Horseshoes – a game of skill for ineffectual martyrs

Horseshoes – a game of skill for ineffectual martyrs (working title)

Madeleine Boyd

This text is written as first part in preparation for an art installation to be shown at ‘Intra-action’ @AASG2013 

The installation will centre around an audience participatory game of horse-shoes.

Daytime television indulgence during a recent ‘time out’ period with a fractured pelvis, caused by inconsiderate horse riding, found me watching a Robert Redford classic film. Always a sucker for a pretty face, I kept watching this tale of redemption in a wild west world to the crux of comradery between cow-pokes forged around a game of horse-shoes, and the approval of status that Redford’s character was a man of skill (he won the game).  Some ideas come like a train racing through the station, although the rumbles may be felt sometime before along the lines. What follows is the first instalment in my development of a participatory game of horse shoes as a forum for exploring horse and human intra-actions.

Horseshoes, a game harking back to the time of roman soldiers, and making comeback in WW1 amongst the English light brigades, during the American civil war, and now represented by a league with rules, standards and championships in the USA (NHPA, 2013).  A post, traditionally jammed into the ground at a slight forward angle at the end of a pitch, and a few spare horse shoes is the simple version of the game.  Points are scored based on how close the horse-shoes land to the post, or indeed land around the post.  Similar in rules to the games of lawn bowling or its cousin petanque.

Horse shoes are an object only easy to hand in common horse culture. This game then is closely entwined in time and space with the presence of horses working  with or more often, in the service of,  humans. To play a game of horse-shoes is surely to indicate that few other options of greater technology or requiring more complex set up are available. The game might be considered a relaxing distraction during war, back at the gold rush camp, after a day of herding; an easily provisioned game for the poor or poorly equipped. The game, like any game, also presents an opportunity for a wager – in gold nuggets perhaps; a challenge of skill;  and the thrill of competition.

Horseshoes themselves are generally made from steel, iron or more recently, aluminium. A horse only requires shoes when under ‘work’ of frequent riding, pulling in harness, racing or showing in some way.  The outer hoof becomes worn away in these conditions and exposes the tender ‘frog’. Mustangs, Brumbies and other ‘wild’ breeds of horses self-manage their constantly growing nail of a foot by moderate wear in ‘wild’ terrain. First evidence of shoeing horses is ancient, some examples being excavated from the Pompeii site ( Shoes are replaced at least every 6 weeks, when the hoof is trimmed and the shoe nailed in again. Racing horses may need shoes to be replaced more often due to greater wear and ‘throwing’ the shoe. The cost of re-shoeing is around $60 per horse.

I do not shoe either of my horses, because we only work together lightly ‘on the ground’ – no riding. However I do have my farrier around once every 6 weeks to trim and shape the hooves ($40 per horse). These farrier characters are a guild of  braun and steel. When in their presence I feel an aura of history, as if this being and his actions have no place in this ‘now,’ but belong to a fanciful world before people could even imagine iPads and 300 horsepower BMWs.

‘My’ farrier and his erstwhile team are generally ‘under the pump’ as they call it, fulfilling the needs of horses at the two city racetracks. On one particular occasion mid 2012 I did need a special ‘crutch’ shoe for Picasso, to treat his ‘stifle lock’ of the hind leg. I marvelled at the set up upon the back of the farrier’s ‘ute’. A minute forge, where he could heat and work the metal. To my comments he mumbled that it was the traditional set-up, but I think the blacksmiths of yesteryear, pumping their great forge with bellows; belting iron with hammer and tongs might also be amazed.

I cast my eyes upon a bucket full of horse shoes of varying sizes and type. He informed me these were the used shoes from the racing trade. My senses melted down into that bucket of loose metal, gathering whiffs of the hay and muck still clinging to the edges of many shoes. Nails once penetrating hooves in flight now dangled motionless. I heaved a sigh for wondering about the moments of experience embodied now in inert objects.  Not least because I wanted to know everything about the individuals who had previously stepped out upon these instruments: their lives, their achievements, their fate. The farrier agreed to give me the bucket of used shoes, for only $10 – a good deal.

Six weeks later I noticed on my Facebook newsfeeed that a representative from one of the horse rescue groups I followed was going to be travelling interstate to the local horse sales so as to rescue a particular horse. I had heard and read much about the horse sales. Mostly that they were a last port of call for many horses, destined for the human markets of Europe or Japan, or the fresh pet meat industry of Australia (ABC, 2012).

On this first visit I was overwhelmed by the rodeo spirit of the sales. The slap of the auctioneers baton, the horse wranglers spinning their mounts one after another to show off their moves, spraying dirt from the round yard over the spectators in the front row (me), standing up on the horses backs, riding behind the saddle or two at a time, cracking the big bull whip and generally making light of the situation whilst showing each horse to be the most pliable of workers.


Image 1: Showing off a leopard appaloosa’s kind nature.

Most of the horses, generally of western style – paints, palominos, quarter horses and with previous experiences on cattle ranches – seemed to go on to ‘good’ homes. By this I mean private buyers from the rural regions, with untold acres for horse keeping or riding farms – not ‘the doggers’ (knackery). I heard that many horses in this end of year/ early summer sale had come from out bush, where farmers were cutting down numbers due to the drought. The famed horse trading name ‘Chris Wilson’ of Wagga Wagga was heard numbered amongst the dealers present. I certainly had to bite my lip, sit on my hands and refrain from bidding.

