Last weekend I attended the Unbridled Festival, promoted as ‘a festival of horses, music, and food’. Well, I did eat something, and I heard some music in the background, but what most captivated me was the horses! And not just the four-legged animals who were there, but also hearing from the men and women who work with them every day as professionals.
Speakers/demonstrators included Professor Paul McGreevy, whose work I have been following for a while, and some practitioners who I wasn’t previously aware of, like Marcus Karlen, who works with Racing Victoria to re-train off the track thoroughbreds, equitation science practitioner and trainer Kate Fenner, Geoff Court, who works with the National Parks to train and re-home brumbies, and ‘the horse handler’ Greg Powell.
It was very interesting hearing Greg Powell speak, as it seems that after many years of working with horses in quite a high profile way, he is “not a fan of the competition thing, [as] it doesn’t matter anymore.” He said he has reached a point where he wonders “what right we have to work these horses so hard, just to make us look good?” Powell used the analogy of a would-be guitar player, saying “I don’t care how much you bash that guitar, or how bloody your fingers get, because it’s a bit of wood, and it’s your hand. … But when you throw a horse in as your instrument? There’s a duty of care [that is often neglected].”  Powell’s questioning actually reminded me of the post I wrote about performing the horse, and the questions it raised about the ethics of working with horses, particularly at the elite level.
However, none of this was evident when Powell took to the main arena with his Australian Stock Horse Ben several hours later. The two, occasionally aided by kelpie Bob, put on a consummate performance in spite of the rain. After hearing Powell speak my impression was of someone who was somewhat jaded, a little bit ‘over it’ all, but seeing him with his horse there was no doubt of the bond between them, and it was truly a pleasure to watch them at work.
I was pleasantly surprised at the emphasis on equine welfare that permeated the day, and in fact Unbridled is the first event in the world to be conducted according to the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Equitation Events Code of Conduct, which is great. While I’m not sure if my experience of the day as very welfare-oriented and ethically sound is a direct result of the talks, demonstrations, and performances I chose to attend, I think this is the sort of post-humanist event that should become a mainstay of the Canberra calendar.
Greg Powell, ‘Life as the Horse Handler’, Unbridled Festival, 15 November 2014.