Archive for May, 2007

First Love: The Horse That Got Away

As a young girl I passionately longed for a horse, and imagined myself flying free through the countryside on horseback. Although my blond hair was short, still I could almost feel my hair flying behind me like a mane. The summer I was 7, Dad packed the four of us kids and the neighbor girl into our blue station wagon bound for the Blossom Time Fair in nearby Chagrin Falls, Ohio. After an afternoon of fair rides, peanuts, and cotton candy, the raffle of the Shetland pony was announced with great fanfare.

I clung desperately to my entry ticket. Sweat trickled down my chest as the announcer read off first one, and then four matching numbers. As the last number was called, to my horror and dumb rage, the neighbor girl we had invited won the pony, just one number away from my own ticket. My own father had betrayed me by buying the winning ticket for my sister’s friend. Day after day, I watched from my side of the fence as the neighbor girl fed apples and carrots to my horse. She was oblivious of the cruel injustice of the fates as I simmered in impotent rage. Soon after, the family moved away and “my” pony was forever gone.

Years later, in talking with my parents about the pony, they were embarrassed: the neighbor girl who won the pony could not afford its care, and her family had to find another home for him. Indeed, some rescue horses start their journey out in the care of a well-intended and horse-infatuated young girl whose fantasy of having a horse does not match the day-to-day reality of caring for one. Yet adult practicalities of the cost and responsibilities of horse care did not diminish my passionate righteousness that I had been wronged. I was angry because I felt betrayed by the man who was most important to me.

Trigger and Horse Drawings

I subverted, or in psychological terms, sublimated my desire for a horse. I never rode horses as a girl, nor filled my room with horse models. After school and on Saturdays, Marnie and Betty went for horse riding lessons, but not me. The closest I came to horses was watching them in the television shows of the day. Each week, I waited expectantly for the Roy Rogers Show. I was enamored with the intelligence, beauty, and grace of the famous golden palomino Trigger. The other outlet for my horse love was in my furtive and devotional scribblings. I doodled hundreds of pictures of horses by first making a series of circles. A medium circle and a smaller circle formed the head, while large circles formed the chest and hindquarters. Like pearls on a necklace, smaller circles formed the legs and hooves, and then long graceful connecting lines magically revealed stallions and mares.

Caddie Woodlawn

As a shy kid whose family moved a lot, I was afraid of horses and associated them with danger, daring, and freedom. One of my favorite books was Caddie Woodlawn [1], which features an important scene with the young heroine on horseback. The main character’s tomboy antics shocked her mother, yet were supported by her father, who urged Caddie to take risks and maintain her spirit against the stifling expectations for girls and women. The book begins:

In 1864 Caddie Woodlawn was eleven, and as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin. She was the despair of her mother and her elder sister, Clara. But her father watched her with a shine of pride in his eyes, and her brothers accepted her as one of themselves without a question. (p.1)

Unlike Caddie, I was quite introverted and shy at home, spending my time reading books and painting watercolor pictures. Although I sometimes snuck into my brothers’ forbidden tree fort, I was not a big part of their boy world, and brave only in my imagination. I did enjoy poking around the Creek, below the steep ravine behind the Merriman’s house. I had a pretend Palomino companion that shared my secrets. Sometimes I dug out clay from the banks and imagined I was an Indian girl, making pottery for my tribe. Like Caddie’s mother, my own mom spent many hours doing beautiful needlework, and had many rules about ladylike behavior. Dad spent a lot of time with my two brothers as a scout leader and softball coach, but didn’t quite know what to make of his bookish and artistic daughter.

In a pivotal scene in the book, Caddie takes a dangerous horseback ride through the Wisconsin woods to warn a small group of Native Americans that they are in danger from white settlers bent on violence against them. Dozens of neighbors had gathered at Caddie’s home, afraid of being massacred. Caddie overhears a few men talking about attacking the small group which had befriended her family. She overcomes her own fears to warn the Indians.  

