Are humans animals?

To me, this question seems ridiculous – of COURSE we are animals! We eat, we defecate, we procreate. Surey there is no room for doubt? Yet there are still many people who would flatly deny that humans are still part of the animal kingdom.

Today I was reading a piece by Dominick LaCapra, who reflects on the desire, evident throughout human history, to separate ourselves from the animal, when I suddenly recalled an argument I’d had, on this very topic, with a high school English teacher 20 years ago. She flatly refused to accept that human beings were animals – I think for her it was a matter of semantics, and the connotation of “animal” was one characterised by concepts of beastliness and degradation, in the way that someone might casually say that “so-and-so is no better than an animal.” I still remember how upset she was by my assertion that humans were animals – and I did not mean it in the beastly sense, but in a (undeniably!) biological one.

LaCapra questions this insistence on a distinction between human and animal, and the motivations that underlie this “misguided quest for a kind of holy grail”. [1] Further, he questions whether humanism has always required an “other” against which to project negatively. As post-modernism has increasingly given voice to women and non-European/colonised peoples, animals remain the last bastion of otherness – what LaCapra describes as “the residual repository of projective alienation or radical otherness.” [2]

The ascription of animalistic characteristics – the same ones I believe my English teacher was calling to mind – often equates to a denigration. LaCapra points out that those very behaviours, negatively perceived as animalistic or beastial – such as victimisation, torture, and genocide – are in fact distinctly human in their performance. [3] Conversely, many positive descriptions of animals have humanity as their reference point – for example, the lion being constructed as ‘the King of the beasts’.

In many ways, human beings, and what it means to be human, is constructed against the animal.[4] But is the apparently insurmountable gap between human and non-human animals real, or simply another anthropocentric human construct? According to Thomas Suddendorf, scientific evidence indicates that homo sapiens occupied the planet simultaneously to other hominids, including h. erectus, h. neanderthalensis, and the Florensis and Denisova hominids. Suddendorf argues that it is because all these other hominids have been rendered extinct that the chasm between human and animal is seemingly so great. More disturbingly, he believes that these extinctions were caused, at least in part, through the deliberate actions of homo sapiens, and draws a link between those early acts of genocide and the current human campaign, which appears to be leading inexorably to the extinction of the great apes.[5]

This idea is, frankly, rather depressing. While Suddendorf still considers us (humans) to be part of the animal kingdom, he appears to accept without question the anthropocentric assumption that “there is something extra special about us: After all, we are the ones running the zoos.” [6]  For Suddendorf (and I think for the majority of people), humanity is the acme of evolution. What would happen were we to deconstruct this anthropocentric viewpoint, and completely re-frame it? LaCapra cites a National Geographic feature where Clive Wynne is quoted as saying that intelligence is “a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us.” [7]

Perhaps if we viewed ourselves within that paradigm, part of an inter-related web of life, we might create a world that more closely resembled it. To me, the explanation offered by Suddendorf for the “gap” between human and non-human animals, while scientifically plausible, is also embedded within the type of anthropocentric assumptions that see our dominance – and subsequent destruction – of the planet as inevitable.

REFERENCES:

[1] LaCapra, Dominic. History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 150.

[2] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 152.

[3] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 156.

[4] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 155.

[5] Suddendorf, Thomas. “//www.googleadservices.com/pagead/conversion_async.js//statse.webtrendslive.com/dcs2tby2210000kjsmeahasl5_1d8x/wtid.js?callback=Webtrends.dcss.dcsobj_0.dcsGetIdCallbackhttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/custom_attribs.js//s.webtrends.com/js/webtrends.hm.min.jshttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/webtrends.min.jshttps://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=auth/exm=plus,plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_2https://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=plus/exm=plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_1What sets us apart from the animals?” Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, Friday 7 March 2014. Transcript and audio available at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/5303368

[6] Suddendorf, “What sets us apart”.

[7] Cited in LaCapra, History and its Limits, 154 (footnote 7).

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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.

REFERENCES

[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). http://recollections.nma.gov.au/issues/volume_8_number_1/papers/phar_lap

[17] Harms, “Phar Lap”, 182.

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.

Pressing the (horse)flesh

The irony of doing a PhD about horses, while not having any actual day-to-day contact with them, has not been lost on me. The act of intellectualising something almost simultaneously disembodies it, and this has been something of a concern. While I wouldn’t situate my research squarely within the animal studies field, this discipline has certainly been influential in shaping my thoughts (and particularly influential on many of the issues discussed on the blog).

