It is a chilly Summer evening in an Adelaide Hills community hall, but the subject of horses is running red-hot. Gatherings such as this might have once taken place informally at the local agricultural show or blacksmith’s shop. Modern times, however, call for a modern approach. Tonight’s meeting is an interactive ‘horse industry briefing’, a first-of-its-kind held by South Australia’s proactive horse council, Horse SA.

The ‘panel’ comprises state government agency representatives and industry experts who are presenting horse-relevant information and predictions. Topics include biosecurity, trade and export, animals in emergencies, and land planning and development. It seems all very grown-up, but horse owners are becoming increasingly aware of a need to become involved with bureaucratic matters and legislation.

The coordinator of this inaugural industry briefing is Julie Fiedler, Horse SA’s Executive Officer. Her first memory of horses was ‘patting a few over the kindergarten fence’, something unlikely to be allowed anymore in modern childcare.

Nevertheless, it was the start of a long involvement with horses and the horse industry. After leaving school, Julie worked as a jillaroo and later taught riding lessons at Sheoak Hill Riding School. This was followed by a decade at Riding for the Disabled and a few more years at TAFE working in its Horse Industry program.

It is a professional background that fitted in perfectly with Horse SA, created in 1999 to provide a collective voice when a group of trail riders started feeling the pinch of urban sprawl. With riding trails and agistment areas under threat, a collective voice was required to speak for horse owners at a local and state government level.

Julie has been holding the reins at Horse SA for 18 years and, when asked what their biggest achievement has been to date, she replies that Horse SA “is still recognised today as having a voice within government and connects across all parts of the horse industry and community”.

Horse SA has developed a solid reputation as a bridge between industry and government. Julie and other members of the Horse SA board have involvement with countless committees and advisory boards.

“As an advocacy organisation, you have a vision and collaborate for community outcomes,” Julie says. “Some projects are short-term… Sometimes, it takes many years, even election cycles.”

Horse ownership has changed considerably in modern times, according to Julie. “There is much more agistment,” she says. “Also, a lot of people are first-generation horse owners. These societal shifts make organisations like Horse SA even more important.”

Horse SA promotes the statement: Advocate, Communicate, Educate. These guiding principles flow through everything they do – from giving phone referrals to developing information webcasts and delivering hands-on seminars (the next to follow was the industry briefing about worm resistance and using microscopes to test worm count in faeces).

In addition, Julie and the Horse SA members are asked to attend and speak at national and international equine conferences, often self-funded. Despite its important foundation work to benefit all horses and horse owners, Horse SA operates on a shoestring budget. Its core funding is from the SA Office for Recreation and Sport, supplemented by membership fees and sponsorship.

In turn, Horse SA provides essential two-way networks for sport, industry and government agencies to communicate directly with horse owners. One of these, the Country Fire Service, has been working closely with Horse SA for several years to promote bushfire safety within the horse community.

According to Penny Kazla, a Community Engagement Officer for the CFS, the relationship has proven to be highly successful for CFS objectives. “I really appreciate that Horse SA has been working so diligently with CFS over the last few years,” Penny said. “With their hard work, we have increased horse safety in SA by encouraging families to prepare for bushfires well in advance and to include their horses in their Bushfire Survival Plans”.

The volunteer managing board of Horse SA and its Life Members read like an honour roll of industry horse community leaders, united by the wellbeing of the ‘state herd’ and a passion to keep horses relevant in the community.

Current chair of Horse SA is Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson, an anthropologist known and respected for her research into horses and the horse-human relationship, who is also a regular contributor to Horses and People.

Vice-chair Denis Edmonds is a former member of the mounted police cadre and currently registrar for the racing appeals tribunal. He is also involved with incident management planning of the Australian International Three Day Event.

Secretary Denzil O’Brien is a retired researcher with a special interest in horse-related injury and safety issues, and former Executive Officer of Equestrian Australia.

Treasurer Peter Oborn is the former chair of Eventing SA with life-long experience in sporting club administration, while board members Ashley Kramer is manager of SA Harness Racing club and Melanie Scott is involved at the top level of endurance riding sports administration.

As Julie explains: “Horse SA works hard on being an ‘outwardly-focused’ organisation; that is, to seek out partnerships, collaborations or just expert advice to problem solve an issue or work on a new solution.”

There over 200 general individual and group members of Horse SA – ranging from sports and recreational groups, to businesses and horse industry bodies.

Long-time horse owner and rider Sarah Harris, who also co-owned a tourism carriage business, says Horse SA “is there for us, to watch our back. They’ve also introduced me to so many advanced learnings. I feel that if I don’t know something, I can just call, especially about land management,” she says.

The passion behind Horse SA is not surprising when you consider the State’s history of innovation and commitment to equestrian pursuits.

Horses have always been an integral part of the South Australian social scene, with the Adelaide Hunt Club and Adelaide Polo Club two of the country’s oldest continuous sporting groups.

Both forming in the 1800’s, not long after colonial settlement, members of these clubs also had strong links to the 140-year-old Oakbank Easter Racing Carnival, still the largest picnic race meeting in the southern hemisphere.

Some of the country’s biggest horse-related pastoralists, trainers and equine trailblazers can also be traced back to South Australia, a legacy recognised by Horse SA wherever possible.

