Perhaps because I am a Sagittarius, the word “horsewoman” has always appealed to me. It embodies the unity between rider and horse when all is going well and sometimes even when the rider loses control, as in Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” I remember feeling exhilaration as well as fear, clinging to the neck of my favorite horse when she ran away with me during a spur-of-the-moment race through a meadow. My daughter was also an avid horsewoman from an early age. The world of the stable already seemed a natural part of life to my six-year-old. So I was surprised when one of her friends who had come to watch a lesson, asked in wonder as Kate swung herself into the saddle, “Doesn’t the horse mind?”
I’m sure it had never occurred to me, to my daughter, or to any of our riding friends that the horse might mind, except when a fearful rider was hauling on the bit, “ruining the horse’s mouth.” Does the horse mind when we seem to be working in harmony? I don’t know. But I have known horses that balked at unfamiliar or unskilled riders, which suggests to me that the sense of oneness can be mutual. In her poem “Appaloosa,” Jo Sarzotti captures the mythic aspects of riding. Anticipation and danger are signaled by a series of dark images as the rider approaches the barn for a night ride on the beach. The glow of the spotted roan the rider has chosen is the image of desire. The edge of danger in the roan’s excitement carries us into a controlled but violent tumult of light and dark images, white surf breaking, the sickle moon as weapon, the cathedral of the night sky, and the transit between worlds:
The dark drift of horses in stall, black
Windows on the still blacker shapes,
The Barn is quiet and heavy —
I stop at the spotted roan’s pale glow.
He’s the one I take out to ride,
Ears pointed like an Egyptian guard dog,
Excited tear towards the beach, white surf
Tattered by wind, sickle moon a gash
In the sky god’s thigh, pinpricks of starlight,
The crab nebula, rare gift of August,
Stained glass from a cosmic cathedral
Exploded—the horse shies sideways, neighing.
For the Nez Perce, the spotted horse was
Totem & transport to the next home,
Battle, world—I stick to these sweaty sides
Lashed by leather and mane, an exhalation
Of time on an eastern shore, racing.
The gorgeous, romantic imagery in “Appaloosa” includes acknowledgement of the many uses we put horses to and the sheer will it takes to stay with a creature that cooperates but is not subdued.
The record of our fascination with horses is ancient. In the Chauvet caves, documented in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the first image in the entryway, after a distinctive red polka dotted handprint, is a group of running horses, mouths open, depicted by a single artist. As Herzog observes, not only do the drawings articulate motion enhanced by torchlight and the contours of the rock, but the sound of the horses neighing is evoked too. Edward Muybridge captured the mechanics of a running horse on film. The cave drawings enact both the understanding of the dynamics of motion and the spirit of that motion. “Fluidity and permeability” between humans and animals inform this world. It is hard to imagine the horses depicted in the Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira caves as anything but wild creatures, unharnessed and un-ridden. Riding a horse is about power, but it is also about entering into a mythical, shaman-like freedom that we have been separated from by centuries of domestication.
I am grateful to Jo Sarzotti for permission to include “Appaloosa” from her book of poems Mother Desert, Graywolf Press 2012.