Honouring Australia's war horses

20 April 2023 Written by Sarah Marinos

Jessica Liston is an expert in equine-assisted therapy who works with Waler horses – an Australian horse breed with a proud and impressive heritage. She is so passionate about the horses that she rescued 20 of them in 2019 in order to rehome them and help save the breed. She is also an ambassador for the VRC charity partner Child And Racehorse Movement (CARM).

Equine therapist Jessica Liston is a former school teacher who first learned about Waler horses at a school ANZAC Day service. Her principal read a moving poem about the Walers that highlighted their dedication and service during WWI. Jessica remembers everyone in the hall being moved to tears.

“I’ve loved horses all my life and I’ve grown up in a family that have bred horses for generations, but that was the first time I’d heard of Walers and I wanted to know more about them,” said Liston.

The Waler breed dates back to early Colonial times. The name was first used by Brits living in India to describe horses that came to India from New South Wales from the mid-1840s onwards. They worked the land, transported goods and pulled coaches, and were renowned for their sturdiness.

But it was during wartime that the Walers really demonstrated their reliability.

At the outbreak of WWI 121,324 Walers were shipped overseas to allied armies in Africa, Europe, India and Palestine. On October 31st, 1917, the Walers became part of history when the 4th and 12th regiments of the Australian Light Horse charged over six kilometres of open ground against the Turkish defences to save the British from a disastrous defeat. The courageous charge at Beersheba is perhaps the last great successful cavalry charge in history – and the Walers played a pivotal role.

“Sadly, only one horse came home after the war,” said Liston. “I can’t imagine how bittersweet it would have been for those thousands of soldiers to return home but to learn their horses were not returning with them.”

Moved by the Walers’ service and history, and with a lifelong passion for horses, Liston became determined to help the breed endure and gain the recognition it deserves.

Liston grew up in the southern Mallee. Her father was a cereal farmer while her mother raised four children and trained thoroughbreds. When she was 12 the family bought a horse stud outside Adelaide with 400 horses.

Liston was torn between following in her mum’s footsteps and breeding horses, or teaching. Today she combines both in her business, Inner Rhythm, and runs leadership and team-building programs using her horses to help people learn more about their behavior, emotions and communication skills. Digby, a Waler, has become an important part of the team. Corporate managers to school kids work with each other and the horses to gain a deeper understanding of who they are and how they can work better and more empathetically in a team.

“Together we visit schools and businesses teaching mindfulness. Digby has also stepped into the role of a kids' pony with my two-year-old daughter able to lead him around and have pony rides on his back most days.

“Horses are very intuitive and sensitive, and they pick up on their environment. They have different personalities, too – an over-confident horse will need someone with quite dominating body language, while a nervous horse needs a gentler approach,” explained Liston.

“I still pinch myself that I get to share the wisdom of horses with adults and children, and each work day I come home feeling so fulfilled. One day I’ll be working with an international corporation to assist them in developing psychological safety in their workplace and seeing teams laughing and enjoying themselves by partaking in an obstacle course relay with horses. Then the next day I will be taking Digby into a school classroom where the students will have all regulated their emotions to support Digby to feel safe in their presence and the joy on the student’s faces is contagious.”

Liston has been working with Digby since he arrived at her property after completing a 2000km journey from the Northern Territory in 2019. With the help of friends, family and colleagues in the thoroughbred industry, Liston organised a GoFund Me page to raise money to pay for 20 wild Walers to find new homes.

“These are the original war horse bloodline,” she said.

“The herd we found haven’t been interbred so they are the bloodline dating from WWI. I knew we had this rare pool of genes that could be lost if we didn’t do anything about it.”

The project was fully supported by local councils and traditional landowners who were keen to see the Walers placed in new homes where their bloodline could be continued. Three foals have arrived since last July.

“Mum and I travelled to a place about four hours out of Alice Springs and we worked with Aboriginal stockmen who helped us catch the horses. We spent about a week getting them into cattle yards and keeping the ones that were the right ages and could make the trip to Victoria,” said Liston.

“I’ve never seen a wild herd of horses before and it was an incredible moment. We were in such a remote and beautiful place where the earth was red and the sky was blue and I could see the horses galloping to the water bores to drink.”

Liston found homes for all 20 Walers, with many going to families committed to raising and training thoroughbreds. The Walers’ versatility means they will work as a lead pony, in the equine therapy field, or they will muster, do camp drafting, or show and compete.

“People feel so much respect and love for what Walers represent. Their history and honour are inspiring, and I feel that sharing this history has supported an increase in awareness of the breed. It has been heartwarming to witness people seek out purchasing their own Waler for their families in honour of their role in WW1.”

Liston’s career complements her role as a CARM ambassador perfectly, a charity that funds and promotes wellbeing programs for children and retired racehorses and promotes positive generational change within the lives of children and racehorses. CARM creates unique opportunities for children and retired racehorses to find their place of belonging, that is safe, where they are nurtured and loved.

As a CARM Consultant, Liston will help to develop the collaborative concept, raising funds and awareness for child and horse wellbeing.

Images by Chloe Smith Photography