White and trembling, Caddie slipped past them. The men paid no attention to the little girl who had left her basket of turnips standing on the cellar steps. They went on talking angrily among themselves, enjoying the sound of their boastful words. Caddie went to the barn and into the stalls. There she hesitated a moment. Pete was faster than Betsy, but he was not so trustworthy. When he didn’t want to go, he would run under a shed or low branch and scrape off his rider. Nothing must delay her today. Caddie slipped a bridle over Betsy’s head. She was trembling all over. There was something she must do now, and she was afraid. She must warn John and his Indians. She was certain in her heart that they meant the whites no harm, and the whites were going to kill them.” (pp.126-128)

As a child, I thrilled to Caddie’s adventures (many of which were on horseback), her bravery, and ability to push the limits of her culture’s image of how young girls should act. Caddie had the spunk and courage that seemed so lacking in my own character.  

Dream Horses

Later I forgot my childhood fascination with horses, though when I left home for college, I bought myself a pair of cowgirl boots that I wore constantly. When I was in my 30’s, I painted a picture of those well-worn boots, when my art teacher asked us to choose an object for an autobiographical portrait. My first marriage was to a man who grew up in the country and had the rugged good looks of the Marlboro man advertisements. When he died, he left behind not children, but Smokey, an untrained two-year old horse.  

Up until five years ago, my experience with live horses was limited to a few vacation rides with small, tired horses anxious to get back to the stable. Yet, dream horses have been with me throughout the years. They have visited me in my dreams, my artwork, and my visionary experiences. Individual horses have accompanied me on imaginary journeys, and sometimes I have experienced myself in a herd of wild horses that I know as the Horse Ancestors. Like Caddie’s trusty Betsy, horses have appeared as faithful and trusted companions in my greatest times of need: divorce, illness, death, and loss. Horses have lent their broad shoulders to cry on, the absolute knowledge that we are never alone in our times of trial and transition, and helped me to heal. It is only as a grown woman that I have felt a horse’s sweet breath on mine, and inhaled her wonderful equine scent. In future articles, I will describe some of my dream horses as well as the findings of my research on women and horses and how they dance in our imagination.

[1] Brink, Carol Ryrie, Caddie Woodlawn. 1973. New York: Scholastic. (Originally published 1935).


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Mythic Themes in The Sleep Ponies

Mythic Themes in The Sleep Ponies: A Book Review by Catherine Anne Held, PhD 

The Sleep Ponies[1] is a treasure of a children’s book that helps a child drift off to sleep in the company of her own personal sleep pony. Its lush illustrations and simple text evoke a dream landscape filled with protective horses. This simple book, designed to help a child ease into sleep and navigate the world of dreams, resonates with mythic themes.


The young narrator learns from her grandmother that sleep ponies protect her in the night while she is sleeping. As the pig-tailed young girl falls asleep, her own beloved Whinny comes to get her, and the pair adventure together over fields, flowery meadows, and amidst a herd of sleep ponies, returning safely home at daybreak.


Soft pastel and watercolor illustrations draw both adult and child into a magical dream world of safety, love, and companionship.Author Gudrun Ongman is an art teacher, horse woman, and mother concerned with providing comfort and love to kids growing up in a high-stimulation and high-tech world. Her own mother told her the legend of the sleep ponies to help her sleep when she was a young child.

Psychopomps and Pathfinders in The Sleep Ponies

The book’s theme has roots in ancient cultures that have long linked the horse as a protective intermediary (or psychopomp) with the dream or spirit world. Ancient shamans heard horse hooves in the steady sound of drumbeats that would induce a trance state so that shamans could travel to other worlds for healing and return safely.  Horses are pathfinders between the worlds. Carl Jung noted in Symbols of Transformation (1912/1956), “Legend attributes properties to the horse which psychologically belong to the unconscious of man; there are clairvoyant and clairaudient horses, path-finding horses who show the way when the wanderer is lost…” (p. 177). 

Day Horses and Nightmares

The horse is often credited with magical abilities. In ancient Greek and Hindu cultures, the heroic male sun god was a charioteer whose horses pulled the sun into its daily orbit.The uncontrollable nature of dreams, as well as fears of both the dark and the feminine constellate in the word nightmare. Women are naturally linked to nighttime because their menstrual cycles coincide with the changing moon.The term nightmare originates from a Middle English term for a female demon or witch that afflicted sleeping people. In an essay on horses, archetypal psychology’s founder James Hillman has noted, “When this ferocious strength is perceived in a woman, the horse is demonized into the witches’ steed, the nightmare, the panicky madness of a runaway.[2]” In The Sleep Ponies, the dream horse is a faithful and trusted companion that protects the young sleeper from being alone, and there is nothing frightening in this book.

