When Gender Bias Extends to the Animal Kingdom: C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy

All I remembered of C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy before yesterday when I sat down and read it again was the part about the horse teaching the boy how to ride. That was going to be the subject of this week’s column, with reference to Col. Alois Podhajsky’s My Horses, My Teachers, and a rumination on the horse as teacher. That’s still on my list for Columns I Want To Write, but as I read the book, I went off in a different direction.

The book has serious problems for modern readers—the racism hits you right in the face on the first page—but it’s also rather less accurate on the equestrian front than I’d remembered. That dratted Suck Fairy, it splurts all over the damnedest things. Nevertheless, there’s still some good in it, and the idea that a human can learn riding from a horse makes perfect sense, if you know horses.

Horses are born to teach. They do it to each other as a regular thing, and they’re just fine with educating humans, provided they haven’t learned through sad experience that humans are not teachable. That’s on the humans, not on the horses who either go dull and endure, or dump the idiots and refuse to play at all.

So here is Shasta, the fisherman’s boy who can sort of stay on his alleged father’s donkey, and Bree, the Talking Horse from Narnia who was stolen as a foal and enslaved to a Calormene noble. Bree has been passing as a regular horse for years, but finally in Shasta sees his ticket back to Narnia. In the process, and with help from a certain very large feline, he and Shasta meet another Talking Horse, a mare named Hwin, and her girl, Aravis, a Calormene aristocrat who is running away from a forced marriage.

But first, Shasta has to learn how to stay on Bree. Bree does not teach him about reins and hands—Shasta has to figure that out on a regular horse later, with distinctly mixed results. What Bree does teach is seat, and on that he is uncompromising. Shasta will keep falling off until he learns to stay on.

While I read these scenes I could not help but think that most of Shasta’s problem is Bree telling him to grip as hard as he can with his knees. The truth is, if you clamp with your knees, you lock your pelvis and squirt yourself up out of the saddle. This causes you to slam-slam-slam when the horse trots or canters—and that means you’re likely to get launched, either by the horse who is fed up with the pounding on his back, or by your lack of balance as the horse moves. If he suddenly changes pace, stumbles or otherwise shifts under you, off you go. All that gripping just makes you stiffer and launches you harder.

What a rider really uses to stay on is balance. The part that’s doing the work is the core—the pelvis and abdomen. The legs drape. They do not grip. Their job is to balance the upper body, and the lower leg does things like press or tap to increase speed, or “fluff” to lift the horse’s back and get him moving more efficiently, or shape a bend around a curve or circle, or add judicious punctuation to a request. A locked leg and clamped knees cannot do these things.

Most of the Go and the Stop is in the seat (which goes basically from the torso to the knees, centered on the pelvis), with help from either end of the body, and on a horse that is not Bree, the hands holding the reins. No grippy knees. A tense rider is an insecure rider. It’s all about keeping calm and carrying on.

A really secure seat, such as Aravis’, needs some serious exertion on the horse’s part to dislodge, because whatever the horse is doing, the rider is floating along. When it’s properly plugged in, it feels as if the horse’s back has set up a soft suction, and all you do is keep your core supple, remember to breathe, and let the horse do his thing. You’ll help him if he needs it, give instructions for speed or direction, but it’s amazingly relaxed and looks effortless, the way a good dance always does. (And of course we know just how much strength it takes to maintain that appearance of ease.)

Aravis has been riding since childhood, and she knows how to do it right. Aravis is awesome. We only get a little generic sexism with her, and surprisingly little racism. It’s as if she came in from a different book, took a look round, and decided to sort things out.

Aravis reminds me of why I wrote A Wind in Cairo, which is partly about correcting the issues I saw in The Horse and His Boy, and mostly about girls and horses. And the Crusades. From the other side.

Hwin, unfortunately, does not hold up well at all. She’s a classic Repressed Female, shy and stammery, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Bree is all bluster and arrogance, with a distinct core of insecurity. Hwin is a shrinking violet.

That is so not right for a mare. Bree is a pretty believable gelding. We know he’s got the optional equipment, but this is a children’s book from a certain era; we can’t very well have him talking and acting the way a real stallion would. Real stallions are very…organic. Or earthy, if you like.

Mares, now. Never mind the human propaganda about Stallion as King. The stallion is loud, dramatic, aggressive, and hard to miss. He’s the most challenging of horses to handle, especially if one is male oneself. But he’s not the one in charge.

The real ruler of the herd is the senior mare. She makes the decisions, organizes the herd, keeps the kids in line, and delegates early and often. The stallion is the security force, the alarm system, and the protector against predators, including other stallions. The mares mostly let him make noise and show off, but when it comes time for breeding, they’re the ones who call the shots.

Stallions who rape mares don’t last long in the wild. Horses are so constructed that if she ain’t willin’, she can kick him exactly where it hurts. She can, if she’s sufficiently determined, make sure he never breeds another mare—and that’s if she doesn’t snap one or both hindlegs and finish him off for good.

A wise stallion knows this. He learns it early, and he has deep and sincere respect for the ladies. He asks before he takes; he knows when she’s ready, and if she says no, he knows better than to force the issue. If she’s not in season, he’ll leave her alone and he’ll babysit the kids. Stallions can be very good fathers, if brought up properly and taught correct deportment.

Hwin must have been horribly, indelibly abused to be so crushed down that she couldn’t even learn herd manners from the non-Talking mares. Or else Talking Horses are so racist that they can’t even see sentience in their nonverbal cousins, which left her to bring herself up badly rather than learning from the Calormene mares. Either way, it’s a tragedy.

I cannot imagine Hwin is anything like what a real Talking Mare would be. Mares minus the talk are already queens. Real Talking Hwin would suffer no fools, least of all Bree. She would tell him to shut up and listen, set him straight as often as necessary, and back it up with hooves and teeth if he didn’t cooperate.

Of course that would be a very different book, and probably not need the Aslan ex machina, either. Hwin would make sure Bree did the right thing, if she didn’t go ahead and do it for him. Nor would she ever, ever defer to him—though she might roll her eyes and sigh heavily and let him bloviate if it suited her purpose.

Mares, after all, have no use for boys except when they’re in season, and then they don’t necessarily want the boy who’s asking. Many don’t care, any boy will do, but either way, he’d better do it nicely, or he’ll get put to rights. The rest of the time, he can keep to his place and remember his manners.

I do hope Hwin was able to recover in Narnia and be the mare she was meant to be. That level of repression just is not right in any mare, Talking or otherwise.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed spirit dog.

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