By Mick Sharkie
Instinct is a hardwired survival mechanism and this is true of even the most highly trained racehorses, especially under times of great distress such as bushfires.
With the current bushfires in the forefront of our minds daily, it is difficult not to reflect on the firestorm that swept across Victoria on Saturday 7 February 2009, which devastated rural communities and claimed the lives of 173 people.
The horror of Black Saturday will never be forgotten by those that lived through it, but nor will the stories of heroism including the tale of a retired thoroughbred named Fabish which saved a paddock of young horses from the flames.
Bought from a paddock for just $750, the son of Almurtajaz was a handy racehorse for trainer Mick Price and even managed a city win at Caulfield as a three-year-old. Retired to Clerk of the Course duties, he led in 2002 Melbourne Cup winner Media Puzzle after the Irish horse’s famous Flemington victory, but his most important lead role came on Black Saturday.
As fire ripped through Narbethong and bore down on Singapore trainer Cliff Brown’s Tarnpirr Farm, resident paddock nanny Fabish and seven yearlings were let loose to fend for themselves by farm manager Alan Evett who held little hope in finding the horses alive after the fire razed much of the property to the ground.
Incredibly, as Evett called for the horses from his ute, Fabish emerged from the smoke with the seven yearlings trailing behind in Indian file: the 14yo gelding’s natural flight instincts had kept them safe.
Trained to race and accept human instruction from a young age, it’s easy to forget that a racehorse is still an animal with deep instinctive urges; for a spectator at Flemington during the Melbourne Cup Carnival it’s hard to think of them as anything but athletes, trained and drilled to perfection.
But on the front line participants are acutely aware of their horse’s natural patterns as well as their vulnerabilities in unnatural environments or during an extreme weather, and understanding those patterns is just as important as teaching a horse to work at even time.
David Hayes lived through fire in December 2014 when his Lindsay Park Euroa property came under attack from a fast moving grass blaze. A staff Christmas party quickly turned to a rescue mission as Hayes and his team worked to save the millions of dollars of bloodstock while the Country Fire Authority worked to save his property.
To that end, all Hayes had to do was let his horses be horses.
“There were probably forty horses that we couldn’t evacuate by float so we put them all in one big paddock and let them run as a herd. When they are under stress they look for safety in numbers,” Hayes said.
“We tied one of them on a lead behind one of the trucks and took off and the rest of the group followed. It was amazing to watch and their instincts obviously told them something was wrong and to follow the leader. There is a hierarchy in paddocks because some horses have more dominant personalities, but this was much more instinctive.”
No matter how much training or education a horse receives from its trainer, those instincts are never silenced, merely tamed so that they can go about their day to day work.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
“We are many, but we are one. Ultimately united by our fragility in such extreme circumstances.” - Laura Crane
Laura Crane's poignant painting was inspired by the powerful image captured by photographer Alex Coppel at Malua Bay, New Year's Eve, 2019.
While the devastating fires rage in Australia, it is impossible to escape the images of kangaroos fleeing the flames, or dehydrated koalas desperately lapping up water. Heartbreaking photos of perished livestock in their paddocks are shocking, bringing home the severity of the situation to people's, and our country's, livelihood.
Alex Coppel’s original photograph of the beach at Malua Bay moved her to use her own artistic skills to interpret it in watercolour.
"As these horrific bushfires raged, I found myself really taking in these incredible photos which have been circulating on social media, telling the catastrophic scenes unfolding right across our beautiful nation, to the world. And I could not stop my tears. So much heartache and pain. So much suffering. So much loss. So much displacement. And yet amongst all of that, also captured are beautiful moments of connection, vulnerability, compassion, fortitude, resilience and flat out heroism.
Alex Coppel’s photos stirred me deep within my heart. Seeing a huge crowd shrouded in smoke, seeking refuge on the beach, with horses and dogs all huddled together, I saw the shared fragility of man and beast. Refuge sought by all, two legs or four.
My inspiration to recreate these images is to translate that moment, with the truly moved heart I have, to imbue a sense of hope into those original, raw images and to tell of our action. We see your suffering. We feel your pain. We are doing all we can. We are here.
It’s the very least we can do. We are one but we are many, I am, you are, we are Australian."
All creatures great and small are in dire need of aid, and while it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of destruction, there are ways that you can help.
Works created within this collection will be offered for purchase in numerous ways, to raise aid for wildlife hospitals and our courageous fireys.
For more information visit Laura Crane Creative.