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.

A world apart: the difference between Things and Objects

My thesis has recently been re-invigorated after a ‘change in management’, and I find myself at last, after almost two years as a PhD student, approaching the beast that is the Literature Review. I don’t know why I find it so daunting – possibly it’s because all my peers got theirs done and dusted years ago, so it’s come to symbolise all that I haven’t done. But, for that same reason, I’m also quite excited by the challenge that it represents.

My reading in recent days has gone back to ‘first principles’, in considering the idea of objects. Objects are distinctly different to Things, not just in the museum context, but across academic disciplines. In his ground-breaking article ‘Thing Theory’, cultural theorist and academic Bill Brown writes that “we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.”[1] This certainly describes the way that museum objects are generally interpreted, particularly in the social history context.

Brown sees human subjects using material objects; a car, a stove, a hammer. But it is when these objects stop functioning that, according to Brown, an Object becomes a Thing. The transition, from Object to Thing, is demarcated by a shift in the subject-object relationship. [2]  In some ways this is actually the complete opposite of how we might think of the museum acquisition process; often a Thing does not become a (museum) Object until it has stopped being used; its ‘useful’ life ends, and its museum life begins.

So, for my purposes, it is not useful to place Things in opposition to Objects. The subject/object spectrum, on the other hand, is an interesting one – particularly in the context of my own area of research. This dichotomous positioning becomes blurred when you consider objects that are made from subjects, for example the candlesticks made from a racehorse’s cannon bones. In this case, the item is both object (candlesticks), and subject (the racehorse named Quiz).

Such notions both relate to, and are distinct from (how will be discussed in a moment), ideas in recent museology scholarship regarding the ‘agency’ of objects. Drawn from actor-network theory, such discussions in the museum context centre around how an object ‘speaks’ to audiences. While I have not read widely on this issue (yet), I am minded of Claire Pettitt’s caution that “[w]hen we make things speak we have to be aware of the vanity of our ventriloquism, and the desire that it betrays in us to hear them talk.” [3] Museologist and curator Samuel J.M.M. Alberti is also cautious about ascribing agency to objects, however he does acknowledge there are some insights to be had from such discussions. ‘We are looking from the standpoint of the object, but we are looking at people’ [4].

This has led me to conceive a second axis, which positions Things and Sentients at opposite ends of a spectrum. How often were you told when young, perhaps in admonishment for behaving cruelly to another, ‘You can’t treat people like they are things!’ (Or was that just me?!). I think bringing the two axes together, Subject/Object and Thing/Sentient, creates a useful framework for thinking through many of the fields I am interested in – animal studies, museology, public history, and taxidermy and the ‘afterlives’ of animals.

These ideas are very much in their nascent phase, but as always I enjoy mulling them over here on the blog. Speaking of which, today marks one year of posting! Happy birthday blog! Perhaps I could just submit the last 12 months’ worth of posts and call it a Lit Review?


[1] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 4.

[2] ibid

[3] Claire Pettitt, “Response” to Simon Schaffer, “Thinking (through) Things.” Paper presented at The Location of Knowledge conference, University of Cambridge, 8 March 2013. Youtube recording viewed 2 March 2015

[4] Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis vol. 96 no. 4 (2005):561.

Equine remains in collections: my PhD survey

So, let’s take a detour from some of the intellectual and thematic terrain we’ve been pursuing thus far on the blog, and take a moment to focus instead on the nitty-gritty. By nitty-gritty I mean “Getting the PhD done” stuff. I know I don’t talk too much about the practical aspects of my PhD, but since I’m clean out of ideas for the blog right now I thought I’d give you a little insight into what I’m working on today.

As part of my PhD I want to get a good idea of exactly WHAT sort of equine remains we have in collections across Australia, before I select and focus in on specific case studies. So to do this, I have decided to survey pretty much every likely collection in Australia! The survey is a two-part process. The first part involves contacting institutions (from the smallest to the biggest!) in order to ascertain if they hold any relevant material – examples include whole or parts of taxidermied horses, biological specimens, and decorative arts objects like horse-hoof inkwells and pin cushions (but not functional items such as hairbrushes or horse-hair stuffed furniture). The second part is the survey itself, which basically asks for a list of these objects, whether they have been exhibited, if so in what context, and for a brief statement of their significance.

I started rolling out phase one very recently, and the reason I am particularly excited about my survey today is that, after a string of “No, sorry, we don’t have anything like that in our collection” emails, I finally got a positive response! My husband, who has a Masters of Applied Statistics and is an all-round database wizard, helped me design* the survey tool, and when I told him today that I finally had somewhere to administer it, he panicked and said we needed to finesse it a bit more first. I actually think it’s petty amazing as it is – it does exactly what I want, and has way more structural flexibility than anything else I tried (including Survey Monkey, and the ANU’s own in-house electronic survey).

I am really looking forward to finding out what is out there, because at the moment it’s a bit of a mental blank canvas. Of course there’s the various bits of Phar Lap – heart and skin – as well as Sandy’s head at the War Memorial, Carbine’s skeleton at the Australian Racing Museum, and an assortment of horse-hoof inkwells that I know about, but I’m hoping that I might discover a lot more. Though I’m not holding my breath, because I may well discover that most of what else is out there is unprovenanced or undocumented, and therefore doesn’t contribute much to my research.

But for now, it’s exciting, not just because of what I might find, but because I feel like I have now actually embarked on the PhD proper!


* Actually the genius is all his!