Phar Lap and the underdog narrative

The underdog narrative is popular in stories of Australian identity. Typically, an underdog is someone who, despite starting from behind, shows tenacity and fortitude to succeed against the odds. This spirit is frequently applied to descriptions of the Australian character, and the Phar Lap narrative is no exception. Ironically, while the story is rife with underdog characteristics in the way it is popularly constructed, if you look beyond the death of Phar Lap you will see what is far less frequently discussed, and that is that there were no happy endings, for any of the protagonists.

Phar Lap’s underdog status has been granted because of several factors. According to the story, he was initially dismissed by his owner David J. Davis on the basis of his looks. Second, once he started winning consistently, the racing establishment, which has been positioned as one of the main antagonists of the horse and his connections, tried to curb his streak by changing the weight-for-age scale of penalty weights.[1] However, whether this was a deliberate strategy designed to target and exclude a single horse, or was instead an attempt to open the field for other competitors, is a matter of perspective. Certainly the “anti-Establishment” angle is the favoured one. The idea that the Chairman of the Victoria Race Club (VRC) targeted Phar Lap, due to personal jealousy, is  particularly emphasized in the 1983 film version of the story. However, as a registered Thoroughbred, Phar Lap was no less a pedigreed racehorse than any other competing on the field at that time.

Further to this, another popular aspect of the Phar Lap narrative, frequently cited to support the horse’s positioning as an underdog, was his “cheap” price at auction. However it should be remembered that the 160 guineas paid for him was still too great a sum for Harry Telford, the struggling trainer whose interest in the colt was piqued by the horse’s bloodlines, to afford. Instead, Telford persuaded wealthy businessman Davis to purchase the horse.

After his initial dismissal of the animal, Davis agreed to lease him to Telford for a period of three years. Though the horse did not perform well in his early starts as a two-year-old sprinter, and lost eight of his first nine races, starting him over longer distances as a three-year-old soon brought victory. By the time Telford’s lease of Phar Lap elapsed, he was a rich man. Harry Telford is frequently portrayed as the archetypal Aussie “battler” made good, and, while the usual narrative arc holds true when the focus remains on Phar Lap’s lifetime, when the gaze shifts beyond it, we see that Harry Telford’s success did not last long beyond Phar Lap’s death.

In fact this holds true for all the key human figures in the Phar Lap narrative. The Australian triumvirate of trainer (Telford), jockey (Jim Pike) and handler (Tommy Woodcock) can all be neatly positioned into pre-existing archetypes common to such stories – providing the narrative does not travel any further than Phar Lap’s death. Going beyond this artificial endpoint in the Phar Lap chronicle reveals a less-than-happy ending for all the protagonists.

Telford failed to train any significant winners after Phar Lap died in 1932. He soon had to surrender Braeside, the training facility he was able to establish with Phar Lap’s success, and eventually retired from racing in 1957. He died in 1960. Jimmy Pike, always fond of a drink and a bet, had never been physiologically suitable to be a jockey, being naturally of a larger frame. Nonetheless, in order to meet the requisite weights he frequently endured the regime of wasting common for jockeys in those days, which left him with ongoing stomach problems. He retired as a jockey several years after Phar Lap’s death, in 1936. He met no luck as a trainer, and eventually died in poverty in 1969.

Of the three men commonly associated with Phar Lap, Tommy Woodcock did not fall as far, perhaps because, as a strapper, he never attained the elevated profile of either Phar Lap’s trainer or jockey. After Phar Lap’s death, Woodcock achieved some success as a trainer, however, in 1977, when his horse Reckless was the sentimental favourite to win the Melbourne Cup, he was beaten by the “big money” – the Bart Cumming’s trained Gold and Black. Reality failed to deliver a narratively-satisfying happy ending to Woodcock’s story, either.

Finally, let us not forget the horse himself. Phar Lap, in spite of his success and popularity, died in excruciating agony from arsenic poisoning. Though the ongoing display of his preserved remains seem to deny the fact that he only lived for five years, this is merely a comforting fantasy. The stories of those associated with Phar Lap, including the horse himself, are manipulated so as to fit the narrative arc common to the underdog tale. It is this removal of Phar Lap from the normal birth-life-death cycle, and his insertion into life everlasting via the museum, which subsequently renders him a symbol, rather than just a horse who ran fast.

