Archive for Wild Horses

Flicka: A Movie Review

Mary O’Hara’s famous 1941 novel My Friend Flicka was made into a popular 1943 film starring young Rodney McDowell. In the book and the original movie, the main character is a young boy learning life lessons on a Wyoming ranch through his love for Flicka, a beautiful sorrel mare. There was even a My Friend Flicka tv series that ran in the 1950’s.

 The Girls Have It

In 20th Century’s 2006 Flicka, Ken McLaughlin has morphed into Katy McLaughlin, a teen girl uninterested in schoolwork. On her first morning home from boarding school, Katy runs out to the stables and dashes on horseback off into the spectacular Wyoming landscape. A wild mustang mare saves the reckless girl from a mountain lion attack, thus setting up a conflict between Katy and her dad. The glum quarter horse breeder, played by country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t want a mustang on his ranch. Economic woes, a headstrong daughter, and the undeniable love of Katy for the beautiful black Flicka create the main dramatic elements in the film. Katy overrides her father’s orders and gentles the wild black mustang.

 What Happened to Ken?

The 2006 film has gorgeous footage and is sure to be a favorite of preteen girls. But what happened to Ken in this re-make? The reissue of this classic tale with a sex-change in the main protagonist reflects an important aspect of culture in the Western world. More women own horses in the U.S. and Canada than men, and women are now dominating most of the equestrian sports with the exception of racing and polo. The original novel and film were made at a time when horses were still the domain of the boys and men. In the 1950’s horses lost their primary jobs in agriculture and warfare, and since that time girls and women have increasingly dominated the stable. In the film, it is Katy’s brother who is interested in leaving the ranch to go to college, and Katy who is drawn to the land, the horses and the ranch.

 Catch the Ending

While there are many who fuss over the differences between the original story/movie and the 2006 version, most seem to agree that the cinematography in the recent film is spectacular, as is the landscape. Some reviewers have found the story too saccharine and trite. Of special note, though, is the very ending of the film. With beautiful footage of horses and her parents as a backdrop, Katy, played by Alison Lohman speaks:

 “I believe there is a force in this world that lives beneath the surface. Something primitive and wild that awakens when you need an extra push just to survive. Like wildflowers that bloom after a fire turns the forest black. Most people are afraid of it and keep it buried deep inside themselves. But there will always be a few people who have the courage to love what is untamed inside us. One of those men is my father.”  The last scene in the movie shows the exhilarated Katy riding Flicka. As the camera catches the ecstatic look on her face, Katy says, “When we’re riding, all I feel is free.” 

Don’t Miss the Horse Girl Photos

As the credits roll, dozens of photographs of girls and horses reinforce the deep kinship so many girls have for their horses in a beautiful photo montage. When I saw Flicka in the theater, a young girl gasped as she saw her own picture on the screen. Promoters of the film had collected photos of girls and horses nationwide, and hers had been selected.


The gender change of the main character shows an important cultural trend (as well as savvy marketing.) In the last five minutes, the filmmakers have evoked an important aspect in the psyche of horse girls. Indeed horse girls and horse women do seem to be able to hear that primitive and wild force that Katy describes. If horse love is an important developmental stage in girls’ emotional growth, as Diane Ackerman says in A Natural History of Love, Flicka certainly captures it ably. Katy’s love for the wild Flicka helps her take risks, demonstrate responsibility, and experience the heady taste of freedom. I personally enjoy movies with independent heroines that have upbeat endings, and the last five minutes is worth the price of the video rental.


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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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Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary

Nestled into the rolling hills outside of Lompoc, California is the Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary. Home to 200 horses living in family herds, the sanctuary tends wild (feral) horses and burros while advocating and educating about their precarious living conditions and need for preservation. In late August, I scheduled a trip to southern California around their 10:00 am Living History tour. I stayed overnight in nearby Buellton so I could catch the tour on my way back up to my home in northern California.


