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]


[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.


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],

[2] ibid

[3] Scott Brodie, “Part 5: ‘Mirrabooka’: horseman of the Southern Cross”, Horses from Courses blog 26 January 2016,

[4] Australia’s Equestrian Olympic Record,


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 horse as historical actor

This week’s blog post is lifted from the first part of a paper I gave at the Australian Historical Association conference last week. It takes a very brief look at the idea of the horse as an historical actor, based primarily on the work of academic David Gary Shaw.

The horse’s position as an animal of significance in the cultural imagination of Australia is a given. In 2014 alone, the National Museum of Australia opened Spirited, an exhibition on ‘Australia’s Horse Story’, as it was sub-titled; the documentary The Man From Coxs River, about the trapping and removal of brumbies from the Blue Mountains became a sleeper hit across the country; and not one but two books on the horse in Australia were published just in time for the Christmas rush.

Yet for me, as a PhD candidate whose thesis is built upon the premise that there is a national regard for the horse, it is not sufficient to merely accept a popularly-ascribed significance. This was brought home to me at an all-panel meeting last year, when one of my panellists asked, “But is the horse significant?” My panellist was correct to question this assumption, and so I have set out to investigate the ideas that underpin this idea of equine significance.

In doing so, I have realised that you can frame an almost limitless number of questions around this topic. For example I could ask, Are horses significant historical actors in Australia’s history? Or, Are horses significant to the national imagination and Australia’s cultural heritage? An alternative form of framing the question again is, Is the horse is more significant to Australians than it is to other, comparable nations, such as England or the United States of America?

For today I will focus on the question of whether or not the horse is a significant actor in Australian history. Drawing on the work of historian Gary David Shaw, I will attempt to apply his theories regarding equine agency to an Australian context. I argue that the horse is not, in fact, a significant historical actor in Australia’s historical journey.

Animals as historical agents

The question of animals as historical agents (and, by extension, worthy subjects of historical enquiry)[1], is one that has occasionally been dealt with by historians, and even formed the theme of a 2013 edition of the journal History and Theory. Here, David Gary Shaw posited that the increased interest in non-human history is a result of the rising influence of social history.[2] He points out that understandings about animals as agents is dependent upon historical context, and the dominant cultural hegemony of the time.[3] This has already been demonstrated by Harriet Ritvo, who recounts that, in the earliest written laws of Britain, animals were ascribed responsibility on par with humans, and could therefore be prosecuted.[4] Such notions, that both human and non-human animals must live in accordance with the law, inherently ascribes some form of corresponding agency to animals. That is, if an animal can be understood as breaking the law, and therefore liable to punishment, it must possess some faculty that we might today refer to as ‘agency’.

One potentially problematic issue in attempting to discern agency in animals is that the concept of agency is intertwined with that of intentionality. Shaw argues against accepting such limited and narrow definitions of historical agency, stating that ‘[r]ational agency … shouldn’t be thought the key to historical agency’.[5] For Shaw, privileging this one aspect of what he calls the ‘starfish that is agency’[6] reveals an underlying humanist agenda.[7]

Shaw is particularly interested in the horse as a subject of historical enquiry, recognising that ‘[t]here are histories of horses and there will be more of them’.[8] The notion of ‘horse history’ has arguably reached its apotheosis in Australia, where there is an apparently hungry market for books, movies, and even museum exhibitions about horses. For this reason, Shaw’s statement that ‘if agency can be made meaningful in horse history it is certain to matter’[9] is applicable to the Australian context.

