Meeting Pharlap

March 28, 2011

I was always a bit suspicious of the hype surrounding Pharlap, all that carry-on about a dead horse. I was a bit cynical you might say. So I was unprepared during a weekend in Melbourne not so long ago, for what happened when I wandered into the Museum Building at Fitzroy. In a darkened room full of spotlit exhibits I passed a sign saying PHARLAP and at the same moment, out of the corner of my eye, noticed an extremely large horse. Ohmigod! I thought. Is that him? He’s enormous.

The stuffed animal was so huge it didn’t need any fanfare to make you stop in your tracks, didn’t even need the knowledge of its mythic status to make you stare. How could any horse be so big?

Pharlap is a giant of a horse. Why don’t they tell you that? Or perhaps they do, but you have to actually see the hugeness with your own eyes before you understand. I circled the glass case, seeing the way the hair on his back joined the pelt of his belly in a line like waves meeting. His haunches seemd too narrow. Shouldn’t they be bulging and muscular? Yet there they were, undeniably thin and presumably true to the musculature which the taxidermist had reconstructed.
But if you think about it, it makes sense. Pharlap was very, very fast, that’s what the myth is all about, and narrow haunches are designed for speed. Anyone who’s seen a big-hipped woman trying to run knows how awkward that can be. The spindliness of Pharlap’s legs struck me too. They spoke of vulnerability, the vulnerability of all horses, but much more so here because of the enormous weight they had to support.

I circled the glass case until I was back again looking up at Pharlap’s rather sad eyes and by then I was a convert. The horses I’m used to, hobby horses in paddocks in the outer Brisbane suburb where I live, are midgets in comparison with this great animal. They would be about half the size of Pharlap. All horses are noble, a word that is cliched only because it is true, but how much more noble this animal is, rearing up so high you have to tilt back your head to take him in, like a tourist in a cathedral.

Standing before the taxidermist’s work that was somehow also the real horse, Pharlap himself, I felt sad about the way he had died, sad that he had died at all. It’s right to keep him with us, right that he should never be forgotten. Words are just words and any number of words have been written about Pharlap, but it’s his body that tells the true tale.


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