The days of real legends (as against the common usage of the term, today) are fast disappearing into obscurity. Why, every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to be granted "legend" status, these days, but if we look in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find a definition as a "traditional story popularly regarded as historical, myth". One such legend is that of The Headless Horseman from the Riverina area of New South Wales.
This is an extraordinary tale and one that we should not let be lost in antiquity. You see, The Headless Horseman rode the saltbush plain on his grey trotting cob, striking fear and often terror into the very hearts of the drovers moving their cattle through from the Monaro..... or so they say.
So how much is fact and how much is fiction? The late Jack Bushby, in his Deniliquin district history, Saltbush Country, reckons that it all started back in the 1850's when it was nearly impossible to get a conviction for cattle theft against bushrangers and outlaws working the overlanding route. It seems that at about this time a drover named Doyle died in The Black Swamp.
From that time, passing drovers swore that they saw the ghost of Doyle riding around the camp at night on a cob horse and the overlanders dreaded camping in the area because they felt that sighting the apparition would spell their own demise.
Jack Bushby suggests that "When the lands were wide and fences few,
uneasy was the stockman when the sun was down and his thousand charges
were scattered for miles around his campfire.... he would remember the
story they were telling around Bourke that the Headless Horseman was again
haunting the plains at the Black Swamp near the border and he would appear
suddenly, mounted on a cob, with a cloak wrapped around him - but without
"He passed through the camp like a phantom causing the cattle to rush and the dogs to shrink away. Terror would follow with cattle, dogs, drovers all in a wild stampede!"
According to Jack's book, Charlie Lee, who drove the Hay - Deniliquin coach, saw the Headless Horseman in action. The story went that what Charlie saw was the trotting cob taking its Headless rider home to die.
In Jack's words, "Be that as it may, it adds a fitting postscript to what is probably one of the finest legends in the whole of outback Australia."
The Black Swamp is located on the Old Man Plain, a little north of Billabong Creek. Today, it is remembered by a sign on the side of the road and also a painting in the Royal Mail Pub, Booroorban, NSW.
Now there is an Horse Endurance Ride that remembers this legend. It is The Headless Horseman Ride and Drive, situated at Booroorban, New South Wales, and, as Doyle rode a trotting cob, this event has both Endurance Riding and Endurance Driving.