Of Women and Horses

This is a chapter from the book 'Of women and Horses' edited by Ga Wa Ni Pony Boy, and published by Bow Tie Press.

As far as I am aware (and I have little historical knowledge), the love story between women and horses is predominantly a 20th century phenomenon. But it is hard to believe that individual women did not have deeply significant relationships with their horses well before that time. This century has seen the horse’s role evolve from beast of burden and transport to that of family member. He now faces social instead of utilitarian tasks, and instead of having predominantly male riders and handlers his “significant others” are predominantly female. Perhaps it took wealth, and the changing social order of the post second world war period for enough women to have enough contact with enough horses for us to reach some kind of critical mass, and for the concept of “horsey women” to be born. Perhaps it took film for this relationship to be glamorised, and placed in the public domain as a “phenomenon”. Perhaps it took Freud to give us a psychoanalytic interpretation (from a male perspective of course) which we could feel justified in rallying against.

Like a large percentage of the women I meet around horses, I was in love with them from as early as I can remember. Living my fantasies of riding and being around horses took a very long time, but throughout those years the fantasy remained all consuming. But at the age when so many little girls are goggling either at real ponies, or at the ponies in their picture books, most little boys could not care less. They are besotted with engines, and the need to put things together and take them apart.

Looking back, I think horses held such a magnetic attraction for me because of their beauty, grace, power, gentleness, and vunerability, and because of the enormity of their spirits – spirits so bold and free, yet so willing to be tamed and trained. My “horseyness” began during early childhood, when my spirit too was being tamed and trained, as I learnt the social skills and behaviours appropriate for a young girl in the culture of that time. They were hard lessons, and I suspect that I knew – somewhere in the deepest recesses of my being - that there were costing me dearly. I was developing a social mask, an acceptable “persona”, and was loosing access to my spirit and to my core self. Horses, somehow, kept that spirit alive. They represented wholeness, the richness of my entire self, and they gave meaning to life. But this meaning would have so much more reality if only I could be with them more.

It is very tempting to romanticise the relationship which women have with horses, and as much as one might like to think of women as all good, and men as all bad, it is really not that simple. (I often wondour if little boys too are searching for meaning when they feel compelled to take things apart, and if their search for wholeness just takes a different form.) But when your quest for wholeness requires a relationship, you are not faced with an easy task. Living your love in any close liason becomes so very testing because everything that happens matters so much.

So whilst many women are extremely “soppy” about their horses when they are off them, the agenda changes once they are on them. With riders of both sexes, the combination of high expectations and low skills marks the beginnings of stress for the horse. Low expectations and low skills can never be an ideal; but unless high expectations are matched with high skills and an extremely ethical philosophy of training, the horse suffers - and he probably suffers more than he does from ignorance. For as the Old Classical Masters of dressage used to say, “Where skill ends, violence begins.”.
Since women reach the limits of their skills just as often as men, it is perhaps fortunate that we do not have as much weight to throw around as they do. In general, we have a lesser need to be right, to dominate, and to win at all costs. We are less likely to regard riding as a battle. But we still have our ambitions and our insecurities, and these can be triggered by riding. A frightening number of horses are still forced to carry the burden of our ego needs.
This all depends on what we believe our riding says about us. If a bad canter transition is purely viewed as a behaviour, then to mess it up is no big deal. But if I progress down that slippery slope from “I rode a bad transition”, to “I can’t ride transitions”, to “I’m having a bad day”, to “I’m a bad rider”, and ultimately to “I am a bad person”, then every transition has the potential to prove that I am good or bad. Ultimately, every step the horse takes becomes leaded with meaning. God help the horse who puts a foot wrong.

It might be a sweeping generalisation to say that men have to prove they are dominant, whilst women have to prove they are good; but if our riding is the means for proving anything, we are using the horse in the service of ego needs which he should never have to fulfill. Even the love which many women give their horses is not given freely, for there is the expectation that the horse should love his “mom” in return. When he has to love her more than he simply loves being a horse, he is in big trouble - for he can rarely live up to expectations. His love and loyalty would supposedly extend to being “good”, so when he fails to act as required he lets his “mom” down badly. Hence she feels that recriminations are in order. What she has failed to realise is that she has made a “one way bargain”, and that the horse never signed on the dotted line.

