Creating "A Visual Arts investigation into the history of the Australian Horse at war": my motivation

 

by Susan McMinn

It was a stinking hot summer’s day on the family farm at Ballendella [1] in Regional Victoria and I decided to ride my horse to the back of the farm to see my Grandpa. We galloped the mile long dirt track over roughly farrowed paddocks through gates and past dams. The wind blew onto my face as we raced to the back of the farm and I was free. I arrived to greet Grandpa, with my horse covered in a lather of white foaming sweat. On seeing the state of the horse my Grandpa berated me: “What do you think you are doing to that horse Susan?” At thirteen years old I was made aware of the dangers of overextending my horse.

 

Horse ownership played a significant role in the family transport businesses that typically relied on the resilience and strength of the draught horse. Belonging to my grandfather Seward Charles Newman, the draught horses hauled goods from Rochester to Swan Hill in Northern Victoria. With an interest in the horse that went beyond his livelihood, he was an advocate for exceptional grooming and horsemanship. Grandpa loved his horses. My father John Newman also enjoyed the benefits of owning his horse which he used for working purposes on the farm.

 

A passion for art and the horse have been the driving force behind this research project. My childhood experience whilst growing up on the farm involved being surrounded by animals. My father bought my first horse Stormy, a grey stock horse, when I was twelve years of age. From this experience I learnt the value of horse ownership, how to ride and care for the horse, and that distinctive bond that forms between human and animal. In later years my last and favourite horse Mia was a beautiful black retired show jumper, a large barrelled Warmblood [2] with strong legs and large feet. Mia and I spent many days working or taking leisurely rides on the farming and around the local area until her death in 1998 at age 18. The sense of loss of a loved animal can be similar to that of losing a close friend. I remember Mia’s characteristics and her large black eyes peering at me through the kitchen window. I recalled these moments as I read the Light Horse soldiers’ stories and their empathy towards the suffering and fate of the Australian horse during World War I in the Middle East.

 

Throughout my art practice, the visual form and motion of the horse has been a pre-occupation of mine. When we look at the horse we see a body capable of motion and coordination much like our own.[3] The collective motion caused in riding the horse unites human and animal, because ‘we can know their mobility almost as they know it, when the blow of the hoof on the ground is our moment of touch with the ground beneath us.’[4]

 

This unity was certainly felt by the soldiers and the horse during the Palestine Campaigns of World War I and throughout one extraordinary event, ‘The Charge of Beersheba.’ At the beginning of this investigation, I learnt of the capture Beersheba, in October 1917 during a conversation re-told in the broadest sense:

 

Eight hundred Australian horsemen had charged for miles on their horses towards thousands of Turks. In the heat of the Sinai desert, the horses were mad, crazed with thirst. They galloped straight at the Turks, straight towards the firing line. And hardly any (Australian soldiers) were killed. And the Aussies won.[5]

 

My immediate thoughts upon learning of this oral history sought turned to concern for the horses: What about the horses? Did they die? Were they injured? Listening to this story triggered a mnemonic response prompting a connection between my own experiences, personal memories and questions of history. I was reminded of a frightening experience I had endured with a newly purchased Thoroughbred. After some months of preparation, I ventured out onto the road with the horse where he took fright and bolted. Taking off from a standstill, with hind quarters engaged he galloped out of control. So fierce was the horse’s gallop that I lost my grip in the stirrups and was thrown out of the saddle. I found myself balancing on the horse’s neck. It took a good half-mile to pull him up, by sawing the reins back and forth to unlock the bit from the grip of his mouth. My hands were blistered and I had to muster all of my strength and concentration to stay calm. It was a dangerous experience and although not charging into gunfire, it was an experience that made a connection with the story of the soldiers charging on their horses.

 

As I considered the soldiers balancing on their wildly galloping other sensory aspects surfaced. I recalled the dangers for the horse when galloping in the heat. I pondered how I might portray this wildly galloping horse in war in art. But most of all, I questioned what happened to the horse? How could they survive such conditions, charging into an onslaught of gunfire? How might the visual form of fate and suffering of the horse in war look? These questions came at a time when a series of paintings created in 2005 were pre-occupied with the image of the exhausted soldier’s Fig. in World War I photographs by Official Australian photographer, Frank Hurley. I considered the possibility of exchanging the image of the human figures with that of the horse caught in the crossfire of war.

 

My interest in portraying the elements of the Australian horses ‘suffering and fate’ during war possibly arises from two sources. Firstly, my early childhood recollections of being surrounded by the farm animal’s cycle of life shaped an awareness of animal fatality and suffering. Secondly, at a very early age my life was framed with the tragic personal loss of my younger sister in a drowning accident. The horror of witnessing both her death and my parent’s response at the scene has left me somewhat psychologically scarred. On pondering her death I am able recall sensory aspects that surrounded the scene; the acute sense of smell, the damp willow trees, the small wooden bridge, the old fashioned gate, my parents wailing, the whirring sound of a helicopter, the brownness of the damp earth, laden with a carpet of yellow leaves. I refer to these memories as ‘impression images’. In my lifelong struggle to work through this experience, I have found catharsis in art. Although manifested in different forms, the drawing of the Fig. of a young girl, facing away from the viewer remains the same. Possibly this represents a grappling with the image of death, loss and grief. It is an image that involuntarily re-occurs in my thoughts and a subconscious underpinning in some of my studio investigations.

 

Through questioning the initial story involving the Charge of Beersheba, this investigation has taken me on a journey to seek out the unknown stories surrounding the Australian Horse in War. In searching for these stories the paradox of history comes into play. Whilst History strives for objectivity, at the same time History can be subjective due to reliance on available documentation, making it impossible to locate every detail. Interrogation into the Light Horse soldier’s personal diaries offered a contrast to the existing public image of the Australian horse in war, and the warhorse monument. With stories hidden in the institutional archives, reliance on public narratives may not acknowledge the suffering and fate endured by the horse in war.

This research does not intend to undermine the honour of the soldiers who fought in war, but rather through their stories, bring focus to the horse in war. This investigation intends to visually reveal the image of suffering and fate of the Australian horse in war, (referred to as horse or horses from here on) by bringing unknown narratives out of the archives and into the gallery.

 

Footnotes

1.  Ballendella is a dairy farming between area situated between Rochester and Echuca in Northern Victoria, Australia,

2.  A Warmblood is a breed of horse with a very even temperament and large framed body. They are the preferred horse type used by the Victoria Police and make excellent show jumpers. (No Author, A History of the Warmblood in Australia Part 1, The Horse Magazine Website, 2010, viewed 13 September, 2010, http://www.horsemagazine.com/thm/2010/07/a-history-of-the-warmblood-in-australia-part-1/.)

3.  Bullock M., 'Watching Eyes, Seeing Dreams, Knowing Lives', in Rothfels N. (ed.), Representing Animals, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002, p. 99.

4.  Ibid.

5.  Tointon K.V., Oral Narrative of the Charge of Beersheba, 29th October 2006, Personal Communication.