The Fifteenth-Century Mystic Margery Kempe saw a man striking a horse, and as she stared the image dissolved. Its particles reformed and there before her was Christ being lashed, his blood flowing like tears.
To blasphemously put her beloved Christ's face where before there was only a beast's (only, certainly, the very least of his brethren)---this, as we have come to see, is rank sentimentality, woman's foolishness. We are supposed to be civilizing ourselves out of it, but here is one slight problem. That sentimentality, also known as compassion, is the one thing that has allowed human civilization to continue, for without it we would leave our children hungry in the streets and our babies tied to tables to learn (for science is civilization minus compassion) how long it takes them to expire from neglect. As the British critic Bridgid Brophy, who has the knack of seeing this clearly, has written: "Whenever people say "We mustn't be sentimental,' you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, 'We must be realistic,' they mean they are going to make money out of it."
What other than some form of compassion, however admixed (always, always) with its opposite, can explain those women and children who can do with a horse what no one else can do?
Whippers, beaters, abusers, sadists, those whose compassion has suffered a fatal leak and left the bucket dry----all are found among the ranks of women who profess to love horses (just as women, those natural nurturers, actually kill children at a rate far greater than men do.) But here are just enough of the others----the deeply understanding, the quietly caring----among these women, too, coupled with too many stories of preternatural affection to be happenstance, that we must try again to comprehend the evidence.
Maybe it is that the desire to be with horses and their warm breath and trusting natures is most basically the desire to feel love---profound, joyous, irreducible love----and especially that rare breed of it that one feels only for offspring. If in their dependent state domesticated horses are like children (and who are we to ignore the voices of those thousands of women who say they are?), then they must be triggering the finally inexplicable instincts that blind us to the particular shape of our charges----whether they are covered in brown hair or pink skin, or have our eyes or those of someone on another continent----and cause us to love them with a fierceness that is almost embarrassing. Because mothers do not choose to love their babies, as if they had considered the merits of their intelligence or beauty or potential and found them sufficient : they love them rather because biology has insisted they do, and what is in our cells goes deeper than what is in our minds. Why try to keep it secret that this love is so delicious that we crave it with as powerful a hunger as it is possible to feel without going mad.
And maybe there is something else, too ( I assure you, there is always something else). I am attracted to horses, in particular, because they echo my own tentative whispers but do so in a bold ringing call; they speck with certainty of exactly those things we are most unsure of in ourselves. For the qualities that most define the equine species are the ones most suppressed currently in the human: raw sexuality, fear, open vulnerability and need, uncomplicated drive. They want only to live, which is to say to fulfill their biologically ordained needs (to feel safe, to commune with others of their kind, to move and play and create life). This reminds us of what we have forgotten about ourselves, and it is enough to make us want to cry. And enough, perhaps, to make tears stop.
As if to show that it is all beyond the pithless ability of word to explain, the artists have taken up the flag. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) had at least one great painting in her, animated by an intensity of sensuous feeling ("Oh, those suggestive hindquarters...." in the words of one of today's many painters working the suggestive area of horse art) as well as an intensity of moral feeling. The painter of the monumental Horse Fair once did rely on words to explain what she thought about the animal that gave her her best subject:
The horse is, like man, the most beautiful and the most miserable of creatures, only, in the case of man, it is vice or property that makes him ugly. He is responsible for his own decadence, while the horse is only a slave that the Creator has given to man, who abuses it out of his ingratitude and his worldly and egoistic poverty, until he becomes lower than the animal itself.