Racehorse deaths

Do a quick Google search today using the terms ‘Melbourne Cup racehorse death’, and you’ll be flooded with hits relating to the sudden post-race deaths of Admire Rakti, the favourite, and Araldo, who placed seventh.

Lateline last night aired footage they obtained showing Admire Rakti’s actual collapse. They warn that the footage may be distressing, however for me the most distressing part was the attendant who is seen trying to brutally jerk the horse back to his feet. I’m sure this action would be deplored by all horse lovers, regardless of their personal stance on horse racing.

Araldo had to be euthanased last night, after he was spooked by a child waving a flag on the way back to his stall. The horse apparently leapt at a fence, breaking either his cannon bone or pastern (news reports differ). Many are quick to point out that this is the second year in a row that a horse has died in relation to the Melbourne Cup, after Verema broke her leg in the middle of the 2013 race and had to be immediately put down.

Interestingly, Araldo’s trainer is quoted as saying, “They’ve run 150 Melbourne Cups and nothing like that has happened before”.[1] Perhaps he’s referring to the specific incident of a horse being spooked and injuring itself so catastrophically, in which case he may well be right, however in the very first Melbourne Cup three horses in the seventeen-strong field fell, and two of them suffered fatal injuries, so this sort of thing is not unheard-of. Injuries were suffered by both the horses and the jockeys involved in the fall, though the horses certainly came off the worst  – the mare Medora broke three of her legs, and Despatch broke her spine. The third mare involved, Twilight, was uninjured, though her rider broke his collarbone. [2]

Criticism of the racing industry is starting to go mainstream, which is an interesting development. Yesterday’s events do seem to vindicate the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses and the recent controversy over their ‘Is the party really worth it?’ billboard. It looks as though it will be more and more difficult for the industry to dismiss anti-racing sentiment as solely belonging to cranks and a small number of animal liberationists, and it will be interesting to see how it responds.

From the period 1 August 2013 until 31 July 2014, 125 racehorses died in Australia, as a direct result of their participation in a race. As this news.com.au article points out, both pro and anti-racing advocates share a fundamental love of horses, however there are many issues that both sides disagree on. One of these, I have to point out, is the stance taken by the article itself, which is that ‘these horses are here for a purpose and that purpose is to run.’ [3] Personally, I think this assumption is highly debatable, and I wrote a post questioning some of our fundamentally anthropocentric presumptions concerning horses back in April.

I do not think the conversation between those opposed to racing and those invested in the industry will be easy, however yesterday’s events seem to dictate that it is now a dialogue that must be had.

REFERENCES:

[1] Patrick Bartley and Rania Spooner, “Two horses, including favourite, die soon after Melbourne Cup”, smh.com.au, accessed 5 November 2014 http://www.smh.com.au/national/two-horses-including-favourite-die-soon-after-melbourne-cup-20141104-11gv58.html#ixzz3I9E5hdno
[2] “Victoria Turf Club Spring Meeting”, The Argus Friday 8 November 1861, p. 5.
[3] “Melbourne Cup 2014: Racing industry and animal welfare share love of horses’, news.com.au, accessed 5 November 2014 http://www.news.com.au/sport/superracing/melbourne-cup-2014-racing-industry-and-animal-welfare-share-love-of-horses/story-fndpqu3p-1227113216040

Performing ‘the horse’

I’ve been reading a bit about museums as performative spaces, particularly in the ways that visitors behave and interact, both with objects and each other. This notion has been borrowed from the French concept of the flaneur. The word apparently translates to mean someone who strolls about, though in the museum (and I think more broadly, in the cultural studies) context, the flaneur is someone who sees and wants to be seen.