Shaw provides a very functional definition of an historical actor as ‘someone without whom things, especially a particular doing, might have been significantly different.’[10] In demonstrating his assertion that individual animals can function as historical actors, Shaw used the Duke of Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, ridden at the Battle of Waterloo, as a case study. Eventually Shaw concludes that the horse Copenhagen held an equivalent level of agency as that of an ordinary soldier, and therefore an equivalent level of significance as an historical actor.[11]

However, and significantly, Shaw acknowledges that it is doubtful that animals can achieve historical agency without a human co-partner.[12] In this context, he describes the combination of horse-and-rider as a ‘unity’, summed up by the phrase, ‘A man and horse can interact in many ways, but the horse-and-rider act as one.’ [13] We will return to the idea of the ‘unity’ later. For now, it is sufficient to state that this transformative, albeit momentary, conjunction allows the animal, in this case the horse Copenhagen, to be understood as an historical agent.

Seeking equine actors in Australia’s history

In attempting to apply Shaw’s theory to Australian history, I sought comparable horses, who featured in significant narratives of Australian history. This was a more difficult task than I first anticipated.

Though the nineteenth century was undoubtedly the era in which horses became ubiquitous in Australia, they remain largely nameless and undocumented in the annals of history (with the notable exception of racehorses, whose names have been so carefully inscribed in pedigree ledgers). Certainly there were horses associated with the great narratives of exploration, agriculture, and expansion, but they remain undistinguished, perhaps with the exception of those horses recorded in the diaries of explorers as having starved to death, or, as was the case with Billy, the final horse to survive the Burke and Wills expedition, being killed and eaten by the explorers themselves.

World War I, regarded then as now as Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’, seemed at first to provide a suitable example in the Charge of the Light Horse at Beersheba. Here, as part of the third Battle of Gaza, members of the Australian Light Horse were instructed to use their bayonets as swords, and ride in a cavalry-style charge at the enemy trenches. The Light Horse were not a cavalry unit as such, but were mounted infantry who fought in groups of four, with one of those men holding the horses while the other three engaged. This is what made the successful charge at Beersheeba so extraordinary, and it has become known colliquially as the last great cavalry charge.

This narrative represents a significant equestrian contribution to the war effort, and perhaps comes closest to epitomising the arguments Shaw draws upon. In the case of the Light Brigade at Beersheeba, however, the horses were part of a collective, and as such their agency is more difficult to determine, as it is problematic to compare the hundreds of mounts of soldiers with Copenhagen, a single horse ridden by a General.

There are other issues which confound attempts to compare the two circumstances – the differences between a single battle such as Waterloo, and a long-term campaign such as the First Word War; or the changed structure of military hierarchy in the years that elapsed between these two events. Even because of what Australian’s like to boast of as their egalitarianism – for all these reasons, there is no human figure comparable to Wellington in the Australian action at Beersheba, and the victory is ascribed to all who fought. Conversely, while the individual history of almost any one of the horses could be representative of the whole, the story of no single horse stands out as part of a nationally recognised narrative, though the narrative itself is well known.

While Shaw has written that the historical framework of battle is peculiarly suitable for assessing animal agency,[14]if one is going to ascribe historical significance to an animal, such as that of the horse in Australia, then surely this significance must extend beyond the battlefield. However, my attempts to find equivalent examples of a ‘unity’ elsewhere met with limited success. Equine celebrities in Australia tend to be racehorses. This is problematic firstly because they do not lend themselves to the sort of pairing that could be described as a ‘unity’ beyond a single race, and additionally it would be difficult to argue a case for their significance beyond their contributions to racing statistics.

One horse, whose narrative is purportedly of great significance, is Phar Lap. Though Phar Lap too was a racehorse, his importance arguably transcended the racecourse, and he is attributed not only with having brought hope to people struggling during the Depression, but with embodying something of the national spirit. [15]

From a purely racing perspective, Phar Lap’s achievements are notable; yet when combined with contemporary circumstances, including the media revolution of the time, and the widespread fallout of the economic crash of 1929, which lead to the Depression, Phar Lap was transformed into a hero. This peculiar fusion of circumstances conspired to create an iconic figure. The horse was in the right place at the right time, certainly – but is this sufficient to consider him a significant historical actor?

