Can A Horse Be A Hero?

phar_lap_logo.jpgEvidence was recently released stating a pretty strong case for arsenic poisoning to be the cause of death of Phar Lap, Australia’s most famous horse. Immediately after, there were stories all over the Australian press – bad grass, mysterious tonic, or just more speculation. The popular theory is that he was poisoned by American mafia interests because they were scared of his potential effect on their income. He won too much, so was an easy bet.

Why so much speculation over a horse that was born eighty years ago? Because Phar Lap is a hero to Australia. He is on display in the Victorian Museum, standing proud for school kids and old aged pensioners alike. From the museum website:

“He triumphed during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, when a hero was most needed by the people of Australia.”

Phar Lap was more than a horse, he was something the people could rally around. Something that brought them happiness when most of their lives were a struggle. Again, from the museum website:

“Days after the death of his horse, trainer Harry Telford said: ‘He was an angel. A human being couldn’t have had more sense. He was almost human; could do anything but talk. I’ve never practised idolatry, but by … I loved that horse.’

Like many Australians, Telford attributed to Phar Lap qualities both human and divine. Among the ‘human’ characteristics described was his bravery. In an age when memories of Gallipoli were still strong, one of the main themes was that Phar Lap was a noble warrior, who persevered and never gave up.

Jockey Jim Pike, who rode Phar Lap in most of his races, summed up his performance in the 1931 Futurity Stakes at Caulfield, where the odds were stacked against him, with the words, ‘I thought his heart would burst.’

In Australia, such attributes are not enough in themselves—it is important that our heroes are also ‘good blokes’, likeable and approachable.

The press emphasised the horse’s peaceable nature, and newspaper images showed Phar Lap carrying Telford’s young son, or rolling playfully in the sand, or taking an apple quietly from his strapper, Tommy Woodcock, whose touching relationship with the horse was also often celebrated.”

So, I ask you, can a horse be a hero?

5 Responses to Can A Horse Be A Hero?

  1. Anonymous October 25, 2006 at 9:36 pm #

    Absolutely! It’s as you said – Phar Lap gave people something to rally around. He provided hope, positive energy, and inspiration. And what is a hero if not inspiration? Heroes create hope and move people to be their best selves. If a horse can cause people to be strong in the face of adversity and optimistic in the face of what seems to be hopelessness, then call the horse what he is – a hero.

  2. Charles D. Leibrand October 27, 2006 at 6:03 pm #

    I don’t think that Phar Lap is a hero. For that mater neither is Balto, Rin-Tin-Tin, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Shamu or any other of a multitude of animals. Phar Lap is an animal and can only act according to his instinctual biological template or to impulse conditioning programmed by his trainers. There is no choice there. I think that choice is an important element in heroism. With out choice there cannot be reason. Reason allows us to evaluate decisions and make value judgments. It is these value judgments that are the cornerstone of heroism. Phar Lap cannot do this.
    That is not to say that the Australian people should not take pride in Phar Lap. His success as a racehorse is a testament to the abilities of the Australian people as horse breeders. This takes back to post Hero vs Celebrity. Being great at something deos not necassarly make you hero. That’s why I am dubious of sport heros in general. It one’s judgemnets and actions dervied from those judments that makes an individulal heroic. Not ones ability to run fast around a track.


  3. Anonymous October 30, 2006 at 10:10 pm #

    I understand your point about heroes needing to be purposeful and act with intention. And quite likely an individual that does act with noble purpose will be seen as a hero. However, a true hero does not normally label themselves the hero. The label hero must always be attributed to someone by the one they are hero to. One’s actions are deemed heroic by onlookers. You are not the entity of “hero” independently, but rather are viewed as hero. This is exactly why each of us has a different set of heroes – because we define heroism differently and aspire to different qualitites. With this in mind, I still feel that Phar Lap is a hero. While he is an animal, and is perhaps acting upon only instinct, his existence inspired others, and those others have labeled him “hero.” They have given him the status of hero based on what he expressed (intentionally or not) to them, how he made them feel, and how he inspired them. Spiderman is just an much a product of this same type of hero definition. The hero is in the eye of the beholder.

  4. Ranch Kid March 12, 2007 at 8:29 pm #

    Horses can definitely be heroes, as can other animals. Animals are able to do more than “act according to his instinctual biological template or to impulse conditioning programmed by his trainers.” Horses especially have a lot of heart, and they bond, trust, and protect people they care about. How dare CDL be so illogical and ignorant as to belive that only the human brain is capable of acting with intention that benefits anybody other than the self? Obviously there is a lack of loyal animal relationships in some people’s lives.

    Perhaps it could even be argued that animals are the most selfless of all heroes, not even knowing of the glory they bring upon themselves; they act in their heroic ways because it is what they deem appropriate at the time.

    I wish I had caught this post earlier.

  5. Charles D. Leibrand March 14, 2007 at 11:24 am #

    Ranch Kid,
    Where do you draw the line? By what criterion do you establish heroism among animals, if horses fit the bill, then how about dogs? How about cat cats, or gold fish, or dolphins, higher order primates? Can a Cow be a hero? What about snails, amoebas, lions, tigers and bears? Is Phar Lap really a hero or does it just make you feel warm and fuzzy to think so? Do animals really have emotional feelings for people or is it just convenient to think so? Can you articulate your position with out throwing out insults? You suggest that I am not very tolerant of an animals view point, but how tolerant are you of other humans? For the record I have had a number of dogs and a cat that I was very fond of but just because I talk to them as if they have complex thoughts and feelings that does not make it so. I would consider extending human rights, emotions and thoughts to higher order primates and some marine mammals.