Interestingly, interpreting the figure of David Davis – both within and beyond the Phar Lap narrative arc – is more problematic. Perhaps as an American, Davis resists being stereotyped into an Australian narrative – or perhaps his foreign status renders him invisible. His story does not end in the same way as the others, as he continued to enjoy success as a racehorse owner, including owning another Melbourne Cup winner, Russia, who won in 1946. Though frequently portrayed as an antagonist to Telford and ascribed the blame for taking the horse to America where he died, Davis also not only paid a significant sum of money to have the skin mounted, but then donated the mount back to the people of Australia. As such, his role in the Phar Lap story resists any easy simplification.

Phar Lap is widely seen as embodying uniquely Australian characteristics. These, of course, can only be projections. The horse himself remains elusive. All that we have left of him are physical remains encased in glass within museum walls, along with some grainy footage. Photographs and racing memorabilia, such as race programs in which he is featured, frequently appear in the catalogues of auction houses. To own a part of Phar Lap is thought to be akin to owning a part of history. He has been positioned (both literally and metaphorically) as a key symbol of Australian identity.

Scholars of religion Carole Cusack and Justine Digance point out that Phar Lap sits alongside two other venerated Australian icons – the Anzacs at Gallipolli, and Ned Kelly – and argue that “all these heroes were ultimately ‘losers’: heroic achievers who died before their time”,[2] and further observe that “Australian icons persist in being somewhat iconoclastic.”[3] Nonetheless, Phar Lap’s “loser” status is not what is emphasised in the narratives that relate to him; instead, he is idolised for the way contemporary Australians view him.

Though initially renowned as a horse who brought hope to a generation during the Great Depression, the social and economic circumstances of that era now recede into the distant past, and the horse is memorialised today for different reasons. Phar Lap is seen as embodying key traits of Australianness. These are courage and tenacity, and achieving success despite the odds. However, as an historical figure, Phar Lap’s story needs to be shoe-horned slightly to fit the proscribed narrative arc of the underdog story. In reality, Phar Lap did succeed as a racehorse, by continuing to win races under increasingly heavy weight penalties. He was a popular figure of the day, though, as argued elsewhere, this is largely attributable to the emerging advances in media technology, which ensured his visibility.

Yet the horse continues to hold the nation’s imagination as a beloved symbol of Australian national identity. This symbolic status is evident in the deviation between what Phar Lap actually did, to an emphasis on what Phar Lap means to people.[4]

REFERENCES:

[1] Museum Victoria, Phar Lap webpage, accessed June 14, 2016 https://museumvictoria.com.au/pharlap/horse/winner.asp ; Biff Lowry, Killing Phar Lap: an Untold Part of the Story (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014), 35.

[2] Carole M. Cusack and Justine Digance, “The Melbourne Cup: Australian Identity and Secular Pilgrimage,” Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 12 (2009): 886, accessed August 1, 2014, doi: 10.1080/17430430903053109.

[3] Cusack and Digance, “The Melbourne Cup,” 886.

[4] Isa Menzies, “Phar Lap: From Racecourse to Reliquary,” ReCollections: a Journal of Museums and Collections 8 (2013).

Unbranded

Last week I attended a screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival (touring edition) here in Canberra, specifically to see the documentary “Unbranded” (thanks to my cousin once again for the tip-off !). This film touches on several American icons, including the mustang (equivalent of our brumby), the cowboy, and the Wild West, and it won the People’s Choice Award in this showcase of outdoorsy and adventure films.

The edit shown was an abridged version of the whole documentary, and only ran for 46 minutes, though the film in its entirety  runs for an additional hour. Unfortunately access to a complete cut of the film is currently unavailable in Australia, so I base my judgments solely on the parts of it I’ve seen.

Now, it has to be said upfront that this film deals with an American context, and for several reasons (which I will explore shortly) the mustang in America and the brumby in Australia are two entirely different beasts – both literally and figuratively! Watching the trailer on YouTube, I was frustrated at the thought that brumby advocates here in Australia might try to use this film as yet another argument for adopting the U.S. model of feral horse management. In fact very little of that “mustang narrative” featured in the version of the film that was screened as part of the BMFF. Instead, it was much more of a “boys’ own” adventure-type film, focusing heavily on the journey of these four young men, rather than the plight of the mustang.

