How to Ride a Horse

by David Brooks

Illustration 1

October 4th was World Animal Day and I was privileged to be asked to read in Sydney at an Animals and Art fundraising event for Animal Liberation NSW, to an audience which included some of the people I most admire. Of course, declaring myself a member and dedicated supporter of Animal Liberation would have one marked out in some countries – the United States and Austria, to name but two – as a potential terrorist, it being seen as a serious offence in most parts of the world to impede or draw attention in any way to the cruelties of factory farming and the mass slaughter of animals for human consumption. Fortunately Animal Liberationists are not yet seen as terrorists in Australia – though the fact that in the last session of parliament the NSW minister for Primary Industry as good as called them that suggests that, now the whole country appears to have swung to the right, the time, at least, of the ‘Ag. Gag’ (the criminal prosecution of anyone filming or otherwise exposing the processes and conditions of factory farms) may not be far off, and the kind of work for which Animals Australia has so lately been thanked and celebrated becomes criminalised.

I had been asked to read for ten minutes, after a didgeridoo player and the Welcome to Country. I had thought that this would be enough time for seven poems, and so seven titles were put on the program, but when I rehearsed I found that this would take me over time. I withdrew one of the poems, if only because it was a little more complicated than the others. That poem was “How to Ride a Horse”. It’s that poem that I want to use as a talking-point now. But first the poem itself:

How to Ride a Horse

Once the hair was removed, the tanners would bate the material
by pounding dung into the skin, or soaking the skin
in a solution of animal brains.

Wikipedia, entry on ‘Tanning’


To ride a live horse, it must be said,
you must first have a dead one,
which you have had flayed
to remove the skin or hide, and which then –
with the aid of an essence of oak-tree or,
less expensively, a sequence
of urine, faeces and animals brains –
you’ve had cured or tanned
before, dried and beaten to soften it,
you’ve had it cut into various lengths and shapes
for the saddle, the reins, the straps,
and the hat, belt and boots
that a rider wears (their wallet, their whip, their
watch-band, their crop), the rest
of the carcase having long been consigned
to the makers of dog-food and glue.

As for the second, the living horse,
that must be broken, unless of course
it has been bred in captivity, when it may be deemed
to have been broken from the start. Saddled,
with the bit and the reins in place,
it can then be mounted and (the dead
horse on the living’s back), gently
goaded by the rider’s ankles, its mouth
pulled firmly to the left or right,
made to follow any track a rider might.
Stroked, occasionally, and brushed,
stalled, watered, given hay – ‘loved’,
as riders are wont to say – until such time
as it becomes a dead horse (etc.),
it should be of service indefinitely. (You may,
in the above, care, where
appropriate, to substitute
‘dead cow’ for ‘dead horse’.)

Now to talk about fences…

I’m not going to talk about fences now – that was just rhetorical – and I’m not going to talk much about the poem itself – at least, not about its subject, which I hope is clear enough, other than to register that some people’s idea of gently goading is something more like a kick. I want instead to talk about the use of italics for some of the words in the poem. I don’t usually use italics as much as this. They are here as a kind of estrangement – that is, to draw attention to the language, the words in themselves, since more and more as I write about animals – and as I have already mentioned in an earlier blog in this series – I find myself coming up against little thorns and burs and sometimes jewels in the language, as if the mere presence of the animal in one’s thinking has somehow estranged it (/them).

Take hide, for example. What’s its relation to hiding as in secreting oneself away, trying not to be seen? Is there, perhaps, somewhere deep in the history of the language some sense of the animal’s skin as hiding the animal within? My father used to talk about giving me a hiding when I had done something wrong, by which he meant thrashing me. Thankfully this did not often amount to much more than ‘giving’ (giving!) me a clip on the ear. When it did occur, however, it was as often as not because I had had the hide to do something clearly forbidden. He – and my mother – would speak, too, of tanning my hide, which – again thankfully – did not mean rubbing it with a solution of urine, faeces and animal brains. And to avoid such thrashings I and my sister would occasionally run off and hide, not that that ever did us much good. It all seems a bit funny now, and I’d be grateful if the reader extended some understanding to my parents. These were common expressions, and common behaviours, in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s. But I’m fascinated, now, by the way these words, and the expressions made up from them, are so trammelled up in the animal.

I won’t go on to talk about the other italicised words, other than to say how intrigued I am by the use of cured for the hide which has been torn from a dead horse or cow – as if you could ever cure that! – or the painful honesty of broken. The true reason I’ve chosen to make this poem the subject of this blog is that Australia is about to celebrate the Melbourne Cup, when a number of very fit, very fast horses will be forced around a race-track for the pleasure of a few million people who are betting on one horse or another, hoping that they will go home that evening with a little more money than they had in the morning. Australia is a country of horse lovers, we are told, although, as I’ve said elsewhere, if we loved our children as we love our horses a great many Australians would end up in prison for very long stretches of time.

A very common response, when people hear someone talking like this, is to say that the horses enjoy their racing. I doubt that, but then I don’t speak horse and I can only presume that these people do. To some of these respondents, in any case, I have been wont to ask in turn what they know about mutual dependency or, more to the point, the Stockholm Syndrome. We’re not alone here. Animals have brains, emotions, psyches too. There aren’t many – none, I suspect – who enjoy, for example, a hiding.

Not everyone will be celebrating the Cup, evidently. Here and there around the country there are un-Cup gatherings, in sympathy for the horses rather than the riders and the bookies and the TAB. As fund-raisers, a lot of them, for animal charities – homes for racehorses who have been retired, and/or been rescued from the knackery, where a great many retired or failed racehorses end up. There is a Not the Cup celebration in Sydney. Anyone interested can find details at Here’s a poster for this event from a couple of years ago. The date and the details are therefore all wrong, but the illustration seems to sum all this up quite effectively. How not to ride a horse…

Created with GIMP on a Mac

3 thoughts on “How to Ride a Horse

  1. Yet another enjoyable read, and so appropriate in light of upcoming ‘national’ celebrations.. vet students who intend to become equine vets so often claim they ‘love’ their astounds me how their love effectively blinds them to the torture such industries they wholeheartedly support subject their beloved horses to…

    1. *I hope anti-Cup events nation-wide will ensure to include a reading of your poem!! Or, at the very least, distribute it to all attendees!

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