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.


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


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)


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



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.


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



[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


Another Horse exhibition

We recently travelled to Melbourne, in part to see The Horse exhibition at the NGV. This exhibition holds a vast array of objects and images, displayed across three rooms and delineated loosely by theme. Ultimately, it was an exhibition featuring pretty pictures of horses, with little to no critical content.


The first room of the Horse exhibition, NGV

For me, the first section, on “Myth, legend, and miracle”, was the strongest, possibly because the theme is so clearly articulated in the works. While the thematic structure here was strong, this first room also incorporated the greatest diversity of material, from the tiniest Wedgwood vase….

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

Tiny Wedgwood vase, c. 1880

…to a 20 metre depiction of the Duke of Wellingtons funeral that ran the length of the room (for those interested Copenhagen predeceased the Duke, so the horse that is depicted in this scroll as ‘The Duke’s Horse’ is not Copenhagen).

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

Depiction of the funeral procession of the Duke of Wellington, 1850s

It also included a range of religious depictions of the horse, from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to St George, and, outside the Christian canon, a variety of images from India, Iran, and Asia.

"Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu", 1830s, Tamil

“Kalki, the tenth incarnation or avatara of Vishnu”, 1830s, Tamil

The seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Detail, showing the seven-headed horse of the Sun God Surya, 19th century, India

Albrecht Durer, "St George slaying the dragon," c. 1500s

Albrecht Durer’s depiction of St George slaying the dragon, c. 1500s

It was good to see the horse framed as an animal of symbolic power across a number of cultures and civilisations. My head is so set within the Australian context that it’s easy to forget that we are not the only ones who worship the horse!

Objects ranging froan Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

Objects ranging from an Iranian cheekpiece c. 700 BCE (top left) to 20th century Mexican stirrups (below, left and right)

Having said this, the exhibition also included the obligatory Drizabone and Akubra. It was at around this point that I felt the show lost some of its focus, and devolved into a sequence of separate items whose only unifying theme was the horse,  which for me wasn’t enough to create cohesion.

Drizabone and Akubra

Drizabone and Akubra

However there was one highlight within this, and that was an artwork by Angelina Pwerl Ngal, which addressed the role that horses played in the dispossession of Australia’s first people. This is a significant topic and could have been addressed in greater detail, especially as the Aboriginal voice was notably absent from the section that dealt with humanity’s oldest myths and legends relating to the horse. This absence is in itself telling, and could have done with some more fleshing out.

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, "Whitefella killing blackfella", 1998

Angelina Pwerl Ngal, “Whitefella killing blackfella”, 1998


Detail from “Whitefella killing blackfella”

The Australian context featured within the latter part of the exhibition, with a heavy focus on horse racing (not surprising, given one of the sponsors is Racing Victoria, and the exhibition coincides with the Spring Racing Carnival here in Melbourne). The Melbourne Cup believed to have once been won by Phar Lap is on display, as is this gem, which I have read of and written about so often that it was lovely to see it at last:

Eric Thake, "Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap," 1954

Eric Thake, “Gallery Director, or, This Way To Phar Lap,” 1954

I was, however disappointed that “Phar Lap before the Chariot of the Sun” was not also on display! Speaking of Phar Lap, footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup is projected upon part of one wall, and you can see the horse himself thundering down the straight and then returning to the scales. Having written about Phar Lap being divorced from his horse-ness, this was actually a marvellous sight, and I watched the three-and-a-half-minute reel play through a couple of times, wanting to see it again and again.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

All of the horse-pictures! Among them is footage of the 1930 Melbourne Cup, projected onto the wall.

Ultimately, this exhibition struck me as something of a filler, not too serious, and an easy way to fill the temporary galleries for a few months. I have no doubt that it is the tip of the iceberg as far as depictions of horses in the NGV collection goes, however it could have easily been strengthened by a more focused approach to the latter sections of the exhibition, and a greater emphasis on Australia beyond the world of horse racing.

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.

Review: “Horses in Australia”, by Nicholas Brasch

Brasch_coverNicholas Brasch, Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History. Sydney: NewSouth, 2014.

