Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

Now you see it… but what if you don’t?

As I was forging ahead with my survey late last year, contacting various collecting institutions to see what, if any, horse remains they might have in their collections, I received a phone call that stopped me in my tracks, and brought home to me the limitations of my research scope.

It’s all well and good to look at objects and their associated interpretation – but what if there was a relevant object that now no longer exists?  Because this was exactly the situation being described to me by the Curator of the Victoria Police Museum, Sergeant Terry Claven.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular members of Victoria’s police force was a big grey gelding called Gendarme. Gendarme, along with his human partner Sergeant Alex Tassell, could be seen at any number of occasions on Melbourne’s streets, including the anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam protests of the early 70s. The two also did less fraught work, participating in a number of Moomba parades, and appearing in the Myer toy department during Police Week. [1]

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell

Gendarme and Sergeant Alex Tassell Source:

For almost two decades, Tassell and Gendarme, who Tassell trained as a drum horse for the police band, were a common sight. The horse’s popularity was, believe it or not, astronomical. He starred in his own children’s book series, with titles Gendarme the Police Horse and Gendarme at Work each selling over 25,000 copies [2], received the Victoria Police Chief Commissioner’s Award, was given the Key to the City of Melbourne, and, upon his retirement in 1980, had a public farewell at Government House!

Sadly Gendarme was euthanised shortly after he retired, in September 1980. [3]  However, as with other popular equine figures in Australian history, death was no barrier to his posterity. As described in a piece for the Herald, Gendarme would ‘[receive] the same honour as the great Australian race horse Phar Lap, and [be] stuffed.’ [4] It’s worth noting here that Gendarme seems to be the only other horse besides Phar Lap to have been preserved in this way, a true testament to his popularity.

The taxidermic process was done by Brent Hall, who worked professionally as a Preparator with Museum Victoria and ran a home taxidermy business in Glen Iris. [6] It took nine months and cost $8000 [5], but in June 1981 the great horse was once again able to greet the public, unveiled in a ceremony at Dandenong Town Hall. Sargeant Tassell himself was impressed at the way Gendarme had been captured through taxidermy. “The head is to a tee and they’ve done a really good job on the rest, even down to the bumps and scars he received over his long career”, Tassell was quoted as saying at the time. [7]

Unfortunately, time was not kind to the mount, and at some point its deterioration meant that it had to be destroyed. So now I have to ask myself, given the scope of my research, how do I talk about this significant horse, without anything to tell his story through? As those associated with Gendarme pass away, the horse’s story, and his significance, are also lost. Tassell himself passed away in 2008, preceded by the last of the Gendarmes (there were ultimately five horses who went by the name, though I believe it was only Gendarme I that was mounted and displayed). [8]

At the time of the newly-mounted horse’s unveiling, the prevailing opinion was that Gendarme was so popular that he was bound ‘to be remembered for many years to come’ [9], yet this has not been the case. Despite my research interest, I had not come across Gendarme’s name prior to contacting the Victoria Police Museum. Which begs us to ask of that other most famous taxidermied horse – if all Phar Lap’s remains were to suddenly disappear from public view, how long would he remain in the public consciousness?

In my opinion, it would be a generation, two at most. And that, right there, is what lies at the heart of my research – that the stories we tell about these horses, and about ourselves as Australians, are so tied to their physical remains that without them, the stories would disappear. While we might assume that a horse’s significance will continue to have a historical impact even after their death, the truth appears to be that, without material culture, horses do vanish from history.  No matter how significant we think the horse is today, he’ll be eclipsed tomorrow – unless he remains in the public imagination through ongoing exhibition and display.


[1] Michael Hast, ‘Sergeant Alex Tassell is Melburnian of the Year,’ Melburnian (no date), 11.

[2] Geoff Wilkinson, ‘Cop who rode into history,’ Herald Sun 24 December 2008, accessed 18 March 2015

[3] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Brent Hall obituary, Nautilus vol 6 issue 3, 2009.

[7] Ian Brown, ‘Gendarme stands proud for posterity,’ Herald 11 June 1981 (no page reference).

[8] ‘Vale Alex Tassell,’ The Police Association Journal February 2009, p.23.

[9] ‘Beat the Drum Slowly,’ [no publication name] June 1981, p.18.



I recently went to see the film Jappeloup, currently showing in Australia as part of the 2014 French Film Festival. According to the promotional notes, the film is:

“…the inspirational true story of one man and his horse, who together achieved one of France’s greatest Olympic victories. Guillaume Canet gives a brilliant performance as Pierre Durand, a man who decides to leave a legal career to follow his equestrian dream. He sees something special in a small and stubborn colt called Jappeloup and decides to reach for gold in the competitive world of show jumping. Supported by his father (audience favourite Daniel Auteuil) and fellow rider Nadia (the charming Marina Hands), Pierre falters as he comes tantalisingly close to ultimate success. Can he defy the odds to take his beloved horse to success in the Seoul games of 1988?”

So, it’s clearly being pitched as 1) a biopic, and 2) structured upon a relationship between a man and his “beloved” horse. But in fact, if you watch the movie you’ll see that, while it’s an enjoyable enough film, with amazing showjumping sequences, the man-horse relationship remains secondary throughout, and is dealt with in a single conversation and a short montage.

