Blog on hiatus

Greetings dear readers!

As I write this I am 39 weeks pregnant, so I’m sure you’ll understand why the blog is being put on hiatus for a little while. At this stage I don’t want to make any promises about my return to a regular posting schedule, as I really don’t know what I’m in for with the whole baby caper. However I still have a fair amount of work to go on my thesis, so I imagine I have a few more posts in me yet!

In the meantime, please do explore the (now quite extensive!) archive of horse-related posts you can find here. I will leave you with this link to a lovely feel-good story about an octogenarian who has stayed faithful to his love of the draught horse, and continues to work with them even today:

“[A] few years ago when Mr Norris ended up in hospital for some pains, he told the doctor he had received them while out sowing wheat with his horses. The doctor noted on his medical records that dementia was suspected because Mr Norris believed he was still in the past.” [1]

Plough on, readers. Plough on!

REFERENCE:

[1] Melanie Pearce and Julie Clift, “Octogenarian’s passion still strong after lifetime of working draught horses,” ABC Central West, accessed 19 July 2016 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-18/octogenerians-lifetime-of-working-draught-horses/7637634

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Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

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.

REFERENCES:

[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

The Longreach experience

Last week I was fortunate to visit the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, in Longreach, Queensland. I have discussed this site previously on the blog, but it was great to get out there and visit it for myself at last.

The Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, Longreach

The Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, Longreach

And you know what? I was really surprised by what I found. It was not the hotbed of parochialism that I was expecting. Instead, the main galleries housed thoughtful content on topics such as life on a large rural property, the work of shearing, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and the role of Aboriginal men and women in opening up the ‘outback’. All the exhibits (with one exception) had a good variety of material culture on display, and I think this really is what grounds museums to reality, instead of floating off into clouds of rhetoric. When you start with the object, or at least make it the key point of your display, there’s a limit to how far-fetched you can be.

Not so the “Life as a Stockman” audio-visual. Narrated by Jack Thompson, this grandiose depiction of sunsets and silhouettes began with a voice-over stating “Being a stockman is being real”, and continued in this vein for the next 15 minutes. Unfortunately this wonderful piece of cultural iconography was not available for purchase in the Gift Shop, but I did manage to note down some of the more entertaining assertions:

“Being a Stockman means living in the Outback.”

“It’s a simple, uncomplicated life.”

“Stockmen … love life in the bush, and they hate the thought of going to the City.”

“The land forges character.”

This 15 minutes epitomised what I had expected to find throughout the SHOF, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it otherwise.

I was much more surprised by Longreach itself. A typical rural township serving the pastoralists and businesses of the region, Longreach has a population of around 3000 people. In recent years, it has reinvented itself as an ‘outback’ tourist destination, mainly through the work of one family, who run a number of ventures under the name ‘Kinnon & Co’.

I was most excited by one of their offerings, the chance to ride along part of the old Longreach-Winton mail route in a Cobb & Co coach. Having spent some years researching a nineteenth-century thoroughbrace coach from the National Historical Collection, I wanted to know what riding in a coach actually felt like. The website assures punters that “this award-winning ride gives a realistic glimpse of what the pioneers experienced”, but I knew from the first look that it wasn’t going to be the authentic experience I had hoped for.

The coach we rode in. Note the angle of the wheels, indicating the sharp turning circle

The coach we rode in. Note the angle of the wheels, indicating the sharp turning circle

Look at the above coach. If you didn’t look too closely, you might think it was authentic. But it’s made from welded steel, rather than wood. The angle of the wheels gives another clue. The coach also comes with disk brakes and steel suspension, instead of the overlapping leather that gave the thoroughbrace coach its distinctive (and more suited to Australian conditions) rocking motion.

An original Cobb & Co coach, showing the thoroughbrace suspension of overlapped leather between the front and back wheels. Compare the turn of the wheels, here at their maximum angle!

An original Cobb & Co coach, showing the thoroughbrace suspension of overlapped leather between the front and back wheels. Compare the angle of these wheels, here at their maximum turn!

When I asked the operator about it, he laughed and said his insurance company would never let him run a thoroughbrace. He talked a lot about insurance. We even had to have our photos taken, in groups or individually (according to how you booked), in front of a second coach (dressed up with mob caps for the ladies and Akubras for the men, and posing with a shotgun), apparently for insurance purposes. You could then purchase your photo for $15 as a memento. I opted not to pose but still had to have my photo taken. I later learned that the insurance cost per person for this tour was $48, which seems rather steep. No wonder he seemed so unhappy about it!

