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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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