Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Galloping with Scissors
by Christina Wilsdon

My little vegetable brushes, which once huddled on the counter behind the kitchen faucet, are missing again.

Also AWOL is my husband's belt.

Gone, too, are the small guest towels, my beaded necklace, and the comforter from our bed.

The disappearance of these items is not a sign that we need to hire a consultant to organize our house, or that our neighborhood is in the grip of a rather odd crime wave, or that we've been visited by extraterrestrials desperate to decorate and accessorize.

It's just what happens when you live with a horse-crazy five-year-old.

Belts, you see, make perfect girths for make-believe saddles. Our daughter, Sophie, cinches them around her tiny waist to strap a guest towel to her back before galloping across the house on all fours, whinnying and tossing her hair -- which we're letting grow long, so that it flows better as a mane. The necklace, meanwhile, encircles the neck of her rocking horse, a yard-sale find she has transformed into a carousel horse festooned with stickers, beads, ribbons, scarves, and mad swirls of Magic Marker. Our comforter? It swaddles her hobbyhorse, a frail creature that requires much in the way of veterinary coddling.

The vegetable brushes, of course, are now currycombs and dandy brushes.

"Tell me why, oh why, do girls love horses?" wailed rocker Adam Ant in the early 1980s. Why, indeed, had horses suddenly thundered into my daughter's consciousness and run away with her imagination? How did a beast that she'd heretofore despised because, as she explained, "they make loud trumpety noises with their noses," become so esteemed that she would watch one being shod and then lovingly gather the hoof parings left behind as keepsakes? Just when did the bathtub become cluttered with a herd of wet, sharp-eared plastic horses?

Certainly there was no sign of imminent horse-worship the summer before Sophie's fourth birthday when I took her to see a horse show starring dancing white Lipizzan stallions. She thought they were pretty but did not begin prancing and leaping afterward. Likewise, she had little interest in riding a pony at a local farm despite my enthusiastic patter: "Look, Sophie! What a pretty little pony! Her name is Rhubarb! She's waiting for you to ride her!" Regarding Rhubarb skeptically, she just glowered at me and said evenly, "You ride the pony."

Horses were not kitty-cats or ballerinas -- the twin stars of her imaginary play at age three -- and therefore had about as much importance in her life as turnips. Then, overnight it seems, the plush kittens lay in a heap, abandoned, staring in all directions with their shiny green eyes; the ballet performances turned into horse shows, complete with jumps made of blocks and demonstrations of the four main gaits -- walk, trot, canter, gallop -- as well as a prancing strut called "walking fancy."

I admired her zeal. Horse-love had engulfed me as a youngster, too, but at an older age. I was about eight-years-old when I began exhibiting horse fever -- spending part of a lakeside vacation with my nose pressed against a gift-shop window, longing for a statue of a cream-colored Arabian; washing my toy horses' tails with Tame Crème Rinse; galloping and neighing with my girlfriends as we reenacted the tale of Black Beauty in our yards, using jump ropes for reins; writing a fan letter to the Triple Crown-winning racehorse Secretariat; driving a librarian batty as I hogged a Xerox machine to photocopy pictures of horses. And, above all, hoping and praying that my dad would buy the house next door, knock it down, and convert the property to pasture land for Golden Stardust, the horse of my dreams.

Never, however, did it occur to me to end the day by scrubbing my arms with the vegetable brushes, as Sophie sometimes does while "grooming." Nor did I steal my mother's pocketbook strap, clip its metal ends together, then jam them in my mouth. "That's my bit," yelps Sophie if I retrieve the strap and undo her makeshift snaffle. And I wouldn't have dreamed of asking my mom if I could eat my noodles like a horse, snuffling about in the plate with my face, pretending they were hay.

Watching Sophie tack-up her hobbyhorse with the cat's outgrown leash and harness, I recall reading how Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet, drew on her own horseplay in creating her book's main character. Like the wild-haired, delicate Velvet, Bagnold trotted and cantered in the fields and lanes of her late-1880s childhood, clutching paper horses and tapping her thigh with a twig for a riding crop. At night she drove a team of spirited horses -- her own two feet, attached to her hands by long ribbons looped around her toes.

In Dark Horses and Black Beauties: Animals, Women, a Passion, author Melissa Holbrook Pierson recalls her own horse-crazy youth as a span of "months and years in thrall to an animal." She notes that the famous horsewoman and author Margaret Cabell Self-claimed the year 1942 as the flashpoint of equine fascination among American girls. Few would dare to be so exact about the phenomenon's genesis in society, but most women who fell in love with horses as children can recall just when their own infatuation began.

