Archive for Dream Horses

Horse Girl: A Poem

I wrote this poem in 2002. It became the basis for my doctoral dissertation from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Depth Psychology, entitled Horse Girl: An Archetypal Study of Women, Horses, and Trauma Healing.

Horse Girl by Catherine Held

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. She was exiled 40 years ago. She was exiled 5,000 years ago. Kurgan men who conquered horses rode over the Russian steppes and slew the Goddess. 

When I was six I was an Indian girl. I led my Palomino pony down to the ravine where we put our long necks into the water and drank from the creek. We tossed our manes at the same time. Palomino. Pal o’ mine. Pony. Pony up.  

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. She dreams herd dreams. She dreams of the Girl, exiled in her strange land and longs to meet her. 

My pony was a raffle prize in the Chagrin Falls Fair. I had the winning ticket. My pony, my companion. Heartbreak. Sick. Envy. Not fair. My horse. Just next door. Wrong girl. Moved away. Horse gone. 

Mare. Nightmare. “Don’t be on your high horse.” “No more horsing around, young lady.”  

“Wild horses can’t make me!” 

Horse. Horse sense. Horse laugh. Horse power. Breaking a horse. Horse whip.  Bridle. The old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. 

I have been bridled twice now. They tried to break me but I bolted my corral. I roam the world, sometimes leaving my colts behind. 

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. The rest of the world is getting closer now.  She whinnies and then stops to listen. 

Brood. Brooding. Brood mare. Skittish as a mare. Runaway horse. Runaway bride. Stallion. Black Stallion. Prince on a white horse. 

One night a stallion makes love to me in my dreams, then holds me with human arms in the night. When I awake, I hear a sound, a distant sound. 

On that day, 8 million women swallow pregnant horse urine.

On that day, 75,000 foals are slaughtered to serve those 8 million women. 

On that day, the Chairman of the Board reports to the AHP stockholders that the Premarin family of products broke the $1 billion sales mark. “The future for Premarin—the most prescribed medication in the U.S. remains highly promising. Research continues to reveal new ways in which conjugated estrogens can contribute to the well being and longevity of postmenopausal women.” 

On that day a Tennessee Walking horse has kerosene poured on his fetlocks to make his distinctive walk. 

On that day I meet a woman who rescues horses. Or does she rescue women? They are called throwaways, discarded because they cannot be ridden or bred. 

On that day, at the edge of the world, Horse Girl waits with quiet expectation. She knows I am finally coming.

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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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Dream Horses and Women’s Psyches

Yesterday I did a healing session with a friend, who is at a crossroads in her life and curious about her future (See www.ancestorsway.com). The visualization session focused on having a guide appear. She actually had many guides appear, in the form of animals—first frogs, then a bear, and a snake. Perhaps most remarkably, though, was the appearance of horses.

 Horse Visitations 

In her meditative state, my friend saw her beloved horse Skipper from childhood. She also saw her father’s roan mare with a white blaze, who had died traumatically. As her father was riding her, the mare broke her neck coming down from a jump. My girlfriend then sensed the presence of a herd of wild horses inviting her to live passionately and boldly. She experienced herself running freely, while enjoying the companionship of the other wild horses.

Another woman, my friend Karen, unaccountably found herself making sculptures, paintings, and drawings of horses as she was going through a traumatic and devastating divorce. She poured her soul into the artwork, and it gave her the strength to stand up for her daughter and confront her controlling ex-husband. Karen left her comfortable suburban home and moved to the country where she now has five horses and pursues her art.

I recently devoted four years of my life researching women and horses, even though to this day I have never owned a horse and have rarely ridden them. Horses have, however, visited me throughout my adult life in my dreams and visionary experiences. During a meditation experience, I sought the wisdom of the Great Goddess, when a gorgeous stallion appeared and mated with me. I had an experience of an ancient time when women and horses were sacred, sensual and free. The imagery was so dramatic and startling, that it led me into my research topic for my doctorate.

 

During the course of my research, I was visited by other horses—a white mare, and a herd of wild horses that I call the Horse Ancestors. A few weeks ago, I was visited by the presence of Brownie, a Shetland pony (See The Horse that Got Away Part III: Working with a Core Wound.) Our experiences are unique yet not unusual. Bestselling author Linda Kohanov writes about the Horse Ancestors, while two experts on women’s dreams, Karen Signell and Clarissa Pinkola Estés, have both found that horses are a common motif for hundreds of women.

 Dream Horses 

Who are these other-worldly horses that come to women’s psyches at critical times in their lives? These are the horses I call Dream Horses—the horses that live in our dreams, memories, artwork, and imaginations. Why do they come? Are they real or spirit? Are they a figment of our unconscious? Are they part of our personal unconscious, or of a wider collective unconscious?

Alice Walker has said, The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”  

In just the same way, dream horses exist for their own reasons. We speak of dreams as if they are our dreams, as if they are possessions. This kind of possessive thinking is just enough to chase dream figures away and discourage any kind of meaningful dialogue or learning. Psychologist Carl G. Jung railed against people that would create dream dictionaries in their misguided attempt to pin down the meaning of different symbols.  