While on the one hand my thirst for historical accuracy left me somewhat disappointed by the experience, the dust and grit that made its way into my hair, eyes, nostrils and mouth during the twenty or twenty-five minute ride certainly felt authentic enough!

Riding across the Longreach 'common'

Riding across the Longreach ‘common’

I also stayed at the Kinnon & Co Slab Hut accommodation. These huts were ridiculously twee. Built as slab huts and furnished in mock-colonial style, they were also fitted out with full (if small) kitchens, air conditioning, large-screen TVs, and luxury shower heads. While my decision to stay there was prompted by their proximity to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, they actually stimulated much thinking about the difference between history, and heritage.

Slab hut exterior

Slab hut exterior

Slab hut interior

Slab hut interior

But that’s a post for another day!

The brumby as heritage

Firstly, an apology for throwing my posting schedule to the wind – I’ve been on holidays! But I hope you will forgive a hard-working PhD student a well-earned break, and now we can happily pick up where we left off! In this post I’m returning to the topic of the brumby, which we have looked at several times already on the blog.

In May this year, the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) published a post on their website outlining the key principles of the Burra Charter,[1] a framework that outlines best practice management of Australia’s heritage. While the Burra Charter is most frequently cited with reference to built (or tangible) heritage, the ABA feels that “it supports our values, for example, where cultural values conflict, the Charter requires that Co-existence of cultural values should always be recognised, respected and encouraged. It is not one culture above another; both have equal value and need to be in balance.”[2]

As Laurajane Smith has argued, heritage is not simply about the past. It refers to a process of meaning-making and engagement that is manufactured in the present, as well.[3] According to Smith, ‘heritage’ is not the sites or the buildings that are commonly associated with the term, but the meanings we ascribe to them.[4] The ABA’s citation of the Burra Charter, a foundational document governing Australia’s cultural heritage, offers an opportunity to consider the brumby in the context of ‘heritage’, and to shape a broader discussion of the horse in this role.

The ABA’s invocation of the Burra Charter may be somewhat simplistic, however it illustrates what Simon Cubit has referred to as a ‘tournament of value.’[5] In this context, the environmental concerns of those opposed to brumbies in National Parks in Australia are set against the claim that horses (particularly brumbies) embody significant cultural heritage values of Australia. These claims bear closer examination. In the first instance, as Cubit argues, nature is a cultural construct,[6] and therefore the environmental values usually ascribed to National Parks could be, if not negated, then at least problematised. On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts might cancel the other out.

However, to further consider the contentions of brumby advocate groups such as the ABA, we must ask in what context the horse is to be considered as heritage. Is it every horse? Is it only wild horses? How did the association between brumbies (or horses generally) and Australian heritage begin? While the horse as a species unquestionably provided Australia with advantage and benefit in the process of colonisation and settlement, it was not the wild horse populations that rendered these services, nor even necessarily their ancestors, given that feral horses were being considered a pest as early as the 1860s.[7] Therefore, the claim that brumbies are part of Australia’s heritage seems factually questionable.

In the case of wild horses specifically, the conjuring power of the brumby as an animal of romance and myth could be argued to originate with A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’, in which a nameless man, on trusty steed, rounds up a herd of wild horses. Though the poem itself might not have been distinguishable from similar verses of the time, its continued repetition and ongoing visibility renders it now part of our heritage, particularly in the sense that Smith conceptualises the term. That is, the ongoing engagement with the poem, and its dissemination across several genres – film, festivals, even the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics – renders us familiar with its tropes. It has come to be recognised as ‘heritage’ through the processes that shape such discourses – frequent repetition and continued visibility. Thus the Man from Snowy River has become part of Australia’s cultural iconography, and the brumbies with which he is forever associated (though they were never referred to as such in Paterson’s poem) are now also described as part of our heritage.

This is a fascinating discussion, and there is certainly much more to be explored on the topic, of which this is only a starting point.

REFERENCES:

[1] Australian Brumby Alliance, “The Burra Charter”, posted May 12 2015, accessed August 25 2015 http://australianbrumbyalliance.org.au/the-burra-charter/

[2] ABA, “Burra Charter.”