Something the promo fails to mention is that the horse is deemed better than his rider, an opinion stated repeatedly throughout the film, including by the protagonist. The movie does nothing to try and resolve this issue, which is one of it’s strengths in my opinion. If you watch footage of the real Pierre Durand and Jappeloup at the Seoul Olympics, you’ll see that it does look to be the truth. (Watch the footage here: – seeing this tiny horse leaping over jumps taller than he is is simply mesmerising.)

While trawling the internet for information on exactly how they filmed the amazing jump sequences, I came across the Press Pack for the film, which made quite enlightening reading. For a start, it was acknowledged that while the film was based on Durand’s life, it also incorporated elements of Guillaume Canet’s (the writer and star of the film) biography too. And then I found this quote, by the producer:

“Guillaume and Christian [Duguay, the film’s director] have a genuine rapport with the horse, and not an infantile relationship with it. These men, who’ve done a lot of competitions, don’t see the animal as a cuddly toy. At one time, horsemen used to call themselves “pilots”. That means they used to consider their mount as a machine. Pierre Durand was among the first to go from being a pilot to a centaur.”

This statement more accurately sums up the depiction of Durand’s relationship with Jappeloup than any of the promotional twaddle. The aim of the marketing synopsis is, of course, to sell the film to viewers, however they are more likely to come away from it feeling disappointed if their expectations were focused on the human-animal relationship dimension.

The distinction made here between a ‘genuine rapport’ and an ‘infantile relationship’ with a horse is interesting, too, though at this point I’m not yet sure what I think of that statement.

If anyone else has seen this movie and has thoughts on it, I’d love to hear them.

Something about Fred

One of the small ways that my research project seeks to enact a shift in thinking about horses is to make their presence visible. This means I will use their names, and gendered pronouns when referring to them, eg “he” or “she” instead of “it” (you will notice that “it” is commonly used when referring to racehorses). With my PhD research, I intend to give each of the once-were-horses objects that I will examine some sort of biography, situating them as animals. This tenet of respect is very important to me, and underpins much of what drove me to follow this line of inquiry in the first place.

So I’d certainly be remiss were I not to tell you about Fred, the ‘cover horse’ and pin-up boy for this blog!

Fred’s human companion (his ‘owner’) is my younger cousin, who’s just turned twenty and started university. Rather than leaving her horse behind on the family farm, though, Fred has joined her at uni. Before that, she had him with her at boarding school, and they have competed at dressage and show-jumping events across the Eastern states. She says, “[Fred] came to school with me and home in holidays and now to uni- I take him everywhere! I’ve spent more time with Fred in the last 4 years than with anyone else in my life  -parents, friends, boyfriend – so he has become a very significant part of my life”.

Fred, whose show name is Fortis, is 16.1 hands high and ten years old. His sire (his father) is a warmblood, while his dam (his mother) is a thoroughbred. Warmblood horses are usually associated with dressage, and thoroughbreds are traditionally bred for racing. In fact, Fred’s mother is an ex-racehorse. I guess she’s one of the ones who got ‘lucky’, and was able to have a life as a brood mare after her racing career ended. I have heard a rumour that her sire won the Melbourne Cup once, but no names have been mentioned.

The photo that appears as this blog’s cover image was taken by my cousin near the south-coast town of Kiama, at sunset, where she took him for an event earlier this year.  When I asked my cousin if she loved Fred, or if he was more like a tool to get her where she wanted to be, equestrian-wise, her answer was so heartfelt that I have to include it in it’s entirety:

I love him to pieces! When you spend so much time with them you definitely develop a strong bond. Equestrian obviously relies majorly on teamwork, so I guess you develop a bond through working as a team and giving back to them for what they have done for you. You can especially see it in cross country when it’s impossible even at the top level to get a perfect distance to every fence but even when you screw it up your horse (not all though!) will pull you out of trouble and do their best to jump it even though they should have stopped. After 4 years together I’ve come to learn Fred’s personality and character, which makes him different to just any horse.

I don’t know how long I will be able to keep him, since it is such an expensive sport that I can’t afford, and people tell me that I can always pick it up again after uni but (as much as I love riding and I will miss it incredibly) I don’t feel the need to pick it up later because I don’t want to just ride, I want to ride Fred! If I didn’t love him so much it would not be as hard to quit. They teach you so much in terms of responsibilities and taking the good with the bad and accepting failure since they have their bad days and their good ones, because no one is perfect, and you feel so proud when you both finally get it right! Fred is such a hard trier, and always listens, and learns relatively quickly what I’m teaching him. He has come so far from where he was when I got him and he has taught me a lot about how to ride better. Every time I even think about when the time comes to sell him, I cry!

Something that my cousin has articulated really well here is that, for her, it’s not just any horse, it’s Fred. Reading her words I was really struck by the sense that she has gotten to know him so well, and it is this that ‘makes him different to just any horse’ for her. I can’t help comparing this bonded and respectful relationship with, for example, what a racehorse is likely to experience; the difference between being a highly valued part of a team, and being a highly valuable asset. No-one has time to get to know a racehorse, as they are ridden by different jockeys at each race meet, trained by a stranger, and most likely owned by a syndicate, rather than a loving individual.

I think there’s more to explore here, but I don’t want my research agenda to hijack what is meant to be simply a post about Fred. So, there you have it – a little something about Fred. Putting a name to the face, so to speak.


Fred and his human companion working together, December 2013 – image courtesy of Pauline Luks