Local Darren Holmberg Casterton with Roly0813

Darren Holmberg with Roly. Courtesy: Casterton Kelpie Association Inc.

Locals agree – there are many different versions of the story that saw Casterton confirmed as the birthplace of the kelpie.

But according to most, it was around 1870 when the legend began after local stockman Jack Gleeson organised a clandestine exchange of a horse for a highly sought-after Scottish short-haired collie pup bred by George Robertson of nearby Warrock Station.

No-one at that time could have envisaged that dog would give birth – literally – to an Australian icon, Australia's very own working dog breed, the kelpie.


Kelpie sculpture by Perter Corbett outside casterton town hall

 Casterton Kelpie Sculpture by Peter Corlett, 1996.

"Everyone has their own version of the story but there is a common thread of that trade on the banks of the river," says Karen Stephens, President of the Casterton Kelpie Association.

"And there's one other very important thing all the stories agree on – Casterton is definitely the birthplace of the kelpie!"

The association's historical research has revealed that it was at the boundary river ford of Warrock Station where Gleeson exchanged a stock horse for a pup, naming her Kelpie after the mischievous Celtic water sprite that is thought to haunt river fords.

Kelpie was mated with a number of "short prick-eared black dogs" near Ardlethan in the NSW Riverina producing a litter of what was dubbed the "king's kelpie" breed, the name later shortened to simply kelpie.

As a celebration of the breed and its birthplace, the Australian Kelpie Muster – organised by the Casterton Kelpie Association – is a fitting festivity. Held on the Queen's Birthday long weekend in June since 1996, it celebrates all things kelpie – no other breed is allowed to enter the competitions on the program.


John Tanner dog Go Getta Susie

John Tanner competing in the Stockman's Challenge. Courtesy: Casterton Kelpie Association Inc.

The main event – the Working Dog Futurity – is a series of competitions including herding sheep and an obstacle course that showcases the kelpie's incredible athletic ability and intelligence. Karen says the Futurity is an incredible spectacle to watch, attracting competitors from all over Australia who vie for cash prizes ranging from $50 to $1000.

Another very important part of the muster is the Working Dog Auction, which sees pups, breeding dogs and working animals sold for up to $10,000.


Kelpie Auction, Casterton, 2004. Watercolour by George Haddon. Acquired 2006, Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

And then there's the Kelpie Country Street Parade, the Kelpie High Jump (the world record, set in 2007, is 2.91 metres), the Kelpie Dash, the Iron Kelpie Hill Climb, King of the Kelpies Triathlon and a range of novelty events – fattest dog, dog most like its owner and the 11-legged race. The Kelpie Idol competition – where a dog howls while its owner sings – is also very popular.

Casterton's pastoral history is the perfect breeding ground for the kelpie with many farming enterprises and stations in the area having used the working dog over the centuries.


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 Crowds watching the auction at the Casterton Kelpie Muster. Courtesy: Casterton Kelpie Association Inc.

"The kelpie has been the essential famer's friend, worker and buddy in all sorts of areas of farming," Karen explains.

"Kelpies are not only used on sheep farms but cattle farms, in wool sheds, at mustering time and within sale yards. They are a versatile breed and one suited to our land. They also have such great characters, are intelligent and smart. They definitely keep you entertained."

Karen was part of the working group which in 1990 worked tirelessly to obtain confirmation from the Australian Working Dog Council and its international arm that Casterton was indeed the birthplace of the kelpie. The Casterton Kelpie Association established the muster and had a statue by Peter Corbett installed outside the town hall.


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Competitors in the Kelpie High Jump. Courtesy: Casterton Kelpie Association Inc.

"For us, the legacy of the kelpie is very important – it provides a connection between the city and the country, between the farmer and townsfolk," Karen says.

"The kelpie is an Australian icon. For us, it's celebrating the kelpie's achievement in helping rural Australia get where it is today."

No matter the details of the original kelpie story, there is one fact that Jack Gleeson would agree on if he was still alive today. Kelpies are serious business and there's nowhere that takes them more seriously than Casterton.

Why were the first kelpie auctions held at the muster so controversial?

What else does the Casterton Kelpie Association do in and around town to recognise and celebrate being the birthplace of the kelpie?

Other than the muster, where can I go to see a working kelpie in action?

To find the answers to all these questions and more, visit the official website of the Australian Kelpie Muster: http://www.kelpies-casterton.org/


Or you can get in touch with the:

Casterton Kelpie Association Incorporated
P.O. Box 236, Casterton VIC 3311

Phone: President John Houlihan on 03 5582 0188