A million wild horses

Brumbies were the cover stars, and feature story, in the Jan/Feb issue of Australian Geographic (and many thanks to my cousin for tipping me off to that fact!). The piece begins with a good news story from an Aboriginal community in Central Australia, where training for the Certificate II in rural operations (in which horses play an integral role) has reignited interest in education, and offers hope of employment opportunities for community members. [1]

While the article does by and large present an even-handed account of the brumby debate, we still find that oft-repeated assertion that ‘horses are deeply embedded in [Australia’s] psyche’ [2], without any further exploration of why that might be (the obligatory mentions of The Silver Brumby and Banjo Paterson aside).

We do, however, learn that Australia’s wild/feral (pick your adjective of choice; the article acknowledges the dichotomy, but sticks with ‘wild’) horse population is now estimated to be ‘at least’ one million animals! [3] This is a significant increase from previous figures I’ve encountered, where numbers were postulated at around the 400,000 mark.[4] If those figures were correct when the research was published in 2007, then this population increase is nothing short of remarkable. Yet given that brumbies are able to increase their population by up to 20% in a good year, [5] and given that there have been no real bad years in the past decade, this figure is actually not surprising.

Central Australia apparently has a healthy brumby population, and several Aboriginal communities  are now looking at ways to exploit this resource, including mustering horses for sale. [6] The versatility of the brumby as a breed is emphasised in the article, and Erica Jessup, founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, is quoted as saying that owning a brumby has ‘become very fashionable.'[7] But can you rehome a million of them?

There is a limit to how many horses Australians can adopt. Especially when brumbies are not the only horses seeking second chances. In a piece of blue-sky thinking produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2001, it was argued that all racehorses exiting the racing industry could successfully be rehomed, and that the demand for off the track thoroughbreds ‘will most likely increase over time as people shift from using other breeds and instead use thoroughbreds.'[8] There are also standardbreds (trotters and pacers) looking for homes after racing.

A horse is not as easy to rehome as cat or dog (and there are  thousands of those looking for ‘forever’ homes across our nation’s pounds and animal shelters). A horse requires very specific, and expensive, care, including specialised feeding, dentistry, and hoof care. If something goes wrong, a horse needs attention from a qualified veterinarian. It requires a large amount of space to live comfortably. Finally, a horse’s owner or handler requires specialist skills to care for that animal correctly. It’s not as simple as feeding it twice a day and leaving it in your backyard while you’re at school or work. For this reason, well-meaning people looking to re-home brumbies or ex-racers who do not have the skills to care for these animals ultimately do them a grave disservice.

In the case of the brumby, if population control is required (and the Australian Geographic piece acknowledges that it does), then lethal control methods (ie shooting or otherwise euthanasing) are the most humane and effective solution. Today, the majority of brumbies caught by passive trapping (the current crowd-pleasing ‘control’ method of choice) are not rehomed, but end up being trucked hundreds or thousands of kilometres, and meeting an unpleasant fate at an abattoir.

To insist that horses not be shot in national parks, but then to do nothing when the approved method of managing brumby populations, implemented due to people’s squeamishness at the idea of wild horses being shot, means that these same horses must go through the trauma of being captured, wrested from the only homes they’ve known, and finally butchered at a knackery, ultimately reeks of animal cruelty.


[1] Burdon, Amanda. 2016. “Where the Wild Horses Are.” Australian Geographic January/February 2016: 76.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Nimmo, Dale Graeme, and Kelly K. Miller. 2007. “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review.” Wildlife Research 34: 409.

[5] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 76.

[6] ibid

[7] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 83

[8] Geelen, Renee. “The Internet Age of Misinformation.” Racing and Breeding (117): 54.  http://breedingracing.realviewdigital.com/?iid=102110#folio=54


New and exciting terrain!

While it’s great working on one particular avenue of thought, and exploring and refining it until you really feel you’ve mined the issue in full, there’s nothing quite like moving on to a new topic!

Yep, I’m a thrill-seeker alright! So you can imagine my excitement when my PhD supervisor agreed that I was ready to move on to the next section of my thesis, which is all about the horse as a symbol in Australian culture.