It seems that humans are innately performative creatures. I’ve also been reading an interesting book by John Simons on the representation of animals in text (it’s worth noting that this post-structuralist concept of ‘text’ extends beyond the written word, to encompass things like films and exhibitions). He distinguishes human from non-human animals, not through definitions based on physiology or consciousness, but through the idea of performance. Simons claims that:

It is performance that defines and enables us, to some extent and on some occasions, to escape the seemingly overwhelming deterministic influences of history and culture. If we cannot escape them we can, at least, exercise some choice in the nature of our determination, much as prisoners on Death Row in some American states are given the choice of how they wish to be executed.[1]*

In contrast to this, animals do not perform their animalism. Sure they can be taught how to do tricks, but that’s not the same thing. In fact, it might be that an animal that has been trained to perform reinforces this idea – it is performing, both literally and figuratively, a human idea of its animal-ness.

This concept becomes particularly interesting when combined with ideas about anthropomorphism. If, for the sake of this blog post, we accept that we can never really understand the consciousness of a non-human animal, then it might be argued that all animal perfomance is anthropomorphic – ie we are just projecting our own ideas of what the animal is onto the tasks we are asking it to perform.

So in this light, I started considering how ideas of ‘the horse’ might be being performed and borne out in our society. In the discipline of dressage, which has its origins in equestrian war manoevres, the natural gaits and movements of the horse have been refined (or perhaps exaggerated) to a particular set of standard moves. Have a look at this video of Lipizzaner stallions performing for an awe-inspiring demonstration. Showjumping is the same – in fact, every equestrian discipline could be seen as an example of the horse being ‘performed’, and as such could also be demonstrated to be anthropomorphic.

One of the arguments that racing enthusiasts give when the sport is criticised is: ‘But horses love to run – they are just doing what comes naturally.’ I think this reasoning definitely fits within the category of performance as anthropomorphism. We, as naturally perfomative beings, are conceptualising behaviours within a human framework. While the galloping gait is indeed natural (as are many of the prancing and leaping movements of dressage), racing’s comparison to natural behaviour that the horse loves is a bit of a stretch.

This could easily be demonstrated if you removed the jockey/equestrian off the back of any racehorse/dressage horse/showjumper, and observed what happened. The horse would cease galloping/prancing/jumping, thereby ceasing to perform our ideas of the horse. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t find a horse demonstrating any of these behaviours in moments of high spirits, but these acts would remain the horse’s own. The perfomance of ‘the horse’ is revealed only in its interactions with humans.

 

REFERENCE:

John Simons, Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, Palgrave, Hampshire, 2002

* I put forth Simons’ view while recognising that issues of power in a global context are NOT what this is about, and that conceptualising issues of power in human-animal relationships may be the perspective of a particularly privileged group in this historical period – that is, primarily white, western, and middle-class.

 

From the horse’s mouth

Image

In this post I want to touch on the idea of the animal voice. This is a big subject, and I’ll probably address it again down the track, but for now I want to talk about the issue of humans assuming an animal voice. I think most people would acknowledge that we cannot ever really know or communicate what an animal might be thinking. But perhaps the more interesting question is, whether or not we should try.

In her article Horse as Significant Other: Discourses of Affect and Therapy in Susan Richards’s Chosen by a Horse: How a Broken Horse Fixed a Broken Heart, Jopi Nyman cites Margo DeMello’s view that it is primarily women writers who adopt the animal perspective, seeing it is a (peculiarly female?) way of providing the voiceless with a voice.[1]  Nyman acknowledges the problematic nature of representation and language, though she doesn’t extend the discussion to the issue of anthropomorphism.

The anthropomorphising of animals is often criticised, though Australian eco-feminist Val Plumwood argued that to dismiss anthropomorphism out of hand is to deny that there are any overlapping characteristics between human and non-human animals. The difficulty comes with an anthropocentric anthropomorphism.[2] I think here it is useful to distinguish between anthropomorphism, and anthropocentrism. The former can be loosely defined as attributing human characteristics to an animal*, while the latter stems from an ideology in which the human is separate from, and superior to, the animal world. Plumwood states that:

The problems in representing another species’ speech or subjectivity in human terms are real, but they do not rule out such representation in any general way, and they pale before the difficulties of failing to represent them at all, or before the enormity of representing communicative and intentional beings as beings lacking all communicative and mental capacity. That is a much greater inaccuracy and injustice than any anthropomorphism.[3]