Wild Horses and Transformation at Return to Freedom

I first heard about the wild horse sanctuary five years ago from graduate student Sandra Easter who shares my interest in women, horses, and healing. She had gone to Return to Freedom (RTF) when her life was swirling in the turmoil surrounding her divorce, a move, and her unknown future direction. Sandra had stayed at the sanctuary (in a facilitated experience) to just “be” with the horses, and found tremendous peace, acceptance, and personal insight. As she described her experiences, there was clearly a mystical or spiritual quality to her time watching and being with the horses. Sandra said that being with, or even being near the wild horses was very different than being with domesticated horses. She found it difficult to express her powerful experiences in words, yet her experience was transformative, with long lasting healing effects. A few years later, I found mention of Return to Freedom in Carolyn Resnick’s fascinating book, Naked Liberty, about her experiences with wild horses, and I wondered again about RTF. I was especially curious to meet Neda DeMayo, the founder of the sanctuary and was pleased to learn that she would lead the tour. As she greeted the visitors, Neda impressed me as someone very comfortable in her own skin. Neda has the build of an athlete, with thick chestnut hair, and eyes that are warm and watchful.


Living History Tour

Grandparents with their horse-crazy granddaughter, a middle-aged woman who felt compelled to come, and a mom and her daughters on their way to a pioneer camp made up our group. In the barn, surrounded by stacks of hay, we watched an introductory video made in 2004 that eloquently outlines the plight of the wild horses and the daunting challenge of RTF. From 2 million mustangs in the 1800’s, only 32,000 remain, mostly on U.S. government lands, after millions were brutally rounded up and slaughtered. Of those that remain, 22,000 of the mustangs are penned up in holding tanks, often for years at a time. Many of the horses left in the wild or in the unscrupulous hands of people that “adopt” the horses suffer from emaciation and disease.


A Pioneer Standing up for Wild Horses

In a thoughtful discussion after the video, Neda’s role as an advocate became clear. Even with all of the daily chores of caring for 200 horses and burros, running an organization, and fundraising, one of Neda’s most important duties is political advocacy. She pioneered the concept of placing family groups and herds rather than breaking them up. As herd animals, horses suffer when they are alone, because to be alone, or separated from the herd, is to be in danger. Her eyes cloud over as she laments the loss of individual species and the abuse she has witnessed. Neda’s years of fighting for the mustangs has led her to understand the painful truth that mustangs are at risk of dying out simply because they have little financial value.


She told us that that the very best way to protect the wild horses is by educating and rallying public support to ensure protection. DeMayo has taken the plight of the horses into the court of public opinion by garnering Hollywood attention and support for the important RTF programs and advocacy work.


After the tour and our questions, Neda introduced us to some of the many horses and even burros that live at the Sanctuary. We met “Spirit,” the mustang that was the prototype for the Dreamworks animated film by the same name. We met different rescued horses and learned their stories, as we had a chance to pet them. We walked up the hillside and into the area with the wild horses who came to inspect us quite readily. It made my heart glad to see other nearby family herds roaming freely.


Challenge and Hope

As the tour came to an end and I headed back through the winding roads to the main highway, I was awed by the enormity of the work that lies ahead to preserve the American wild horses. I was also filled with hope as I recalled the before and after footage of Paloma from the video. The video chronicled the emaciated, white pregnant mare that arrived at the Sanctuary, with the future for herself and her unborn foal uncertain.The “after” footage showed a vibrantly healthy mother parenting her foal Francesca Rose. The beautiful white Paloma (dove in Spanish) is a wonderful symbol of the hundreds of horses that have passed through the sanctuary. Paloma has even taken in orphan foals to mother them as well.


Next Steps

As I recall my morning at Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary, it is clear that the task requires the same qualities of the wild horses themselves: tremendous strength, endurance and persistence. The RTF Sanctuary is an important model, but its acreage is not enough to feed the horses it serves without supplementation. Herd sizes are maintained with non-hormonal birth control. In the summer months, feed alone costs $10,000 a month. We must be the voice for the horses and we must act now with all of our courage and strength.


There are many ways to support this vital work, including donations, purchasing books and gifts from the RTF store, and writing letters to our representatives in Congress and the U.S. Senate. For more information about Return to Freedom, and to support the work of RTF, please see

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Saranyu: The Runaway Horse Goddess: Part II

In Part I, I described the Hindu horse goddess Saranyu who left her husband, the sun, by turning herself into a mare and running away. When Saranyu ran away, she left a double—an imposter wife—behind. The imposter took care of the husband, Surya, and even had more children with him. In this conclusion to the story, we learn what happened to Saranyu and why her story still resonates today for modern women, 3,000 years later. 

Born into Illusion 

The imposter or shadow wife left behind gave birth to Manu, a son whose name is the derivation for the English word human. In the ancient Hindu Rig Veda, Manu was the father of the human race. In Hindu understanding, Manu, as the child of the false wife, was thus the result of an illusion, underscoring the belief that as humans, we are born into illusion, and our task is to awaken.