Another recently published work on the horse is Horses in Australia: an Illustrated History, by self-confessed racing fan Nicolas Brasch. In my view, this book serves as an homage to what I have previously called the Relational Horse – Brasch describes horses as ‘companions, performers, toilers, and guides’ (p. 8), and each of the chapters is structured thematically according to the particular service rendered by the horse.

At 42 pages in length, the chapter on horseracing is by far the longest chapter in the text. According to Brasch, horseracing is ‘a critical part of the Australian psyche.’ (p. 121) Predictably, he spends some time on the Melbourne Cup, which he claims is ‘a race that reflects the Australian ethos’ (p. 139), and to my disappointment repeats the fallacy that Mark Twain attended the 1895 Cup (this is an oft-repeated misrepresentation, however a small amount of research reveals that Twain was on the boat to New Zealand at the time the 1895 Cup was run and won).

Brasch does not limit himself to discussing just flat racing; in writing of jumps racing, Brasch’s love for the ‘sport’ is clearly revealed: ‘This is where the spirit of Paterson and Gordon live on, indeed, where they never died. This is the home of jolly jumbucks, billabongs and coolabah trees’ (p. 150), he writes, though it is unclear where you might find such things at a race track.

Brasch repeatedly invokes the romanticism of myth and folklore. His position on brumby culling, for example, is clear, presenting those in favour of culling as people who ‘do not like the romanticism of the brumbies’, which are ‘killed because of the environmental damage it is claimed they cause’ (p. 197-198, my italics).

One of the key problems with this text is the often contradictory statements. For instance, Brasch states that horses in Australia ‘have been idolised and immortalised’ but then on the very same page writes that ‘most of all, they have been ignored’ (p. 9). It is Brasch’s belief that the horse remains an ‘invisible animal’, and that ‘only in folklore has the horse been elevated to its rightful place’ (p. 9). This assertion appears to disregard the evidence presented in his own text, including the hotly-contested debates over brumby culling, which have occurred over the last decades and in various states of Australia, and the celebrity status accorded to racehorses in Australia, from Carbine to Black Caviar.

Additional evidence of the wide-ranging appeal of the horse includes the ongoing popularity of Phar Lap as a museum specimen, (so much so that, in 2010, the various remains were the subject of an attempted reunification by then-Minister of Racing Rob Hulls) and, most recently, an entire exhibition dedicated to the horse, titled Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story, held at the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra, from September 2014 until March 2015. In fact, the publication of both Brasch’s and Cameron Forbes’ books in a single month last year attests to a very healthy regard for the horse among the public of Australia.

The book fails to deal with any of the weightier issues of the horse’s function in Australian history. Horses and their role in colonisation is addressed in a single paragraph, and the link with Aboriginal people is confined to their work as stockmen, in the chapter dealing with the stockhorse breed. Brasch tries to include women in his narrative, arguing that it was not just men who lionised the horse in balladry. His inclusion as though in evidence of this claim is a paragraph from Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, in which the only apparent connection is that riding horses is mentioned (p. 97). The loving, worshipful tone evoked by the ballads is completely absent from the Franklin excerpt, and its citation is really very tenuous.

At times Brasch’s prose is so flowery and hyperbolic as to make the reader cringe, such as this description of the Waler breed:

It was as if Ares , the God of War, had produced a blueprint for the perfect warhorse and then engaged Charles Darwin and Merlin to work together to speed up the process of natural selection. (p. 99)

One pleasant surprise was that Brasch did not perpetuate the myth that all the Light Horsemen shot their horses rather than sell them to the locals, stating that there is no evidence to support this version of events (p. 110). Another surprise was seeing Gendarme and Alex Tassell make a brief appearance, though it’s not the first Gendarme who is pictured, and there was no mention of the original Gendarme’s eventual transformation into a taxidermic mount.

Overall I found this book somewhat disappointing. While I understand that it is very much intended for the popular market and is not a critical history, its superficial and predictable treatment of the horse in Australia doesn’t do the topic justice.

Review: “Australia on Horseback” by Cameron Forbes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Jonathan Green, “How Australia rode through history on the horse’s back,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 29, 2014, accessed 7 April, 2015 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/how-australia-rode-through-history-on-the-horses-back-20141121-11qqzr.html