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 1.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 3.

[5] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[6] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395.

[7] Dale Graeme Nimmo and Kelly K. Miller, “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 408.

The Man from Cox’s River

A while ago someone mentioned the documentary ‘The Man From Cox’s River’ to me, and suggested I see it, given my particular interest in the horse in Australia. The film gets overwhelmingly positive reviews from viewers, and to be honest I was expecting something a bit parochial, trading off the whole Man From Snowy River thing, which most punters are quite happy to swallow hook, line, and sinker.

To my surprise, the documentary is much more nuanced, and focuses largely on the relationship between two of the human protagonists, Luke Carlon and Chris Banffy, rather than attempting to sell yet more brumby mythology. Luke Carlon is depicted as the quintessential Aussie bushman, having grown up in the heart of the Blue Mountains wilderness, and as comfortable on the back of a horse as he is on the ground. Chris Banffy has also grown up in the area, but his love of the country has taken him into a different profession, working for the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service.

The documentary begins with members of the Carlon family discussing their ousting from the Burragorang wilderness, which was once Crown Land used by graziers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from the 1960s by the Carlon family for their trail riding business, until its value as a wilderness site and significant catchment area finally ended public access. This was during the 1990s, and at the time, ‘Matriarch’ Norma Carlon tells us, there was a high degree of animosity between the Carlon family and the Parks and Wildlife Service, but by the time of the documentary, “feelings had cooled down a fair bit.”

The documentary centres on Banffy contracting Carlon, and several of his family and friends, to remove a mob of brumbies from the Lake Burragorang wilderness, in a project being funded by the Sydney Catchment Authority. Lake Burragorang is actually the flooded Burragorang Valley, which was dammed in the 1950s as part of the Warragamba Dam project. It provides Sydney with around 70% of its drinking water, and the brumbies present a problem, as there is evidence that they carry the cryptosporidium parasite.

Interestingly, the environmental issues presented here are not the same as those facing the Snowy Mountains region, for example. This is both the documentary’s strength, and its weakness. Its strength, because it then becomes an engaging local story. Its weakness, because it conveniently sidesteps a highly topical issue, essentially absolving itself of addressing the bigger picture of environmental degredation posed by brumbies throughout Australia’s wilderness.

I worry that many people might miss the point, made by Carlon himself, that “in some areas where there’s thousands of horses, you gotta do something about it”, and instead see this film as evidence that trapping and removal is a viable solution to shooting brumbies. Never mind that the cost of removing these horses is revealed in the film as being between $11,000 and $13,000 per horse! The fact that the real danger to environments posed by brumbies elsewhere is not addressed at all is evident in a Q&A with the documentary’s producers, where the interviewer, having seen the film already, asks exactly why brumbies are such an issue?

For me, it is NPWS Ranger Chris Banffy who proves the most engaging and insightful subject. I think his assessment that “People have very strong cultural connections to horses, and I actually don’t. You know, I’m very wary of those attachments that people have to horses, and how that alters their thinking” is spot-on. He also very openly and honestly reveals his reservations about the documentary itself, wondering how the events will later be edited, and what sort of story they will be used to tell. Kudos to the producers for including it!

The sheer remoteness of the location means that removing the brumbies is a challenging process, and even trapping them is preceded by months of free-feeding, to lure them to the yards. All the hay and infrastructure must be brought in by helicopter, an expensive process. Once the brumbies are trapped they must be broken to lead, and led the 4km out of the valley, to a second set of yards where they are loaded onto trucks and shipped out. What happens after this we are not shown, which was disappointing, as I think the next stage of the brumbies’ journey is potentially even more interesting. But again, this documentary is less about the horses, and more about the men, and their approach to the land and its management.

As a self-confessed horse lover I found the roping and breaking part quite confronting. When Luke says “The way we’re handling the horses here might seem a bit brutal and a bit rough” he’s not wrong. For Luke, the need is “to get them quiet enough quickly so that we can get them out of the valley here, and go to a safer home, because the alternative, if we didn’t, they’ll be shot.” But the brumbies will not go quietly, and seeing the fear in their responses, listening to them gasping as the ropes bite into their windpipes, restricting their breathing, their legs tied together, makes me wonder if maybe being shot while still free might not be a better alternative. However, when this appears to be a very real possibility for one recalcitrant mare, I am deeply grateful for the lengths the men go to to ensure this does not happen.

