Blog on hiatus

Greetings dear readers!

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

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

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

Plough on, readers. Plough on!

REFERENCE:

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

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New and exciting terrain!

While it’s great working on one particular avenue of thought, and exploring and refining it until you really feel you’ve mined the issue in full, there’s nothing quite like moving on to a new topic!

Yep, I’m a thrill-seeker alright! So you can imagine my excitement when my PhD supervisor agreed that I was ready to move on to the next section of my thesis, which is all about the horse as a symbol in Australian culture.

In recent months I have been dealing with ideas about the horse as heritage, and have moved away from the museum context and the centrality of the Object, within which my thesis was originally conceived. However, in this next section of research the content demands a return to the museum. After all, in terms of material culture, the horse occupies a very interesting position in museum collections, where the objects relating to it are very frequently also made from it; these objects are simultaneously both THINGS and representations of SENTIENCE.

Think of Phar Lap, in many ways Australia’s ultimate equine symbol. His heart, such a visceral object, is not exhibited alongside other visceral objects, but with images of him as a whole horse. His parts stand for the whole, and that whole itself stands for something we believe to be quintessentially Australian. He is portrayed as a “battler”, a figure of hope, and a hero. He is no longer a horse – he has become a symbol of something more. I want to dig deeper into the strange nature of many such equine objects, and  to explore the role the museum plays in re-framing horses as symbols.

Sitting down at my laptop, with a new Word document opened in front of me, I quickly bash out a range of questions I want to frame the next section of my research around, and feel that familiar thrill of a clean slate, an open road – a new research beginning!

 

10 weeks later…

Greetings dear readers, and happiest of new years to you! I’m sure it will please you  to know that I am not dead, nor have I abandoned this blog. My prolonged absence is down to the fact that for the past 10 weeks I have been prostrated by morning sickness, and unable to even look at a screen, let alone craft an intelligible sentence. Yes, I even had to take leave from my PhD candidature.

As I gratefully emerge from the fug of nausea, I find myself thinking (somewhat guiltily) about this blog. Last night I even dreamed that I’d been diligently writing fortnightly posts during this entire period, but alas, you and I both know that isn’t true.

Given I am only just re-engaging with my academic work again, there will be no horsey post today. Besides, I just don’t know how I could segue from a pregnancy announcement to talking about horses. Not in any polite or sensitive form, anyway. But please do check back in a fortnight, and I shall have something equine-related for you then.

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.

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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.

Minor injury

I am currently nursing a sporting injury, and my physio has suggested that I take a break from working at my (non-ergonomic!) desk. Subsequently, this will be a short, though somewhat more personal, post.

My current injury, in combination with an email from a reader noting the recent rise in injuries and deaths among female jockeys, has got me thinking about how dangerous equestrian sports can be.* As we have discussed previously on the blog, horse-related deaths account for more fatalities in Australia than sharks do, and horse-riding is deemed statistically more dangerous than riding a motorbike.** [1]

In my teenage years I worked at a riding school, taking trail rides around Centennial Park in Sydney. Some of the things I did on horseback were pretty stupid, including riding without wearing a helmet. Fortunately, the worst damage I sustained was a concussion, when the horse I was riding bucked me into a tree – head-first. I still have absolutely no recollection of the incident, or the hours that followed. The first thing I remember is being wheeled by my (very angry!) mother through the local hospital. I think everyone at the riding school copped a lecture from her, not least me, and from then on there was a much more conscientious approach to wearing helmets. It’s worth noting, however, that there is no law in Australia relating to the wearing of helmets when riding.

Given the number of hours I spent in the saddle as a teenager, and the natural disdain for consequences common to that age-group, I feel pretty lucky that I got through relatively unscathed! One time, I came off my pony and he galloped back to the stables, crossing a reasonably busy road as he went. Fortunately it was night-time, and the traffic was slow. The pony of a girl I knew was not so lucky; the exact same thing happened, only during the day, and her horse was hit by a car. The injuries he sustained were severe, and eventually he had to be put down.

So it seems that equestrian activity is not just dangerous for humans, but for horses too. I was lucky, as was my pony. Not everyone is.

*Though my current injury is NOT from horse riding!

** I also grew up with both parents riding motorbikes, and while it caused some cuts and scrapes, it too only put me in hospital once.

REFERENCES:

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: National Injury Surveillance Unit, “Horse-related Injury in Australia,” Issue 24, May 2000, p.2.

Phar Lap: bridge to a PhD

Did you know that a search for the phrase “Phar Lap” on the digitised newspaper collection of the National Library of Australia brings up 49,279 results? As a comparison, a search for “Don Bradman” brings up only 31,727 results.

Why am I telling you this? Because Phar Lap is what got me into this in the first place!

ImagePhar Lap’s mounted hide at Museum Victoria, 2010. Image: Isa Menzies

The inspiration for my PhD came after two years working as the curator of Phar Lap’s heart at the National Museum of Australia,  where I witnessed first-hand the particular reverence that visitors have for this object. The heart is currently displayed in the context of an exhibit on the Melbourne Cup, and while working on this exhibit and learning about the horseracing industry, I became fascinated with what I saw as a very one-sided story being told by the Museum, with the more recent and less palatable history of the race neglected in favour of an historicised and highly celebratory narrative. It became apparent that exhibits such as this were active in propagating what I would call the myth of the Melbourne Cup.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but discussion of the Melbourne Cup usually includes some mention of Phar Lap. The horse and his historical significance give the Melbourne Cup leverage as an important ‘tradition’ (as do other ideologies of national identity, like the Aussie battler and egalitarianism). Little thought is given to what the contemporary race looks like, and this works to the advantage of the racing industry.

Museums are a major site of cultural production; rather than focusing specifically on the Melbourne Cup, I decided to see how other horse remains were being used in the museum context, and if horses were carrying a greater burdern of nationalist rhetoric than other objects. 

So, that’s my story, though I should probably add that my interest in horses is not merely professional. I started riding at the age of 7, and during my teenage years I worked at a riding school taking out trail rides. At that time I also had my own pony, a flea-bitten grey (that’s a description of his colour, not a pejorative term!) called Peppin. After about a decade of not riding, I started dressage lessons in my late twenties for a couple of years. I don’t currently ride or own a horse, as it’s not the sort of activity that is financially suitable for an unemployed full-time student, but at some point in the future I hope to take it up again, with the hope that – one day – I will once again have a horse of my own.