Horsing around: how the horse/human relationship has evolved

Kristian Pulkownik allegedly punching NSW Mounted Police horse Tobruk at an anti-lockdown demonstration in Sydney on 24 July, 2021. Photo: NSW Police Force/Facebook.

They used to transport us; now they police us at protests or heal us through groundbreaking therapy that’s seeing remarkable results. Editor-at-large Gary Nunn investigates the ways horses are used in public life.

It’ll surely be viewed as one of the pictures that captures 2021. 

During deeply controversial anti-lockdown protests in Sydney, protester Kristian Pulkownik, 33, was photographed seemingly punching mounted police horse, Tobruk – causing outrage as the image circulated online.

He’s currently being remanded on four charges: affray, animal cruelty, joining an unlawful assembly and failing to comply with a Covid-19 direction. He’s also refusing a Covid test in custody. 

Thousands defied coronavirus restrictions to attend the 24 July protests, which were roundly condemned.

A planned repeat protest on Saturday was quashed by police.  

The viral picture has opened debate on both the micro and macro: did Pulkownik actually punch the horse? Should police still use horses? What’s the state of play in the horse/human relationship? Should we still be using them in public life?

Was Tobruk actually punched?

Footage emerged to suggest the picture might have been deceptive.

Optics of the photo have aligned to give the impression Pulkownik thumped the horse in the head, causing him to lurch sideways; footage suggests there was more of a shove and poke – still nefarious by any measure – although it’s difficult to be sure as the footage ends before we see the full affray. 

Other pictures show clearly cruel behaviour as Pulkownik grabs the horse’s mouth. 

Given his other offences and actions to endanger others that day, it also feels like a moot point. 

For context, more disturbing footage emerged. It showed protesters trying to intimidate mounted police, who stood with horses facing to the wall, as bottles and pot plants were lobbed at the horses, who eventually had to gallop a few feet away from the baying mob. 

Footage of protesters throwing objects and horses and police at the 24 July anti-lockdown protest in Sydney. Video: Charlie Avery/YouTube.

“Even trained horses frighten easily”

Aleesha Naxakis, spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was concerned by what she saw.

“Using horses in protests is not the best approach, as even trained horses are still highly strung and frighten easily,” she tells the Sentinel. “Using horses puts them, the police officer riding them and the public at risk of injury.”

Police reassured the public that horses were well trained to deal with such scenarios through “exposure” training.

Superintendent Michael Rochester, Commander of the Dog and Mounted Unit, told media that “in a protest scenario, they’re used for crowd management, observation and assisting officers on the ground”.

Senior Sergeant Glen Potter, the head of Western Australia’s Mounted Police section, told the ABC last year that one mounted horse is the equivalent “10 coppers on the ground”.

In a press call arranged by NSW Police, Tobruk’s rider Senior Constable Patrick Condon said Tobruk, who has been with the mounted unit for four years, performed brilliantly considering this was his first protest

NSW police issued pictures of the horse and revealed he’d been inundated with liquorice, apples and carrots from many well-wishers from across the community.

Tobruk pictured on 24 July, 2021 in his stable, hours after the anti-lockdown protest in Sydney. Photo: Mounted Unit – NSW Police Force/supplied.

“He points his hoof to the weakest hospital patient”

Since cars replaced horse-and-carts, the ways in which humans and horses interact have changed.

One of the newer ways people are using the unique traits of horses is to help with counselling and psychology in a practice known as equine therapy, which has grown in popularity in Australia in the last decade.

This year’s World Press Photo Exhibition at Sydney’s NSW State Library included a striking picture of a horse being used to comfort an extremely sick cancer patient in a hospital in northern France.

The horse, Peyo, was introduced to the world via an extraordinary photo essay in the Guardian.

Peyo is literally trotted into French hospitals (after being disinfected) and, by pointing his hoof, informs his trainer which room he wants to enter based on where he thinks the sickest patient in need of his equine therapy is. 

His trainer, and some hospital staff, believe he’s able to detect when humans have cancers or tumours, then is able to reduce patients’ pain, discomfort and anxiety by standing over and watching dying patients. Even scientists have reported that terminally ill patients report lower doses of pain relief drugs following his hospital visits, and veterinary specialists believe his brain functions in a unique way. Since 2016, Peyo has supported 1,000 patients till their dying breath, the Guardian reports.

It all started when, after dressage shows in a former life, he’d pick out people in the crowd, approach them and choose to stay next to them. His trainer “suspected Peyo was choosing people who were weakened morally, physically or psychologically”. 

