Over the years that I’ve done this article series, I’ve talked a lot about horses as the Other—the alien intelligence that complements the human so well. Without the horse, the trajectory of human history, notably in Europe and Asia, would be totally different. The horse allowed a much wider spread of cultures, much faster—not to mention what chariotry and then cavalry did to the development of warfare.
Now that machines have supplanted the horse as transport and war machine, the horse is still one of our premier companion animals, though the size of the animal and the expense of keeping him present major and sometimes overwhelming logistical problems. This certainly does not prevent a certain type of human from sacrificing a great deal in order to keep horses—and it’s most interesting that this type of human, in our Western culture, is usually female.
When the horse brought prestige and prowess in war, he was a male province and prerogative. Now those functions are performed by machines—and horses are a luxury. Though if you ask a horsewoman, that’s “necessity” to you, mister.
Women and horses quite simply get along. The best horsepeople over the centuries have learned that horses respond best to nuanced handling. For women in our culture, nuance is a way of life. It keeps a woman safe. It allows her to slide through the culture without being killed or fatally wounded, whether literally or metaphorically.
Women are culturally conditioned toward cooperative interaction. Horses, as herd animals, respond well to this. A human who is willing or able to meet them halfway is much to be preferred over the human who marches in and Shows Them Who’s Boss.
There has been little written or studied about women and horses prior to the internal-combustion engine. My personal theory is that the first person to ride a horse was probably a girl. Her brother got into it once he figured out that on a horse you are bigger, taller, and way stronger and faster than anyone else around you.
I wonder too about horses in later preindustrial cultures—did girls develop the fascination with them that girls do now, usually around the “tween” ages–ten to twelve, roughly? Or were they kept away from the horses and focused on other things to the extent that the syndrome never triggered?
Maybe it’s a cultural artifact of our era, when children assigned female at birth are given so much more freedom but still subjected to continuous sexist indoctrination. To sum this up, I give you a color and a concept: Barbie pink, and the princess. There’s a whole world of assumptions and expectations encapsulated in these two things, and the base assumption is that they’re a second best, a consolation prize.
A girl’s options don’t reduce as fast or as extensively at puberty now as they did a generation ago–she’s allowed a wider range of athletic skill and prowess than she used to be–but her relative physical strength and size do shrink significantly compared to that of her male peers. As that happens, she also has to watch out for what she wears and when she wears it, where she goes, what she does, because the world is full of predators, and she is prey. An adult male has the freedom of the night. Women, along with non-binary and gender non-conforming people, are potential targets, and must proceed with caution.
A woman on a horse has a half-ton or more of speed and power to call on, and she can go wherever a horse can. She is also the equal of a man—which is why Equestrian is the only range of Olympic sports in which men and women (and horses) complete with total equality. A human predator on foot is not going to challenge his prey if she is mounted on a horse—a fact that mounted police forces know very well; horses are an excellent means of crowd control.
I doubt very much that the ten-year-old with pictures of ponies all over her bedroom wall and a fantasy farm online is aware of this, and for all I know there is a genetic complex that triggers in human cis-females at that age which predisposes them toward horses. But I do wonder. Archaeologists keep finding evidence of historical Amazons, and they seem to have been horse archers. Our modern horsewomen are no longer likely to ride to war, but they do dominate equestrian sports, and that trend shows no sign of fading.
Women and horses have a special bond. Many outgrow it, discover dating, and wander away—but later, when their daughters reach the magic age, the mothers may get back into it; daughters move on, and sometimes mothers are left holding the horse, so to speak. And many keep right on doing it, so that one of the main demographics in the American horse world is the forty-plus woman. Manufacturers of equestrian impedimenta have even, finally, caught on to the fact that not all or even most riders these days are tween-aged girls (with the accompanying range of sizes and styles); the people buying the products are usually the mothers and women of the mothers’ or grandmothers’ age. Adult “re-riders” have become a huge and lucrative demographic.
In short: A horse is freedom. A horse is power. And a horse is a companion, a giant friend, a partner. That speaks to women in our culture.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.