The “race that stops the nation” is being run today and while many are enjoying luncheons, hats, sweeps or a welcome day off work (if you live in Victoria), others are reflecting on the darker sides of the racing industry. The horrendous footage of ex-racehorses being abused prior to being slaughtered for pet food recently aired and sexism in the industry has again been highlighted.
For the record, I’m a horse lover who dislikes horse racing. I don’t like gambling, fancy hats or walking on lawn wearing high heels. I abhor the way many racehorses are trained, treated and later discarded.
Whilst having no interest in the modern spring racing season, I have a soft historical spot for its iconic race.
The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861. In 2004, ABC TV re-created 1861 life on a western NSW sheep station, Oxley Downs, for its multi-million dollar ‘Outback House’ production. To commemorate the inaugural Melbourne Cup, on the first Tuesday in November the show’s participants held their own horse race, dubbed the ‘Oxley Downs Cup’. It was the race that stopped the station. A chance to down tools and gather together for a few moments’ frivolity. The frocked and hatted womenfolk watched their menfolk race around the homestead on horseback, some more gracefully than others. You can view the video clip here.
It was all supposed to be a bit of light-hearted fun, but I was standing there fuming, a prisoner in my custom-made mustard-coloured Italian silk dress, corset, crinoline, petticoats and crippling footwear. I was forbidden from participating in the race, despite being one of the few participants with extensive equestrian experience.
Before joining the show, I had assumed that as the station’s governess I would spend considerable time on horseback, and was looking forward to teaching my three charges how to ride. The production team had seemed very interested in my riding experience which included performing in a gala show riding side saddle (not a common skill in 2004).
However, I was provided with pretty clothes in which I couldn’t easily move and delicate shoes in which I couldn’t walk more than a few metres without pain. I was not given a riding habit or any suitable underwear for riding (only crotchless pantaloons).
I was brought up to be enterprising and solution-focused; to not whinge about the circumstances in which I found myself, but instead to find creative ways to better them.
And that is what I did.
I behaved myself for the first few hours but within a day I was galloping around mustering sheep in borrowed men’s long-john underwear and men’s work boots, having an absolute ball. It was at this point, to my surprise, I was expressly told that I was forbidden from riding, unlike the other participants, many of whom had no skills and/or interest in horse-riding. As an outdoorsy, energetic equestrienne, with ready access to horses and surrounded by hundreds of acres of pastures and bush, spending my time on Oxley Downs watching others explore the region on horseback while I sat quietly doing needlepoint was not palatable.
Believing this ban must have originated from a misunderstanding as to what 19th century governesses did in outback Australia, I provided examples of horse-riding governesses based on the extensive reading I’d done prior to joining the show, thinking an evidence-based and logical approach would help. Rationality fell on deaf ears and I soon realised my error. It had nothing to do with being a governess and it was not really because of insurance issues, as was claimed. I had been banned from riding to frustrate me. The producers had been interested in my riding proclivities not to make good use of them on set, but to deny me what I thought would keep be balanced, happy and sane.
I had entered into the world of reality television without any real understanding of reality television. I didn’t appreciate that Outback House was part of the reality genre, instead thinking it was more a living historical docu-drama. I was fascinated by the history, not the drama, and was terribly disappointed that the series which went to air focused on the latter, rather than the former. I certainly didn’t know that the ‘reality’ in reality television is a misnomer and that reality television participants are routinely and deliberately manipulated and provoked, even to breaking point, in order to create what is considered entertaining television.
I was more emotionally robust and less entertaining than they had anticipated. I worked around the riding ban, initially riding each day at dawn prior to the film crews’ arrival. Following excessive delays, an insurance waiver was reluctantly provided, and I then rode openly, borrowing men’s clothing and the mistress’s riding habit to do so. I didn’t lose my cool or clash with other participants. I largely ignored the fact I was being filmed and revelled in the privilege of ‘living’ history.
My life has changed almost completely in the 15 years since I was prevented from riding in the Oxley Downs Cup, but on the first Tuesday each November I do like to take the opportunity to reflect and reminisce on the rather surreal life chapter that was Outback House.
Precious few get to step out of society for an extended period and to almost travel back in time. The immersive experience was life-changing, meaningful and priceless, and while I don’t regret being involved, I hope to never have another experience quite like it.