The brumby has long been a symbol of Australia’s high country, but as our wild horse population grows, it has become a political problem with one bloody solution.
It’s just after 8am on the Nunniong Plains in Victoria’s high country when professional horsebreaker Lewis Benedetti, atop a big grey thoroughbred named Stones, trots out of the bush leading a raggedy black foal on a rope.
We’re on an open plain of snow grass and tussock, five hours east of Melbourne, and the wind is unforgivingly cold. A frigid stream cuts through the field, gurgling under a layer of ice as thick as toast.
The little black horse – a wild or feral horse, Equus caballus, also known as a brumby – tugs at the rope Benedetti tossed around his neck mere moments ago. It’s a skill the 30-year-old horseman honed in nearby Buchan as a child from when he was nine, lassoing his letterbox after school.
The captured foal whinnies, nostrils huffing mountain air. And he bucks clumsily, jumping at everything and nothing, like an obstinate puppy. He’s furrier than you might imagine. Fluffy almost, with a white rectangle on his forehead.
“For retraining, this is the size you want, brother!” Benedetti hollers from the saddle. He comes to state forest areas like this in his spare time to go “brumby running” – chasing wild horses to domesticate and rehome. “When they’re too old, mate, they’re too hard to train. But he’s just right.”
We’ve been up for hours, eyeing mobs of mares in the darkness, and three black stallions at dawn. Benedetti found this colt in a glade between snow gums. “Caught him like you would not believe. Easy as piss,” he says, grinning. “Let’s get him back to camp, eh.”
Around the fire now, Benedetti pours his coffee, scalding hot from the billy, and the morning sun melts away the last of the crunchy overnight frost. “Why do I do this?” he asks, nonplussed. “The adrenalin is unreal. To catch a wild horse – pretty good feeling, eh? You’ve gotta get set, be fit, have your horse fit, know what you’re doing. Then come back for a feed at the fire. What better life is there than that?” As I stoke the coals and our eggs sizzle in popping bacon fat, it’s hard to argue.
But there is, however, another more urgent reason Benedetti is here. He’s catching brumbies today not just for recreation but because of what might happen this winter. “That little pony will make someone really happy,” says Benedetti, who might be able to sell this pretty brumby for $500, or just give it away. “But see, there’s only two options for him now. He can come home with me, or he can stay here and get shot.”
This is not an exaggeration. A brumby cull is coming. It’s long overdue…
Photography by Josh Robenstone