Forty years after Kiwi’s remarkable dash to victory in the 1983 Melbourne Cup, a lifesize statue of the Waverley horse was recently unveiled in his home town. The statue was the last work of sculptor Fridjof Hanson, completed not long before his death in September 2021. Professor Emeritus David Mellor was present at the unveiling and shares the powerful yet subtle welfare messages left by the sculptor.

As supreme athletes, horses with flared nostrils at a flat gallop are aptly described according to Arabian tradition as “Drinkers of the Wind”. To sustain their amazing speeds, they breathe in-and-out every minute 2,000 litres of air, compared to 75 per minute at rest.

Flared nostrils and a closed mouth are important, because horses when running are biologically designed to breathe only through their noses.

Many doubt this because most horses are seen to have open mouths when trotting, cantering or galloping. The reason: they are fitted with bitted bridles which cause mouth pain, and mouth opening is one of their responses to that bit-induced pain. Compare this with the invariably closed mouths of free roaming wild horses when in motion, and likewise with horses wearing halters or bit-free bridles.

To summarise: bit-free means pain-free, a closed mouth and unhindered breathing.

Kiwi in the 1980s, mouth open, ridden with a bitted bridle and shoes. Image Taranaki District Council.


Thus, Kiwi’s 1983 Melbourne Cup winning run of 25 lengths late in that race, where he sped from last place to a one-and-half-length lead at the post, was not merely extraordinary, it was absolutely astounding because he was wearing a bitted bridle. Just imagine what his lead might have been had he been bit-free!

Kiwi’s win is now marked by a bronze statue which captures his jockey and him at an extended gallop towards the end of the race. Located at Waverley, where he was born, bred, raised and trained, its recent unveiling was attended by about 350 locals and horseracing luminaries from the district. The district-wide glow of pride in their horse’s achievement was palpable during the ceremony.

The late Fridtjof Hanson with the sculpture of Kiwi that has since had a likeness of jockey Jimmy Cassidy added and been dipped in bronze. Image

Fridtjof Hanson was the sculptor who made this possible. My brothers and I first met him at our Melbourne school in the 1950s. Fridtjof and I chose separate careers: medicine and general surgery in Taranaki for him, and from the late 1980s, animal welfare research at Massey University for me.

Fridtjof was an enthusiastic recreational rider who had deep concerns about the welfare of sport horses. Given our similar interests, it was inevitable that we would work closely together from the mid-1990s until his death in 2021. We welcomed the involvement of USA-based Bob Cook, who had also identified major welfare concerns, particularly those due to bitted bridle use.

Upon retirement, Fridtjof used his knowledge of human and animal anatomy to accurately sculpt a range of statues of significance to New Zealanders.

His first was Sir Peter Snell, the world record mile runner. Kiwi was his last. To get it ready for casting in bronze was a painful race against the progress of Fridtjof’s terminal illness. He succeeded, as did the Taranaki District Council and members of the community who subsequently instigated crowdfunding to pay the many thousands of dollars needed for its casting. At the unveiling ceremony, Fridtjof was ably represented by his son Christian who spoke warmly of his father’s love of horses and desire to highlight achievements of people in the Taranaki region.

Cleverly, Fridtjof made subtle but striking welfare statements with his statue. First, although there are bit rings on each side of Kiwi’s mouth, no bit is visible, meaning he is pain-free. Second, Kiwi’s mouth is closed, a state reinforced by the words, Our lips are sealed before we draw breath to run: Cook’s Hypothesis”, inscribed on Kiwi’s breastplate. And third, Kiwi’s hooves are not shod so he can feel the ground as he runs.

Thus, Kiwi is bit-free so pain-free, his mouth is closed so his breathing is unhindered, and being bare-footed he is running freely.

“A Drinker of the Wind” who is indeed “Fleet of Foot”. Well done Fridtjof!

Additional reading:

Dr Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD, Why not bit-free? Expert says it’s time to draw the equestrian iron age to a close

Dr Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD, Clearing the Air on the Bit-free Debate.

David J Mellor, Ngaio J Beausoleil, Equine Welfare during Exercise: An Evaluation of Breathing, Breathlessness and Bridles. Animals (Basel). 2017 May 26;7(6):41. doi: 10.3390/ani7060041. PMID: 28587125; PMCID: PMC5483604.

Mellor, D.J. Mouth Pain in Horses: Physiological Foundations, Behavioural Indices, Welfare Implications, and a Suggested Solution. Animals 2020, 10, 572.

Cristina Wilkins and Professor Emeritus David Mellor, A Paradigm Shift: From Care to Welfare

Cristina Wilkins, The 2020 Five Domains Model for Welfare Assessment.

Dr Andrew McLean and Dr Kate Fenner, Why does my horse… Put the tongue over the bit