‘The Cattle King’, Sidney Kidman, founder of the S. Kidman & Co pastoral empire, started out his journey as a wet-behind-the-ears 13-year-old who rode a one-eyed horse from Adelaide to the mid-north in search of his ‘fortune’.

One of Horse SA’s biggest projects over time has been joint development and maintenance of the Kidman Trail, a 269km riding, cycling and walking trail on public land. It runs from Willunga, south of Adelaide, to Kapunda in the mid-north and includes several purpose-built horse yards along the way.

Then, there is legendary Reginald ‘RM’ Williams from Percy Street, Prospect, a saddler who was dissatisfied with riding boots on offer, he designed a more suitable pair, now so popular they are sold the world over.

RM’s commitment to the horse world continued long after this, helping to create the Equestrian Federation of Australia (now Equestrian Australia) in the 1950’s in time to get a team together for the Stockholm Olympics. He also sponsored Franz Mairinger from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to come to Australia to be head coach.

Another big figure to influence the Australian horse world was Colin Hayes, a racehorse trainer with 5,000 winners who gained global attention from the 1960’s onwards with his large-scale Barossa Valley Thoroughbred training and breeding facility, Lindsay Park (now Cornerstone Stud, and still run by the Hayes family).

Someone who probably had the most practical influence on horse-keeping and horsemanship, however, was horse educator, Tom Roberts. His yellow-jacketed ‘how to’ book series were bookshelf mainstays for anybody learning to ride or train horses, or just pony-mad kids who loved horse books.

In honour of Tom’s extraordinary contribution, Horse SA turned the tables last year and published a book about Tom Roberts himself, titled ‘Go Forward, Dear’. Written by Dr Andrew McLean and Nicki Stuart, the project was almost entirely funded by donations from Horse SA members throughout the state.

South Australia is also the place where the teenage dream of riding for the Olympics has come true, several times. Teenager Wendy Schaeffer took an ex-racehorse she rode at Mountain Pony Club, Mt Barker, all the way to Atlanta Olympics in 1996 to win team gold in eventing. This achievement was almost matched a few years later by fellow Adelaide Hills Hahndorf resident Megan Jones, who won silver at Beijing in 2008 on a horse she bred and trained herself.

A role model for these young equestriennes, Gillian Rolton, lived a few towns away in Clarendon. Not only did the former school teacher win two consecutive team gold Olympic medals in eventing, she was also instrumental in creating the four-star Australian International Horse Trials hosted in Adelaide each year.

But, although there is much to celebrate in SA about successes of the past, pressing issues, such as land squeeze and government regulations, are the new hurdles facing horse-owners and business operators.

Keeping horses relevant and involved in the community will require continued innovation, but this is where the good work of Horse SA promises a bright future for horses and those who share their lives with them.

One of the strengths is undoubtedly the knowledge and skill acquired by Julie in her working career with horses and long tenure at Horse SA. Her energy and commitment has not waivered; if anything it has gained momentum.

Horse stakeholders are becoming more engaged than ever before, due, in part, to the advent of social media, but also as a result of Julie’s diligence and tenacity.

Privately, the committed EO is also completing her Masters in Communication (by research) on the subject of sports horse welfare and social licence to operate – something which connects directly back to her work at Horse SA.

Julie says a current focus for Horse SA is the state’s ‘reforming’ economy, which is moving away from old style manufacturing to the new and growing industries of IT, defence, green industries and advanced manufacturing.

What does this mean for horses? “In a relatively short period of time, our state workforce is starting to refresh, and many of these ‘new workers’ are in a position to afford to ride and own horses. These new industries also bring new networks and international relations.”

One recent example is a French trade mission visit to Adelaide late last year, which included a representative from the Normandy Horse Council. As well as having strong ties with South Australia through the submarine project, France is the only country in the world to have ‘Equitation in the French Tradition’ inscribed by the United Nations on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

“Horses are integral within our culture and society, and all of its evolutions. Through recognising these shifts, Horse SA can make sure we stay relevant in a modern society,” Julie says.

The role of advocacy has been helped enormously in recent years with the rise of social media. “It’s easier to keep in touch with local people and local issues and, where possible, to support moving any particular issue ‘up the line’ to the right level within local or state government for attention,” she says. “Any horse owner can advocate for issues in their local area by contacting government representatives and clubs can also build relationships that often will be called-on if an issue arises in the future.

“Advocacy is continuous, taking place on multiple levels and in many formats,” continues Julie. “From Members of Parliament receiving a regular e-news, through to meetings, participating on committees with government representatives or in public consultations, reviewing documents, coordinating information and engaging in social media, all can have important input into areas such as policy planning.”

A new era may be dawning for horse-keeping and ownership, but the rich cultural heritage and long list of horse-related legends who have lead the way continues through the ground-breaking efforts and tireless service to the horse community by Horse SA and its long-time executive officer, Julie Fiedler.

To find out more about Horse SA, visit: https://www.horsesa.asn.au. You can also learn about Equitation in the French Tradition at: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/equitation-in-the-french-tradition-00440.

This article by Sally Harding was published in Horses and People April 2018 magazine.