I did enjoy this documentary. I think it was reasonably even-handed in its portrayal of both sides of the arguments regarding conservation and land management, but I was also frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t add anything to the broader brumby debate, which extends far beyond the boundaries of the Blue Mountains National Park. However, for its representation of a local story, it does very well indeed.

Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch

Brasch_coverNicholas Brasch, Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014.

Another recently published work on the horse is Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History, by self-confessed racing fan Nicolas Brasch. In my view, this book serves as an homage to what I have previously called the Relational Horse – Brasch describes horses as ‘companions, performers, toilers, and guides’ (p. 8), and each of the chapters is structured thematically according to the particular service rendered by the horse.

At 42 pages in length, the chapter on horseracing is by far the longest chapter in the text. According to Brasch, horseracing is ‘a critical part of the Australian psyche.’ (p. 121) Predictably, he spends some time on the Melbourne Cup, which he claims is ‘a race that reflects the Australian ethos’ (p. 139), and to my disappointment repeats the fallacy that Mark Twain attended the 1895 Cup (this is an oft-repeated misrepresentation, however a small amount of research reveals that Twain was on the boat to New Zealand at the time the 1895 Cup was run and won).

Brasch does not limit himself to discussing just flat racing; in writing of jumps racing, Brasch’s love for the ‘sport’ is clearly revealed: ‘This is where the spirit of Paterson and Gordon live on, indeed, where they never died. This is the home of jolly jumbucks, billabongs and coolabah trees’ (p. 150), he writes, though it is unclear where you might find such things at a race track.

Brasch repeatedly invokes the romanticism of myth and folklore. His position on brumby culling, for example, is clear, presenting those in favour of culling as people who ‘do not like the romanticism of the brumbies’, which are ‘killed because of the environmental damage it is claimed they cause’ (p. 197-198, my italics).

One of the key problems with this text is the often contradictory statements. For instance, Brasch states that horses in Australia ‘have been idolised and immortalised’ but then on the very same page writes that ‘most of all, they have been ignored’ (p. 9). It is Brasch’s belief that the horse remains an ‘invisible animal’, and that ‘only in folklore has the horse been elevated to its rightful place’ (p. 9). This assertion appears to disregard the evidence presented in his own text, including the hotly-contested debates over brumby culling, which have occurred over the last decades and in various states of Australia, and the celebrity status accorded to racehorses in Australia, from Carbine to Black Caviar.

Additional evidence of the wide-ranging appeal of the horse includes the ongoing popularity of Phar Lap as a museum specimen, (so much so that, in 2010, the various remains were the subject of an attempted reunification by then-Minister of Racing Rob Hulls) and, most recently, an entire exhibition dedicated to the horse, titled Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story, held at the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra, from September 2014 until March 2015. In fact, the publication of both Brasch’s and Cameron Forbes’ books in a single month last year attests to a very healthy regard for the horse among the public of Australia.

The book fails to deal with any of the weightier issues of the horse’s function in Australian history. Horses and their role in colonisation is addressed in a single paragraph, and the link with Aboriginal people is confined to their work as stockmen, in the chapter dealing with the stockhorse breed. Brasch tries to include women in his narrative, arguing that it was not just men who lionised the horse in balladry. His inclusion as though in evidence of this claim is a paragraph from Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, in which the only apparent connection is that riding horses is mentioned (p. 97). The loving, worshipful tone evoked by the ballads is completely absent from the Franklin excerpt, and its citation is really very tenuous.

At times Brasch’s prose is so flowery and hyperbolic as to make the reader cringe, such as this description of the Waler breed:

It was as if Ares , the God of War, had produced a blueprint for the perfect warhorse and then engaged Charles Darwin and Merlin to work together to speed up the process of natural selection. (p. 99)

One pleasant surprise was that Brasch did not perpetuate the myth that all the Light Horsemen shot their horses rather than sell them to the locals, stating that there is no evidence to support this version of events (p. 110). Another surprise was seeing Gendarme and Alex Tassell make a brief appearance, though it’s not the first Gendarme who is pictured, and there was no mention of the original Gendarme’s eventual transformation into a taxidermic mount.

Overall I found this book somewhat disappointing. While I understand that it is very much intended for the popular market and is not a critical history, its superficial and predictable treatment of the horse in Australia doesn’t do the topic justice.