In recent months I have been dealing with ideas about the horse as heritage, and have moved away from the museum context and the centrality of the Object, within which my thesis was originally conceived. However, in this next section of research the content demands a return to the museum. After all, in terms of material culture, the horse occupies a very interesting position in museum collections, where the objects relating to it are very frequently also made from it; these objects are simultaneously both THINGS and representations of SENTIENCE.

Think of Phar Lap, in many ways Australia’s ultimate equine symbol. His heart, such a visceral object, is not exhibited alongside other visceral objects, but with images of him as a whole horse. His parts stand for the whole, and that whole itself stands for something we believe to be quintessentially Australian. He is portrayed as a “battler”, a figure of hope, and a hero. He is no longer a horse – he has become a symbol of something more. I want to dig deeper into the strange nature of many such equine objects, and  to explore the role the museum plays in re-framing horses as symbols.

Sitting down at my laptop, with a new Word document opened in front of me, I quickly bash out a range of questions I want to frame the next section of my research around, and feel that familiar thrill of a clean slate, an open road – a new research beginning!


Olympic equestrian history

The first team

The story of Australia’s first Olympic equestrian team, put together in the wake of Melbourne being awarded the 1956 Games, is a fascinating one. It is little known, perhaps overshadowed by the heroic antics and gold medals of the 1960  Eventing team in Rome.

Equestrian events at the Summer Olympics is very much a 20th century phenomenon, first included at Paris 1900, and then not again until Stockholm 1912 (though polo featured in the London 1908 Games). From the time of the Stockholm games, the Summer Olympics has included competitors (competing both as teams and individuals) in the disciplines of dressage, jumping, and eventing (where a horse and rider must compete across three disciplines – dressage, cross-country, and showjumping).

Despite the horse being so integral to our nation, 1956 was the first time Australia considered forming an equestrian team, largely prompted by a desire to ensure there was a wide representation for the host nation across various events. Even then, the 1956 team – eventually represented by Brian Crago, Wyatt ‘Bunty’ Thompson and Ernie Barker, with captain David Wood in reserve – were only competing in the Eventing.* And, even though the Games themselves were being held in Melbourne, the equestrian events were actually being held in Stockholm, due to Australia’s strict quarantine requirements.

Even though Australia was the host nation, the Eventing team still had to qualify to reach the Olympics. Sailing to the United Kingdom in 1955, the team spent over a year competing on borrowed horses at events across England and Europe, including at Badminton in April 1956. Fortunately, they qualified for the Games.

While the Australian contingent were initially discounted as a serious prospect, they astounded their competitors, many of whom hailed from nations with long traditions in the equestrian arts, and wound up coming fourth overall.

A heritage of horsemanship

The choice to compete in the Eventing, while including the team’s weak spot of dressage, [1] played to the Australian strengths very well. Australia, as elsewhere in the world (as evident by its inclusion in the Paris Games of 1900), had had a healthy high jumping (or show ring jumping) circuit, which gained its greatest popularity during the interwar years. This tradition, in combination with riding skills born from days spent in the saddle working the land on horseback, created a strong background for the Eventers to draw upon.

This may sound like I’m buying into the rhetoric about Australia’s mythological horsemanship, but it’s certainly true that the members of the 1956 Eventing team had strong credentials, which hold up against the popular narrative: Bunty Thompson grew up riding on the family farm, and was working the land himself at the time of the ’56 Games, as was Barker, while Crago was a horsebreaker.[2]  None of these men learned to ride within the confines of an arena, and their achievement speaks for itself.

In fact, rider and racehorse re-trainer Scott Brodie believes it was only because of an act of compassion by Brian Crago, who accrued 60 penalties by dismounting to help a floundering horse that had fallen into a water jump and was at risk of drowning, that the team missed out on a medal. [3]

…and horsewomanship?

On another note, if you, like me, are wondering where Australia’s great women riders were in all of this, it’s worth pointing out that women were not allowed to compete in any Olympic equestrian event until 1952, when the Dressage ring was opened up to them. Jumping followed suit in 1956, though it was not until 1964 that they were permitted in the Eventing class.

Australia’s first female equestrian competitor was Bridget ‘Bud’ Macintyre, who formed part of the four person jumping team in Tokyo 1964. Australia did not select another female equestrian competitor until the 1980 Moscow Games, when Phillipa Glennon became the first female to join the Eventing team, and Marianne Gilchrest was selected for jumping. Unfortunately neither of these women had the chance to compete, as the teams were withdrawn in protest.

