Animal Worship: Horse Reverence in Australia

| April 29, 2013

Is the collective outpouring of emotions after the retirement of the record-breaking racehorse Black Caviar out of proportion? It certainly isn’t new, says Binoy Kampmark from RMIT University.

What a spectacle it can be – people shedding tears over a mare for profit. People wishing that the horse had run in a race. Eulogies over an animal who has been retired after a perfect record of 25 wins from 25 starts. “It all went fairly cheerfully until Luke Nolen slipped his saddle off the big mare, took a step back and looked at her.” Then came the exercising of the tear ducts. “All over, mate,” suggested owner Peter Moody. “Yep,” replied the jockey (APP, Apr 20).

After a time, the funereal sense of departure is apparent. But what were the fans of Black Caviar mourning? The loss of a money making venture, the astonishing power of the quadruped, the fact that, or so claimed observers, she had an almost human inner life?

Equine worship is certainly something that is not exceptional to Australians. Indo-European nomadic cultures which made full use of horses tended to place them on pedestals rather than below them. This was pagan magic. Some even treated the consumption of horse meat as taboo. What makes the Australian fascination distinct is the combination of sports and gambling, something which Black Caviar satisfied to a tee. Australians being inveterate aficionados of both, the triumphant mare was bound to be immortalised the moment she started tallying up the victories.

The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard felt that hyperbole would be in order. This, on its own, shows the naff nature of the entire reaction – a Prime Minister accused last year before Royal Ascot of not being loyal to Black Caviar, and now, mindful to acknowledge the role the horse has played. “We’ve never seen anything like Black Caviar before and may never again. She has an incredible legacy.”

Such worship can only bring to mind the precedent of Phar Lap, and the almost apoplectic reaction to his death in California in 1932. The discussion about Phar Lapomania is still fascinating if somewhat perplexing. Religious authorities were concerned that Australians were losing their perspective in their equine obsession.

In the publication charmingly named Bunyip, from Gawler in South Australia, Revd. John Blackett’s views sparked considerable reaction. The churchman suggested that Phar Lap “was only a horse after all, and that a horse is not as good as a human” (Apr 22, 1932). For Blackett the Australian populace was no better than “the Roman Caesar who idolised his horse so much that he made him a consul of Rome.”

The editor of the Bunyip saw some point to the reverend’s skepticism.  “We have no right to spend thousands on horses and let humans starve to death.” These were the Depression years after all. But never mind that – this was a well-meaning folly. It was a “great trait in the Australian character, and for that matter in the human character everywhere that he can love so dearly a grand horse, and recognise the golden personalities even of his pets in the animal kingdom. This ought ye have done and not have left the other undone. Nobody will love humans the less for loving horses and dogs well.”

The truth is that Australians have a mixed, ambivalent relationship with fauna, attitudes that span unreflective worship to fiendish antipathy. A horse that wins races is one thing, but that ignores the fact that industries dedicated to racing with animals produce a high casualty rate in terms of creatures that are destroyed. If the economics is not good enough, the animal suffers.

It is unlikely that Black Caviar will displace the Phar Lap manics in terms of affection and reverence. That horse’s enthronement as Australia’s most known racer seems assured. That won’t necessarily stop the taxidermists getting ready to place their hands on the newly admitted mare.