A month ago I was standing next to a horse, my hand on the back of her neck. I was having a beginner’s horseback riding lesson, at age almost-sixty. The instructor told me to start rocking gently from the hips. When I did, she bade me keep rocking and let my fingers communicate the movement to the horse.
A few seconds later, this 900 pound animal that could kill me with one strike of her hooves was rocking back and forth, under the command—the guidance—the invitation of my arthritic thumb and fingers.
Now segue back over fifty years, to me, just turned seven. I had been given Black Beauty for my birthday, which I read with intense passion, wept over, and from then on, believed with unswerving conviction that horses are people. They’re just not human. Even though I knew they couldn’t talk (in spite of Mr. Ed). Even though my first experience with a live horse, at brownie camp, ended with the animal scraping me against a tree and doing its angry best to get me out of the saddle. (Considering how animals were treated back then, in retrospect I do not fault that horse.)
I read horse books, I drew horses, I listened with a hungry envy to girls who got to take lessons talking about galloping and jumping. I finally got to ride when I was a summer camp counselor at Catalina Island, when I was nineteen and twenty, then not again until recently. But I never abandoned my interest in horses, even in college, when an anthropology professor sneered about girls and horses being proof that Freud was right about females and repressed sexual urges.
In a fact-crammed, richly visual, and fascinating e-book coming out next week, WRITING HORSES, The Fine Art of Getting It Right, fantasy writer and horse breeder and trainer Judith Tarr devotes a chapter to just this question. She thinks that horses and humans evolved together, and she surmises that the first person to climb atop a horse (and stay on) was probably a girl. She says:
Women and horses quite simply get along. The best horsemen over the centuries have learned that horses respond best to nuanced handling. For women in our culture, nuance is a way of life. So is cooperative interaction rather than master/slave interaction. For these big, surprisingly fragile animals, a human who is willing or able to meet them halfway is much to be preferred over the human who marches in and Shows Him Who’s Boss.
That is far more convincing to me than the Freudians’ somewhat reductive explanation. If horses and humans weren’t compatible on a visceral level, this riding as a willingly shared action between two beings—a conversation in movement form—wouldn’t work. The exhilaration I felt during my tentative, limited lesson, was inspired by the sense that we were communicating, that this horse was as curious about me as I was about her—two middle-aged females of our species hanging out together.
This sense of horses as individuals whose lives complement human individuals are what make the best reading, I believe: after about age ten I did not like fiction about animals that acted like humans. I loved books in which the humans were aware of the animals as participants in the ongoing story, from the kids’ books that were still absorbing reads, to Dick Francis’s track tales.
But my heart really responds the most to the books in which girls and horses get to be buddies. So when I got an advance reading copy of House of the Star , ( watch the vid) which Judith Tarr writes under the name Caitlin Brennan, I sat down hoping for the old spark—and got it in Fourth of July glory. This book has all my old favorites, not just girls-and-horses, but princesses and horses. Other worlds! Summer camp! Magic! Intense girl social interplay! And horses as individuals, with their own interesting personalities.
The story revolves around Princess Elen of Ymbria, who wants to be a worldrider, that is, one of a pair of humans and horses who travel the worldroads. But when she’s offered a chance to spend a season on Earth, living at a desert ranch and taking care of the horses (whether worldroad horses or ordinary), she’s instantly suspicious of a plot to match her with a prince of Caledonia, the hated Caledonia, the nasty traitorous Caledonia, where Ymbria’s worse enemies have come from for generations. She doesn’t want anything to do with princes any more than she wants anything to do with Caledonians.
Elen first encounters Blanca, a powerful world traveling mare who doesn’t seem to care the least for Elen’s firestorm emotions. Elen finds herself in the dry desert heat of a ranch on Earth, a place in which magic has to be hidden, but the horse care still has to go on. Next, she meets Ria, a red-haired girl who also loves horses. Has Elen found a potential friend? Elen strives to adjust, resenting how the universe seems to be conspiring to force her into the enemy camp—and that’s before she finds out who the Caledonian really is.
Brennan could have written this story from Ria’s point of view. Ria is awesome—devoted to horses, a smart, kind, generous princess. The kind of girl any reader would instantly accept as a heroine. But Brennan instead gives us difficult, moody, fiery Elen, who has the most to learn, which lends the girls’ social interactions a delicious intensity. Elen has to work harder to become a heroine, which makes her that much more interesting to follow. Horses, magic, the Horned King and the Wild Hunt, and horses in foal—the story escalates into exciting and powerful drama until all the threads combine. I picked up the book intending to sip it over a few days, and ended up gulping it down in one sitting.
This book comes out in two days; if you are a ten year old horse girl, or have a ten year old horse girl still inside you, I recommend this book. And if there is a horse girl in your life, House of the Star would be a terrific gift.