Riderless horse as a symbol of commemoration in Australia

 

Sometimes a riderless horse leads a commemorative march or parade in Australia. Also called 'the lone charger', the horse is usually saddled with a pair of boots set backwards in the stirrups.

History of its symbolism

For hundreds of years, the riderless horse has been used in military parades to remember fallen soldiers. It's a symbol of cavalry or mounted troops who have died in battle.

Symbolising fallen warriors who fight on horseback is a military tradition that could date back to Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire who ruled from 1206.

Over time, a new custom began in which the horse is led in its master's funeral. Often called the lone charger, the horse has a saddle with no rider and a pair of boots set backwards in the stirrups. This is a sign that a warrior has fallen in battle.

Walers were a special breed of horse favoured by the Australian Imperial Force in World War I. Service men in the Australian Light Horse brigades took great care of their horses during the war. After the war, Light Horse veterans included a riderless horse at many marches and parades.

3 armed soldiers riding on horse back

Trooper William Woods, 1st Light Horse Regiment, on the right, riding with another Light Horsemen, November 1914, Roseberry Park Camp, near Merriwa NSW. AWM J00450

What it means to us today

Today, a riderless horse is added to some Anzac Day parades as an additional symbol of respect and mourning. It's often to commemorate the Light Horsemen.

A riderless horse led the Anzac Day march outside the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, ABC News, 2017

Engage more with this topic

Many poems and songs have been written to share Australian stories from wartime.

In 2016, the ABC released a collection of poems and songs called The Riderless Horse. You can download the audio file for 6 songs from the trenches and the home front of World War I, performed by Chloe and Jason Roweth.

New South Wales poet, Patrick Joseph Hartigan published The Riderless Horse (and a similar version titled Ownerless). Hartigan wrote the poem after World War I under the pen name 'John O'Brien'.

The Riderless Horse

He comes when the gullies are wrapped in the gloaming,
And lime-lights are trained on the tops of the gums,
To stand by the sliprails, awaiting the homing
Of one who marched off to the beat of the drums;
So handsome he looked, in his putties and khaki,
Light-hearted he went, like a youngster, to play,
But why comes he never to speak to his "Darkie",
Around at the rails at the close of the day.

Hard by at the station, the training commences,
In circles they're schooling the hacks for the shows,
The high-mettled hunters are sent at the fences,
And satins and dapples the brushes disclose;
Sound-winded, and fit, and quite ready is Darkie,
Impatient to strip for the sprint and the flight,
But what can be keeping the rider in khaki,
And why does the silence hang heavy tonight?

Ah, surely, he'll come, when the waiting is ended,
To fly the stiff fences, and take him in hand,
Blue-ribboned once more, and three-quarters extended,
Hard-held for the cheers, from the fence and the stand;
But there on the cross beam, the saddle hangs idle,
The cobweb around the loose stirrup is spun,
There's rust on the spur, and there's dust on the bridle,
And gathering mould are the badges he won.

We'll take the old horse, to the paddocks, tomorrow,
Where grasses are waving, breast-high, after rain,
And there, with the clean-skins, we'll turn him in sorrow,
And muster him, never, ah, never, again ;
The bushbirds will sing, when the shadows are creeping,
A sweet plaintive note, soft and clear as a bell's,
Would it might ring where the bush boy lies sleeping,
to colour his dreams by the far Dardanelles.

And why are the neighbours foregathered so gently,
Their horses a-doze , at the fence, in a row,
What are they talking of, softly, intently,
And why are the women-folk lingering so?
One hand, soft and small, that so often caressed him,
Was trembling, just now, as it fondled his head,
And what was the trickling, warm drop that distressed him,
And what were the heartbroken words that she said?

He comes, when the gullies are wrapped in the gloaming,
And lime-lights are trained on the taps of the gums,
To stand by the sliprails, awaiting the homing,
Of one who marched off to the beat of the drums;
So handsome he looked, in his putties and khaki,
Light-hearted he went, like a youngster, to play,
But why comes he never to speak to his "Darkie",
Around at the rails at the close of the day?

You'll find a collection of poems written in the trenches at The Poetry of World War I.


Last updated: 9 November 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Riderless horse as a symbol of commemoration in Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 20 January 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/commemoration/symbols-commemoration/riderless-horse-symbol-commemoration-australia
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