The McDowells Australian Brumby Challenge

This year brings an exciting all-new 2018 McDowells Brumby Challenge to EQUITANA Melbourne. We look behind the scenes and have a chat with Colleen O’Brien, the woman who has driven an awareness and passion for Australia’s wild horses that has seen more than 500 Brumbies saved since 2007.


It started with a love of horses and has grown into a lifestyle. Colleen O’Brien is a volunteer – albeit one who has spent nearly every day of the past 11 years helping Brumbies...

By her own admission, she grew up a “frustrated” horsewoman, and while as an adult she worked in the horse industry, Brumbies didn’t rate on her radar.

“I didn’t even know we had Brumbies around,” she says. “David (who was then her boyfriend but now her husband) and I were travelling somewhere one day and there was a two line advert in a paper for two Snowy Mountain Brumbies for $120.”

She called to see if she could come and look but was flatly told not to come that far without a float.

“We drove four-and-a-half hours. I was trying to pick one when the knackery truck pulled up.”

She and David managed to squeeze four small Brumbies into their float.

“And that was the start.”

She continued doing a little here and there, and began to find out just how dire the situation was.

“I felt the Brumbies needed a voice and this is what I wanted to do.”

So in 2007 she started the Victoria Brumby Association, which aims to rescue, advocate and educate.

“We have a great village of people around us who sponsor, or visit, or help in all sorts of other ways. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Our committee of 10 work together to advocate for and save our Australian Brumbies. Without these people, this work wouldn’t be possible.”

Her own four Brumbies have multiplied. David encouraged her to do a bit of a business plan with the idea of maybe starting something in the coming year.

“I got a call that day from a guy with 32 Brumbies – they were going to the knackery, so I took them all.”

Back in those days, she and David had a 20-acre property.

“It just wasn’t big enough, so we sold it and bought 150 acres where we now run the association from.”

Her greatest fear is that one day, Australia won’t have it’s own wild horse population. The years have taught Colleen so much about this unassuming horse.

“People expect wild behaviour from our horses, but we don’t have that. Domestically we breed horses for a whole bunch of different purposes but I have never known a breed as sociable and trainable as Brumbies – it blows me away still. These horses are sound, sociable and quiet – they have everything you breed for.”

She and David have 77 Brumbies at their home – it’s more than usual as she has kept extras in preparation for the Brumby Challenge. The horses are caught in the mountains over an 8-10 week period in the winter. It then takes 12 months to settle them in.

Their children Bridie (11) and Josh (13) are both hands-on helpers.

“Bridie is a very capable little horse trainer. Every year we get a baby who needs TLC and that becomes her project.”

Growing up in a conservation and education household has set the youngster on her chosen path early and Colleen says she is already quite a voice for the Brumbies.

Colleen still has four of her own ‘favourites’ at home, but says she struggles to find time to ride.

Sometimes she looks at the 500-plus they have saved and worries about the many more who go “to the bad place”, but then she buoyed by those around her, the stories she hears and the love she sees . . . and she realises every little bit they do has an enormous impact.

She has travelled to New Zealand and the United States to watch musters of their wild horses – she’s photographed and admired, and comes back even more inspired to do as much as she can for Australia’s wild horse.

The Challenge

The 2018 McDowells Brumby Challenge is the third one to be run. It follows in the hoof prints of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge that is so popular in the United States.

It’s a stringent selection process for would-be trainers who then take a Brumby home for 150 days to take it from wild to wonderful. The final is held at EQUITANA Melbourne where trainers have a chance to impress both judges and spectators with what they have achieved.

“The change over the five months is amazing. We see them coming in from the wild and then settling in and learning to trust people.”

Colleen says most people in Australia wouldn’t contemplate training an adult horse.

“If you go into the average training stable in Australia, 99% of the horses would be 2-3 years old, so there are not a lot of trainers working with adult horses – but that is what we look for. It is easy to be formulaic but those trainers would struggle with a Brumby.”

This type of training calls for a two-way conversation between horse and handler.

“It is so important,” she says. “Those who do well are the trainers who take the time it takes. In every challenge we have those who will be riding their Brumby in four days and others who don’t touch them for 50 days, but funnily enough, by day 100 they are at the same level. It is all about the relationship.”

Trainers often came into the challenge saying they had no plans to keep the horse at the end, but inevitably that bond is so strong that at least half do.

“It is hard to let go.”

Colleen isn’t much of a fan of watching the final freestyle where competitors have four minutes to do whatever they like to music and show off what is always a magnificent transformation.

“I cry! It is amazing to see the relationships that have been established and the change in the horses. To share that with so many people is special . . . very special.”

This year there will be eight trainers in the youth event (aged 10-17) and 21 in the ridden. Those in the ridden challenge are Brumbies four and older, while the youth are yearlings and presented in-hand only.

“The challenge is non-stop for us.”

They are constantly in touch with everyone, visiting them in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

EQUITANA Melbourne and the Victorian Brumby Association have partnered with Dolly’s Dream Foundation to create a special Youth Award in memory of 14-year-old Dolly Everett. The foundation aims to encourage positive change in young lives and provide support to charity groups in the fundraising and promotion of anti-bullying campaigns in school-aged youth.

At the end of the Brumby Challenge, all horses will be available to purchase at auction at the conclusion of the competition on the final day of EQUITANA. The value of the highest-selling yearling will be donated to Dolly’s Dream Foundation.

Follow the journey through Facebook page Australian Brumby Challenge.