"A twelve-months' run should bring back the mare's wind, m'lord," I hear Sophie's lilting voice proclaim. She is acting out the story of Black Beauty in the living room. Like mother, like daughter -- or, like mare, like filly, I should say, since I am often called upon to be part of her herd. She whinnies for me to come. I find her collapsed on her side, nickering pitifully, calling for me to insert a sippy cup in the side of her mouth. It is the Black Beauty near-death scene, a favorite. It ranks right up there with reenacting the scene in which Beauty's friend Ginger rebels against a too-tight check rein by plunging and kicking until the carriage pole snaps, or the movie moment in which Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, is tied by all fours to poles while a beefy soldier attempts to brand him.

This aspect of the horse, as long-suffering, silent, noble worker toiling until he or she drops in the traces -- or kicks them over -- shadows its ancient history as a creature of strength, foresight, wisdom, speed and beauty in cultures around the world. Whoops, now there's a thesis topic if there ever was one -- if I were majoring in women's studies, I'd be scurrying off to OfficeMax for a box of index cards and a highlighter pen this minute and drawing parallels between women's history and legendary horses. Instead, I Google for pop-psych, quick-draw insights into girls' love of horses.

My search reveals that we are no closer to sussing-out the definitive origin of this passion than we were 30 years ago, because the reasoning is the same as what I read when I was 12 and plastering my walls with "Stablemate of the Month" spreads from Horse, Of Course magazine -- and I suspect that there are as many reasons why girls and women love horses as there are girls and women.

The companionship and unconditional love that horses offer are often mentioned, as well as the nurturing they inspire. Certainly horses will not only take but also demand all the nurturing you can give them. You've really got to love horses if you're willing to haul yourself from bed on a dark winter morning, schlep to your pony's stall, and muck it out before dragging yourself off to school.

Such involvement with a horse postpones interest in boys, suggest some sources, thereby replacing one kind of messy entanglement (dating) with another (muddy tack, mucky boots, shirts encrusted with horse snot from a friendly nuzzle). Conversely, others emphatically equate horses with sex and eroticism, their writing voices growing husky as they describe clenching horses between their legs.

I read the commentaries and find myself reacting to them just as I did when I confronted them in my early teens-with great indignation. Leave it to grown-ups to come up with the horse/boy/sex! Linking everything girls think about or indulge in with boys! I readily identify with the young author of a website devoted to collecting "My Little Pony" toy horses, who reprints an article by a psychologist writing about horses and sex. The psychologist avows that the plastic ponies help in "easing children through the Oedipal stage with anti-phobic objects that reinforce their narcissistic integrity." Laments the pony-loving webmaster, "And I thought they were just designed for fun and to look pretty."

But even the prettiest filly is packed with horsepower, and women who work with horses, I find, frequently refer to the horse's physical strength and how empowering it is for a girl, perhaps denied power in other areas of life, to be able to control the horse with just the touch of a heel, the slightest tug of a rein-to achieve a unity of purpose with an animal that outweighs her by a factor of ten. On horseback, it's the rider's skill and ability to communicate with the horse that counts most, not just muscle.

Thinking about power, control, and teamwork, however, brings mortifying images of my own ineptitude on horseback to mind. Perhaps other girls experienced this fulfilling trio when working with horses, but earning to ride didn't boost my self-esteem and confidence considerably, and I rarely felt I was at one with my mount. At least not when I was slithering about on High Step's back when commanded to ride at a trot without stirrups, or when Charger decided to gallop at breakneck speed with the bit in his teeth, or when Snowball reared to jump over the corral fence without my say-so, depositing me in a heap behind her, or when, nowadays, a trail horse shoots me a dirty look over her shoulder for daring to make a request of her. The last trail horse I rode, in fact, even turned her head around and bit my foot.

Despite these memories, the notion of power feels right on the mark -- not because riding made me feel empowered overall, or because I could wield power over a much larger animal (most of the time, I felt I was darn lucky that the horse I rode heeded any cues at all). But every now and then, a heady sense of power did surge through me. On horseback, I literally looked down on adults. On horseback, I could outrun the sleek gazelle girls in gym class (what a charge if such a match race could've been set up!). Even just "talking horse" with horsy girlfriends invested me with the power of being in a closed group -- a group that the clique of popular girls couldn't enter. Not that they wanted to discuss The Daily Racing Form, or pelham bits, fetlocks, and forelocks, or whether mustangs were wild animals or just feral -- but if they had, they couldn't. The exclusivity our passion gave us helped us set aside the indignation at the scorn that the "cool kids" reserved for anyone not interested in fashion, the top 40 or boys.

Though we felt hemmed-in by our more popular peers, we also felt oddly free. We didn't have to follow their rules, their style. We were so beneath notice, we could follow our own interests without fear of incurring greater contempt. Heck, they already thought we were clueless and weird. We had nothing to lose, and with graduation, we'd be outta there anyway, someday.