Horse as Mother

Just as a favorite blanket soothes, comforts, and serves as a transitional object, this book provides a comforting, mothering presence in the form of the sleep ponies. Ancient Germans connected horses to mothers in Mother Holle, their goddess of childbirth who arrived on horseback. Dream researcher Karen Signell states:

“The horse represents to us useful strength—fiery, enduring, and free, yet bridled and sensitive to the touch of our will as if we were one. This returns us to our earliest experience of riding on our mother’s hip when we were “one,” and the primordial knowledge of oneness in nature.”[3]

The Sleep Ponies provides a mothering presence that evokes this sense of oneness and eases the transition into the land of dreams. This book is a natural gift for a young child, encouraging the imagination and providing a calming bedtime experience. This book is also of special interest to horse girls and horse women who love all things equine, as it captures the deep love between girls and horses. Mythic themes of the horse as trusted companion between the worlds, as a pathfinder, and even as a substitute mother are sure to allay children’s night fears.

[1] Ongman, Gudrun (2000) The sleep ponies. Mindcastle Books.

[2] Hillman, James (1997) Dream animals.San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, p. 47.

[3] Signell, Karen (1990) Wisdom of the heart: Working with women’s dreams.London: Rider. p.143

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Welcome to Dream Horse Women!

What is it about women and horses? Dream Horse Women is dedicated to exploring this question and the special relationship between women and horses. Women are starting to go public in a big way about the importance of horses to their soul life. Since the beginning of this millennium, there has been a veritable explosion of books on the subject of women and horses (see below). Authors like Linda Kohanov (2001, 2003) and Soren (2002) write of a mystical connection that exists between women and horses. Midkiff (2002) and Pierson (2000) chronicle the fierce horse love that follows pre-pubescent girls throughout their lives and helps shape all their subsequent relationships. Cultural historian Diane Ackerman[1] even suggests that “horse love” is a natural stage in a pre-adolescent girl’s development which allows for safe exploration of emerging sexuality.

Not Just for Cowboys Anymore: Girls and women are increasingly dominating the equestrian sports and recreational use of horses, a radical cultural shift from just fifty years ago. As Midkiff notes, “Riding is increasingly being defined by the female element—she is the predominant participant, dollar spender and decision maker in sporting, showing and recreational activities in the horse industry.[2]” She further notes that 75% of members of non-racing horse-related associations are women, and that an estimated 500,000 American women enjoy horses for sport and leisure.   

Under the Radar of Conventional Psychology: Where has psychology weighed in on the relationship between women and horses? Although it is no secret to thousands of women how important horses are to their psychological wellbeing, psychology has been remarkably mute on the topic. One notable exception is the mention of horses as an important feature in women’s dreams by some depth psychologists. Even as horses are being increasingly recognized as potent allies in healing through equine assisted psychotherapy, there has been virtually no serious study of the psychology of women and horses. Dream Horse Women will help fill this gap through future articles and postings. Thanks for joining us.

Recent Books about Women and Horses:

Kohanov, Linda. (2001). The tao of equus: A woman’s journey of healing and transformation through the way of the horse. Novato, CA:
New World Library.

Kohanov, Linda. (2003) Riding between the worlds: Expanding our potential through the way of the horse. Novato, CA:
New World Library.

Midkiff, Mary. (2002) She flies without wings: How horses touch a women’s soul.
New York: Dell.

Pierson, Melissa. (2000). Dark horses and black beauties: Animals, women, a passion.
New York: W.W. Norton.

Pony Boy, GaWaNi. (2000). Of women and horses: Essays by various horsewomen.
Irvine, CA: Bow Tie Press.

Soren, Ingrid. (2002) Zen and horses: Lessons from a year of riding. New York:
St. Martin’s Press.

[1] Ackerman, D. (1994) A natural history of love.
New York: Random House.

[2] Midkiff, M.  

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