To paraphrase Shaw, without Phar Lap, would Australian history, particularly during the Depression, have turned out differently? The only feats to which Phar Lap can be ascribed absolute credit are his races. The other circumstances that combined to grant him his celebrity, and subsequent iconic status, were a product of the era. Therefore, it is reasonably safe to state that the Depression would not have turned out differently. There were other, human, heroes during this period – Walter Lindrum, Donald Bradman, and Charles Kingsford-Smith were all achieving significant milestones at around this time. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Phar Lap is more of a household name today than many of his high-achieving human contemporaries is more attributable to his remains being preserved and kept on permanent display, than a direct result of his actions.[16]

Phar Lap fails Shaw’s test of an historical agent for two reasons – firstly, because there is no ‘unity’; his fame both eclipsed and reflected onto the humans he was associated with; and secondly, his significance as a racehorse has been co-opted by humanist agendas. Though history may not have turned out differently without Phar Lap, the stories we tell ourselves now, about the character of the Australian people, and the nature of Australian culture, would be different. Phar Lap is less of an actor in a specific event (or sequence of events) and more of an icon, a symbol, whose narrative stands for something else. Phar Lap as he is understood today does not represent a horse, so much as a human construct, embodying in the words of one racing writer, ‘something about the Australian sensibility, and about what is meaningful to us.’[17]

So, if the horse is not, in fact, a significant historical actor in Australian history, then how do we justify its ongoing status as a culturally significant animal? This is a question I continue to ponder.


[1] David Gary Shaw, “A Way with Animals: Preparing History for Animals,” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013):8.

[2] Shaw, “A Way with Animals,” 4.

[3] Shaw, David Gary. “The Torturer’s Horse: Agency and Animals in History.” History and Theory, Theme Issue 52 (2013): 146.

[4] Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: the English and other creatures in the Victorian age (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987), 1.

[5] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 150.

[6] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 150.

[7] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 152.

[8] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[9] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[10] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 148.

[11] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 165.

[12] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 146.

[13] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 161-2.

[14] Shaw, “Torturer’s Horse,” 149.

[15] John Harms, “Phar Lap: Ours Then and Now and Always,” in The Story of the Melbourne Cup: Australia’s Greatest Race, ed. Stephen Howell (The Slattery Media, 2010), 189.

[16] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” reCollections: A journal of museums and collections 8 (2013).

[17] Harms, “Phar Lap”, 182.

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.

Review: “Australia on Horseback” by Cameron Forbes

IMG_20150520_134305Those familiar with the discourse around feminist history would be aware that there is a difference between merely inserting women into existing narratives, and actually (re)writing history from a feminist perspective. In the case of Australia on Horseback, anyone hoping for a sub-altern history of the horse in this country will be disappointed. Instead, it simply inserts the horse into the narrative (whether under the explorer, the bushranger, or the General), rather than exploring the histories of these horses themselves. I couldn’t help concurring with the reviewer who, unconvinced by the book’s claim to the horse as an organising principle, commented that it was more of a ‘recurring but thin coincidence that its cast of characters quite often arrive in a saddle.’ [1]

But let us start at the beginning. This book was one of two horse-themed texts published just in time for the Christmas rush last year, and has the popular market firmly in mind. While it is not an academic text, it is still a well-researched post-colonial history of Australia. The Prologue glosses over the horse’s evolutionary history, while the Introduction (still on pages demarcated by Roman Numerals) gives a truncated history of Australian settlement, the ‘passports [of the colonists] beads, mirrors, cloth and trinkets, and sometimes something useful such as knives and axes.’ (p.xxv)

The pace of the book is at times rapid, punctuated by a pattern of ‘verb, comma, verb’, which encourages a quick reading and ready page-turning, the reader whizzing along to keep pace with the narrative. At other times, the book makes inscrutable and confusing forays into the present, for example, recounting that mass murderer Martin Bryant chased a six year old girl around a tree before shooting her, as a prelude to the chapter dealing with the dispossession and death of the Tasmanian Aborigines (p.26); or describing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt as ‘no climate change sceptic’ (p. 67). While possibly intended to ground the book in the present, these odd interjections seem more like abrupt intrusions.

The structure of the book is also curious; for example, Chapter 3, ‘Sharing a Doom’, is ten pages long (the preceding two chapters are 33 and 25 pages respectively). It begins with the story of explorer Edmund Kennedy and hints at the disaster that befell his expedition, before moving on to consider Leichhardt. This chapter concludes by naming those in Leichhardt’s party, though Chapter 4 begins exactly where the preceding page left off, with the departure of Leichhardt’s party into the unknown. The author does not return to Kennedy’s expedition for another 28 pages, when he is briefly referenced in the concluding paragraphs of Chapter 4. We once again return to Kennedy’s story in Chapter 5, via the convoluted story of two different men named ‘Jackey Jackey’.

This sense of confusion also applies to the book’s chronology. The narrative jumps back and forth across years like a child leaping puddles, while broadly progressing more or less chronologically. To give one example, pages 162 and 163 deal with matters arising in the year 1861, before jumping back to events of the 1840s, then back to 1861, then forward to 1866, and then back to 1857, all in the space of a few pages. It can make for confusing reading, which is only exacerbated by the multiple figures appearing across the pages. In fact, I would go as far as to say that at times the text lacks coherence.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book, and one which makes up for all its other failings, is in the attention it brings to the role that horses played in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, a fact which is reiterated throughout the text. The sections of the book that deal with this explicitly, including incidents of massacres and reprisal killings, are detailed, and make sobering, but necessary, reading.

In summary, I would say that this text is highly variable in its readability, its narrative ranging from fast-paced to slow-going and at times incoherent. However, its true importance lies in revealing for a popular audience the integral role that the horse played in both the dispossession of Aboriginal people, and the process of colonisation in Australia.


[1] Jonathan Green, “How Australia rode through history on the horse’s back,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 29, 2014, accessed 7 April, 2015

Horse 12: an unnamed hero

Just a quick post this week, regarding an object in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum. It seems Australian museums are not the only ones partial to a commemorative horse hoof, though the story behind the hoof of Horse 12 is somewhat more unusual than most!

You see, Horse 12 was part of the District of Columbia Fire Department, in Washington DC (presumably it was not the practice of the Fire Department to name their steeds, merely to number them). One night in March 1890, Horse 12 and his companion in the traces (Horse 11? Horse 13?) were delivering the fire hose to the site of a fire, when they collided with another Fire Department vehicle (also horse-drawn), this one carrying the steam engine.

With no one apparently injured, the two vehicles proceeded to the site of the fire, almost a mile away. By the time they arrived, however, Horse 12 was limping badly, and pulled up lame. Upon investigation, the driver of the hose cart realised that Horse 12 was MISSING HIS ENTIRE LEFT REAR HOOF! The poor yet undoubtedly noble beast had continued on in his duty, despite missing an entire (and rather essential!) appendage. Horse 12 was promptly euthanised, though according to the Smithsonian it was ‘through the tears of attending fire-fighter and policemen’ [1] that this occurred.

The cauterized hoof of Horse 12, which appears to have been ripped from its shoe as well as his leg, is now held by the Smithsonian Museum. At some point it was coated with black enamel, making it somewhat less horrific to behold, yet the violence with which it was wrenched off is still very evident in the twisted shoe and bent nails.

The hoof of Horse 12. Taken from the website of the Smithsonian, photo by Richard W. Strauss

The hoof of Horse 12. Taken from the website of the Smithsonian, photo by Richard W. Strauss

You can read more about this object on the Smithsonian’s website.


[1] ‘O Say Can You See: Stories from the National Museum of American History’, accessed 4 May 2015