Spirit horses

The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, fifty metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream, snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick.

Stallion, Kosciuszko. Image: Dr Andrea Harvey

This week The Conversation published my ‘Friday Essay’ on wild horses in Australia, and the excerpt above describes one of my many wild horse encounters. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.

Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, 400,000 or more, spread across nearly every landscape in the country, and their presence is deeply controversial. Six thousand of them are in Kosciuszko National Park. The polarised reactions and accusations in the comments thread to my essay demonstrate entrenched views on both sides. Unfortunately, the comments often also demonstrate fairly unthinking responses, with little attention to the substance of the essay.Ongoing disputes continue about their presence, with emotive and anecdotal argument from both sides of the debate. The Kosciuszko wild horses are embedded in the contradictions of our largest national park. Ski resorts, a huge hydro-electric scheme, and populations of trout that cause local extinctions of native fish and frog species are part of the mix. This ‘wilderness’ was also well-known grazing grounds for more than a century, and home to Aboriginal people for millennia.

Peter Mitchell’s recent book ‘Horse Nations describes the relationships between Indigenous communities and horses in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. The great Native American horse cultures are well known. Maori people may well have been the first horse owners in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry in Australia, and continue to hold horses in high regard, including on the rodeo circuit. Many men I worked with on Cape York during my PhD defined themselves as stockmen, having ‘grown up in the cattle’.

While Mitchell uses the term ‘horse nations’ to describe the people-animal relationship, many Indigenous cosmologies place animals as their own ‘nations’. One source suggests that ‘the man’ from Patterson’s famous poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider – there are strong oral histories of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the mountains. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says

‘Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.’

While the classic image of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were maybe as common as men and boys. Today women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are at least equally represented by men and women. The author of the classic Australian Silver Brumby series was Elyne Mitchell, and there is a large girl-horse literature authored mostly by women. While I have many times watched wild horses, I have little equestrian experience myself, and four Australian horsewomen helped me understand horse behaviour, generously sharing their knowledge and skills. The obscuring of women riders and writers in discussions about horses is reflected in assumptions about gender relations amongst wild horses themselves. Recent research has challenged the conventional view that stallions are the dominant members, arguing there is much more ‘show pony’ than substance to their supposed authority. Mares seem to be strongly autonomous, choosing mates as well as companions throughout their lives.

Kosciuszko wild horses. Image: Dr Andrea Harvey.

Horses are one of the many domesticated species moved all over the world, and other escaped or released domesticates are amongst introduced species thriving in new landscapes. The flourishing of these species provokes many questions about the nature of nature in the twenty first century. Indigenous and women’s voices need to be heard in these discussions, and in a world where humans are strongly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the power, agency and intelligence of other species – the animals themselves – can be deeply humbling.

Thanks to the following horsewomen: Jen Owens and Blaire Carlon who completed Honours and Directed Studies projects on wild horses (in Kosciuszko and the Burragorang Valley respectively) with me; writer and rider Adrienne Corradini who helped with research and horse behaviour;  Associate Professor Tonia Gray for links to Aboriginal riders; and Dr Andrea Harvey for the photos.

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