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Monday, September 22, 2008

Aboriginal Brumby Walkabout: Pollitt and Hampson Back from the Outback

Professor Pollitt has been chasing wild horses in the Australian Outback. His studies are comparing the hooves of wild horse herds in different regions, with different environmental influences and breed/origin characteristics.

"We spent two weeks hiding at water holes, on mountain ridges, and walking through the desert photographing and filming horses and other wildlife including camels, dingos and emus..."

So begins the latest chapter in the literally "wild" annals of The Australian Brumby Research Team at the University of Queensland. The intrepid team is lead by Dr. Chris Pollitt and PhD candidate in hoof studies, Brian Hampson, and is attached to the famed Australian Equine Lamnitis Research Unit.

The researchers continue to trek out to the most remote areas in the huge country of Australia. Their goal is to find herds of horses that are surviving without human intervention. Over the past few months, this meant a wilderness expedition into Aborigine territory in the sparsely populated zone known as Central Australia. It's outback of Everywhere.

Many people, especially Americans, are not aware that Australia has, by far, the largest feral horse population in the world, and the most vast area of country for horses to run. Even more interesting is that the wild horses co-habitate with feral camels.

A "feral" horse, by the way, is a horse running wild that is descended from domesticated horse that were turned loose or that escaped from ranches or military units. The only true "wild" horses left on the planet are the Przewalski horses, most of whom live in zoos. In colorful Aussie lingo, a "Brumby" is a feral horse running wild Down Under. You may remember the dazzling brumbies of the film Man from Snowy River. If you don't, you can watch a clip of it that was posted on this blog last April by clicking here. If you have never seen that film, rent it!

The Australian Equine Genetics Research Unit at The University of Queensland is collaborating with the wild horse unit to test the DNA of different groups of wild horses in the studies. The aim is to find out what breed or breeds have been the most influential over isolated groups; this should make studying the feet more valid. For instance, a mountain group might be heavily Arabian, a desert group might have more Thoroughbred influence, or there may be a surprise breed, such as drafts or ponies, that crops up in the DNA.

Brian Hampson writes of the latest research trip: "The traditional land owners, the Urkaka people, allowed us to perform our study on their land. This is predominantly sandhill desert country with rocky valley systems 50km long and 5km wide on the edge. Our three Aboriginal guides took us through the valley system, where few white people (have) had access, to show us a permanent spring which was the only water for 30km.

"The horse and camel pads into the spring were like highways from the helicopter. We saw hundreds of horses and camels and got up very close to them at water holes. We darted and applied GPS collars to six horses and retrieved four collars after one week. One horse was more than 50km away from water on the last two days and couldn't be found. The other stallion couldn't be redarted at this time. I will be back out there later in September to do some more work on the desert horses and collect the other two collars.

"The sandy desert horses have long feet but not broken away. They scrape their toe through in swing phase in the deep sand and some square off the toe. The rocky desert horses have a short wall with a smooth bevel all the way round.

"The places these horses go, what they eat and how often they drink will amaze most people. Mares with foals are poor but stallions and loan colts are good to fat condition. The country is baron desert around water holes and horses have to walk out 10-15 km before finding any feed."

Hoofcare and Lameness has been involved in cheering on the efforts of the Brumby team because the wild horse has not been well-documented in the annals of natural history. I hope you will visit the unit's web site and consider donating to this important project. Click here to go to the sponsorship page and learn more about getting involved with this project. You can help, even if you live half a world away!

Congratulations to Greg Giles and his company, Cavallo "Simple Boots", for joining the sponsor list for the Brumby research, along with the Footloose Syndicate, a trio of private citizens who will be assisting on future research expeditions.

An unidentified Brumby foot from one of the desert herds. Hampson noted differences in hoof morphology between rocky desert and sandy desert hooves. This is possibly a rocky desert hoof, judging by his description.

© Fran Jurga, Hoofcare Publishing and the Australian Brumby Research Unit. No use without permission.

Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. This blog may be read online at or received via a daily email through an automated delivery service. This post was originally published on 22 September 2008.

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