The irony of doing a PhD about horses, while not having any actual day-to-day contact with them, has not been lost on me. The act of intellectualising something almost simultaneously disembodies it, and this has been something of a concern. While I wouldn’t situate my research squarely within the animal studies field, this discipline has certainly been influential in shaping my thoughts (and particularly influential on many of the issues discussed on the blog).
Last week I wrote a guest post for the National Museum of Australia (which I encourage you to go on over and read!) reflecting on the fact that Phar Lap was once a flesh-and-blood horse, a fact that seems to be increasingly overlooked as his separate remains become synonymous with his overall social significance. I was wondering how the newly-discovered parts of the heart, which don’t have such a long public history, might disrupt the centrality of the hero-narrative that surrounds Phar Lap. This is a particular possibility now, given the current context in which they are displayed. The Spirited exhibition, in approaching the subject of the horse, has drawn upon the animal studies field. The matter of context is important because, in my view, it is very difficult to separate an object from its exhibitionary context.
I tell you all this as a prelude to announcing that today, for the first time since I started this research, I rode a horse. A fellow graduate student very kindly offered to let me ride her Arabian gelding Spike. He is a gorgeous thing, round and shiny and a chestnut colour, with a white face and the traditional ‘dishing’ and small head that declares his pedigree. For three carrots, he allowed me to reconnect with the sensation of being on horseback as we walked and trotted our way around the sand arena of the Canberra Equestrian Centre. Mostly I remembered how much my body had forgotten, and when I got off I had that bandy-legged, Clint Eastwood feeling that means your inner thigh muscles won’t speak to you again for the rest of the day.
It was a timely reminder that a horse is an animal first and foremost, a flesh-and-blood being whose subjectivity cannot be reduced to the sum of it’s parts, even when you chop up and preserve those parts in a museum. And thank goodness for that!