 “She is Not My Mother”  

In Part I, I described how Surya did not notice that his real wife had left and what a poignant metaphor that is for modern women who often must repress their true selves to stay in their marriages. It was actually Saranyu’s young son who noticed the deception when the imposter wife/mother mistreated him. The young boy knew that the imposter was not his mother and complained bitterly to his father. As soon as Surya learned the deception, he turned himself into a stallion and ran off to reclaim his bride.

 Desire or Curiosity? 

There are different translations of the ancient Rig Veda, leading to alternate interpretations of what happened next. They do agree that Surya, as a stallion, found Saranyu the mare. In his excitement at seeing her again, Surya spilled his semen on the ground. She sniffed at the semen which entered her nose and impregnated her. Saranyu had a second set of twins, Nasatya and Dasra, known as the Asvins.

Where the interpretations differ is whether Saranyu’s curiosity caused her to smell her husband’s semen, or if she purposely chose to smell the semen because she desired more children. The myth is curiously similar to the Greek Persephone who bent down to smell a flower. Her action caused her to be abducted into the Underworld by Hades on horseback.

 Important Themes 


Birthing of a new consciousness is one theme in the story. The Asvin twins born from the joining of the mare and stallion were physician-gods that appeared in the heavens in the dawn to guide their father’s solar carriage. Their purpose was to “protect humanity from suffering and misery and guide human beings to enlightenment.”[1] They were also the gods of agriculture. Just as their big brother Manu brought the birthing of humanity, the Asvins brought healing. Without Saranyu’s bid for freedom, neither humanity nor healing would have been brought to the earth.


Another important theme in the story is that of splitting. Saranyu shape-shifted into two forms: a mare and the imposter or shadow wife. As a mare, she was wild and free in a way that she was unable to be as the wife of the sun god. In psychology, splitting is an important concept that often happens as the result of a trauma. A false self often arises to appease the world and protect the “real” self. How often do we do that as women even when no trauma is evident? How many times do we tell others, “I’m fine,” when our heart is broken, our world has been shattered, or we can hardly face the day and we don’t even know why?  

Solar Consciousness

Solar consciousness and its effects are another important facet of this potent myth. If we had all sun and no rain, the earth could not survive. Just as global warming threatens our very planet, the kind of consciousness that does not recognize and value the dark, the natural world, the importance of the feminine, and the mysterious is lopsided. Death, decay, aging, suffering, illness, and loss are all facets of life that our solar culture often avoids at all costs. When my father died, for example, he requested that there be no memorial service. He wanted to spare us our grief. Yet there was no opportunity for the extended family and community to cry together share our grief, which made his passing harder to work through.

 Saranyu’s Choice

Whatever the reason Saranyu sniffed the semen, it was a very sensible thing to do. Smell is an important sense in our daily lives and also metaphorically. We use expressions like, “something just doesn’t smell right about the situation” to discern the truth. In the wild, it is the mare in estrus that chooses her mate. I prefer to think that Saranyu chose to smell the semen knowing the consequences, and that she chose willingly, and on her own terms.

 Running Away as Running To

Finally, we often consider running away as a poor alternative to facing the obstacles in our path. In this case, Saranyu’s running away led her to birth humanity and healing. More women, even mothers of young children, leave their marriages in the U.S. today than men. Saranyu’s story points out why: women often cannot express their authentic selves within the confines of traditional marriages and so they are leaving. Rather than scapegoating women as failures when they initiate divorce, we must examine marriage and our assumptions about marriage. No one seems to be asking the important question, “Why is marriage failing so many women, and especially mothers of young children?” Saranyu’s running away is a “running to” the authentic self that was vital to humanity.


The story of Saranyu is a potent story for women in our time as we juggle multiple roles and demands. Our deepest desires for authentic relationships—with our mates, our children, and with others—can go unsatisfied unless we undertake the often-difficult journey to know ourselves. Just as Saranyu needed to leave her husband and children behind, we need to find ways to be true to our authentic needs and create openings for soul to come shining through. There are many pathways—therapy, journal writing, women’s circles, retreats, meditation, being with horses and other animals—that help us to hear our own true soul voice. Make a date with yourself today, and keep it. The world will be a better place because of it.


[1] Fischer-Schreiber, I. (1989). The encyclopedia of eastern philosophy and religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Boston: Shambala.

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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 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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