An Explorer and his Horses

A major and  limiting factor for Stuart and his Companions was transport. Stuart’s style of exploration – which set a new benchmark – was entirely horse bound. The horses needed food, water and sound feet. In other words, they needed to be tough.

A significant part of Stuart’s success lay in his superb horsemanship. Riding horses and pack horses were Stuart’s only means of travel. He had to limit his outfit to the carrying capacity of his horses, aiming to travel with maximum speed and mobility. The horses had to live off the country they traveled through.  This mode of travel was a complete revolution in the methods of exploration. Stuart’s horses were seldom hobbled which gave them every advantage in grazing at night. Often much time was lost in recovering the horses in the following early morning. Thring, the third officer, was in charge of horses during the final expedition. He was regarded as the best bushman of the party.

Endurance and water

The best horses were supplied by the Chambers’ Cobdogla Station. They were tougher and had greater endurance that most other horses. The horses sourced from Cobdogla were branded ‘half circle C’. The South Australian Government, through the Police Commissioner, supplied others. Of the 71 horses who departed from Chambers Creek on the final expedition of 1861-62, 48 returned to Adelaide. Some were injured and left behind, some died and some were lost.

On the march from Chambers Creek- Sketch by Stephen King

Stephen King, after the return of the final expedition, was quoted as saying

In the early part of October 1861, l applied to the late James Chambers to accompany Stuart on his next trip to cross the continent. He accepted me and l was engaged, with others, at his residence, Montefiore Hill, North Adelaide, breaking in some of the horses which were to go with us. These were raw colts brought from his station on the Murray River. It gave us plenty to do to get them anything near tame by the time wanted. Many of them strongly objected and could buck jump to perfection. I was also informed by Mr Chambers that l must be able to shoe a horse if required – an accomplishment l had already learnt. Also, testing water-bags, pack-saddles, packs and getting new horses used to them. I think we managed to break in about forty, in a rough way, previous to starting on the 25th October 1861. The rest of the horses used on the previous trip were paddocked at Melrose and we were to pick them up on the journey – about thirty.

Following their departure, The Register newspaper of  October 28th, 1861 reported that

With regard to horses, Mr. Stuart and his second in command will be supplied with fifteen by Messrs. Chambers &, Finke, and fifty five will be furnished by the Government for the rest of the party. From Chambers Creek it is proposed to carry seven months’ provisions, which Mr. Stuart believes will be more than sufficient; and the expense of the whole expedition the Government think will be less than £2,000.

Through necessity the horses sometimes went up to two nights and three days without water. On 30th July 1858, during his first expedition, Stuart’s diary says

‘At ten miles, having met with some rainwater, we halted, for the horses had been three nights without it.’

If dawn is at approximately 6.30 am  & dark is at 6.00 pm in July, then they must have been about 72 hours minimum –  i.e. 3 days without water. [Observation by R. Moore] . On the fifth journey, in July 1861,  the horses travelled  106 hours without water.The greatest distance traveled without water for the horses was 112 miles (about 180 km). On June 9th, 10th, 11th 1860 the horses had been 101 hours without a drop of water. These are remarkable and outstanding feats of horsemanship and endurance, probably not able to be repeated by any domesticated horses alive today.


As a pack horse could carry only up to 140 lb (63 kg), Stuart was always careful not to overload his packhorses. He would rather his men went cold & hungry than the animals should carry too much food or too much gear. Ten horses were ridden by the men; the balance of the horses were either spelled and not carrying any load, partly loaded, or fully loaded with packs.


The horses were always rested on Sunday, while at times the whole party stopped travel for up to a week to spell them. On several occasions the horses saved men who had become lost, by returning along their tracks to the last camp. Thring said

‘Sometimes in going over stony country there were no signs of our tracks, but the horses seemed so confident that I did not interfere, and the old camping grounds used to turn up all right.’


Stuart’s favourite horse appeared to be Polly. She is generally believed to be a grey mare, but careful research has shown there may have been up to three horses called Polly by Stuart. One was bay coloured, one grey and one black. Stuart was demonstrably a top horseman, and it is completely unimaginable that he would record the colour of a horse incorrectly.

Two locations on the Finke River were named after two favourite horses. Thus we have Polly’s Springs and Bennett’s Springs.

Following the processional return of the party into Adelaide on January 21st 1863, an auction of the horses was held. When the crowd realised that some of the Companions were bidding on the horses, they fell silent, thereby enabling the Companions to purchase their favourites for the lowest possible cost. Kekwick bought 2 horses after the procession – Bagot & O’Halloran. Pat Auld bought Wilberforce  for 10 pounds and paid seven pounds and 5 shillings for Teaser. Creamy was probably bought  on behalf of Stuart by Finke.

Besides Stuart’s Polly, there was Bally, Tinker, Turpin, Black George, Lushing Tom, Teaser, Rockaback, Bagot, Jeffries, Sweep, Wilberforce, O’Halloran, Holland, Bennett, Trussell, Blowhard, Prizefighter, Charley, Jersey, Guernsey, Lawyer, Ranger, Patrick, Duncan, Shadract, Emu, Snip, Trooper, Tiger and PV. The  balance of the horses names have not yet been un-earthed.

Jerry was left behind at the Mary River. Reformer was lost near Mt Hawker (north of Central Mt Stuart) on the final trip. Gloag was Thring’s favourite mount; he may not have been broken in fully at departure. HA was likely named from his brand, visible in the sketches of Stephen King.

The HA colt- sketched by Stephen King and referred to as ‘The knocked up horse’.

An unnamed newspaper cutting says

‘Mr William Voules Brown was employed by Mr. Stephen King Snr at Kingsford near Gawler, colt breaking and he broke in the horse which Stephen King rode to the Gulf of Carpentaria when he formed one of the Stuart exploration party. He also named the animal: “Thus – What shall I call him, Brown? asked King. ‘Lord Raglan, sir’ was the prompt reply, and Lord Raglan it was.’