The Heavy Horse in Australian Art 

From pulling whims in mines, to carting wool bales to promoting regional tourism, the heavy horse has captured the Australian imagination and, consequently, our art history is rich in pictures that show the contribution of these wonderful equines to stories of nation.

Throughout the settlement period in Australia and up to the era of mass scale mechanisation the heavy horse has contributed muscle, heart and spirit. Working as ploughing horses, pulling wagons, taking the family to town or church and dinkying children to school were part of their day’s work.

Many rural families have enduring memories of their working draught horses, but city families too in the first half of last century will recall the presence of heavy horses everywhere, pulling trams, and delivering beer, milk, bread and groceries.

Consequently, Australian art history is rich in pictures of working heavy horses, and several of our best-known Colonial, Impressionist, and Edwardian era artists have portrayed the contribution of these horses to stories of nation. From city centres to furthest flung out stations, these gentle giants have been turning a hoof to the most amazing variety of roles. Here, look at the countless tasks these horses were involved in, from pulling trams, to even offering their flanks as local election ‘banners’.

The first horse to pull a plough through Australian soil apparently did so on Governor Macarthur’s Elizabeth Farm property in 1795. So necessary became heavy horse power to the early colonies that by 1826, a breeding program began to develop an ‘Australian’ draught horse; ‘judiciously crossed with lighter kinds’ to better withstand the heat.

A locally evolved hybrid of Clydesdale, Shire, Suffolk Punch, Percheron, thoroughbred and stock horse, the Australian draught is now an officially recognised breed. Bred to carry out a full day’s work, every day of their lives, these ‘jacks of all trades’ were very popular.

Despite the emergence of a slightly smaller, lighter boned draft horse, purebreds were still imported from overseas. Flush with money from the gold rush in the 1850s, some breeders were able to import the very best horses, in a process that brought the Clydie prominently to the front. Certainly, by the mid-1930s ‘some magnificent Clydesdales were bred on Australian shores’.  

Post World War II saw scarcities for fuel and materials, and in some cases a return to the use of working horses. The next major cultural change was the rise, after the 1970s, of the increased popularity of riding and owning horses as a major leisure pursuit, creating a resurgence of interest in the Clydesdale horse and the heavy horse in general in Australia, because of their gentleness, sure-footedness and strength.

Meanwhile, teams of heavy horses owned by breweries have continued to keep them in the public eye, both in Australia and abroad, with for example the Budweiser Clydesdales becoming virtually a household name. But let’s not forget our own Aussie ‘mascots’ for the joys of beer. Here in South Australia we had the ‘West End’ Clydesdales, who delivered to local hotels and liquor stores the old fashioned way.

In addition, new showing classes for both ridden, driven and led heavy horses have increased, as has the popularity of ‘working’ competitions, where traditionally farming and driving skills are kept alive.

One of the earliest significant images of the working heavy horse is this watercolour by S.T. Gill. Heavy horses were an integral part of early mining for both copper and gold, helping to pull up the heavy buckets or ‘kibbles’ of ore from deep mineshafts.

In this depiction of a copper mine at Kapunda in the mid-North of South Australia, we see to the right of the mine head, a horse driving a ‘whim’. Horse whims were machines powered by a horse using a system of pulleys and cables wound around a wide drum for hauling materials to the surface.

The rope is connected at one end to the swivel harness of a horse, which moves on a worn circular track. The other end of the rope is attached to a bucket that draws the load up and down the mine shaft.

Whim horses were well trained to instantly obey orders such as ‘back up’, ‘turn’, ‘pay out’ and ‘take up slack’. They would learn to move off gently when pulling up the buckets from the bottom of the shaft, so that all obstacles were cleared. If a horse did not stop in time after raising the load, the bucket of ore would hit the pulley, possibly crashing down the shaft and injuring those below. The special swivel harness allowed the horse to turn quickly in their own length.

Later in the nineteenth century, heavy horses were also hitched to one of Australia’s most famous home-grown pieces of farming technology, the stump jump plough.

Described as ‘having no equal’ the stump jump was invented in South Australia in the 1870s by brothers Richard and Clarence Smith to solve the problem of ploughing soil filled with underground obstacles such as Mallee roots. It had original three-hinged blades or ‘shares’ that worked independently of each other. 

When a share hit a root or stone it would ‘jump’ out of the ground, to be then forced back down by attached weights, or chains. It made the exhausting task of ‘grubbing’ a thing of the past. The Farmers’ Weekly Messenger commented that it would ‘if adopted by agriculturalists, cause a complete revolution in tilling uncleared land’. Plus it avoided the problem this cartoon so graphically describes!

The problem of clodding in heavy soils was solved most effectively however, by the American principle of the disc plough. The Americans, motivated by the need to reduce plough draught, replaced the sliding friction of the mouldboard and shares by the rolling action of the discs. A few were imported in 1896 and were manufactured locally from about 1903. James Garde of Victoria adapted a stump-jump mechanism to the disc plough to produce the ‘Sundercut’ stump-jump disc cultivating plough, which was produced from 1906.

The number of horses in the plough team depended on the number of furrows the plough was designed to make, obviously the more furrows the heavier the work, which was also affected by the weight of the soil, size and incline of the field. A draft horse can exert ten percent of its body weight with a horizontal pull. A 680 kilo horse can pull 68 kilos all day. Plough horses need to be able to walk slowly and steadily, to turn precisely and tightly on the headlands and to lean into pressure on their collars when they encounter roots or tough sod.

