there is no retirement village for obsolete warhorses

sock pony 2011
sock pony 2011

I have finally finished a few of my sock ponies; it has been a long road. I have been meticulously painting the expanding foam, a tedious and awkward process that has allowed me ample time to reflect on the ironic inverse proportion of labour involved.  The making is quick and haphazard, involving a sock, a stick, a can of expanding foam and a handy bit of lawn. The painting is slow and careful and involves masking and colour mixing and multiple layers of gesso and paint. All for what? So they look like they just happen to be coloured that way. So they look like a pop inversion of the cool grunge-lo-fi thing. So they look like plastic fresh off the shelf.

Now that I have finished a few of them and have had time to look up from my third coat of ultra gloss orange paint I have been thinking further about what they have turned out to be. I have been reflecting on my continued interest in hobbyhorses; I have been drawing them and making them for some years now (see my archive ponies and horses).

My interest in them is twofold – on the one hand the hobbyhorse is a conveniently abbreviated shorthand for the horse, the manifestation of desire for the ideal horse rather than the actual horse with its messy physicality. On the other hand they are discomfortingly close in appearance to the head on a pike, the archaic King’s public warning against transgression. A warning the horse and myriad other beasts could well have heeded before signing up for a domesticated world; there is no retirement village for obsolete warhorses and no guarantee of grassy pastures for those who trade their service, or the meat on their bones, for a place in the new kingdom.

I am quite interested in this relationship between humans and domestic animals. Some time ago at a party a vegan acquaintance was passionately extoling to me the injustices of honey harvesting as I discretely fanged into a mince savoury, thinking to myself what a disaster it would be for our farmyard friends if the story got out and everyone became vegan. What would become of them? Maybe we would be too gracious to kill them, but the economy of needing to plant a lot of beans would undoubtedly preclude us allowing them to breed. They would, in a single generation, become obsolete, a few lonely individuals relegated to zoo-parks as relics of the folly of our forebears.

The way I look at it animals can be roughly divided into three groups – the untameable, the edible and the friendly. The untameable have said no thanks mister, we will look after ourselves. The edible – pigs, cows, chickens sheep et al – have opted for evolution over lifespan. The third group, the companions, have opted for lifestyle over genetic dignity. At this point in history it does seem that the domestic animals have taken the winning punt, those we have no economic or sentimental use for are becoming scarce. As for the domestic beasts – as long as we are eating meat and drinking milk they are off the endangered list – but at what cost? Certainly at the cost of physiological independence, these animals have co-existed with humans for so long they have lost the ability to survive outside of our husbandry. Some have even lost the ability to support their mature body weight (meat chickens, so I hear).   The trade-off for consumables is life span and, depending on how animals think about this, which is difficult to gauge, life quality versus plenitude of food and guaranteed species continuation.

For the companion, such as the dog, the contemporary horse and to some extent the cat (though the cat always seems to have a bet each way and is happy to step back into the wild as required) the stakes are somewhat different. Longevity and luxury are the goal and it seems autonomy and dignity are the sacrifices. There is the risk of being breed into increasingly obscene and unsustainable body shapes. But on the up-side is the more unsustainable your body shape the more pampering you are likely to be showered with, so it is not all bad. In fact it is probably great. Being one of those handbag-dogs would be heavenly, even if you could not breath through your nose and had to wear a silly little jacket.

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