So while this inhibits my ability to critique the film in terms of its portrayal of America’s feral horse populations, it still provides a useful entry point to consider the differences between the situation of the mustang, and that of the brumby. In the United States, the mustang was declared a protected species (along with the burro) during the 1970s. Though descended from the horses of 16th century Spanish colonisers, these feral horses were seen as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … [Mustangs] are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [1]

While many brumby advocates would like to see the implementation of similar policy in Australia, with brumbies considered as part of the ecosystem (particularly in the Snowy Mountains), there is a huge geo-evolutionary difference between the continents of Australia and North America. In fact, the horse evolved in the grasslands of North America millions of years ago, and continued to have a presence there until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. This long period of co-existence means that the North American continent truly did evolve alongside the horse, an argument that, though often mistakenly applied to the Australian High Country, simply does not hold true here.

Another interesting difference between the Australian and American contexts is that the main opponents of the feral horses in the U.S. are ranchers, who see these equine populations as competition for the resources of public grazing lands. Conversely, in Australia, where many grazing licences were revoked in order to establish National Parks (eg in the central plateau of Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW, and around Mt Kosciusko), the graziers affected are now among the core supporters of the brumby. It would be interesting to know what the attitudes of the Australian graziers of the past, who did have to compete with feral horse populations for access to public lands, would think of the present situation.

Of course there are also environmental concerns regarding the impact of herds of mustangs in the U.S. Where the presence of natural predators (such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears) remains, populations may be maintained in a healthy balance, though where these predators are absent, or in optimal conditions, populations can explode. This also occurs here in Australia, though without the presence of any natural predators to curb population growth, expansion is virtually unlimited. In spite of much smaller numbers of feral horses than in Australia, the U.S. is currently struggling to effectively manage these populations. As well as free-ranging populations, tens of thousands of horses are held in government facilities. To kill them is a felony offense.

The notion of following in the U.S.’s footsteps and proclaiming the brumby a National Treasure is absurd. Australia lacks comparable eco-systems and our evolutionary history is completely different. Further, the problems being faced in the U.S. now represent a compounding of the issues currently faced by Australia. While I personally don’t like that the majority of brumbies removed from NSW National Parks end up at the abattoir, and believe they should be culled on site to minimise the stress and trauma to the animals, imagine if this were to be made completely illegal. The mind boggles!

In short, while there are definite similarities between the regard in which the mustang is held in North America, and the brumby in Australia, and parallels in the management issues each nation is facing, the environmental and political situations of each continent is so different as to render the sort of sweeping comparisons frequently made between the two by brumby advocates meaningless.

REFERENCE:

[1] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), accessed 25 May 2016 http://www.all-creatures.org/alert/alert-20110920.pdf

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

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.

REFERENCES:

[1] Jane O’Connor, “Olympic Trailblazing’, Equestrian Life [no date], http://www.equestrianlife.com.au/articles/Olympic-Trailblazing

[2] ibid

[3] Scott Brodie, “Part 5: ‘Mirrabooka’: horseman of the Southern Cross”, Horses from Courses blog 26 January 2016, http://horsesfromcourses.net/2016/01/26/part-5-mirrabooka-horseman-of-the-southern-cross/

[4] Australia’s Equestrian Olympic Record, http://www.equestrian.org.au/sites/default/files/Australian%20Olympic%20Equestrian%20record.pdf

 

Horses and the Heidelberg School

Tom Roberts is a renowned nineteenth-century Australian painter, part of the Australian impressionist movement (also known as the Heidelberg School). The National Gallery of Australia is currently staging an exhibition of his work, which many Australians would be very familiar with – think Bailed up, or Shearing the Rams.

Bailed-Up_AGNSW

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up (1895, 1927) Art Gallery of NSW

Roberts’ work, alongside other members of the Heidelberg school, has been influential in shaping an Australian national identity. However, it wasn’t just painters who were engaged in projecting a particular (white, Anglo, masculine) identity. You may recall a previous discussion on this blog about the Australian bush ballads, written during the same era that Roberts et al were painting. The fact is that both the artists and poets of this period have left a legacy that continues to define Australia’s identity over a hundred years later.

