When Tropes Go Bad, Australian Edition: Horses Acting Up Down Under

As we transition (in my case terribly slowly) from the time out of time that is the end of the year to plain ordinary reality, I’ve been bingeing one of my favorite television series, the Australian hit show McLeod’s Daughters. This isn’t genre, exactly, but it is horse-related, and it plays with various film tropes about horses and other livestock.

Pause here to note that this show, which aired over eight seasons beginning in 2001, was developed and written by women, and featured a group of women running a cattle station in the Australian outback. Running it well, having adventures, dealing with men both good and very bad (including rape and infidelity, but also more normal and healthy relationships—nothing non-hetero, but we take what we can get). We can only dream of such a show in the US.

Anyway. The station runs both cattle and sheep, diversifies into various crops, but it’s also a horse ranch, focusing on both breeding and training. There’s a lot of realism—the bred mare gets a uterine infection, both a horse and a cow get forms of colic, and then there’s the shy stallion and Loverboy the (very large, very ripped) escape-artist bull. It’s quite wonderful. It’s on Hulu. Recommended.

What got me going for this column was a combination of an early episode with horse colic, and the poster for another Australian classic, The Man From Snowy River, with its rearing horse and its almost casually posed human couple. This film is hugely popular with the horse community, because it gets so much right. But that poster…

Tropes are a thing. They’re everywhere. They pervade all the stories we tell. In film they become so ingrained that as soon as we get the first signal, we know what’s coming. A certain type of actor, a certain kind of lighting, a certain set of plot elements, feed our expectations. And for the most part, what we expect is what we get.

It’s a form of shorthand. Used wisely, it creates great genre. Spaceships. Sassy crime solvers. Superhero costumes.

It’s also a form of laziness. Drop in a trope, let the trope do the work. Don’t take the time to ask where the trope came from or whether it’s accurate. Like all those movie cowboys flapping their elbows at the gallop, and all those fantasy questers yelling “Hyah!” to make their horses go. All horses whinny all the time, because that’s the signifier for “horse.” When in fact the whinny is a specific form of communication, and mostly inapplicable in context.

One particular visual trope shows up in film after film. Movie horses don’t just whinny constantly. They rear all the time. Horse shows up on screen, he rears. Rider gallops up, horse rears. Character handles horse for any reason, positive or negative—yep. Horse rears.

So for an iconic horse movie, what do the publicity types do when they need to show a horse on their poster? They show a rearing horse.

Of course they do. Horses are big animals. When they stand on their hindlegs, they’re really big. They tower over humans. They’re dramatic. Wow! Look at that! says the general public.

Oh hell no, says the horse-savvy minority.

A comfortable, calm, sane horse does not rear. Rearing signifies aggression, dominance, aversion, fear. The stallion rears to challenge an enemy. He’s making himself as tall as he can, and the next move is often to batter the rival or the predator with his forefeet.

A stallion also rears to mount a mare. If she’s not willing and is not restrained, she can do real damage with her hindlegs—a horse’s kick is a very powerful thing. When a stallion moves in to breed, he’s gambling that she won’t literally cut him off at the knees.

But mostly when a horse rears, he’s not just showing off. He’s making a point. He may do so in play, but play is practice for breeding and for war. He doesn’t do it as a matter of routine.

A wise horseman does not encourage his horse to rear. A horse who’s light in front as we say is a horse who can and will throw himself over backwards while being ridden, and that’s bloody dangerous. Half a ton or more of horse landing on a human body is not a happy thing.

Rearing is a powerful avoidance mechanism. The horse who doesn’t want to go will rear. The one who doesn’t like what he’s being asked to do—rear. The one who’s pitching a raving tantrum—rear and flip over.

Horses can be trained to rear “safely” in the sense that they do so on command and without falling, but for the most part they still run into the problem of “Don’t wanna? UP we go!” It’s a lot harder to re-pattern this behavior once it starts, than to stop it before it ever gets going. Especially with male horses who will instinctively go up when threatened, a solid program of “Front Feet ON the Ground” is an essential prerequisite for safe handling when young and for safe riding when mature.

As for that poster, the rearing horse signifies wildness and untamable spirit, and that’s all well and good, but the bloke in the hat hanging out at the other end of the leadline, and the girl within battering range, are an object lesson in Do Not Try This In Your Barn.

So that’s one trope we don’t need to try at home. The other one that got me started with all this, the colicky horse, is one we never want to have to deal with, but just about all of us sooner or later will have to.

Horses are a miracle of evolutionary design when it comes to speed, endurance, and ability to deal with heat and cold. What is not a miracle is their digestive system.

It’s extremely simple. What goes in the front must come out the back. There’s no reverse gear. If anything gets stuck in the middle, the horse can’t hork it up. It has to keep going. If it doesn’t, the horse gets a bellyache—he colics. And if the colic can’t be resolved, he dies.

There are two general types of colic. Gas colic is classic indigestion, but in an animal that can’t burp, there is nowhere for the gas to go. The pain is intense and can cause to horse to go into shock; it can also cause intestinal torsion, which is agonizing and nearly always fatal. Impaction colic is good old constipation, which if it can’t be broken up, causes the intestine to die and the horse with it.

Either way, colic in a horse is a serious emergency. And that’s what happens early on in McLeod’s Daughters with the late and lamented father’s champion horse. He colics, and the hardass country sister has to try to save him.

This appears to be an impaction colic. That means somehow the impaction has to be resolved. Usually a vet puts in a nasogastric tube and tips in a whole lot of oil—mineral oil around these parts. The principle is that if it’s gas, the oil will calm it down, and if it’s impaction, the oil will work its way through, soften the blockage, and push it on through.

If that doesn’t work, or if there’s a torsion, surgery can be an option. But that’s extremely expensive and needs a clinic close enough to get the horse to before he dies. Even if he does make it to the clinic and survives surgery—which is truly major in an animal of this size; there are hundreds of feet of gut in there—he might not survive the aftermath, and he’s an increased risk for fatal colic thereafter.

There are success stories. One of my sale horses had a severe impaction colic after she arrived at her new barn, had surgery, and went on to have a long career as a riding horse. She’s still teaching kids to ride, nearly twenty years later. But it’s a very high-risk procedure, and needs a lot of management afterwards.

So here we are in the Outback, hours from the nearest town, no clinic anywhere within reach. The vet makes it out—which isn’t always a sure thing—and wields his tube and leaves the owner to care for the horse until he can make it back.

This is pretty standard. Once the meds are in (another frequent treatment is the drug flunixin meglamine or, as it’s labeled in the US, Banamine, a muscle relaxant, which can resolve the pain and allow the horse to relax enough to avoid going into shock), it’s a matter of time and prayer to any deity available, that the horse’s gut gets back up and running. The main focus of every prayer is, “Please, godsesses of horses, let the poop come. And let it keep coming.”

Yes, horse people pray for poop. It’s a major sign of health in the horse, horse digestive systems being what they are.

The TV series covers most of this really well. But then it takes a left turn.

One way to help a horse get over colic is to get the horse moving. It’s not a joke: “Load him up on a trailer and take him for a bumpy ride.” That can shake things loose. Everyone has a story of the horse hauled to the clinic for surgery, who was fine when he got there.

It’s mostly hope and a prayer, but when you’re desperate, you’ll do whatever has a remote chance of working. Failing a trailer or a clinic, you can try walking the horse—up and down hills may help, the wisdom says.

There’s another reason to keep him walking, too: a colicky horse will try to get down and roll in an effort to relieve the pain. The horse who’s off her feed, who looks low, whose neck is clammy, is a good bet to be colicking. If she keeps trying to go down, that means Call The Vet Now.

The problem with rolling is that if the horse starts rolling hard, she can cause her intestines to twist. That’s a torsion, and as noted above, it’s a bad, bad thing. A fatal thing, unless there’s a surgery within imminent reach.

The TV series doesn’t get into this. What it does is have the owner walk the horse all night long. Very dramatic. Much exhaustion and dragging and long long slog. Ending in tragedy, because it has to; it’s about letting go of Dad, and that means killing off Dad’s horse.

The problem with walking the horse all night is, the horse is already weak. Walking incessantly makes him weaker. If it’s not helping to begin with, and he’s not trying to roll which would call on the handler to distract him by keeping him up and moving, the more he exerts himself, the more likely he is to go into shock.

So, in an attempt to show an owner trying to save the horse, the series shows an owner who kills the horse with exhaustion. She’d have been much better off letting him be, watching and stopping him if he tries to roll, and not pushing him past the point of no return.

But I have to give the writers credit. They do better with horses (and cattle and sheep and human women) than the vast majority of film-type people. They go overboard with the “walking cure” for colic, but the rest of it is pretty accurate. There’s even that blessed moment with the poop pile on the ground and the weary celebration, though the horse doesn’t make it in the end. (And further points for the later episode with the colicky cow, which ends differently because cows have a completely different digestive system.)

Good stuff mostly, worth watching for research as well as entertainment. Just don’t walk the horse to death when he colics.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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