Waler Pony in History

Janet Lane, Waler Data Base on FaceBook. Image: Boy on pony with horse loaded with two milk vessels, Walhalla, Victoria, ca. 1905? [picture] / Lee Bros. National Library of Australia.

Ponies were very popular, particularly for racing, which was run in height classes. There was a huge market for ponies for racing overseas too, a significant trade for us. Tried race ponies got a price commensurate with their speed, some giant prices, however griffins were also very popular being untried, unraced, unbroken ponies. It made an entry level to racing for all, being affordable. Griffin racing had been done in China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and much of Asia for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It was a highlight of the year, a huge social occasion that all the family went to. In our horse trade days, nineteenth and early twentieth century, the biggest race crowds in the world were at Shanghai, where we sold a lot of ponies. Usual crowds there at griffin races were 80,000 people. This one looks as if it has a bit of Timor in its breeding.

Pony at a horse show in South Australia. 1916. State Library S.A.
Pony at a horse show in South Australia. 1916. State Library S.A.

Needless to say ponies found many other markets: for riding, harness, mine work, deliveries, telegraph boys and so on. And for the circus! Read on to find out about circus pony, Commodore. Waler ponies are now probably more-or-less extinct, pony Hale is the most recent example known to us.

Images from State Library of S.A: Water pony with leather canteen, Tanami, Northern Territory. 1910. Photo by Lionel C.E. Gee; Sulky and tandem ponies used during a trip to the Oodnadatta area. c. 1920, Photo by Frank Dunk

Circus work

Here is the story of Commodore, the piebald pony which founded a circus and made his owner rich, and his circus – Fitzgerald’s. Dan Fitzgerald came to Australia from Auckland, New Zealand in 1859, as a child, with his Irish parents. Not long after arriving, his Dad, a school-teacher, died; the boys helped their mother set up a store at Wattle Flat, 24 miles from Bathurst; then struck out to make their way in the world. All did a good well, one became a lawyer. Dan went mining then rough-riding for a living – becoming known as an ace horse trainer and rider. Due to a life-long affliction of chronic asthma, heart and bronchial problems, he was forced to stop strenuous work at times, so worked for a saddler for a time. Then one day in Brisbane he saw a striking little piebald pony colt, only two years old – on impulse he bought it – it took almost every penny he had.

Circus pony stallion Commodore
Commodore. The Bulletin, November 26th 1892

While too young to be backed, Dan found the pony learned super-fast so trained him to do tricks. Commodore, as he named the pony, excelled! This gave him an idea – work with the pony! – so they worked with a couple of circuses, including with some of the best performers in the circus business – good networking. As Commodore had charisma and an amazing repertoire of tricks that people flocked to see, Dan decided to strike out on his own with the pony in 1886-7. He also kept Commodore entire, he was a great little stallion. Dan travelled with Commodore – a one man – one pony circus. They worked hard. No money for railway fare, so they walked between towns. Big distances. There was an incredible amount of competition from other circuses, big and small. However, Commodore was becoming well known. Dan’s brother Tom joined them – they called their outfit Three In One. A two men – one pony circus. It went well.

Images are sketches of the Fitzgerald Bros. Circus, 1893 by Percy Frederick Seaton Spence.

Soon Dan bought some other horses and trained them all in 3 months. With a wagon, a few horses and Commodore the star, they toured starting from Sydney – their first big hit was Broken Hill. Tom and Commodore could do a see-saw act among other acts. Dan soon realised he’d been selling tickets too cheaply and went to the other extreme – very high prices. The first night, almost no-one came. But those who did, spread the word about how good the horse acts were. And Commodore! Something else! The second night they were turning people away! Everyone loved the show. His reputation as a horse trainer spread far and wide. He also took Commodore to every show he could, where the pony inevitably cleaned up all prizes he was entered for.

Dan attributed his sudden circus success to Commodore and to a young Aboriginal rider he’d employed, Harry Cardello. Harry was an ace rider and soon doing several acts, some in the costume of other nationalities. Dan had met him on the Paroo, when it was just he, Tom and Commodore, and asked if he wanted a job with the circus. Yes! Soon they had more horses, and Dan did a turn each night with his “Six White Broncos” – horses at liberty performing sychronised work to seemingly invisible commands.

The circus grew fast. In no time they had 80 trained horses and ponies. Trained dogs, mules and donkeys. Elephants. Tigers. Lions. One pretty pony, Silver King, also became popular although Commodore always remained the star of the show. One of Harry’s acts was a “Hurricane” ride – dressed as Red Indian, riding a pony flat out over hurdles and obstacles while a big noise was made by circus staff, like a hurricane.

As well as more horses and ponies, and exotic animals, many top class circus performers such as the Leons and Herberts were attracted to Fitzgeralds circus to work. Indeed the circus got huge – they toured the United States and Canada. Then England and Europe – playing at the best venues in London, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Paris. Many top performers from the countries visited came to work for the Fitzgeralds, many immigrating here when the circus returned home.

They played most towns and cities in Victoria and NSW as well as touring Queensland, West Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand (and Commodore was always written up in local papers!) It was one of the biggest circuses in the world. They took a tent to seat 600 to small towns, and a tent to seat 6,000 to cities. Small towns got exactly the same show as the cities. Commodore became a very popular name for ponies, with several Commodores sometimes at one show.

Sketches of the Fitzgerald Bros. Circus, 1893 / Percy Frederick Seaton Spence
Sketches of the Fitzgerald Bros. Circus, 1893 / Percy Frederick Seaton Spence

They built an amazing Ampitheatre over Princess Bridge in Melbourne in 1901. That year Tom took half of the circus to the Far East and toured, while Dan stayed with the rest touring Australia. Tom toured many towns on Java, to Makassar on Celebes, New Guinea (German and Australian territories there), Thursday Island and many other islands of the area. He raved about how beautiful Java was, and how charming the famous Sultans who came to meet him and watch his show, with huge entourages.

The success continued. And always, Dan insisted it was Commodore that made their success. The pony was so loyal, that even without training, as Dan set the circus tent up, from day one, Commodore would lie down beside his coat, hat and belongings on the grass, protecting them from anyone who might take them. He did that all his life. His tricks are too many to list here. Audiences always applauded him wildly.

In 1905, Commodore the much loved pony, died. He had never missed a performance. A few months later, in January 1906, his doting owner Dan Fitzgerald also died. Tom was in India buying elephants and of course, putting on circus shows! – ten beautiful “Burmah” elephants had just been sent to Dan, with an experienced attendant – but no sooner had Tom heard about Dan passing, than Tom too suddenly died, in India. The end of the Three As One. Dan left 13 year old daughter, and a wife. He was mourned by the Irish fraternity, as being of Irish stock he supported the Irish Nationalist movement all his life.

Dan was popular himself, as well as being a top horse-trainer, he was philanthropic. Orphanages in any town or city he visited – and we had thousands as there was so much poverty, they were not orphans so much as children of the poor – were given free passes for every child and their attendants, transport arranged, and at the circus, free ices and hot food. His employees loved him as Dan worked hard and never thought himself above anyone.

In 1907 Fitzgerald’s Circus was sold. No more Commodore, Dan, or Tom. A great circus. A great pony. Great family. Circuses were a good market for horse and pony breeders, particularly for horses and ponies of intelligence and pretty colours.

Posted by Enoch Waler

Waler gelding purpose bred to help educate and advocate for Walers, in person and via Facebook and Instagram.