Women, Horses and Freedom

Girl on a Horse

I recently read a paper written by Isabella deMoss[1]. She described her girlhood experience when placed on a retired racehorse:  

When this horse caught wind of the wide-open space ahead and took off like lightening, I instinctively crouched low and became one with the horse, pulling on the reins with as much force as my ten-year old, 50-pound self could muster. I can still feel the wind pushing at my face, sending my own waist-length ponytail sailing behind me. Terrified. Exhilarated. Afraid for my life. Free. All at the same time and wanting this feeling to last forever.  

This exhilarating experience of freedom is, as deMoss writes, frightening as well as liberating. Horses are synonymous with freedom for many of us. 

National Velvet: Freedom Inspires

Another young girl enamored with freedom is Velvet Brown, the fictional heroine of Enid Bagnold’s novel, and the 1944 film National Velvet. Velvet, played by the young violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, watches the highly-spirited Pie jump over fences, and break through constraints that would hold another horse. Although naturally shy, Velvet’s love for her steed sparks a dream of riding him in the Grand National Steeplechase Race. Just as the powerful Pie breaks through limitations, Velvet, too fights against restrictions placed upon her because of her sex, and even her own temperament.  

Runaway Bride: Freedom as Autonomy

In The Runaway Bride, the 1999 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the symbol of the horse is used throughout the movie to symbolize a woman’s freedom and autonomy. In a dream sequence from the very first scene of the movie, Roberts is seen in a wedding dress fleeing on horseback. Maggie, played by Julia Roberts, has left several bridegrooms at the altar. In the film action, Maggie is about to wed, and a big city reporter comes to her small town to witness the phenomenon of the “runaway bride.” The reporter, played by Richard Gere, is hunting for a story, and hoping that she will flee again so he can get his magazine cover article. He has previously written a newspaper column reviling her for running away from marriage which has brought her into national attention as the “Runaway Bride.”


Maggie is the butt of the townspeople’s jokes because of her wedding flight and apparent fright of marital commitment. The reaction of the townspeople, and the media circus attending her wedding speak to the powerful patriarchal taboo against the single childless autonomous woman who has resisted the pressure to mate and marry. As Gere interviews the previous men Maggie has left at the altar, he learns that she has adapted herself to each potential husband. Though she may not be able to articulate her fear, she is terrified of losing her authentic self to marriage and pleasing her mate.


The reporter and the Runaway Bride fall in love. Yet Maggie bolts from their wedding, too, even though she loves him and he has seen into her soul. She may not know why she runs from him, but until she has retrieved herself, she is unable to mate.  It is an important quest. Premature marriage would restrain her unbridled self. Maggie takes risks and forges a new artistic career for herself, which causes her to venture away from her small cloistered town, to New York where her lover lives.

 Running Away as Running To

The final movie scene returns to the bride on horseback, but this time she and her reporter bridegroom ride their own horses, denoting equal access to freedom and power. The act of running away, often perceived in western culture as an act of cowardice, is in this case a remarkable act of bravery. The runaway motif in this film is truly a running away from traditional expectations and a “running to” the authentic self.

 Women, Horses and Freedom

As the ten-year old Isabella deMoss experienced, freedom can be both liberating and frightening. Perhaps the deep attraction that so many women have to horses is a longing for the freedom to be our authentic selves without the layers of cultural expectations upon us. Freedom often involves upsetting human societal norms and expectations. And, just like Isabella, Velvet, and Maggie, we can not taste the exhilaration of freedom unless we take the risk to embrace and experience our true selves.


[1] deMoss, L. (2007) Horse as Healer: Touching Spirit in the Borderland. Carpinteria, CA: Unpublished paper.


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