In 1984, Vicki Roycroft (daughter-in-law to Bill Roycroft, father of the famous Roycroft equestrian dynasty) was the first woman to compete as part of the Eventing team, which placed 5th at the Los Angeles Olympics. Four years later, she was on the jumping team, though they only placed 10th at Seoul.

It was not until 1992, in Barcelona, when Gillian Rolton and her mount Peppermint Grove formed part of a gold medal-winning Eventing team, that Australia equalled her 1960 glory in this event. Since then, women have been much better represented across Australia’s equestrian Olympic competitors. [4]


*Bert Jacobs competed as an individual in the mixed showjumping, a different event altogether.


[1] Jane O’Connor, “Olympic Trailblazing’, Equestrian Life [no date], http://www.equestrianlife.com.au/articles/Olympic-Trailblazing

[2] ibid

[3] Scott Brodie, “Part 5: ‘Mirrabooka’: horseman of the Southern Cross”, Horses from Courses blog 26 January 2016, http://horsesfromcourses.net/2016/01/26/part-5-mirrabooka-horseman-of-the-southern-cross/

[4] Australia’s Equestrian Olympic Record, http://www.equestrian.org.au/sites/default/files/Australian%20Olympic%20Equestrian%20record.pdf


Horses and the Heidelberg School

Tom Roberts is a renowned nineteenth-century Australian painter, part of the Australian impressionist movement (also known as the Heidelberg School). The National Gallery of Australia is currently staging an exhibition of his work, which many Australians would be very familiar with – think Bailed up, or Shearing the Rams.


Tom Roberts, Bailed Up (1895, 1927) Art Gallery of NSW

Roberts’ work, alongside other members of the Heidelberg school, has been influential in shaping an Australian national identity. However, it wasn’t just painters who were engaged in projecting a particular (white, Anglo, masculine) identity. You may recall a previous discussion on this blog about the Australian bush ballads, written during the same era that Roberts et al were painting. The fact is that both the artists and poets of this period have left a legacy that continues to define Australia’s identity over a hundred years later.

Art historian and comedian Hannah Gadsby believes that these artworks function as a cultural indicator of Australia’s obsession with masculinity, and argues that the figure of “the macho macho Australian man isn’t questioned enough.”[1]

Seeing the Tom Roberts exhibition I was struck by how frequently the horse features in his most iconic works, what the Gallery terms his “national narratives”. [2] Works that incorporate the horse include A Breakaway (1891), A Mountain Muster (1897-1920s), Bailed Up (1895, 1927) and In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895)


Tom Roberts, A Breakaway (1891), Art Gallery of South Australia (image copyright National Gallery of Australia)



Tom Roberts, In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895), National Gallery of Victoria

So while Australia’s most well-known and best-loved art-makers were constructing “works that are now embedded in the Australian psyche, as intended”, [3] our bards were doing the same, via poetry. In the works of ‘Banjo’ Paterson in particular, the horse is most visible via the figure of the stockman. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and The Dying Stockman to name but a few all idolise the figure of the stockman, to whom the horse is intrinsic.

The horse here is inherently linked to these constructions of a very masculine Australian identity. While there is no overt assertion that the horse belongs solely to a male-dominated world, the assumption, both in the poems of the bush balladists and the artworks produced by members of the Heidelberg School such as Roberts, is implicit.

This tacit acceptance of a very narrow and particular vision of Australia suffuses the NGA’s exhibition. Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to Roberts’ work through my PhD, or perhaps it’s my critical thinking at play, but I couldn’t warm to the exhibition.

However, an idle Google image search delivered a real gem in the below work by Anne Zahalka. Zahalka, by adding a long plait to the rider, immediately repositions the figure as female. The jolt this small addition delivers serves to highlight at least part of what is missing from these works, which have entered the Australian canon unquestioned. And that makes for a refreshing change.


Anne Zahalka, Untitled (1985), copyright remains with the artist



[1] Hannah Gadsby, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz Episode 2, Closer Productions 2014.

[2] Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, 4 December 2015 – 28 March 2016.

