Would you whip a unicorn? The Melbourne Cup and imagination

The unicorn is an icon of our contemporary love affair with escapism. Rob Boudon

This is not an article about unicorns or virgins, but about the power of imagination, both wonderful and terrible. As an academic and equine artist I work between creative imagination and scientific epistemology.

Madeleine Boyd, Chasing Unicorns, (2014). Author

Popularly, imagination is the currency of art, and artists do their genius work by bringing into culture renditions of reality tempered by fantasy and fashion. It is through imagination that we are able to let go of the everyday, and such is the appeal of art and myth.

This imaginary cultural process starts early in childhood with storybook tales about heroic princes flirting with virginal princesses and their magical unicorns. While stories about virgins and unicorns come from within the mind, they influence lived cultural activities. Influences include expectations about relationships or preference for certain toys.

The storybook unicorn was popularised as a symbol of Christian purity in medieval Britain. Today the unicorn is an icon of our contemporary love affair with escapism.

Like their imaginary cousin the unicorn, horses possess a mystique as represented in art and popular culture. Paintings by equine artists such as George Stubbs emphasise curved necks, delicate limbs and glistening muscles. Horse portraits are commissioned by the wealthy to represent the equine jewels of their estate.

The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco, probably by Domenico Zampieri, c. 1602 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome). Wikimedia Commons

In the contemporary mind, the horse and the unicorn might become conflated as both are rarely seen but often depicted in fashion and art, and pined for by virginal maids. The horse, like the unicorn, carries people away to another reality where beauty and passion dwell. These evocative qualities of the horse are why race-day carnivals bear the distinctive mark of pomp and grandeur.

What would the strutting models have to display their beauty against if there were no long-legged fillies and colts to prance through the pre-race ring? The racing of thoroughbreds at international carnivals such as the Melbourne Cup, held on Tuesday, is the realm of those who live the fantasy lifestyles of the very wealthy.

On such occasions these capitalist demi-gods display their conspicuous riches and share them with those who can only dream. Princes and princesses for a day, the eager crowd spends a day at court, and plays with unicorns. Cultural research I have conducted suggests that for many race-goers the Melbourne Cup is not about the horses racing at all, but the glorious, escapist experience of the day.

George Stubbs, Molly Long Legs with her Jockey, (1761-62). Wikimedia Commons

Yet behind the frivolity of race days, dark truths lurk. Every fantastical story includes a villain. In storybooks the evil sorcerer is always defeated in a mystical way by archetypal figures. This rarely occurs in reality, where actions are required to solve problems, and so people defer to myths in hope of salvation.

Psychologically speaking, people are known to draw upon their creative abilities to enable cognitive dissonance: the neurological state of continued belief in untruths despite evidence to the contrary when there is a vested interest in the untruths.

Racing carnivals are an important example of the terrible implications of cognitive dissonance. Just as we celebrate the beauty and power of horses, we also stand by as horses are physically tortured. Whipped again and again, racehorses are forced to run to the limits of their limbs and hearts.

Horses falling with broken legs or dropping dead from overexertion during Australian races is not rare. Thoroughbreds are bred to enhance muscle mass and produce light limbs towards maximum speed potential, causing them to be susceptible to stress injuries.

Madeleine Boyd, production still, The Golden Whip, (2014). Author

Who are the villains in this story at the edge of fantasy and reality? There is a long list of accomplices who are tied up in the numbers game that only culminates in the racing carnivals. Breeding and training is conducted by attrition with a rapid turnover of horses suiting the profiteers.

Yet also consider what happens when the princess herself turns out to be the villain. In an unexpected twist, she lures the unicorn to its death. In this way, each person who attends the Melbourne Cup and watches but does not bear witness to the cruelty is luring unicorns to their death. All who participate in the cheering are doing harm by projecting their emotive states associated with escapism onto the running horses.

Somehow our human desires for wealth, beauty and escapism are considered to outweigh the burden of pain dealt to the equines on the field.

Madeleine Boyd, video still, The Golden Whip (2014). Author
Madeleine Boyd, video still, The Golden Whip (2014). Author

In contemporary society we must move beyond naïve cognitive dissonance responses and adapt intelligently to information generated by knowledge-based disciplines such as science and cultural research.

Relevant information currently in conflict with horse racing industry practices includes abundant proof that horses are sentient, social and have the ability to learn; they are highly sensitive to touch and so respond strongly to pain such as that inflicted by whipping; they are a prey species and so prefer flight over fight; and not least, horses have historically helped humanity to move from the subsistence cultures of the cave man towards technologically advanced societies by bearing us away from danger and towards victory.

Horses, unlike unicorns, are real and experience the world much like all mammals; in other words, they experience pain and pleasure much like humans. Yet, let us retreat one more time from reality. You know in your heart and mind that unicorns are sensitive, and that they will respond to your every desire as they carry you away towards a dream.

When the unicorn in turn needs your help, can you care for a unicorn, or will you whip it to your own ends instead?

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