Last week I wrote a guest post for the National Museum of Australia (which I encourage you to go on over and read!) reflecting on the fact that Phar Lap was once a flesh-and-blood horse, a fact that seems to be increasingly overlooked as his separate remains become synonymous with his overall social significance. I was wondering how the newly-discovered parts of the heart, which don’t have such a long public history, might disrupt the centrality of the hero-narrative that surrounds Phar Lap. This is a particular possibility now, given the current context in which they are displayed. The Spirited exhibition, in approaching the subject of the horse, has drawn upon the animal studies field. The matter of context is important because, in my view, it is very difficult to separate an object from its exhibitionary context.

I tell you all this as a prelude to announcing that today, for the first time since I started this research, I rode a horse. A fellow graduate student very kindly offered to let me ride her Arabian gelding Spike. He is a gorgeous thing, round and shiny and a chestnut colour, with a white face and the traditional ‘dishing’ and small head that declares his pedigree. For three carrots, he allowed me to reconnect with the sensation of being on horseback as we walked and trotted our way around the sand arena of the Canberra Equestrian Centre. Mostly I remembered how much my body had forgotten, and when I got off I had that bandy-legged, Clint Eastwood feeling that means your inner thigh muscles won’t speak to you again for the rest of the day.

It was a timely reminder that a horse is an animal first and foremost, a flesh-and-blood being whose subjectivity cannot be reduced to the sum of it’s parts, even when you chop up and preserve those parts in a museum. And thank goodness for that!

Family history

Today would have been my father’s 64th birthday. Sadly he passed away two-and-a-half years ago, but today I’d like to use the blog to honour his memory. While it may not strictly fit within the ‘critical examination of the horse in Australia’ remit, it is important as a researcher to employ self-reflexive techniques to examine one’s own position in relation to one’s research; in that context, then, an examination of my family’s history with horses is appropriate.

Colin Menzies grew up on a farm, though it seems he was more enamoroured of the bright lights and big city than taking over the family business, a task he happily bequeathed to his younger brother after he met my mother, who was working as a teacher in the country town closest to the farm. Nevertheless, he always retained an affection for the bush, and for aspects of rural life such as working dogs and horses. In fact, when he and his second wife moved to the Hunter Valley to start their editing business, working from home on a 100 acre block, he happily described himself as ‘a retired farmer’.

Conversely, my mother was a big city girl – born in the metropolis of Alexandria, in Egypt, before she migrated to Fremantle  WA with her family at the age of eight. While Freo was hardly the ‘big smoke’, and certainly not in the 1950s, it was still a town. Yet my mother somehow developed a love of the bush, somewhat at odds with her upbringing and the outlook of the rest of her family. My maternal grandmother, for instance, couldn’t sleep in the utter darkness, and, on the rare occasions she found the ambient glow of metropolitan lighting absent from her windows, she left her bedside light on!

My paternal grandmother was what, in those days, was described as ‘a horsey gel’, and as an adult she was an instructor with the local Pony Club for decades. She died when I was 18. As her health deteriorated in an inter-state hospital room, and I realised I would never see her again, I wrote her a letter that her children took turns reading to her, about how I’d always felt connected to her through our shared love of horses.

I recently went through a basket of old black and white photos, all taken by my father in the 1960s, and so many of them were of horses and ponies. I was struck then by just how much a part of my father’s life these animals were. Unfortunately he’s not around anymore to help me identify who was who in the equine image parade. I know his first pony was called Billy, and he would eat peaches and spit out the pips. Dad was very proud of that pony!

Granny, closest to the camera, and my grandfather, about to go for a ride.

Granny, closest to the camera, and my grandfather, about to go for a ride.

My grandfather, holding two unknown horses.

My grandfather, holding two unknown horses.

Dad, mounted on one of his horses sand bridle or saddle, c. 1960s

Dad, mounted on one of his horses sans bridle or saddle, c. 1960s

My mother, on the other hand, had to actively seek out contact with horses, animals that she too loved. She got a part-time job while she was still at school working racehorses, going out in the pre-dawn before the searing Perth heat set in. She is yet to have the luxury of owning her own horse, but she’s turning 70 in a few weeks’ time, so I might suggest it to her!

As for myself, as I’ve written elsewhere, I worked at a riding school during my teenage years, and for a short time during that period I was lucky enough to have my own pony. He was a cantankerous little gelding named Peppin, who had belonged to a friend of my mother’s, and who I purchased for the grand sum of $5. She was willing to sell him to me for $1, but the fiver was the smallest amount of money I had on me. The transaction was for legal reasons – Mum’s friend was worried that if Peppin caused any harm she as the owner would be legally liable. And thus Peppin came into my life, which then became occupied with early-morning starts mucking out his stable, and evening rides through Centennial Park.

IMG_7854 - Copy

Me in the Drizabone, Mum beside me, and Peppin the pony

Prior to my involvement in his life he had foundered (also known as laminitis). I’m not sure how old he was when I got him (don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that), but I kept him sound while he was in work. In my senior year of high school, Peppin went to the aforementioned farm, under the care of my aunt and uncle. He even gave their infant daughters pony rides in his retirement, but after several years he developed painful arthritis, and it was decided to put him down.

Several years later, while strolling in the bush paddock that was Peppin’s final resting place, I came across his bleached skeleton. I took one of his vertebrae, as a keepsake from all the happy times I’d spent on his back. It wasn’t until this year that I made the mental link between my (some might say macabre) memento, and the transformation of the hooves of beloved equine pets into inkwells etc. Is it the same thing? I’m not sure.

Horses are something I hold in common with many members of my immediate family, and it is my love for, and fascination with, these beautiful creatures that is one of the motivations underlying my PhD topic. While I don’t do much riding these days, I hope that it is something I can reintroduce into my life in the future.

Unbridled

Last weekend I attended the Unbridled Festival, promoted as ‘a festival of horses, music, and food’. Well, I did eat something, and I heard some music in the background, but what most captivated me was the horses! And not just the four-legged animals who were there, but also hearing from the men and women who work with them every day as professionals.

Speakers/demonstrators included Professor Paul McGreevy, whose work I have been following for a while, and some practitioners who I wasn’t previously aware of, like Marcus Karlen, who works with Racing Victoria to re-train off the track thoroughbreds, equitation science practitioner and trainer Kate Fenner, Geoff Court, who works with the National Parks to train and re-home brumbies, and ‘the horse handler’ Greg Powell.

It was very interesting hearing Greg Powell speak, as it seems that after many years of working with horses in quite a high profile way, he is “not a fan of the competition thing, [as] it doesn’t matter anymore.” He said he has reached a point where he wonders “what right we have to work these horses so hard, just to make us look good?” Powell used the analogy of a would-be guitar player, saying “I don’t care how much you bash that guitar, or how bloody your fingers get, because it’s a bit of wood, and it’s your hand. … But when you throw a horse in as your instrument? There’s a duty of care [that is often neglected].” [1] Powell’s questioning actually reminded me of the post I wrote about performing the horse, and the questions it raised about the ethics of working with horses, particularly at the elite level.

However, none of this was evident when Powell took to the main arena with his Australian Stock Horse Ben several hours later. The two, occasionally aided by kelpie Bob, put on a consummate performance in spite of the rain. After hearing Powell speak my impression was of someone who was somewhat jaded, a little bit ‘over it’ all, but seeing him with his horse there was no doubt of the bond between them, and it was truly a pleasure to watch them at work.

Powell, stock horse Ben, and kelpie Bob

Powell, stock horse Ben, and kelpie Bob

Ben 'doing tricks' - jumping over some chairs

Ben ‘doing tricks’ – jumping over some chairs

Powell and Ben make their exit

Powell and Ben make their exit

I was pleasantly surprised at the emphasis on equine welfare that permeated the day, and in fact Unbridled is the first event in the world to be conducted according to the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Equitation Events Code of Conduct, which is great. While I’m not sure if my experience of the day as very welfare-oriented and ethically sound is a direct result of the talks, demonstrations, and performances I chose to attend, I think this is the sort of post-humanist event that should become a mainstay of the Canberra calendar.

REFERENCES:

Greg Powell, ‘Life as the Horse Handler’, Unbridled Festival, 15 November 2014.

Prancercise

I have two major things due on Friday, so instead of my regular weekly post I am just going to share this video, which a friend sent me earlier in the week. I really have no words for it, to be honest, so I leave it here without comment – except to say that, once you’ve watched the first 30 seconds, you’ve pretty much seen it all!