By the 1920s there was a move to mechanisation – with advertisements for ‘Normac’ tractors in The Farmers and Settlers Bulletin. Here an image of three sweet and very large plough horses were bannered with the claim ‘They Eat All The Time’, which is contrasted with a picture of a kerosene driven tractor that ‘It Only Eats While Working’.

Thanks to the arrival of bigger and ever more powerful tractors that could complete farm work faster and more efficiently than horsepower, the ancient skill of ploughing with horses might well have been lost but for the revival of interest in doing farm work with horses driven by fear of global warming and the need to return to more environmentally friendly forms of power. This interest is reflected in the rise in the number of heavy horse ‘challenge days’, breed shows, log-pulling or ‘snigging’ competitions, festivals and charity fundraisers are all increasingly popular in both Australia and the UK.

One event that has returned is the horse drawn ploughing match. These have been popular since the nineteenth century. Competitors ploughed an area within a set time and were judged on the straightness and evenness of their furrows. Ploughing competitions grew from small affairs to display the efficiency and strength of horses and machinery, (and often to market and or train farmers on the use of new equipment) into festivals of agriculture.

In fact just at time of writing, The Land has recently reported that the Central Western New South Wale’s ‘Golden Plough’ competition is back on after last year’s restrictions, with double the competitors and events.  Similarly, the return of the heavy-working-horse based country shows and festivals is well-established in Queensland and Victoria, organised and promoted substantially through the relevant breed societies.

Heavy horses didn’t only contribute to farming crops but also to the wool industry. George Lambert’s much loved 1899 painting Across the Black Soil Plains depicts sixteen heavy horses ‘pulling like one’ toiling over the ‘black soil’ to bring their bounty of bales of wool to market. It was Lambert’s “best known bush image”, and Across the Black Soil Plains was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1899. The following year Lambert left for London with the first New South Wales Society of Artists Travelling Scholarship.’

‘Black soil’ is heavy, rich, and contains both opal and ironstone, which apparently attracted lightening. Covering the higher-rainfall coastal and sub-coastal regions, these kinds of soils crack open when they are dry and are heavy and loamy when wet. Bogging was not unusual, as contemporary photographs show, so the horses involved needed to be exceptionally strong and brave.

On this kind of land, life is tenuous. Its most well know region is Lightning Ridge which is located 768 km from Sydney and 72 km north of Walgett. George Lambert began this ambitious three metre long work at the age of twenty-six, while living at Hornsby.

According to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘Lambert worked in a small shed in the garden, and had to position the painting diagonally across it, even then unable to stretch the canvas to its full extent’.

The colour scheme is all rich browns, blacks and beiges, it appears to be almost painted with the same sticky dark soil of the title. The painting was enthusiastically received as a heroic portrayal of bush life, displaying Lambert’s innate skill at draughtsmanship.

Lambert himself attributed the inspiration for the work to a particular horse. As a boy he used to watch the bush working draft [sic] horses … [One, he remembered] ‘called Barney had such fine action and such imposing carriage … and possibly what knowledge I displayed in connection with horses in ‘Black Soil Plains’ originated with my association with this exceptionally fine animal’. Notwithstanding Barney’s contribution, in preparation for the final work, Lambert made individual studies of each horse.

Lambert set the scene between Snakes Plain and Warren to the railway station at Nevertire. A certain Jim Smith may have been the model for the teamster. There is a huge sense of movement and struggle as the horses battle with not only their load but the glue-like quality of the soil.

They are beautifully silhouetted against what seems like a wintry sky, the leader horse leans into the chains, encouraging and leading the others behind him. It is a true testament to the labour of horses and workers, and as the Art Gallery of NSW has written of this work ‘Out of the particular and the personal Lambert created an enduring icon conveying the toil of man and horse and their relationship with the land’.

Heavy horses in the city

From the 1900s up to the post war period, horse power remained well-suited economically in Australia for short local trips within small districts and the delivery of perishable staples such as ice, bread, milk and ice, and the collection of rubbish.

A series of remarkable images from the State Library of Queensland shows just how many tasks the Australian heavy horse turned its hoof to, showing everything from horses working in the peanut industry, to pulling trams, milk drays and bakery carts, to helping election campaigns.

From pulling whims in mines, to carting wool bales to promoting regional tourism, the image of the heavy horse has seamlessly entered the twenty-first century in this example of silo art in Goorambat, Victoria by Melbourne artist DVate. It depicts three Clydesdale horses, Clem, Sam and Banjo, working as a plough team, and is a much loved attraction in Victoria’s High Country.

If that were not enough, heavy horses are now at least in some countries, getting their own dressage competitions series, and are seen more and more frequently here in open competition, where they successfully compete at many levels.

It seems that whatever they turn those giant feet to they’re good at; from work, to sport to having fun.

Image credits:

IMAGE 1: Jimmy DVate, Goorambat Silos no. 3 2019, image Alamy.

IMAGE 2: Samuel Thomas Gill, The Kapunda Copper Mine, Art Gallery of South Australia 1845.

IMAGE 3: Four-disc stump jump plough, c 1922, image courtesy University of Adelaide Digital Collections

IMAGE 4: Thomas Worth, A Sudden Rise in the World image courtesy Library of Congress.

IMAGE 5: Ploughing Match’, Kerry and Co, Sydney, Australia, c. 1884-1917. Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Wikicommons

IMAGE 6: Normac advertisement.

IMAGE 7: George Lambert (Russia; Australia, b.1873, d.1930) Across the black soil plains 1899 oil on canvas, 91.6 x 305.5 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased 1899 Photo: AGNSW

IMAGE 8: Election advertising in Wondai, 1906, State Library of Queensland.

IMAGE 9: Fun at Silver Sands. Image courtesy of Plum Tack.