How to Work with the Imaginal

Dream horses and other dream figures are imaginal figures. Imaginal is a word coined by depth psychologists in an attempt to find some language that honors the experiences of dreams and myth. In our western rationalistic and scientific culture, an imaginary experience is one that did not happen, so it is devalued. If we can not see it or measure it, then it must not exist.  Use of the word imaginal is a way to insist that these experiences are both real and important. When we are in the midst of a vivid dream, there is no question that what we experience is real.

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and the task of the sculptor is to discover it.” He knew that his job as sculptor was to guide the image out of the stone which had its own personality, needs and voice. This same sensibility and respect should be accorded dream and other imaginal figures. Like Michelangelo, we need to listen in to what wants to emerge.

Jung developed a method called active imagination for working with symbols, images and dreams that helps to build relationship with these mysterious figures. Honoring imaginal experiences through active imagination techniques of art making, journaling, dream drama, dialogue and other forms of creative expression is vital for a healthy relationship with the psyche. 

What Does It Mean? 

At the risk of being simplistic, the aforementioned stories of women’s encounters with Dream Horses show some common characteristics: 

  • Transition: Dream Horses want to help, and tend to come at times of change—they appear as guides, just as sure-footed horses can find their way in the dark.
  • Power: Just as we measure cars in horsepower, Dream Horses often lend their strength and energy to women.
  • Authentic Self: Encounters with Dream Horses often encourage women to follow their soul callings and passions.
  • The Herd: Visitations by multiple horses can bring a sense of belonging and dispel a sense of isolation.

 Dream Horse Exercise: 

If you would like a Dream Horse visitation, try the following exercise:

  1. Go to a quiet, safe place where you will not be disturbed, such as your bedroom.
  2. Light a candle to invite the presence of the Divine.
  3. Close your eyes while sitting in a comfortable position. Imagine you are outside, among a herd of friendly horses. One horse catches your eye. With your mind, invite it to come to you. In your mind’s eye, observe as many details as you can: color, size, age, personality, smell of the horse, the time of day, season and location.
  4. Thank your new friend for coming to you and be patient. See what happens. Perhaps you can “talk” together and you can ask questions. Maybe you will receive an impression or felt sensation. Some people, for example, just feel a sense of acceptance. Accept your experience without judgment. This is the start of a relationship, and relationships take time to build.
  5. Journal about your experience. Try drawing a picture and see what happens.
  6. Try this exercise more than once. You may get the same horse, or a different one. Trust your experience.

Finally, enjoy your Dream Horse experiences. They can be an unexpected blessing, especially during difficult times. I invite you to write to me about your experience (below).

  

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The Horse That Got Away Part III: Working with a Core Wound

But Maybe this Loss Wasn’t So Bad

Last week, I talked about how not winning a coveted Shetland pony as a young girl was a core wound. As a grown woman, it seems ludicrous in some ways that this loss could have had such an impact. My rational brain argues that if I had really loved horses so much, I could have gotten a horse years ago. Instead I locked the loss tightly within my heart, almost forgotten, where it laid buried deep inside of me for decades.

 Comparing Losses

The loss of a pony pales next to other losses I have experienced. My best girlfriend died in a plane crash. Another girlfriend died in a car crash. My younger brother died a premature death due to the effects of alcoholism and homelessness. Both of my marriages to two Vietnam veterans ended in divorce, and the second divorce had a huge ripple effect on my children and stepchildren. I have been physically assaulted and experienced invasive surgeries. Surely, these would qualify as more important losses.

 Minimizing Our Pain

Comparing our losses is a way to minimize our pain. As humans, we especially minimize the losses of loved animal companions. Sometimes minimization can be helpful. When I was laid up from a ruptured Achilles tendon injury, I was relieved that my injury was not permanent when I saw an old man in a wheelchair. When I was taken aback by the long snakelike scar on my leg, I was grateful that I lived in a country and time where such surgery was possible.

 

Yet, comparing or minimizing our pain can also be a way to avoid feeling the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts that arise. For example, with my ruptured Achilles tendon, focusing on what I was grateful for kept me from feeling my anxiety about being unable to take care of my young children, and fears of vulnerability, disability and death. Minimization can be the key that locks the pain away into our psyche, and adults are very good at offering explanations to young children in their effort to help them.

 Working with My Loss: Brownie

One effective way to work with grief and loss is through making art, and using the imagination to heal. As I thought about my loss, my sadness was magnified by my guilt over remembering neither  the pony’s name nor its color. I laid down and closed my eyes, holding a horse figure on my heart. As I did, tears came. I also sensed the presence of a friendly chestnut Shetland pony with very kind eyes. I imagined saying to her, “I am so sorry, I don’t remember my pony’s name or its color.” She responded kindly and without blame that I could name her whatever I like, and that she would be my pony.