[3] ‘About’, Tom Roberts exhibition website, National Gallery of Australia. Accessed 16 February 2016 http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/Roberts/Default.cfm?MNUID=6


10 weeks later…

Greetings dear readers, and happiest of new years to you! I’m sure it will please you  to know that I am not dead, nor have I abandoned this blog. My prolonged absence is down to the fact that for the past 10 weeks I have been prostrated by morning sickness, and unable to even look at a screen, let alone craft an intelligible sentence. Yes, I even had to take leave from my PhD candidature.

As I gratefully emerge from the fug of nausea, I find myself thinking (somewhat guiltily) about this blog. Last night I even dreamed that I’d been diligently writing fortnightly posts during this entire period, but alas, you and I both know that isn’t true.

Given I am only just re-engaging with my academic work again, there will be no horsey post today. Besides, I just don’t know how I could segue from a pregnancy announcement to talking about horses. Not in any polite or sensitive form, anyway. But please do check back in a fortnight, and I shall have something equine-related for you then.

“Satan”, the internet superstar

Last year a for-sale ad appeared on an American equine advertising page, which captured a fair bit of attention. It read:

Pony Available at your own risk… Meet Presley (AKA Satan) (Got the first name, Earned the other) American Mutt Pony (AKA Welsh/ QH cross) 3 yr old gelding (still thinks he is a stud) (Gelded 3 weeks ago) 13 hands of fireball He isn’t broke to ride and most days barely broke to lead. ( If you can even catch him) *He ran the streets of Garrard Co for 6 months before Animal Control could even catch him. * He DOES rear buck and kick a little bit. Even a bite on occasion (Especially if you try to touch him) You can pick up his feet (if you have a death wish. )

He would excel as a bronc prospect (for little Cowboys) or maybe to be good at just being a lawn mower. Or ( if you don’t value your life) a trail or show pony.

His drug of choice is Ace.

He also likes eating you out of house and home and getting fat on air.

But he does have some ok things about him. He has that gorgeous color every pays for. He respects fences. He gets along great with other horses. (Especially mares) He is cute as a button. He will remind you to pay your health insurance on time. He loads in a trailer great. (If you can catch him or screw it, just run him in and he loads right up) He loves horse treats (will take them with or without chunks of your hand.) He has had a saddle on once after a tube of ace and a lot of blood, sweat and tears (mostly mine) He is a beautiful mover (while trying to catch him you will see this movement a lot)

So if your looking for your next million dollar mustang project he is your man!!

$200.00 fee (so the “canners” AKA meat buyers stay away)
Will sell on a NO buy back contract! !

Come on all you professional horse trainers he could build you a resume that will get you a tv show if he doesn’t put you in the ground trying… So if you are up for the challenge PM me…

Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to show the world your as crazy as people think you are!!

Free bottle of tequila with purchase! ! (You will need it)

Only “Very” experienced need apply!!!

God Bless

This ad was re-posted on the Horse Collaborative website, which is where I saw it after it had already gone viral. The next day, they posted Satan’s back story, which revealed where he came from, and how he got his nickname. It also told us that Satan had gone to a re-trainer for  some groundwork. Horse Collaborative then posted a link to his new Facebook page, which I’ve been following ever since.

Satan appears to have flummoxed his trainer, Olivia Dixon, though she has not given up on the horse. Reading her posts, I and over a hundred and thirty eight thousand others share her journey with Satan (he’s keeping the name!), and I am constantly struck by her attitude to this difficult horse. She approaches him with patience, gentleness, and respect. He continues to present her with challenges, after over a year working closely together, and yet she never gives up on him.

To me, Olivia is a true example of what horsewomanship is about (though some who post on the page seem to disagree with her methods, and a number of people think simply changing the pony’s name would do the trick). Her patience is phenomenal – even towards her critics.  Her methods demonstrate that connection with another animal will never be enabled by beating it into submission, though nor does she molly-coddle. What Olivia does, which is so inspiring because it’s such a rarity, is to really put the horse first.

I encourage you to follow the pair on Facebook. You can also check out Satan’s YouTube channel and see him in action.

“Everyone else can get stuffed”: why a female jockey winning the Melbourne Cup might herald deeper change

I spent Cup Day this year attending a series of talks by animal studies scholars, covering a vast range of very thought-provoking terrain, which included, but was not limited to, some discussion of the Melbourne Cup. It wasn’t until the friend I was there with jumped briefly online at 6pm that I learned the 2015 Melbourne Cup had been won by a female jockey, Michelle Payne.