It was on the second visit that the experience became more disturbing. A group of horse owners from my agistment centre were interested to ‘check out’ the sales as well – it was the horse addict in all of us speaking. We knew that none of us could really afford to keep another horse, nor would our grumpy, self-proclaimed horse-hating agistment manager allow us to bring more horses to the property. Nevertheless we all harbour a secret dream of spending all day with horses, and having more horses to play with. Let me point out here that it is this very joy and fulfilment of ‘being with’ horses that is the motivation for this current work.

It was 5 of us that day at the sales, 3 over 25…or 35, and 2 under 20.  One of the teens turned to me and asked if I would put in money to rescue a horse. A simple question with an obvious answer ‘yes’.  How could I dash the hopes of this youngster; how could I essentially agree to a horse’s death by saying no. So I said I would. Practicality aside (for mundane problems on the small scale can always be negotiated), my thoughts expanded more fully.  I will go into detail further elsewhere about the ‘biopolitics’ of horse rescue, but merely to mention at this point that I was in progress of Derrida’s deconstructive notion of ‘constant vigilance’ (Wolfe, 2009) as opposed to fanaticism towards a cause and also Haraways’s approach to acting within complexity: put simply, informing oneself and others of the f-actors at play, then acting in recognition of these other agential factors (cf. Haraway, 2007), certainly not taking on the character of martyre to reactivity. The short and curly of it: one companion’s grandmother screaming down the phone at her ‘you can’t save them all!. Grandma knows best, perhaps.


Image 2: Young brown horses.

What I did say to the teen was “isn’t it interesting that although we came to this sale wanting to save ‘a’ horse, there are so many horses to choose from here that we start to question our own notions of what ‘a horse’ is to us. Does it become a selection game of colour, type, movement and other objective, ranking factors, rather than some illusionary feeling of connecting with one specific horse as an individual?” Somehow he did settle on a particular horse, an older thoroughbred, currently down in the dumps, but with excellent conformation and potential – his particular sport interest was serious showing, hacking and dressage. Let’s call this horse ‘Blaze’, to reflect his markings and former success on the track.

For my part, getting in the mood with an openness to the possibility of a rescue, my eye fell particularly on one large bay (brown) gelding, also a thoroughbred. I had spotted him before the sale in with a group of other similar thoroughbreds. During the sale I was taken with his great movement and luscious long, full, black tail and mane. As the auctioneer belted out his information, his credentials the same as the other thoroughbreds – well bred, ‘green broken’, but too slow for the track. I could see this in his sizeable rump and broad chest, suitable to carry a human, but not with speed. I could swear he had the blood of a gallant Friesian in him. I named him ‘Matty’ because of the large matt of hair in his mane. That part of myself, that sensation, I call the heart surged out towards him. I knew from previous conversations with horse knowledgeable people that in Europe and also here in Australia (for export), it is the ‘fat brown ones’ which are most sought after for human consumption.

The sale ended quickly after this, as Matty was one of the last horses to come out. Our group became aware that up to 10 thoroughbreds – most of those that had come to the sale – were together in one yard, now property of the doggers. Blaze was quickly located, but it took me some time of wild-eyed dashing around to find Matty. The teen must have had a good eye for conformation, because as luck would have it, several parties had taken an interest in Blaze, and so he was assured a good future – not with us in the end. The teen was so upset, and I realised here was a great example of human confusion around the motivations for ‘saving’. The horse was saved. I did not push the point.


Image 3: ‘You can’t save them all’.

Matty on the other hand was of no interest to anyone but me – although I tried to raise interest amongst my friends. Lacking the resources to do anything I had to leave him. This was not the only reason. As I stood at the bars of the small yard two standardbred mares, off the trotting track, put themselves ‘in my face’. Like tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee they searched me, nose to nose, for anything interesting. Oh what characters they were. Bright eyes, clever and inquisitive. They made me giggle, as I tried feeding them one of the hot chips I was eating, as a little joke. Matty stood away from the fence over the water trough, also with a companion.  They nudged their heads together, resting. I watched him drink a large sip, so patient and grand, this small act made my heart (that curious thing) swell again, this time with a kind of transferred wonderfulness. He seemed close to his companion, and I took many photos. I wondered if they were brothers; they were certainly stud fellows coming from the same breeder.


Image 4: Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.

I realised towards my limp, ineffectual lack of action that grandma’s words ’you can’t save them all’ is not just a matter of my inability to resource the rescue. Changing the focus to the horses as beings in their own right, it is also about choosing between companions, between individuals of equal essential merit, according to a system of judgement set by me, the human. Aesthetics, feelings of love, promise of success in show performance, are none better than the judgement already passed of ‘too slow for the track’. I could see no reasoning around this. I should rescue the horses that came up to me and ‘asked’ for my interest, or if I rescued Matty, he would surely be lost without his chosen companion.  All I could do was share this intense moment and then walk away, trying to not feel like a failed matyr.

Later over some food I said to the teen that poetry is the only way to deal with these complex feelings of sadness for beauty lost. I don’t write poetry, but I can make art, and write this prose.


Image 5: Matty and Friend.


ABC (2012) What happens to failed racehorses?. Australian Broadcast (ABC), 7:30 report. (accessed January 15, 2013).

Haraway, Donna (2097) When Species Meet. Univ Of Minnesota Press; 370 pages. ‘Horseshoe History’. (accessed January 10, 2013).

NHPA (2013) ‘Rules’. (accessed January 10, 2013).

Wolfe, Cary (2009) What Is Posthumanism? (Posthumanities). Univ Of Minnesota Press; 400pages.

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