Horse Girls and Magic

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.

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Horse Girls and Magic — 34 Comments

  1. Adventure with princesses and horses! Although I’d add beautiful gowns, long flowing hair, and castles to make it perfect for my taste.

    As a girl, I loved the Black Stallion series and like you longed to ride.

  2. I’ve spent twenty-one years viewing the world from the back of a horse, and if the gods are merciful, I’ll stay up there until my cold carcass falls off of its own accord.

    My mom used to joke that if my sister and I found a viable way to go to the bathroom from atop a horse, our feet would never hit the ground again. Only she wasn’t really joking.

    We were laughing at the Sirens conference about still climbing through arches in trees (even as adults) in search of a gate into Faerie, but the truth is that a horse is its own sort of gateway. Once you’re astride one, the world shrinks to just the two of you and the energy flowing between you. You’re both still an integral part of all other energies as well, but what shines is the bond between horse and rider.

    A horse is a magical thing, whether it’s carrying you off on adventures, serenading you with the sound of cropping grass (if you’ve never lain in a field while horses cropped grass around you, do so if you ever get the chance) or teaching you things like how life begins with long spindly legs you have to grow into and if you’re lucky ends on sunny hillsides in the quiet, everything a horse does is magic of its own sort.

    Thanks for the post Sherwood! Here’s to many new horse adventures for you! And I’ll definitely be checking out Caitlin’s new book, as I now have a wee niece (at 4 months she’s already been astride multiple horses, including the ancient pony her mother rode for years) to bring up in the horseways. I’m hard pressed to name another author who has so eloquently captured the essence of connection between horse and rider as Caitlin has. Write on, my lady!

  3. Artemis: I have just enough experience to get a glimmer of what you are talking about and all I can say is, oh yes!

    I recommend Caitlin’s book–I think you would adore it. (And your little niece in a few years as well!)

  4. I call my little brown reining mare my pocket dragon. If dragons did exist, Mocha would be one in all her quizzical, snorting, energetic glory. Once you’ve ridden a horse like her in a collected, springy, snorty canter you just know that this is how dragons are. Or if you’ve watched a horse like her monitor her environment. She’s one of those horses who operates with extended neck when she’s checking things out, looking very sinuous at times.

    I find that in training her, these days, a lot of what I do is to present her with the task, then support her as she works it out in her own mind what it is I want her to do. It is often easier to do with obstacles in place–something I’ve taken from hunt-jump and from trail riding (show ring) because that’s the best way she learns. Sussing out her learning style is one of the enjoyable pieces of working with horses, because just like with people, horses all learn differently.

    But the engagement of horse and human minds can be curiously enticing and enthralling. The way I’m training is not what you do when you seek to make money at it, or if you want to win stuff fast in the show ring. However, it is enjoyable for horse and human, and it ends up creating a horse/human dyad that looks to outsiders like it is all telepathic (it’s not, but both Mocha and I have worked out mutual cues, and it is a mutual development).

    Such a relationship takes time. I’ve owned Mocha for over five years, and known her all her life (she’s ten). I would say that we’ve only begun to reach this point with each other in the past two years.

    I try to write horses like Mocha into my stories. I hope I succeed.

  5. Yes, I always wanted to ride and never had the chance; that’s why it was a thrill when R was able to, for a while.

    I used to pretend my bicycle was a horse.

    Some stories are hard for me to appreciate in synopsis form because of the many disparate elements, and that’s how this one feels for me. Conceptually, I could get into the human-horse bond and traveling the world roads… but then it’s also an interworld story involving our present-day earth, and it’s also a romance, and I find it hard, in prospect, to imagine a story with all that in it–and yet I know that many many times I’ve enjoyed stories tremendously that have an equally complicated mix of stuff.

  6. Asakiyume it’s not actually a romance–which is why I suggested it for the horse girl under teen age. (Not that horse girls of any age can’t enjoy it.) The focus is really girls and horses, with some other nifty stuff thrown in, like the Wild Hunt. Boys do enter, but they are not at all the object.

    (The prince Elen expects to meet . . . isn’t.)

    Joycemocha: I think that bond is exactly what so many of us read for!

  7. I find this fascinating, but not for the obvious reason. As a kid I got the princesses, the long hair, the castles, the adventures. I didn’t get the horse thing (except maybe intellectually). I had friends who drew horses, dreamed horses, collected horse dolls, wrote horses and, if possible, rode horses; it was exotic to me, and still is. I was not allowed to play if they were “playing horses” because I didn’t believe, which made me feel a little like a kid pressing her nose against the window to a world that makes no sense to her.

    I loved reading Judy’s Writing Horses because it opened up, in a very practical way, a world to me. But the bond between girl and horse is still a closed book to me and, I suspect, will always be.

  8. Well, I’ve met sufficient unsubtle women (case in point: my mother) that I have a hard time accepting that women are categorically nuanced and subtle, at least, more so than any other human being. However, as someone who once rode, I will accept that there are certain… anatomical considerations that make women better suited to horsemanship. Less crudely, women tend to be smaller and lighter than men, which is always an asset when you are talking about having another creature carry your weight.