I couldn’t help but recall both Nyman and Plumwood when I came across ‘Interviews with The Other Three Quarters’ in the latest edition of Seizure magazine, in which writer Rosanna Beatrice Stevens** ‘interviews’ three fictional horses from different equestrian backgrounds.[4] The horses we meet are an Arabian hacking pony named Mirabelle Have You Met Miss Jones?, a barrel racer known as Hank, and an Olympic dressage champion who failed at racing under the name My Good Luck but made her dressage success with the moniker Sweetbones. These names are important, as Sweetbones herself points out. ‘You see, humans need names so they can call us things – distinguish between us in radio commentary or on a television screen.’ This notion of the horse as a human construct is both highlighted and subverted throughout the article.

The tone is light to begin with, with the snooty Valley Girl voice of purebred Miss Jones detailing her life of ‘looking pretty’ progressing to the earnest ockerish-ness of Hank and his defence of barrel racing as a genuine sport. But by the time we hear from ex-racehorse Sweetbones, we are beginning to understand two things – firstly, the pivotal and largely under-appreciated role of the horse in competitive equestrian pairings (the title itself references this), and second, that the life of the racehorse is not one that is envied in the equine world.

All three of the animals acknowledge that their situations could be worse – ‘I know I’m lucky because I’m not a racehorse or anything. Like, no offense, but I’m not going to end up at a meat factory or anything’, says Miss Jones, while Hank calls horse racing ‘a disgrace’. It is in recounting the biography of Sweetbones that Stevens introduces the facts and statistics that accompany racehorse ‘wastage’ – that only 30% of thoroughbred foals will ever actually race; that between 22,000-32,000 horses are slaughtered each year in Australia, around 40% of which are racehorses. 

These statistics are alarming to anyone who claims to love horses. But I think what Stevens has done so successfully here is to give these statistics a voice, albeit a fictional one. It is one thing to be confronted with numbers, but another entirely to hear a horse recounting the smell of fear associated with being sent to auction:

The truck reeked – you could smell it before it had arrived. I don’t know if your type can smell things like fear, um, but fear – it has many different scents. A stale shit smell is a big giveaway that something is wrong, but so’s the stink of thousands of exhausted athletes all coming from the gaping jaw of a rusty truck.

While Stevens has created distinctive voices for her characters, she has also incorporated vivid descriptions of distinctly equine behaviour as well. Not only does this emphasis on the non-verbal give a sense of authenticity and depth to the horses, but it also returns attention to their physical subjugation. This is perhaps most obvious in Sweetbones’ recollections of being artificially inseminated as a brood mare, though it is present in each of the horse’s accounts of their lives.

So, to my original question about whether we, as humans, should attempt to represent the perspectives of animals, I think the answer is yes. The Stevens article is an example of writing from a non-human perspective done well, which offers us insights into animal subjectivity, even when shaped around the concerns of the human author (in this case, her view of horse racing). The trick in attempting such representation is to avoid the pitfalls of anthropocentrism, a demanding task indeed when you consider the world we live in.


[1] Jopi Nyman, ‘Horse as Significant Other: Discourses of Affect and Therapy in Susan Richards’s Chosen by a Horse: How a Broken Horse Fixed a Broken Heart’, in Humanimalia vol. 5 no. 2, 2014

[2] Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, 2012, http://press.anu.edu.au/titles/the-eye-of-the-crocodile/ accessed 17 February 2014

[3] ibid, p.68

[4] Rosanna Beatrice Stevens, ‘Interviews with the other three quarters’, Seizure no. 5, 2013. The first page of this piece can be read here

 

* Whether these characteristics are perceived as uniquely human is a distinction outside the scope of this blog post, though I’d suggest reading Val Plumwood’s The Eye of the Crocodile if you’re interested in a breakdown of this complex issue

**Yes, I do know her personally. That doesn’t discount anything I’ve written though!