The horse as historical actor

This week’s blog post is lifted from the first part of a paper I gave at the Australian Historical Association conference last week. It takes a very brief look at the idea of the horse as an historical actor, based primarily on the work of academic David Gary Shaw.

The horse’s position as an animal of significance in the cultural imagination of Australia is a given. In 2014 alone, the National Museum of Australia opened Spirited, an exhibition on ‘Australia’s Horse Story’, as it was sub-titled; the documentary The Man From Coxs River, about the trapping and removal of brumbies from the Blue Mountains became a sleeper hit across the country; and not one but two books on the horse in Australia were published just in time for the Christmas rush.

Yet for me, as a PhD candidate whose thesis is built upon the premise that there is a national regard for the horse, it is not sufficient to merely accept a popularly-ascribed significance. This was brought home to me at an all-panel meeting last year, when one of my panellists asked, “But is the horse significant?” My panellist was correct to question this assumption, and so I have set out to investigate the ideas that underpin this idea of equine significance.

In doing so, I have realised that you can frame an almost limitless number of questions around this topic. For example I could ask, Are horses significant historical actors in Australia’s history? Or, Are horses significant to the national imagination and Australia’s cultural heritage? An alternative form of framing the question again is, Is the horse is more significant to Australians than it is to other, comparable nations, such as England or the United States of America?

For today I will focus on the question of whether or not the horse is a significant actor in Australian history. Drawing on the work of historian Gary David Shaw, I will attempt to apply his theories regarding equine agency to an Australian context. I argue that the horse is not, in fact, a significant historical actor in Australia’s historical journey.

Animals as historical agents

The question of animals as historical agents (and, by extension, worthy subjects of historical enquiry)[1], is one that has occasionally been dealt with by historians, and even formed the theme of a 2013 edition of the journal History and Theory. Here, David Gary Shaw posited that the increased interest in non-human history is a result of the rising influence of social history.[2] He points out that understandings about animals as agents is dependent upon historical context, and the dominant cultural hegemony of the time.[3] This has already been demonstrated by Harriet Ritvo, who recounts that, in the earliest written laws of Britain, animals were ascribed responsibility on par with humans, and could therefore be prosecuted.[4] Such notions, that both human and non-human animals must live in accordance with the law, inherently ascribes some form of corresponding agency to animals. That is, if an animal can be understood as breaking the law, and therefore liable to punishment, it must possess some faculty that we might today refer to as ‘agency’.

One potentially problematic issue in attempting to discern agency in animals is that the concept of agency is intertwined with that of intentionality. Shaw argues against accepting such limited and narrow definitions of historical agency, stating that ‘[r]ational agency … shouldn’t be thought the key to historical agency’.[5] For Shaw, privileging this one aspect of what he calls the ‘starfish that is agency’[6] reveals an underlying humanist agenda.[7]

Shaw is particularly interested in the horse as a subject of historical enquiry, recognising that ‘[t]here are histories of horses and there will be more of them’.[8] The notion of ‘horse history’ has arguably reached its apotheosis in Australia, where there is an apparently hungry market for books, movies, and even museum exhibitions about horses. For this reason, Shaw’s statement that ‘if agency can be made meaningful in horse history it is certain to matter’[9] is applicable to the Australian context.

Shaw provides a very functional definition of an historical actor as ‘someone without whom things, especially a particular doing, might have been significantly different.’[10] In demonstrating his assertion that individual animals can function as historical actors, Shaw used the Duke of Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, ridden at the Battle of Waterloo, as a case study. Eventually Shaw concludes that the horse Copenhagen held an equivalent level of agency as that of an ordinary soldier, and therefore an equivalent level of significance as an historical actor.[11]

However, and significantly, Shaw acknowledges that it is doubtful that animals can achieve historical agency without a human co-partner.[12] In this context, he describes the combination of horse-and-rider as a ‘unity’, summed up by the phrase, ‘A man and horse can interact in many ways, but the horse-and-rider act as one.’ [13] We will return to the idea of the ‘unity’ later. For now, it is sufficient to state that this transformative, albeit momentary, conjunction allows the animal, in this case the horse Copenhagen, to be understood as an historical agent.

Seeking equine actors in Australia’s history

In attempting to apply Shaw’s theory to Australian history, I sought comparable horses, who featured in significant narratives of Australian history. This was a more difficult task than I first anticipated.

Though the nineteenth century was undoubtedly the era in which horses became ubiquitous in Australia, they remain largely nameless and undocumented in the annals of history (with the notable exception of racehorses, whose names have been so carefully inscribed in pedigree ledgers). Certainly there were horses associated with the great narratives of exploration, agriculture, and expansion, but they remain undistinguished, perhaps with the exception of those horses recorded in the diaries of explorers as having starved to death, or, as was the case with Billy, the final horse to survive the Burke and Wills expedition, being killed and eaten by the explorers themselves.