    I will definitely have to check out Writing Horses (that’s what drew me through the link in the first place). As a writer of fantasy, I often find myself wanting to narrate horses, and I’d like to get it right as much as possible.

  9. Mark: yes, I’ve met some blunt and blundering women, and some very subtle, intuitive men. This is just one graph in the chapter. In any case, the book is full of good stuff for writers who want to get horses right–and many, many links to further info. That’s the nifty thing about ebooks.

  10. A woman in our critique group is working on a YA story featuring girls and horses. I’m going to pass along this link, because I think she’d enjoy reading a story that accomplishes (in spades, apparently) all the things she’s striving to do. THANK YOU for the recommendation!

  11. I was totally into princesses and castles and pretty gowns and flowing hair as a young girl, but like Madeleine I never really got the horse thing either. Though I rode a couple of times as a girl, because friends of my parents had a summer house and horses for their daughters. One of the daughters is still riding thirty years later and works as a sort of horse whisperer. But I never felt the click.

    However, when I visited the summer house again some fifteen to twenty years later, one of the horses I had rode as a kid was still alive, though very old by now. Yet he still recognized me and immediately trotted over and let me stroke him. That was a very touching experience.

  12. Sherwood, did you ever encounter Nancy Mckenzie’s Queen of Camelot (originally published as a companion pair, Child Queen and High Queen)? I haven’t read them since I was very young, but when I was 11 and read them the first time I found her depiction of Guinevere as a horsewoman VERY satisfying. Reading your post here makes me want to revisit those books.

  13. On behalf of all anthropologists, I apologize for that comment about girls and horses, and Freud’s interpretation. For me, it was a dyed red-head goth girl who sneered at my friend for liking horses. Not knowing better, I took her comment seriously. Though happily, you should know, these days anyone who mentions Freud and his ideas will be sneered at thoroughly. 🙂

    It’s funny how I’ve grown up with images of horses all around me (both my parents were born in the year of the horse, according to the lunar calender), but I’ve never been quite enchanted with them as much as I was with wolves. And otters. Hehe But I’ve read your Inda series and that’s got me watching out for horses everywhere I go. I will definitely check out House of the Star. Thanks for the recommendation.

  14. First off, congrats on taking lessons and (re)discovering the joy of subtle communication with an animal that can very easily steal your heart. It takes courage to get in that saddle.

    My Mom is so getting a copy of this book for Christmas. Well, both books actually. Mom breeds Arabian horses and never outgrew the horse-centric stories. Okay, maybe most of my horsey friends will get copies. 🙂

  15. I was never enthralled with horses, despite being an otherwise typical girl of a specifically animal loving bent. Perhaps it’s because I had dogs and birds, and was acclimated to the way they thought and interacted with each other and humans that horses were just too foreign to me. They fulfilled my craving to connect with creatures of another species, and right now, my family has nine dogs and seven of which are mine.

    Dogs to me have always seemed to me to be as potent a symbol of magic to me as horses are to other girls. Though they didn’t represent freedom. They represented a terrible power. These are creatures that we have made so dependent upon us, and my family taught me that “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” We must take care of dogs, because we control their happiness. Without us, they are alone, and hungry, and the ones that survive live in terror and privation. With us, they are happy and safe. They are one of so few creatures that their natural habitat is a human home. I had so little power, because of my illness, and dogs were my first taste of it, and my first taste that power might be something the powerful might wish weren’t theirs. That responsibility is what got my brother off heroin, and what got me out of bed when I was too depressed to function. Someone had to take care of the dogs.

    Birds were freedom, and self assurance. They’re so small and delicate, little prey animals in the wild, and yet, they’re so brave and so fierce. Even when you put them in a cage, they yell at you and tell you off, and act like they’re the ones in charge, even when they know they aren’t. I felt a deep sense of kinship with that.

    But horses? The first time I met a horse, it was a particularly bad tempered pony who broke my foot. Then I had a seizure. Horses mean hay, and hay means mold, and mold means allergy induced hour long seizures, so… To this day, horses are a Bad Sign. Horses are strange. They don’t need us, and riding a horse means surrendering yourself to something powerful and dangerous, and less wise than yourself. I never saw the appeal of horses over dogs and birds.

    Part of what made me love The Thief from the very beginning was that Gen felt the same way about horses. Whenever horses showed up in stories, if they weren’t the Tough Guide version that were like walking chairs, they were great, majestic animals. No one talked from the perspective of people who just didn’t like horses.

    The other thing I noticed was that animal books were divided into two kinds, Girl and Her Horse, and Boy and His Dog. I wanted to see Girl and Her Dog stories (or Girl and Her Bird, but I didn’t dare hope) and I wanted the dog to live. The animals were so gendered in their association that I felt so strange for my three dogs, and my dislike of horses, like I wasn’t a real girl.

    And fantasy seems rather lacking in dogs. If you’re going to find a non-magical animal who acts like an animal, it’s going to be a horse. I miss dogs.