Art historian and comedian Hannah Gadsby believes that these artworks function as a cultural indicator of Australia’s obsession with masculinity, and argues that the figure of “the macho macho Australian man isn’t questioned enough.”[1]

Seeing the Tom Roberts exhibition I was struck by how frequently the horse features in his most iconic works, what the Gallery terms his “national narratives”. [2] Works that incorporate the horse include A Breakaway (1891), A Mountain Muster (1897-1920s), Bailed Up (1895, 1927) and In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895)

Breakaway_NGV

Tom Roberts, A Breakaway (1891), Art Gallery of South Australia (image copyright National Gallery of Australia)

 

the-bushranger_NGA

Tom Roberts, In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895), National Gallery of Victoria

So while Australia’s most well-known and best-loved art-makers were constructing “works that are now embedded in the Australian psyche, as intended”, [3] our bards were doing the same, via poetry. In the works of ‘Banjo’ Paterson in particular, the horse is most visible via the figure of the stockman. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and The Dying Stockman to name but a few all idolise the figure of the stockman, to whom the horse is intrinsic.

The horse here is inherently linked to these constructions of a very masculine Australian identity. While there is no overt assertion that the horse belongs solely to a male-dominated world, the assumption, both in the poems of the bush balladists and the artworks produced by members of the Heidelberg School such as Roberts, is implicit.

This tacit acceptance of a very narrow and particular vision of Australia suffuses the NGA’s exhibition. Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to Roberts’ work through my PhD, or perhaps it’s my critical thinking at play, but I couldn’t warm to the exhibition.

However, an idle Google image search delivered a real gem in the below work by Anne Zahalka. Zahalka, by adding a long plait to the rider, immediately repositions the figure as female. The jolt this small addition delivers serves to highlight at least part of what is missing from these works, which have entered the Australian canon unquestioned. And that makes for a refreshing change.

zahalka_break_NGV

Anne Zahalka, Untitled (1985), copyright remains with the artist

 

REFERENCES

[1] Hannah Gadsby, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz Episode 2, Closer Productions 2014.

[2] Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, 4 December 2015 – 28 March 2016.

[3] ‘About’, Tom Roberts exhibition website, National Gallery of Australia. Accessed 16 February 2016 http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/Roberts/Default.cfm?MNUID=6

 

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 indispensable stock horse: true or false?

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days on my uncle’s farm in the central-west of NSW. Comprised of around 8000 acres, the property produces oats and wheat, as well as merino sheep and beef cattle. My aunt and uncle run around 1200 sheep, and one of the jobs I assisted with while there was the mustering, and subsequent drafting (separating), of the ewes and lambs.

Working from a quad bike to muster a small mob of ewes and lambs

Working from a quad bike to muster a small mob of ewes and lambs

We mustered three separate mobs, some several kilometres (and paddocks!) away from the sheep yards that were our destination. Though there were certainly sheep dogs in use, there was not a stock horse in sight. Instead, we worked from quad bikes, which have the major benefit of being able to be mastered quickly and easily*, unlike horses. I suppose the flat terrain means quad bikes are perfectly suited, whereas horses might be better in scrubby or hilly terrain.

I have been going out to the farm since I was born – my Dad grew up there – and have no recollection of horses ever being used for the purposes of mustering. I asked my aunt about it, and she commented that the dogs don’t work too well from horseback. Which makes me really curious about why we have this pervasive image of the stockman and his dogs mustering livestock.

Mustering sheep using quad bikes and dogs

Mustering sheep using quad bikes and dogs

I have a recollection from the early 1990s of visiting family friends who ran a small cattle property in rural Victoria, and being on horseback to help with moving the cattle, but vehicles were also involved. I have talked a lot in the theoretical context about the figure of the Stockman, but I have limited experience (outside the family farming connection) of real, contemporary stock work in Australia.

I’m wondering if any of my readers can comment on their experiences of stock work around Australia, and whether horses have featured significantly, or not? I am curious about just how accurate the continued depiction of the Stockman as a mounted figure is. Given the increasingly large size of pastoral holdings in Australia, I know that helicopters are certainly used to muster cattle in the vast properties of central and northern Australia, but what other methods are being used?

I’d really welcome any comments from those with first-hand experience of this topic!

*I have been riding quad bikes at the farm for at least 5 years, but every time I go out there I need to re-learn how to use them, as I keep forgetting!