It may well surprise many to learn that every horse to have set four feet in Australia is of imported origin.
Seven horses landed with the First Fleet in 1788, but after their arduous journey, only two of these survived more than a few years and there is some conflict as to the make-up of the group.
The journal of Captain Phillips who commanded the First Fleet record that one stallion, three mares and three “colts” disembarked, while the papers of one of his officers, Lieutenant Phillip King suggested that the convoy while at the Cape of Good Hope in November, 1787, took on four mares, one stallion, one “stone colt” and two “mare colts” - “colt" at the time was a generic term covering any yearling regardless of gender.
An official count of “Livestock in the Colony” in May, 1788 confirms Phillip’s account.
In July of the same year, Captain Phillip wrote to the English Under-Secretary of State, Nicholas Nepean “the horses do very well”, but the second “count of livestock” showed one stallion, one mare and two “colts”. By July, 1793, the number was done to one stallion and one mare, both the property of the Government.
With a struggling penal colony incapable of producing enough food locally to survive, the demand for imports - from the Cape, India and to a lesser extent, Java and Madagascar - was for cattle, sheep and pigs. The few horses that arrived from the Cape were utility animals used for farm work.
The history of the true Australian blood horse probably dates to 1795, when the ship Britannia arrived with a cargo of 41 good-quality breeding saddle mares from the Cape of Good Hope for officers at Botany Bay and trebling the number of horses in Australia.
By 1799, the horse population in Australia had passed the 100 mark and it is that in this year Rockingham is believed to have arrived in Australia, the first imported English thoroughbred stallion.
Daughters produced by his matings with the South African mares are our oldest colonial taproots.
By the turn of century, the then Governor King was expressing fears that quality of Australian horse was not showing notable improvement and he pressed the English government to send “home” stock (although he apparently did not mention Rockingham, which has left some doubt as to when he did actually arrive).
Around this time, the Cape importations were supplemented by Arabs and Persians from India - described as "a better and racier type of saddle horses” and standing somewhat taller than their Cape counterparts.
Another important English import arrived in October, 1802 on board H.M.S. Buffalo.
Northumberland, owned by the Duke of the same title was given by the Duke to Major George Johnston, and at a not-inconsiderable sum of £10 is believed to be the first stallion in Australia to be advertised with a stud fee. Around the same time, another stallion arrived from a somewhat unexpected source, Washington, as the name suggests, from the United States.
Amongst the first Arab stallions to arrive was Hector in February, 1803 - a confusing individual for those tracing original bloodlines as he was also known as Old Hector and had a number of sons simply named Young Hector (by heck)! He was joined in October, 1804, by Shark, another influential source of Arab blood.
Across all types, the objective was to "breed-up" and to produce some measurable improvement in each generation.
The demand had moved slowly from utility to saddle horses - and in October, 1810, a new factor came into play - Australia’s first official race meeting on the site that was to become Hyde Park and organised by officers of the 73rd Regiment who had brought their mounts with them from India.
“Official” is the key word here - although not documented, there were undoubtedly private match races organised amongst the settlers and at the many sports days organised by inn-keepers that were popular on public holidays
The chief race, worth a substantial 50 guineas was run over three days and comprised three heats run over two miles. It was suggested that the then Governor, Lachlan Macquarie actively supported the meeting in an attempt to quell public disquiet following the so-called “Rum Rebellion” and he perhaps wisely banned sales of alcohol over the three days of the meeting.
Another important milestone in the history of the Australian horse came in 1813, with the conquering of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, opening up a huge area to the west previously unoccupied by white settlers.
The rush to settle the new lands outside demanded horses of greater stamina and able to travel the long distances to "outback" stations and pioneers seeking breeding stock for horses secured them from the best source and most convenient source, England, ór alternatively from a sources which presented fewer transport problems, English horses from India.
The middle-eastern horse was to influence the Australian breed until 1830 or later, but after the 1820s the influence was mainly from England, and each fresh arrival played his or her part in the steady improvement of our stock.
It is estimated that of the 400-odd stallions imported between 1820 and 1880 more than 90 per cent were English or Irish-bred thoroughbreds.
Many well-bred horses including some eligible for the English Stud Book (and who still appear in the extended pedigrees of some of today's thoroughbreds) were used for pulling carriages, for hauling heavy loads or as "hacks".
After settlements were securely established in New South Wales and Tasmania, private individuals commenced to import and breed different types of horse-flesh to suit their own specific needs — for recreational riding, as racehorses, carriage and hackney horses, stock horses, draught- and plough-horses.
The expanding civilization called for horses of endurance and stamina to conquer the long distances and it became the practice to cross thoroughbred stallions with "utility" mares to breed stock and troop horses.