That’s sad. I wanted a rocking horse so badly when I was little but I never got one. Instead I’d pester anyone to give me horsey rides on their knee or back. SUCH a pain!
      I love museums and art galleries too. They’re great for inspiration, but I just like learning new and interesting things. Plus I adore history.

      1. AvatarSue Gerhardt Griffiths

        I know, and it’s an interesting horse too, now having a closer look at the pics I’m not sure it’s a rocking horse I’m going to have to ask my mum and dad about that. I have three photos of me on that horse and they’re quite humorous. I’ll see if I can send them to you via email. It should be a nice little laugh and I’m cute to boot too! Hee hee.
        When I was young I had no interest in learning, especially anything to do with history but when I started reading Patricia Shaw’s books they ignited something in me that I thought would never happen – a love of anything history. Learning about past events is just so fascinating. I can’t get enough of it now!

        1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

          Ooh, send the pics through. I’d love to see them.
          I’ve always loved history but even more so now. LOVE docos. Besides golf, footy and Bargain Hunt, that’s about all we watch these days!
          I’ve never heard of Patricia Shaw but just looked her up. Lots of books there. Have you read any Susanna Kearsley? Not Australian but, far out, I adore her books. They tend to swap between past and present and are so fascinating, not to mention wonderfully romantic. The Shadowy Horses is my absolute favourite. Love, LOVE that book.

          1. AvatarSue Gerhardt Griffiths

            I don’t mind documentaries now but it took me a long time to not dislike them. Dad made me watch docos every weekend when I was young and I just wasn’t interested but was made to sit and watch and watch and watch. When hubby was watching one when we first got married I had to leave the room because it literally made me feel ill, strange hey? A few years ago there was a doco on about Ned Kelly it was so interesting and I realised afterwards that I didn’t even feel sick, so with age and being wiser and mature I’m over disliking docos and find them fascinating now.

            Patricia’s Shaw’s books are amazing, you really must try one, Cathryn. Valley of Lagoons is fantastic and the sequel Mango Hill was written many many years later, actually it might’ve been her last book. And Where the Willows Weep is loosely based on that series so I’d say to read all three. But a stand alone one that is just compelling and superb is The Dream Seekers. But I’ve loved all her books. I adore historical fiction! Especially anything to do with Australia and its people.

            I haven’t read Susanna Kearsley but I remember Anna Campbell putting up a post about her book and I wrote it down on my to be read list and guess what? I wasn’t even looking for it but it jumped out at me at the book fair I went to yesterday so I bought it and will start reading it soon. So how lucky was that!?

            1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

              That was serendipitous, Sue! Kearsley has this amazing writing voice that draws me in and wraps me up. I love her books.
              Just read the blurb and some reviews for The Dream Seekers. I really like the sound of that one. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. AvatarDelores Bebbington

    Thanks Cathryn. Would love to see the exhibition. My grandad was a farrier in the 10th Light Horse at Gallipoli and was indignant to be sent home after he lost an eye from a horse kicking him in the head. He once told me he rode a horse through the bar of the Meckering pub. I must admit he had a devilish twinkle in his one eye. His brother Rowland wrote some beautiful poetry. He was also at Gallipoli in the Battle of the Nek. My great- grandfather was a mate of Adam Lindsay Gordon. Together they sailed a boat load of sheep to Western Australia and incredibly off-loaded them in the harbour and made them swim ashore at Bunbury. Amazingly, some of the sheep survived! Love hearing the old stories. Cheers Delores.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Delores, your grandad and great-grandfather sound wonderful characters. What great stories! Love the pub one, and the sheep.
      There was a section in the exhibition about our war horses. Sadly, my photos of some of the exhibits didn’t turn out, probably because of the lighting. Or it could have been just me. I did manage to wreck yet another camera that trip. Sigh. There is some info on the museum website about what was on display which you can see here:
      We learned a lot about Adam Lindsay Gordon growing up because he lived at Dingley Dell, just south of Mt Gambier where I’m from. The cottage has been restored as a museum and is a popular tourist attraction. Speaking of which, I should pay a visit next time I’m home. Might be handy for inspiration.

      Thanks so much for visiting and for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s always lovely to hear from readers.

  3. AvatarNoreen

    Hi Catherine, I enjoyed looking at all your horse photos. I am a horse fan from childhood also. Eyline Mitchell wrote lovely stories and I have most of them. Sadly, these days I don’t bounce so well and only look at horses over the fence but had great times mustering, trail riding, horse sports and endurance when I did ride.

    1. Cathryn HeinCathryn Hein Post author

      Delighted to hear you enjoyed the photos, Noreen!
      Yes, I think I’m in the same boat with the non-bouncing.
      Thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment.

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