 Healing Artwork

I did a series of four drawings. In the first one, I drew Brownie first, and handed her an apple. Instead of being on the other side of the fence, I drew us on the same side of the fence. As I look at the drawing, I realized that I drew myself very far away from her, as if in fear of her. I drew Brownie bigger than me, perhaps because she seems so much more powerful. I tried again, and drew another picture.

 

One thing I learned as an art therapist is that the images we hold in our psyche are very powerful. If we change our images, our psyche changes, too.

 

In the second drawing, we are closer to the same size, and my features as a seven year-old are more defined. I hand the apple to Brownie, but she reaches for me, rather than the apple. I found myself thinking, “Oh, she likes me. I thought she just cared about the apple.” In the third drawing, I try to hug her, having difficulty figuring out how my hands should go. Pink rays emanate from us both to signify love. In this drawing, my feet are tilted, and I am not grounded. I look very unbalanced, like a brisk wind could knock me over. I have had this experience in love relationships!

 

In the last drawing in this series, I draw our heads together, surrounded by a big heart. We are equal and in balance. The fear in the first drawing has given way to a warm embrace. My eyes are closed in the drawing—in trust for this beautiful and loving being.

 Healing a Core Loss—A Start

I made a new beginning for myself by doing this artwork. Before losing “my” Shetland pony, I had imagined being able to experience freedom and companionship by being with a horse. These are core needs of my soul that have been compromised in human relationships, especially in my relationships with men. Brownie is real to me. Over time, through art, visualization, and writing techniques, I will continue to develop a relationship with her. I can practice relationship skills with Brownie that will serve me in my other relationships.

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The Horse that Got Away Part II–A Core Wound

Last week I wrote about not getting a Shetland pony at the Chagrin Falls, Ohio Blossom Time fair when I was seven. I turned away from my loss at the time by turning away from my love for horses, with the exception of doing artwork of horses. Yet, horses doggedly pursued me in my dreams, artwork and meditative experiences decades later. I am now 51 years old and have never owned a horse, or even been in their company on a regular basis. Why, then, did I just devote five years of my life to a unique piece of research on the amazing and wondrous relationship between women and horses and what it means for our times?

Somehow, last week, in writing First Love: The Horse That Got Away, I felt my childhood loss and betrayal in a new way, especially after talking to a dear friend and lifelong horsewoman. Pamela spoke compassionately about the enormity of that loss in a way that evoked long-unshed tears and caused me to look at this loss with more respect. She also said that losing that Shetland pony, especially when my dad bought the ticket for the other girl who won it, may have even caused me to lose faith in God as a child. 

The Gifts of Core Wounds

Therapists and psychologists, if they are rigorously honest to their soul work, typically specialize in the areas of their greatest wounds—core wounds. A core wound can both be the worst and best thing that ever happens to us. I say that it can be the best thing because if you work with your wounds with courage and respect, they may reveal special gifts. Indigenous cultures, the ancient Greeks, and modern-day psychologists work with a concept called the Wounded Healer. In indigenous cultures, a healer was chosen by their ability to heal themselves from a life experience/wound that could have killed them or led to insanity. Wounds reveal gifts—often healing abilities, empathy, and spiritual awareness. We all know someone who has taken a tragic situation, and instead of being shattered by it, has instead used it as a springboard to new growth and awareness. One example is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s concept of death awareness, which is the person who lives vibrantly because of the awareness of death. In archetypal psychology, founded by James Hillman, illness, wounds and symptoms are seen as the soul’s way of getting our attention.

Trauma Healing

The core wound cuts deep into our psyche and helps define the way that we experience the world. We try to avoid our core wounds because it hurts so much to feel their pain. Core wounds are typically caused by a traumatic incident. Yet why do different people respond so differently? Two people may experience the identical traumatic incident such as a fire, or a sudden deep loss, yet one recovers and the other is held hostage to the trauma, coming back to it over and over again, unable to “move on.” Like a dog chewing on a bone when the meat is long gone, trauma victims often are stuck in a kind of time warp, forced to re-live their experience over and over.

The interesting thing about trauma, is that it is not what happens to us, but rather how we think about what happened to us that makes it traumatic. Often this thinking has us believing that we are bad, unworthy, or unlovable. Other mistaken beliefs may be that we are alone, and do not need or deserve help from anyone else. We may also, as my friend pointed out, end up with a lingering sense that we are unlovable in the eyes of God, or however we imagine the Divine.

I have worked through numerous issues of loss, betrayal, physical and sexual assault, the sudden deaths of loved ones, and family issues of alcoholism. I have grieved two divorces. I have also been an art therapist to combat veterans, incest survivors and child victims of violence. Currently I work as a hands-on healer with people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.Yet in all my years of personal therapy, training and schooling in psychology, and deep psychological work, until last week I managed to tiptoe around one of my own deepest core wounds—the loss of a horse when I was a young girl. Even as I write these words, my inner critic (posing as my logical mind) is trying to minimize the loss as a way to keep me from feeling its depth.

Next Week: Working With a Core Wound

In the next posting, I will demonstrate how to engage the imagination in working with my own core wound.

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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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