Today would have been my father’s 64th birthday. Sadly he passed away two-and-a-half years ago, but today I’d like to use the blog to honour his memory. While it may not strictly fit within the ‘critical examination of the horse in Australia’ remit, it is important as a researcher to employ self-reflexive techniques to examine one’s own position in relation to one’s research; in that context, then, an examination of my family’s history with horses is appropriate.
Colin Menzies grew up on a farm, though it seems he was more enamoroured of the bright lights and big city than taking over the family business, a task he happily bequeathed to his younger brother after he met my mother, who was working as a teacher in the country town closest to the farm. Nevertheless, he always retained an affection for the bush, and for aspects of rural life such as working dogs and horses. In fact, when he and his second wife moved to the Hunter Valley to start their editing business, working from home on a 100 acre block, he happily described himself as ‘a retired farmer’.
Conversely, my mother was a big city girl – born in the metropolis of Alexandria, in Egypt, before she migrated to Fremantle WA with her family at the age of eight. While Freo was hardly the ‘big smoke’, and certainly not in the 1950s, it was still a town. Yet my mother somehow developed a love of the bush, somewhat at odds with her upbringing and the outlook of the rest of her family. My maternal grandmother, for instance, couldn’t sleep in the utter darkness, and, on the rare occasions she found the ambient glow of metropolitan lighting absent from her windows, she left her bedside light on!
My paternal grandmother was what, in those days, was described as ‘a horsey gel’, and as an adult she was an instructor with the local Pony Club for decades. She died when I was 18. As her health deteriorated in an inter-state hospital room, and I realised I would never see her again, I wrote her a letter that her children took turns reading to her, about how I’d always felt connected to her through our shared love of horses.
I recently went through a basket of old black and white photos, all taken by my father in the 1960s, and so many of them were of horses and ponies. I was struck then by just how much a part of my father’s life these animals were. Unfortunately he’s not around anymore to help me identify who was who in the equine image parade. I know his first pony was called Billy, and he would eat peaches and spit out the pips. Dad was very proud of that pony!
My mother, on the other hand, had to actively seek out contact with horses, animals that she too loved. She got a part-time job while she was still at school working racehorses, going out in the pre-dawn before the searing Perth heat set in. She is yet to have the luxury of owning her own horse, but she’s turning 70 in a few weeks’ time, so I might suggest it to her!
As for myself, as I’ve written elsewhere, I worked at a riding school during my teenage years, and for a short time during that period I was lucky enough to have my own pony. He was a cantankerous little gelding named Peppin, who had belonged to a friend of my mother’s, and who I purchased for the grand sum of $5. She was willing to sell him to me for $1, but the fiver was the smallest amount of money I had on me. The transaction was for legal reasons – Mum’s friend was worried that if Peppin caused any harm she as the owner would be legally liable. And thus Peppin came into my life, which then became occupied with early-morning starts mucking out his stable, and evening rides through Centennial Park.
Prior to my involvement in his life he had foundered (also known as laminitis). I’m not sure how old he was when I got him (don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that), but I kept him sound while he was in work. In my senior year of high school, Peppin went to the aforementioned farm, under the care of my aunt and uncle. He even gave their infant daughters pony rides in his retirement, but after several years he developed painful arthritis, and it was decided to put him down.
Several years later, while strolling in the bush paddock that was Peppin’s final resting place, I came across his bleached skeleton. I took one of his vertebrae, as a keepsake from all the happy times I’d spent on his back. It wasn’t until this year that I made the mental link between my (some might say macabre) memento, and the transformation of the hooves of beloved equine pets into inkwells etc. Is it the same thing? I’m not sure.
Horses are something I hold in common with many members of my immediate family, and it is my love for, and fascination with, these beautiful creatures that is one of the motivations underlying my PhD topic. While I don’t do much riding these days, I hope that it is something I can reintroduce into my life in the future.