The symbolic horse

The more I delve into the horse in Australian culture, the more I see this animal functioning as a symbol instead of a species.

‘Horses have an integral connection with the Australian character. …[T]hese sometimes gentle, sometimes wild and always complex creatures are part of our national psyche.’ [1] This quote appears on the back cover of the ‘Little Book of Horses’, published by the National Library of Australia.  It undoubtedly represents the broadly held view of the horse in Australia, though it does not refer to any specific horse. Such a notion of ‘the horse’ does not individuate, or acknowledge the alterity of this animal as a unique species.

Instead, the horse has become a culturally constructed symbol, something we as Australians have created in our collective imagination, and onto which we project our ideas of what the horse is, in relation to who we are as a nation. But what about elsewhere? Do other countries also have their own nationalist equine constructs?

In researching brumbies, Australia’s wild/feral horses (choose your own descriptor), I learned that the controversy over eradicating feral horses is not unique to Australia. In fact, according to a comparison study by Nimmo and Miller in 2007, similar community attitudes towards equine management are echoed by other post-industrialised nations [2]. For example, in the United States wild horses were declared a National Treasure in 1971. However by later that same decade, numbers had increased to such an extent that measures for management had to be put in place. This caused a  public outcry, and members of the United States Government were taken to court by wild horse advocates [3].

I am developing a theory about what the symbolic horse is to Australians, and why. It builds on the work of other scholars, and centers on our status as colonisers/invaders of an already occupied land, and the dispossession of the original inhabitants. Suffice to say, this is a commonality we share with the United States, another nation that seems to have developed an equine icongraphy. The subsequent cultural and spiritual appropriation of the horse by the Native Americans is an interesting twist, perhaps indicative of the longer period of non-indigenous occupation of the USA.

Similarly, the horse occurs as a metaphor across the English language, indicating some level of cultural inclusion beyond just Australia. Most equine metaphors we use here originate from the United Kingdom, and are also found in the US. Dr Sandra Olsen, an American anthropologist, has written an interesting blog post on just this topic, which I recommend reading.

I also wonder about how other language groups and cultures may have incorporated the horse as a metaphor, and what this might reveal about similarities or differences in attitudes to the animal. A global comparison, spanning languages and cultures, would surely yield interesting results

So perhaps the horse as a culturally constructed symbol isn’t unique to Australia after all. What remains to be seen is whether the particularities we ascribe to that symbol are shared by other nations, especially ones with a similar colonial legacy.


[1] Bentley, Maree, Susan Hall and Tina Mattei (eds). Little Book of Horses. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2010.

[2] Nimmo, Dale Graeme, and Kelly K. Miller. 2007. “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review.” Wildlife Research 34: 408-417.

[3] ibid, p.411-412.


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