Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Donald McGillivray (1855–1921)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Donald McGillivray (1855-1921), horsebreaker, was born in 1855 on a sheep station at Dartmoor, Victoria, second of six children of Scottish-born parents James McGillivray, grazier, and his wife Mary, née McIntosh. Donald was brought up on his father's property, Maaoupe Park, near Penola, South Australia, where he was privately educated by J. W. Ashley, B.A., from the University of Glasgow. At 18 he managed Murrabinna station, near Kingston, for Messrs Hutchison & Dunn, and, after experimenting on wild, unbroken horses, was soon dealing with large mobs of 'walers' for the Indian remount trade. He once handled 202 unbroken colts in three weeks. Six feet (183 cm) tall, weighing 14 stone (89 kg), McGillivray was 'active, muscular and proportionately well built'. On 1 September 1880 at Robe he married with Presbyterian forms Elizabeth ('Bessie') Hayes. They had five daughters.

Horse-breaking methods received much attention in Australia. The ideas of J. S. Rarey (1827-1866), demonstrated in Sydney and Melbourne in 1858, were in advance of previous practices and were taken up by such noted horsemen as Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh and E. M. Curr. In 1884 'Professor' H. Sample came to Australia from the United States of America and taught what he claimed was an improvement on Rarey's method. After watching a Sample demonstration in Melbourne, McGillivray was 'so surprised at . . . the small amount of knowledge to be gained from him for two guineas' that he decided to teach his own method for half the price. For the next fifteen years he gave demonstrations and advice on all aspects of horse management throughout eastern Australia. He estimated that he taught 'upwards of 24,000 pupils' and styled himself 'Professor McGillivray'.

In his treatise, Australian Horses from Paddock to Park (Sydney, 1902), he denounced the prevalent 'station method' where horses were broken in by 'hauling about', often in a brutal fashion. While he built on Rarey's and Sample's methods he also criticized them. He reckoned they were at their weakest at the most difficult stage of breaking in, catching the horse, although he owed more to Rarey than he cared to admit. Among the many devices he invented were a 'patent halter', a crush pen, a safety buggy strap and 'McGillivray's Rarey Strap'. Once asked by a 'smart alec' to reveal his secret equine recipe for two shillings and six pence, he wrote out: 'Oil of common sense, two drachms; oil of kindness, two drachms; clear, cool courage, two drachms; clear grit, two drachms; mix and apply in a small yard'!

In 1904 McGillivray, who also practised as a veterinary surgeon, moved to a property, Merrigong, south of Nimmitabel, New South Wales. His wife died next year. On 28 May 1908 at Grenfell, described as an auctioneer of Wagga Wagga, he married Jessie West. Returning to Mount Gambier, he became well known in sporting circles and followed the hounds with the Mount Gambier Hunt Club. In World War I McGillivray became one those described by A. B. Paterson as 'Methusaliers': on 24 September 1915, claiming to be 45, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and joined the First Australian Remount Unit. After service as a veterinary surgeon in Egypt, he was discharged in Australia on 18 October 1916. He died of cancer on 14 August 1921 at Mount Gambier; two days later a mounted party formed part of the cortège to the Presbyterian cemetery, where he was buried. His wife and their daughter, and three daughters of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Walsh, Pioneering Days (Syd, 1993)
  • Pastoral Review, Mar 1904, p 21, Sept 1921, p 708
  • Journal of the Australian War Memorial, Oct 1982, p 9
  • South-Eastern Star (Mount Gambier), 15 Aug 1921, p 3
  • B2455/1 1944195 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'McGillivray, Donald (1855–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Dartmoor, Victoria, Australia


14 August, 1921 (aged ~ 66)
Mount Gambier, South Australia, Australia

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