Payne is one of only four female jockeys to have ever scored a ride in the race, and the first female to win it (think what stat-twisters could do with this fact if they wanted to: “Female jockeys have 25% chance of winning Cup!”). Her victory is history-making, and just moments after the race she thanked the horse’s trainer Darren Weir and part-owner John Richards, before gleefully stating that “everyone else can get stuffed, because they say that women aren’t strong enough, but we just beat the world!”

I can’t deny I think Payne has done something marvellous. But how does her achievement sit with my feelings about horse racing? Obviously I’m not the only one feeling this way – SBS parody site The Backburner satirised the phenomenon with the headline “Nation Unsure How to Feel As Female Jockey Wins Cruel Race”, while feminist news site Daily Life claimed that “Michelle Payne’s Melbourne Cup win highlights the difference between ‘liberation’ and ‘equality’“. Here, the author argues that “a woman succeeding in this particular pursuit may indeed prove she is equal to the pinnacle of her male competitors, but it does very little to further the concept of liberation … because I just cannot reconcile the inherent cruelty in horse racing with feminism.”

I can certainly see where this article is coming from, but I do think it overlooks some key aspects of gender that might differentiate a woman jockey from her male counterparts. It is apparently well-documented that women practitioners display more empathy for their charges in large-animal practices (eg vets working with livestock such as cattle and sheep). [1] Is it not possible that female jockeys may also exhibit a greater degree of empathy for their mounts? Payne states “It’s not all about strength. There’s so much more involved with getting the horse into a rhythm, it’s getting the horse to try for you, it’s being patient.” [2] Further, Payne has ridden the winning horse, Prince of Penzance, in 23 of his 24 races, and the two clearly have a bond. [3] This is evident in the way Payne speaks about the horse, describing their relationship as “pretty incredible”, and highlighting Prince’s “inner strength”. [4]

It’s possible that such clearly-articulated evidence of a bond, of empathy, is only because, as a woman, Payne is more likely to be asked about her feelings regarding the horse than a male jockey would be (for example, in her interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7:30), however I really don’t think this is the case with Payne, given the sympathetic way she also speaks about her fellow female jockeys. Payne says she “feels bad” for the female jockeys who, if they’d been given the opportunity, could have won. [5] This sort of humility is not what we are used to hearing from champion jockeys.

The 2015 Melbourne Cup has all the narrative elements of the most romantic Cup tale – a virtually unknown trainer, a horse who’s survived repeated injury, and a female jockey, who, along with her brother the horse’s strapper (who has Down syndrome), achieve an against-the-odds victory on a hundred-to-one long shot. With details like this the telemovie must surely be being scripted as I type!

It’s the sort of story that I imagine the VRC have been hoping for, after a run of bad press due to three horse deaths in the past two Cups. While Red Cadeaux suffered an injury, and they even erected the green Death Tent around him, he was eventually carted off in a horse ambulance, with officials likely breathing a sigh of relief that yet another on-track fatality had been avoided (it remains to be seen what will become of the gelding, whose retirement has been announced – his lack of the necessary equipment means he is not a breeding prospect).

I believe the debate about horse racing, with the issue of animal welfare at its centre, is an important one. I also believe that, with so much money behind it, both from gambling revenue, and the economic significance of the racing and breeding industry as a whole, a ban on horse racing is not likely. However, if the industry wants to retain its popular support, changes need to be made – and this is already happening in some quarters. Perhaps the rise of the female jockey is one more way to achieve a less harmful racing industry?


[1] James Serpell Q & A, University of Sydney, 3 November 2015

[2] “Prince of Penzance carries female jockey into Melbourne Cup history,” SBS news online, 3 November 2015, accessed 4 November 2015 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/11/03/prince-penzance-carries-female-jockey-melbourne-cup-history?cid=cxenseab_b&cx_navSource=related-side-cx#cxrecs_s

[3] “Michelle Payne becomes first female jockey to win Melbourne Cup,” SBS News online, 3 November 2015, accessed 4 November 2015 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/11/03/michelle-payne-becomes-first-female-jockey-win-melbourne-cup

[4] Michelle Payne interview on 7:30, 3 November 2015. Available on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERaQrLuQTMc

[5] ibid