Manon, 24, suffering from metastatic cancer, embraces her seven-year-old son Ethan in the presence of Peyo at a hospital in Calais, France on 30 November, 2020, in a photo included in this year’s World Press Photo Exhibition, Sydney. Photo: Jérémy Lempin.

Horses mirror human emotions 

Here in Australia, equine therapy tends to take place in a paddock and attracts patients who aren’t comfortable just processing emotions in a room according to Meg Kirby, a trained psychotherapist from Daylesford, Victoria. “For example, men, adolescents, children and people not responding to cognitive behavioural therapy,” she says. “They need more movement and engagement.” 

She gives an example of how a session might look: “If a client greets the horse by slapping it overenthusiastically – that gives the practitioner insights of how they might step into relationships by getting too close too soon. It suggests they’re not really reading the feelings or needs of others.”

How they react to the horse backing off offers further intel. “Do they feel rejected or that ‘the horse really loves me?’ That gives me interesting material on how they interpret others in their lives.”

Horses, Kirby says, also afford a unique privilege when practicing psychotherapy: “Therapists can’t do a lot of touch with clients – horses offer safe touching and holding, which relaxes, calms and soothes.”

Willow Vetch, a trained psychotherapist who facilitates equine therapy in Adelaide, says equine therapy is unique because clients are “partnering with an emotionally sound, emotionally well-regulated animal”.

Horses are, she says, keenly intuitive and “attuned to people’s slightest expressions and energetic or emotional shifts”. 

“A horse’s inherent gentle nature, curiosity and desire to work within a herd or community causes them to seek connection, even with people. They react to the truth in the present by consistently mirroring back to an individual, the truth of how they’re showing up in that moment. This feedback enables a deepening in awareness of self,” she says.

Kirby says: “Horses get you to be in the here and now rather than stuck in there and then. They connect to body rather than thoughts.” 

Vetch used horse therapy after experiencing sexual assault, and manifesting her trauma: “The horse taught me the difference between being assertive and aggressive. He’d put his ears back, bear his teeth – he’d show me what aggression looks like when I embody it,” she says. “In contrast, when being assertive, his body was soft and fluid and he’d be physically very close. It taught me how to be better in relationships.”

Trained psychotherapist Willow Vetch (pictured) facilitates equine therapy for her clients. Photo: Lavana Dancer/supplied.

“I saw the things I didn’t want to face playing out in the paddock”

Foxxy Eleoyze underwent equine therapy a year ago on the Gold Coast. “I got some deeper insights into the dynamics of my relationship with my partner and our business we ran,” she says. “There were many things I didn’t want to face, things I saw in our life, playing out in the paddock.

“For example, I chose a particular horse to represent a program I was trying to get off the ground,” she says. “I’ve handled horses before, but it was like the horse’s head was glued to the ground; I just couldn’t get the bridle on. It showed me I wanted to make something happen that just wasn’t going to happen. And it was prophetic – that program was a dead end.”

She’d “absolutely” recommend the “thought-provoking” experience which “helps you ask yourself lots of questions”.

Animal rights activists oppose, as the psychotherapy industry comes round

Not everyone’s on board with horses used as a counselling aid. 

PETA’s Aleesha Naxakis says that, in a perfect world, horses would be free to pursue their own lives and humans wouldn’t make demands of them. 

“They’re herd animals who, in nature, associate with other members of their large groups, graze in meadows, travel great distances, play and engage in courtship behaviour. They have needs, wants and interests entirely independent from what humans ask and expect from them,” she says.

But there are hints that the psychotherapy industry might begin to view this leftfield practice as legitimate before too long.

Melbourne based registered psychologist Donna Cameron tells the Sentinel this would be seen by most psychologists as leftfield and new; a bit out there by the industry.

That’s partly because, she says, when it first emerged, those doing it weren’t necessarily trained psychologists.

Now they are, accredited psychologists like Cameron are becoming more open minded about it.

“I’m 100 per cent on board with the idea that horses model human behaviour and match their emotions. When the human calms down, the horse calms down. When the human gets happier, the horse does. Apparently it’s amazing to see,” she says. 

She’s even looked into training to practice it herself, especially as a distraction for those who find barriers to the confronting practice of communicating their emotions.

“We’ve got to be more open minded to talk therapy – we might not all be verbal – some of us are more visual or emotional,” she says.

“We use play therapy for children; why one size fits all for adults? Why not allow these different techniques to get more adults to open up?” 

Gary Nunn is the editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. He can be followed on Twitter at @GaryNunn1.