In the horse world, amongst women as well as men, there are (to borrow from the language of Transactional Analysis) victims, rescuers, and persecutors. These roles are malleable, and victims can sometimes become persecutors - sizing up their opponent, and snatching a chance to be “one-up” instead of “one-down”. (This happens so commonly around horses – especially when you are angry with your husband, your mother or your boss - that I am tempted to say “Let he who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone.”.) Even rescuers are rarely as generous as they first appear, for they are actually seeking hidden rewards, and when these do not materialise they too can become persecutors. Thus there are very few people who “level” with their horse, coming from a position in which neither party is perceived as inferiour. This is the stance of “I’m OK, you’re OK”. It fosters mutual respect, and no game playing. But if our communication with our horses is to be “clean” (and not loaded with hidden agendas), it needs the skills that make it so. What so few people realise is that those skills are learnt from the horse, and that he is our ultimate teacher.

It was undoubtedly men who created the expectation that horses should cross the great divide between our species, and who called them “stupid” when they did not. What these “trainers” never realised that the language “human” was such a jumbled mass of contradictions to the horse that it made no sense to him. But as much as we women might like to think of ourselves as the saviours of the horse, we have to acknowledge that it has been men – the most forward thinking trainers of the American West – who have been the ones to right these wrongs, showing the way to other riding cultures whose traditions have been less brutal.
The saddest aspect of this is that so few riders – and even (though I hesitate to say it) so few women - have the humility to learn from the horse, and thus to communicate with him in his own language. Whether you are on the ground or on his back; whether you are an ambitious, a competitive, or a backyard rider, I believe that you owe this to your horse. This – or your best efforts along the path of your learning - is living your love. And there are so many choices now about how you do that. You can communicate with your horse through riding. But if you prefer not to bite off that challenge (and a significant challenge it is) you can become skilful at working him in a round pen, or on the end of a twelve foot rope. Or you can learn the skills of touch, discovering how to read his body and ease his aches and pains.

Meeting any of these challenges may require you to evolve, and to change both who you are, and how you perceive yourself and your horse. As one of my old teachers used to say, “The rider needs both sensitivity and authority, but it is so rare to find both of those in one person. If you are strong in one, you are lacking in the other…”. This might seem like the archetypal male/female divide, and perhaps we are all in search of a wholeness which incorporates the strengths of both sexes. So it is that riding and handling horses can become a path of personal discovery. The less natural talent you have, the more you stand to learn – and to gain as a person – from your interactions with your horses.

And what of Freud? Whilst I like to think of riding as a path of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development, I can contemplate the possibility that he might have had a point. But I remain convinced that the longings of so many women to be around horses are primarily spiritual and not sexual in their nature. One of my pupils, however, once returned from a holiday in America, proudly displaying a bumper sticker which read, “Put something exciting between your legs, ride a horse.”. Freud would have approved of that one!

Whilst it may be tempting to think of yourself as your horse’s “Mom” - especially given his dependence on you, and the amount of his shit that you will probably have to shovel - this is something of a sell-out, and you are not acknowledging the entirety of your relationship with him. Riders who are more up-front willingly acknowledge that their horse has as much the role of their dancing partner as of their child. One young friend of mine, for instance, went the whole way when she was complimented on being such a good mummy to her horse. “I am not his mummy”, she responded firmly “I am his girl friend.”.
The relationship between many of us women and our horses is so close, so exciting, demanding and intimate, that it can be the most profound of our lives. So perhaps it is not surprising that several women I know once had husbands who had implemented the final solution to their marital problems. “It’s me or the horse”, they announced, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the woman concerned would rather share life with her horse! My own ex-partner once declared indignantly that “I’m not like your horse, you know, you can’t just shut me in a stable and forget about me!”. Little did he realise that I rarely forgot about my horse, and never shut him in for very long.”. That man just didn't understand how the world works...