Bridge to Another World

It’s a clear morning. The land beyond Tullamarine is so flat and expansive that the big blue is overwhelming as I walk down the lane towards Rouk’s paddock. I hear the warble of magpies, which still sounds robotic to my untuned ear, and the harsh croaking of a raven in the treetops. Against a distant fenceline I make out the shapes of kangaroos standing at attention. Further still rise the hazy towers of the CBD, looking neat and contained from this distance. And in the foreground, striding forward to meet me, my closest non-human friend: my horse, Rouk.

In July of 2015 I found myself driving out to Gisborne with my now-husband to look at a horse. Why two student inner-city residents should be looking at a horse was a question we chose to avoid. The fact was there was an ex-racehorse in poor condition being given away to a good home and I had a feeling that this was an opportunity. Back then he had a thick coat that disguised the prominent ribs beneath and went by the name Picture. We pretended to have a proper look at him and assess his movement but really it was already decided.

Like me, this horse was originally from the UK. Several years before, he’d been imported from England to continue a racing career that ended shortly afterwards due to injury. When we took him on, we named him Rouk from a Scots word for sea mist, both as a throwback to our shared homeland and to acknowledge that he is a part of the natural world that we could never own. It was a name that projected nothing and expected nothing.

Photo: Alex Mullarky

Photo: Alex Mullarky

I had been living in Melbourne for a year when we brought Rouk into our lives. Although we had been doing our fair share of hiking and exploring, I was still a country girl living in the city for the first time in her life, and I had been finding it hard to cope with so much less green and sky than I was used to. Now I had not only an excuse but an obligation to get out of the city multiple times a week, to spend an hour or two hours or maybe an afternoon out in the sunshine with grass beneath my boots. While I negotiated a relationship with this horse, I found that something unexpected was happening concurrently. In getting to know Rouk, I was getting to know this country.

At that agistment I had my first sighting of a wedge-tailed eagle settling onto a branch, swarmed by magpies. Over a period of several days around Christmas, I saw three, sometimes four, gliding over the paddock one after the other. When my parents came to visit, they were astonished to see three startled kangaroos leap over the electric fencing just metres from where we stood with Rouk, then disappear across the field. The dam on the property was a hub of activity for waterbirds, and I loved to watch the horses wade in and drink among them.

We are at a new property now where I drive past hundreds of kangaroos at dawn and dusk, even with the city’s lights glimmering not far behind me. Every evening a flock of corellas navigates noisily from tree to tree; one morning they are disturbed and swoop down across the arena, dozens or hundreds of pink-tinged birds shifting sharply upwards over our heads. Rouk doesn’t seem to notice. When I lead him back to his field we pass the usual wagtail hopping around the legs of a neighbouring pony, waiting for the insects turned up by its hooves.

Photo: Alex Mullarky

Photo: Alex Mullarky

The two of us walk in the footsteps of European colonists and the horses they brought with them. Both caused ongoing disturbance and imbalance in the country, ecologically and in other ways. I have seen more rabbits and foxes - those unwelcome invasives - at horse properties than I have anywhere else in Victoria, and ‘horse-sick’ paddocks where nothing grows beneath the hooves of its confined occupants.

But where properties are actively managed by the environmentally-minded, I have also seen the impact of this non-native species genuinely minimised. There are people and organisations out there who demonstrate that being a horse person and an environmentalist are not mutually exclusive. Since neither horses nor human development are likely to disappear from Australia anytime soon, our only option is to find balance. Horses did not evolve within this landscape, so it is our responsibility as their custodians to enable them to live in harmony with it.

A partnership with a horse is a privilege because these animals are a bridge. As a domesticated species, they offer us the opportunity to move with their hoofbeats, to see through their eyes, to be a part of the world on their terms. In a time when it often feels like we are becoming increasingly distanced from the world around us, it is a horse that has enabled me to discover my wild Melbourne. How did you discover yours?

Banner image by Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra