Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch

Brasch_coverNicholas Brasch, Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014.

Another recently published work on the horse is Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History, by self-confessed racing fan Nicolas Brasch. In my view, this book serves as an homage to what I have previously called the Relational Horse – Brasch describes horses as ‘companions, performers, toilers, and guides’ (p. 8), and each of the chapters is structured thematically according to the particular service rendered by the horse.

At 42 pages in length, the chapter on horseracing is by far the longest chapter in the text. According to Brasch, horseracing is ‘a critical part of the Australian psyche.’ (p. 121) Predictably, he spends some time on the Melbourne Cup, which he claims is ‘a race that reflects the Australian ethos’ (p. 139), and to my disappointment repeats the fallacy that Mark Twain attended the 1895 Cup (this is an oft-repeated misrepresentation, however a small amount of research reveals that Twain was on the boat to New Zealand at the time the 1895 Cup was run and won).

Brasch does not limit himself to discussing just flat racing; in writing of jumps racing, Brasch’s love for the ‘sport’ is clearly revealed: ‘This is where the spirit of Paterson and Gordon live on, indeed, where they never died. This is the home of jolly jumbucks, billabongs and coolabah trees’ (p. 150), he writes, though it is unclear where you might find such things at a race track.

Brasch repeatedly invokes the romanticism of myth and folklore. His position on brumby culling, for example, is clear, presenting those in favour of culling as people who ‘do not like the romanticism of the brumbies’, which are ‘killed because of the environmental damage it is claimed they cause’ (p. 197-198, my italics).

One of the key problems with this text is the often contradictory statements. For instance, Brasch states that horses in Australia ‘have been idolised and immortalised’ but then on the very same page writes that ‘most of all, they have been ignored’ (p. 9). It is Brasch’s belief that the horse remains an ‘invisible animal’, and that ‘only in folklore has the horse been elevated to its rightful place’ (p. 9). This assertion appears to disregard the evidence presented in his own text, including the hotly-contested debates over brumby culling, which have occurred over the last decades and in various states of Australia, and the celebrity status accorded to racehorses in Australia, from Carbine to Black Caviar.

Additional evidence of the wide-ranging appeal of the horse includes the ongoing popularity of Phar Lap as a museum specimen, (so much so that, in 2010, the various remains were the subject of an attempted reunification by then-Minister of Racing Rob Hulls) and, most recently, an entire exhibition dedicated to the horse, titled Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story, held at the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra, from September 2014 until March 2015. In fact, the publication of both Brasch’s and Cameron Forbes’ books in a single month last year attests to a very healthy regard for the horse among the public of Australia.

The book fails to deal with any of the weightier issues of the horse’s function in Australian history. Horses and their role in colonisation is addressed in a single paragraph, and the link with Aboriginal people is confined to their work as stockmen, in the chapter dealing with the stockhorse breed. Brasch tries to include women in his narrative, arguing that it was not just men who lionised the horse in balladry. His inclusion as though in evidence of this claim is a paragraph from Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, in which the only apparent connection is that riding horses is mentioned (p. 97). The loving, worshipful tone evoked by the ballads is completely absent from the Franklin excerpt, and its citation is really very tenuous.

At times Brasch’s prose is so flowery and hyperbolic as to make the reader cringe, such as this description of the Waler breed:

It was as if Ares , the God of War, had produced a blueprint for the perfect warhorse and then engaged Charles Darwin and Merlin to work together to speed up the process of natural selection. (p. 99)

One pleasant surprise was that Brasch did not perpetuate the myth that all the Light Horsemen shot their horses rather than sell them to the locals, stating that there is no evidence to support this version of events (p. 110). Another surprise was seeing Gendarme and Alex Tassell make a brief appearance, though it’s not the first Gendarme who is pictured, and there was no mention of the original Gendarme’s eventual transformation into a taxidermic mount.

Overall I found this book somewhat disappointing. While I understand that it is very much intended for the popular market and is not a critical history, its superficial and predictable treatment of the horse in Australia doesn’t do the topic justice.

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One thought on “Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch

  1. Pingback: The horse as historical actor | horsesfordiscourses

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