The historic context of equine symbolism: from Europe to Australia

While the narrative of significance associated with the horse in Australia has gone largely unquestioned, internationally there has been a growing interest in exploring horse culture, specifically during the early modern period in Europe. While such work may not at first appear relevant to the Australian context, closer scrutiny of this history reveals a perhaps surprising correlation between the cultural associations of the early modern period, and some of Australia’s more familiar equine tropes. The horse has attained a level of symbolic power across cultures and continents, and, while these remain culturally specific,[1] much of Australia’s equestrian symbolism can be seen to have historical antecedents, particularly in English traditions.

Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham argue that the cultural significance of the horse stems from within a social elite, as it was this group who “possessed the means, as well as the inclination, to judge horses according to their symbolic value as well as their functional capabilities, [and] viewed them not as luxuries but as essential signifiers of status.”[2] In Elizabethan England, for example, the horse was understood as a meter of worth for his human counterpart,[4] and “[t]he symbolic reading of the meaning of a horse and a noble rider, a perfect combination of the steed’s flowing action and lithe muscle and the rider’s learning, control and agency, was obvious and meaningful to all at the time”.[5] Conversely, when horses were imported to the Philippines by Spanish colonists, their adjustment to the climate and environmental conditions led to a rapid decrease in size. This physical diminution was reflected in a reduction of the horse’s symbolic power, and “it became more closely associated with the humdrum affairs of the colonised. … Far from enhancing the dignity of the coloniser, the [horse] now served only to mock him”.[6]

While an exact translation of cultural meanings across history and geography is impossible, the origins of many tropes now attached to representations of the horse in contemporary Australia can be seen to lie within this period of England’s history. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, horses came to be associated with a distinct English national identity,[7] at a time when the notion of such an identity was itself relatively new.[8] As Ian MacInnes argues, “horses contributed economically to the construction of the idea of “nation”… [and] attention to the horse was by extension attention to the land and its products.”[9] A century or two later in Australia, the horse similarly contributed to the construction of the nation, both literally, in the case of physical labour and the advantages of mounted settlers, and metaphorically, in the cultural imagination.

Elsewhere, we can see the high regard in which the thoroughbred horse is held in Australia, particularly in conjunction with its association with horse racing, as a trope transplanted more or less directly from England.  The thoroughbred is strongly associated with English cultural identity, and Richard Nash argues that, as a specifically and intentionally bred horse, it functions simultaneously as natural and artificial. [10] Interestingly, Nash’s positioning of the thoroughbred as a cultural artefact resonates with the refashioned form of many racehorse remains. If, due to their breeding, these animals are already understood subconsciously as a cultural artefact, then the physical transformation of their bodies into a concrete one assumes an (albeit strange) internal logic.

A conjunction between the horse and a nation’s performance in battle is another association with origins in the early modern period. As the pace of modernisation increased after the seventeenth century, weapons, and the nature of warfare, also modernised, leading to a reduced role for the horse in military life.[11] In parallel to this, the significance of the aristocracy in military hierarchy also decreased. This signalled a democratisation of the traditional apparatus of the cavalry, and lead to the formation of the Light Horse brigades, which replaced heavy cavalry.[12] In an Australian context, we can see how this emphasis on egalitarianism influences the narratives surrounding the exploits of the Light Horse during the First World War – by the time Australia was shaping up for battle alongside the allied forces in Europe during the early twentieth century, the notion of an egalitarian nation had been internalised, and reconfigured into something of an identity narrative.[13] This is evident in the importance of the Light Horse narrative in Australia’s cultural imagination – a nation that prides itself on its egalitarianism.

In an era and society where the horse was ubiquitous, images and representations of this animal were encoded with assumed cultural knowledge,[14] but such a uniform understanding of the symbolism of the horse has passed into history. With what understandings are contemporary Australian equestrian representations encoded?  Or have such symbolic understandings vanished altogether, as the horse becomes more and more distant from everyday life for the majority of Australians? Interestingly, the iconic status of the horse appears to have become entrenched in inverse proportion to its ubiquity. This fact is noted by Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, who contend that horses are estranged from the modern developed world, unfamiliar visitors who, though not exotic, are not prosaic either, and who attract attention in public spaces because of this.[15]

REFERENCES:

[1] Peter Edwards and Elspeth Graham, “Introduction,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 3.

[2] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7.

[3] Peter Edwards, Karl A.E. Enenkel and Elspeth Graham (eds), The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World (Leiden: Brill), 2012; Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (eds), The Culture of The Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the Early Modern World (New York: palgrave macmillan), 2005.

[4] Elizabeth Anne Socolow, “Letting Loose the Horses: Sir Philip Sidney’s Exordium to The Defence of Poesie,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 137.

[5] Socolow, “Letting Loose”, 137-38.

[6] Greg Bankoff, “Big Men, Small Horses: Ridership, Social Standing and Environmental Adaptation in the Early Modern Philippines,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 117.

[7] Ian F. MacInnes, “Altering a Race of Jades: Horse Breeding and Geohumoralism in Shakespeare,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 175; Richard Nash, “’Honest English Breed’: The Thoroughbred as Cultural Metaphor,” in The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline, and Identity in the early Modern World, ed. Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 246.

[8] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[9] MacInnes, “A Race of Jades,” 178.

[10] Nash, “’Honest English Breed’,” 246.

[11] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[12] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 7-8.

[13] Catriona Elder, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2007), 41-42; 46; 49-52.

[14] Pia F. Cuneo, “Visual Aids: Equestrian Iconography and the Training of Horse, Rider and Reader,” in The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, ed. Peter Edwards et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 70 – 97.

[15] Edwards and Graham, “Introduction,” 1.

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