World War I, regarded then as now as Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’, seemed at first to provide a suitable example in the Charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba. Here, as part of the third Battle of Gaza, members of the Australian Light Horse were instructed to use their bayonets as swords, and ride in a cavalry-style charge at the enemy trenches. The Light Horse were not a cavalry unit as such, but were mounted infantry who fought in groups of four, with one of those men holding the horses while the other three engaged. This is what made the successful charge at Beersheeba so extraordinary, and it has become known colliquially as the last great cavalry charge.

This narrative represents a significant equestrian contribution to the war effort, and perhaps comes closest to epitomising the arguments Shaw draws upon. In the case of the Light Brigade at Beersheeba, however, the horses were part of a collective, and as such their agency is more difficult to determine, as it is problematic to compare the hundreds of mounts of soldiers with Copenhagen, a single horse ridden by a General.

There are other issues which confound attempts to compare the two circumstances – the differences between a single battle such as Waterloo, and a long-term campaign such as the First Word War; or the changed structure of military hierarchy in the years that elapsed between these two events. Even because of what Australian’s like to boast of as their egalitarianism – for all these reasons, there is no human figure comparable to Wellington in the Australian action at Beersheba, and the victory is ascribed to all who fought. Conversely, while the individual history of almost any one of the horses could be representative of the whole, the story of no single horse stands out as part of a nationally recognised narrative, though the narrative itself is well known.

While Shaw has written that the historical framework of battle is peculiarly suitable for assessing animal agency,[14]if one is going to ascribe historical significance to an animal, such as that of the horse in Australia, then surely this significance must extend beyond the battlefield. However, my attempts to find equivalent examples of a ‘unity’ elsewhere met with limited success. Equine celebrities in Australia tend to be racehorses. This is problematic firstly because they do not lend themselves to the sort of pairing that could be described as a ‘unity’ beyond a single race, and additionally it would be difficult to argue a case for their significance beyond their contributions to racing statistics.

One horse, whose narrative is purportedly of great significance, is Phar Lap. Though Phar Lap too was a racehorse, his importance arguably transcended the racecourse, and he is attributed not only with having brought hope to people struggling during the Depression, but with embodying something of the national spirit. [15]

From a purely racing perspective, Phar Lap’s achievements are notable; yet when combined with contemporary circumstances, including the media revolution of the time, and the widespread fallout of the economic crash of 1929, which lead to the Depression, Phar Lap was transformed into a hero. This peculiar fusion of circumstances conspired to create an iconic figure. The horse was in the right place at the right time, certainly – but is this sufficient to consider him a significant historical actor?

To paraphrase Shaw, without Phar Lap, would Australian history, particularly during the Depression, have turned out differently? The only feats to which Phar Lap can be ascribed absolute credit are his races. The other circumstances that combined to grant him his celebrity, and subsequent iconic status, were a product of the era. Therefore, it is reasonably safe to state that the Depression would not have turned out differently. There were other, human, heroes during this period – Walter Lindrum, Donald Bradman, and Charles Kingsford-Smith were all achieving significant milestones at around this time. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Phar Lap is more of a household name today than many of his high-achieving human contemporaries is more attributable to his remains being preserved and kept on permanent display, than a direct result of his actions.[16]

Phar Lap fails Shaw’s test of an historical agent for two reasons – firstly, because there is no ‘unity’; his fame both eclipsed and reflected onto the humans he was associated with; and secondly, his significance as a racehorse has been co-opted by humanist agendas. Though history may not have turned out differently without Phar Lap, the stories we tell ourselves now, about the character of the Australian people, and the nature of Australian culture, would be different. Phar Lap is less of an actor in a specific event (or sequence of events) and more of an icon, a symbol, whose narrative stands for something else. Phar Lap as he is understood today does not represent a horse, so much as a human construct, embodying in the words of one racing writer, ‘something about the Australian sensibility, and about what is meaningful to us.’[17]

So, if the horse is not, in fact, a significant historical actor in Australian history, then how do we justify its ongoing status as a culturally significant animal? This is a question I continue to ponder.


[1] David Gary Shaw, “A Way with Animals: Preparing History for Animals,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013):8.

[2] Shaw, “A Way with Animals,” 4.

[3] Shaw, David Gary. “The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History.” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013): 146.

[4] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: the English and other creatures in the Victorian age (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987), 1.

[5] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 150.

[6] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 150.

[7] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 152.

[8] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[9] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[10] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 148.

[11] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 165.

[12] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 146.

[13] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 161-2.

[14] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[15] John Harms, “Phar Lap: Ours Then and Now and Always,” in The Story of the Melbourne Cup: Australia’s Greatest Race, ed. Stephen Howell (The Slattery Media, 2010), 189.

[16] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” reCollections: A journal of museums and collections 8 (2013).

[17] Harms, “Phar Lap”, 182.


One thought on “The horse as historical actor

  1. Pingback: Another Horse exhibition | horsesfordiscourses

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