Our sense of injustice at being considered inferior -- when we actually were quite confident that we were superior in many ways -- teamed well with our sympathy for downtrodden equines. Fast, beautiful horses took our breath away with their sheer magnificence -- those Breck-girl manes and tails! The prancing that defied gravity! -- but the sad, tired ones stole our hearts. We murmured endearments to our riding-school mounts and stroked their cheeks, hoping to convey that we were kinder and more compassionate then their other, supposedly more callous riders. Looking into their deep, liquid eyes was like peering into our own souls; as my fellow horse-loving friend Wendy puts it, "When you stand near them and look into their eyes, you can actually see yourself, your reflection. It's like they're reading you, all of you."

We reveled in horsy Horatio-Alger tales: the true story of Snowman, a huge, ungainly, raggedy dapple gray rescued from the knacker's van who went on to win jumping events at major horse shows. The Godolphin Arabian, abused and humiliated, who became one of the three founding sires of modern racehorses. The funny-looking or otherwise lightly regarded horses who became stakes winners: Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew, Funny Cide.

Stories like these, about neglected or overlooked horses overcoming adversity or contempt to become champions, make up a large part of the herd of fiction and nonfiction horse writings, neck and neck with tales about the fast and beautiful ones. Sophie speeds from one of these horse-story extremes to the other in her play like a pony racing around barrels in a rodeo. Now she lifts her feet high and tosses her mane: she is a princess of a horse whose golden hooves barely touch the ground as she runs, who sports a unicorn's horn and Pegasus's wings when it suits her. Now she crawls wearily along the ground, the victim of harsh owners who fail to feed her and make her work all the time -- "40 hundred hours every day!" she says, eyes widening in horror. Now she is a bucking, snorting stallion, Spirit-Who-Cannot-Be- Broken, breaking the ropes and the rules, or Ginger wrenching her head free of the restrictive check-reins.

These different story-horses readily bear the weight of her preschool-age power struggle on their backs. She trudges along on a Cinderella-type horse when I am the evil-stepmother/ owner who forces her to pick up her socks and deprives her of Tootsie Rolls. She trots out on the princess horse in happy times, when everything is going her way and she is mistress of all she surveys. Angry, powerful Spirit glowers at me when she is sent into time-out. "You can't break me," she says, flicking her hair out of her eyes, shaking off the pesky flies of my scolding words.

I can't help but see my adolescent self in her five-year-old fancies and fuming. In my early teens I filled reams of loose-leaf with stories and drawings of horses, including one epic yarn about a noble-and-free wild horse named Diablo, a spirit-who-could-not-be-broken. My English teacher begged me to cease writing about horses and try a city setting for a change. I feel again the glorious smugness that came over me as I walked through a long stable filled with show horses one summer day, holding out my hands on either side to horses as they bent their elegant, swanlike necks over stall doors, feeling the kind-eyed ones whuff gently on my palms and withdrawing my hands from the ones that pinned their ears back-and looking back to see my unpleasant, soon-to-be-ex boyfriend cringing in the doorway, terrified to enter where I dared to tread. Power!

Ask Sophie why she loves horses, and her answer is simple and direct: "They're fast and strong, and I like their flowing manes," she says, never looking up from the picture she's drawing. Her hand swoops across the whiteness of large sheet of paper as she crayons ebullient tresses streaming from the neck of an exuberant steed, depicted, as always, floating Chagall-like above flowers, people and Earth. I think of Shakespeare's homage to the horse in Henry V: "I will not change my horse with any that treads. When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk./He trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it."

Her free-spirited horses know no bonds, not even that of gravity. They help her ride out her need to demonstrate independence from me; they certainly give her a chance to be the boss of me ("Hold your hand flat like this when you feed him, Mother," she instructs as we hand over carrots to a greedy horse that eyes us only to gauge our snack supply, not the state of our souls). They also enable her to use the power of knowledge, the horse-clique security of my own youth, to exclude and reduce me (chided for running with scissors, she saves face by correcting me: "I'm not running. I'm galloping"). Someday, she may even abandon them to achieve the same end, like my coworker Marcie did in junior high, when she came home with a stack of horse books from the library and her mom smiled knowingly, saying, "I've been waiting for this." ("Well! Those books went flying back to the library!" Marcie recalls.)

But our shared love of horses also hitches us together. We are a well-matched team, trotting in time together with just the occasional nip or kick. She plans to own a farm someday and raise horses, which I've already promised to help care for. But I know my place. "You can muck the stalls," she says.
Christina Wilsdon is a writer in Seattle, WA. She has worked at various publishing houses, including the Children's Television Workshop, where she met her husband, Tony. She's been doing freelance writing since 1989 -- mainly articles for children's magazines and nonfiction children's books. When not writing books for hire, she's busy writing picture books and essays and submitting them over the transom. She is mama to five-and-a-half-year-old Sophie Jean.