  16. I definitely agree with you about what makes a good horse story. It’s that connection, that ability for the rider to think something and the horse to do it — and the writer to convey it to the audience.

    Did you ever read Robin McKinley’s Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown? I grew up on a breeding farm so I wasn’t interested in reading horse stories, until I found McKinley’s stories and then discovered Judith Tarr’s A Wind in Cairo (recently re-released).

    Both Ms McKinley and Ms Tarr capture and communicate that elusive connection horse and person can have. Ms Tarr’s short story, “Classical Horses,” is an excellent example (it’s available here on BVC too).

  17. Attackfish: I am so, so, SO with you about dogs. They just want to please you, their love is unconditional. It breaks my heart when I see dogs mistreated, and yes I know there is much pain in the world and children dying. But oh, yes. I also wanted girl and her dog stories but learned early to AVOID all dog movies and books as they always died in the end! (FLUKE was so lovely and so different, and the last couple lines of the voice over still make me cry in a good way because they are not tragic, but powerfully poignant in exactly the way you describe)

    Ceffyl: very true about those writers! I am so glad you are getting the book for horsey readers–I trust they will love it as much as I did!

  18. seriously, why do dog stories always end with the dog dying? I’ve found one, count them one, that ended differently! (The dog that the kids were hiding from their dad was discovered, and their dad let them adopt it… so it’s high on my favorite list)

    *makes note to self to write dogs in my fantasy*

  19. @Attackfish: for Girl and Her Bird, have you seen David R. Palmer’s _Emergence_? The young heroine is teamed up with what I had thought was an African Grey, but Wikipedia says it’s a Hyacinthine Macaw. It was nominated for a Hugo; I don’t know how well it’s aged, and halfway dread finding out, but as a teenager I loved it.

    Meanwhile, _House of the Star_ should be arriving tomorrow! I’m excited.

  20. @K

    I’ll have to check it out. There’s also Tamura Pierce’s books about Kel (Tortall verse), which was a Girl and Her Horse, Dog, and Birds story, which I still think is just AWESOME.

  21. Attackfish: There’s Mercedes Lackey’s The Serpent’s Shadow (sort of a Snow White retelling in Victorian London with Indian mythology as a background ) were you have an amazing array of seven helpful animals, birds among them.

    I would have dog books recommendations, too, but they are in German, heh. They’re also not fantasy.

    Hmm, the last Kate Daniels urban fantasy book by Ilona Andrews has an attack poodle who not only provides comic relief but also has a secret identity which saves the heroine at a crucial time. At least in this book the dog is not dead at the end (just not mentioned). The authors own multiple dogs themselves.

  22. Attackfish, I used to read a number of books by Joyce Stranger, and most of the dogs don’t die. I haven’t read to see how well they hold up, but they filled that female + dog niche for me when I wanted that kind of story.

  23. No there are no dead dogs: These are young adult or children’s books.

    You might like one of them, Sherwood, it combines the life of a girl who had to flee to the west in World War 2 and live with her not very nice uncle and aunt who have never had children and has to adapt to this and the fact that of her kennel of prize-winning Great Danes only one little puppy survived. How she finds new friends and gets training for her dog and grows up and finds out whether the rest of her family is truly all dead… that’s what the book is about. Wohin mit Fritzi by Ursula Bruns, first published in 1951, is unfortunately out of print but available at used book sellers.

    And my second example my actually be available in English, let me see, because I believe Astrid Lindgren sold lots of her books worldwide… Hmm, it was available in English, but it’s out of print, too… Seacrow Island (which we know on TV and as book as Ferien auf Saltkrokan). Here’s an original Swedish tv clip with Tjorven taking care of a seal cub she found and her St. Bernard Batsman.

  24. Estra: Most of the books with the dead dogs I’m referring to are children’s books, and many of them are often assigned in schools. When I was a kid, if I saw a dog on the cover of an assigned book, I groaned, because I knew what was coming. Reading your descriptions, I wish I read German.

    And attack poodles! I have one of them!

    Green Knight: I’ll have to remember that name.

    MVG: What I’m looking for are stories about normal birds, birds that don’t talk (or at least only talk like real examples of the species). There are good stories of the kind you have recommended to me, but they’re not the ones I’m desperate to read about. I want to see animals that act like animals, and I want to see the beautiful sort of communication that takes place between humans and animals without words. I get disappointed when I see the animals start talking.

  25. Attackfish: Well, when I was thinking it over there is one backflash to dog death in the Fritzi book, as when the girl has to flee from her old home in the east her Great Dane tries to defend her from bad soldiers (no rape or anything, just threatening behaviour) and the soldier shoots the bitch (and mother of Fritzi). But since this is basically her harrowing background that she and the supportive dog has to grow out of and since there are lots of other dogs and lots of reasoned dog-training involved, I still think the book comes in on the side of the angles.

    No dog death at all in Seacrow Island or in that current Kate Daniels ^^ – at the end of the excerpt here she is just about to meet the attack poodle. You do get dead shapeshifters in this series, though.