The Horse and I


It wasn’t courage or heroism, but simply the age of daring and ignorance. I was only just 21 when everything is possible and you know everything. Experiencing something new ends in reducing your certainties. I am talking about mounting a horse (of course of course). A horse just has so many hands – 14 to 16 (one hand = 101.6 mm, 16h=1.625 meters). When you stand beside it, ready to mount, it seems as tall as a mountain.

 And it was literarily a mountain I was challenged to climb this date, in fact the tallest one in Australia. I had done it before on a motorbike and also on foot, so what’s the problem now? It was the height of the horse (not the mountain) that was so daunting. I could barely propel my body into the stirrups and I still had a bit to go. The horse came from the Chalet Kosciuszko, then owned by the NSW Railways. I found out a week later that they had a rodeo at the Chalet. That is an event where an obstruction is placed in the mouth of the poor horse, which immediately reacts to this irritation by trying to dislodge the rider, whose aim it is to stay in the saddle for so many seconds. One rider got himself dislodged all right, swallowing his tongue in the process. If it had not been for the fortunate presence of a doctor he would not have made it. Danger number one – falling off a horse – specially a cranky one

I did not know any of this when I mounted a horse for the first time. At the same time I did not imagine that I would, later in life, examine the importance and contribution of this animal to our wellbeing. I just climbed on top of the horse and 2 hours later reached the top of the mountain (which today you can only achieve on foot). I felt completely in charge. When our group decided to return we took a short cut right down the mountain, bypassing the track. The ground was rocky with patches of vegetation, but fairly comfortable except for one obstacle. We came across some grassy patches which seemed to appeal to my steed. I did not wish to stop, which I admit was quite mean (to deny him some lunch when we just finished ours). I put the brakes on, pulling as hard as I could on the reins, but to no avail. The horse had a mind of its own. It stopped and I did not accept its decision. This had serious consequences, as my body took to the air and over the horses head. Luckily I was unhurt but I resented the fact that the horse quite nonchalantly proceeded to demolish the patch of grass completely disregarding my aerial acrobatics and possible injury. This incidents made me wonder what a person like Alexander the Great do to achieve such loyalty from Bucifalus which transported him all the way from Macedonia to Babylon.

My interest in horses is connected with many chance encounters. On a trip through Scotland I came upon places that have the same name as streets in my Western Suburb of Brisbane. Kingussie was one. It had a zoo which advertised a horse with a Polish name, Przewalski, a short, sturdy horse with an upright mane. The horse was discovered by a Polish biologist of that name in Tibet in the 19th century. The breed became nearly extinct (down to 3), but re-bred. Now it is replenishing zoos around the world.  Our better contemporary horse has been around for at least 4000 years, well before the invention of the wheel.

On another occasion I was talking to a vigneron south of Ballarat who was previously a veterinary surgeon. In conversation he stated that there should not be any more than one veterinary school in the whole of Australia (there were in fact seven at that time). It dawned on me later that you don’t see any horses on our city and country roundabouts, they are full of cars using “horse power “of a different kind. Where a century ago all the traffic would be powered by horses which had to be attended to by veterinarians, now, those “vets “have morphed into motor-mechanics. The horses have disappeared, except for people who have money to keep them- and of course the racing industry and riding schools need the vets now. The vets’ greatest customers these days are pet owners.

 Horses are certainly part of Australia’s industry and recreation. Newspapers devote at least 20 pages to races alone every week. I can understand now why the disappearance of horseless carriages did not cause a demise of the veterinary profession. There are more than a million horses in Australia, a quarter of them feral (called brumbies) and at least a half are hobby horses.

Mongolia was a place where I had a very peaceful and informative encounter with the local horses. They are really horses, not ponies, although they are about two hands shorter. Mongolia used to be one of the 15 Soviet Republics. It has its own language but it is written in Russian Cyrillic. At 3 million horses there are slightly more of them than people. The countryside was covered in short grass and farm animals appeared to be free ranging. I found out later that only a few horses are ever tethered. Even my wife agreed to take a ride with a group on the Mongolian steppe, before retiring to a local ger (formerly called by a Russian name yurt (their type of tent/dwelling).

Having spent my early years in a country where travelling more than 400 km was not possible, I could not fathom how people from Mongolia could travel all the way to Vienna – more than 6000 km (much more than right across Australia). A Mongolian horse can “hoof it” 10 km without stopping. By the time they got to central Europe that meat under the saddle must have been pretty tender. This led me to believe that it was quite possible for the Neanderthal Homo sapiens to have made it from Africa to Europe and Asia (or through Gondwanaland to Australia).

Many generals and Emperors guided their troops to battle mounted on horses, which is more than could be said about the likes of Eisenhower, Hitler or Churchill, who probably sat comfortably in their Mercedes or Cadillac cars. The 20th century put a stop to that uncomfortable equestrian mode of transport. During my horse riding endeavours I occasionally had a go at “tilting at the windmills” but I did it! And without the benefit of a Rosinante which carried Don Quixote on his quest in Cervantes Spanish novel way back.

As un-equestrian as I am, I do enjoy the vista of the track on Melbourne Cup day – a holiday in Victoria, which brings the nation to a standstill at 2.00pm and for some time after. This annual event brings together the cream of the Equus breed transported from all parts of the world to have a go at a chance to collect some millions in prize money for their owners, who even bring their own retinues. But it is the horse that is the centrepiece. Imagine, a beautiful chestnut colouring, majestically grooved, the Governor General in his/her  formal outfit making his/hers only useful function by being there and saying something. And of course -

 I must not forget the objects d’art with their fancy hats and decorous outfits which complement the beautifully groomed horses and all on the lookout for a photo opportunity.