Wild Horses Run Faster
by Ashley B.
When I was little—
—I mean really little, I used to arrange my toy horses in parades throughout the house.
They’d circle endlessly on the round glass dining table (mingling with dinosaurs and Godzillas), trot bravely across the little lip in front of the fireplace, gallop through the shrubs and flowers of my mom's gardens. I have very little recollection of these early equine parades but there is photo evidence.
The thing I remember most about my childhood toy horses were the distinctions I made between them—specifically a pinto mare and foal set that joined the herd later on.
“You,” I would think at them, “you are mustangs. You are wild and free. You are different.” They were my favorite, and I never put them in any of the plastic corrals, nor in the custom barn my mother and I built out of cardboard and hot glue. I never placed a toy rope around their necks.
I often used the other toy horses as a herd of mustangs, but eventually they would return to more domesticated roles. The pinto set never did. I related to my imaginary mustangs in a way that I didn’t relate to the other horses, especially when I set up the pair on a hill to watch the domesticated herd mill around the barn below. They were different, and they did not fit in.
My veneration of “difference” extended beyond horses. In my mind, difference was to be celebrated. White tigers and black wolves, I thought, were obviously better in some way. Their uniqueness set them apart from the rest. I am sure my veneration of difference sprung from the influence of my mother, who taught me that being different was good and desirable. However, she indirectly taught me that it was a particular brand of uniqueness, stamped with her approval, that was to be celebrated. Not everything that was different or contrary was greeted enthusiastically. Being different in what she considered “the right way” was important.
In kindergarten, my four-foot-long, life-size plastic iguana was not welcome in the role as pet when kids wanted to play house. My desire to play at being a dragon or a lion or an adventurer had me quickly eschewed in a world where the only accepted roles to play were mother, daughter, father, son, maid, and, inexplicably, mailman. I don’t recall adults enforcing these rules during our playtime. I remember them coming from the children I sought as playmates.
This came as a shock to me, as I had been playing more imaginative games at home with my mother, little brother, and neighborhood kids, or by myself. Wild mustangs, jungle explorer, things of the like. I don’t think I had ever played house until I attempted to find a place among the kids at school, the kids that were so unlike me.
So, at school, I played alone. I have since heard several accounts of queer kids refusing to participate in gendered role play games as small children, without knowing why the games felt so wrong.
Through mankind's very act of trying to catch, domesticate, conform, control, and tame, the mustang’s plight and intrinsic existence stood above the rest to me. It’s easy to look at a man on a horse and think that he is in “control.” The reins, the bits, occasionally the spurs. It’s easy for a person unversed in the world of mankind's connection with horse to see an animal submitted to the whims and direction of its rider.
I will not deny that some horses are broken to this.
But usually that is not the case.
Take a moment to think about the physicality of horses. Most of them weigh upwards of one thousand pounds. The average weight of a human is less than two hundred pounds. One thousand pounds. They are far swifter than we will ever be. Their teeth are larger than our knuckles. Have you ever seen a bucking horse? In person? One thousand pounds of force throwing a human into the air, faster than you can blink. The words “get off me” do not quite capture the visceral feeling of this action, this show of power.
There always exist relationships where one party is solidly in control, dictating everything, but not all relationships are like that. Why would you want that? Why would you want to constantly force and harangue your partner into doing what you wished? Physically assert every decision? Not only does it feel wrong, but the act of constantly enforcing your dominance and direction is mentally and physically exhausting, be it with a romantic partner, a friend, or an animal. When one works with a horse, has developed a partnership, they learn and grow and decide together. The bits and reins are not weapons of control. They are tools to communicate, to ask your partner to do something, to move with you. Your partner trusts you as a leader and this is the language that you speak together. There is a reason it is no longer referred to as breaking a horse, but as gentling. Especially in the world of the mustang.
When I ride a horse, I do not yank on his mouth.
At present, the Bureau of Land Management is in charge of maintaining mustang herds on public land. It is a complicated situation, with the BLM attempting to maintain a balance with the ecosystem and the number of mustangs that can sustainably live within it. Nearly 50,000 mustangs and burros are currently living in off-range facilities, gathered up from the wild and put in holding. Some will be adopted out, though there is an average of 10,000 more animals added to holding each year.
Horses are prolific breeders and through human intervention the few apex predators that could prey on the horse to keep populations in check have been swept onto the endangered species list—often deemed too dangerous to exist in our now “civilized,” colonized world. Mustang slaughter and roundups were also used historically to handicap the Native American tribes—yet another form of control.
Were I a mustang...
Every time my mother said that women with short hair looked trashy was a rope around my neck, pulling me to the ground despite my rearing in anger. For every tattoo or piercing I thought was interesting, my mother telling me that they would make a bad person was a bit forced into my mouth. My mother calling any woman she thought unattractive an “ugly dyke” were spurs thrust to my bleeding sides. My mother prohibiting me from seeing my friends or attending school events after tearfully coming out at sixteen was a corral wall to slam my body against. I was a mustang trying to exist as myself, and I was not being listened to, communicated with. There was no common language between me and anyone else in my world. There was no mutual respect through the subtle learning of reins and bits. What I experienced were harsher elements made of force.
I saw ugly hate in my mother’s eyes after I was allowed to attend school outings again, hate that told me that she knew the girl I had been with was going to be there. I had told her that myself, so she wouldn’t hear it from someone else. She must have forgotten. Her insisting, “I know you. I know you’re not gay. You just can’t be gay, I know you better than that,” was a whip lashing my sides. I saw crushing disappointment in my father's eyes when he showed me that all of my texts messages after I came out had been copied to his phone. The communications between myself and the girl I had told them I’d broken up with, but hadn’t, because I was young and in love. I wanted to lay down and die. After that, I let them put the bit in my teeth, stopped bucking, stopped screaming. I let their reins and spurs direct me, and all my bleeding became internal, from a broken heart and a shattered will. A wild mustang no more. One of the rarer cases of horsemanship I noted, where the beast is beat into submission: no respect, no partnership, no communication. I had been broke.
* * *
I have a hard time relating to other horse people. There are few LGBTQ+ people in the Western horse community. I am a poor, blue collar, rough and tumble butch lesbian who went to art school. My peers are generally monied people from wealthy families. Children who have never worried about where their meals will come from, have not avoided the doctor for lack of money.
Outside of the wealthy families that are equestrians as recreation, there are the conservative cowboy types. Sometimes they are young, sometimes they are old. Often Republicans, they don’t know what to make of my short, cantankerous, queer pagan ass. Blue collar, good ol’ boys that I would probably get along with if they could move past the homophobia and racism. We’re more similar than they think, though this realization would likely horrify them.
But instead they ask me on dates despite their knowledge of my girlfriend or shun me and tell me that mares do not want to be with mares. They want their stallions. (Which is actually not true—on the farm where I work, there are two mares that actually seek the affection of our herd’s boss mare, the matriarch of the herd, when they’re in heat, rather than the stallion.)
I am no sleek thoroughbred, worth millions of dollars in racing and dressage. I am no well-bred quarter horse with a bloodline hundreds of years long. I am a short, scrappy, muddy mustang, hardy and wily, physically and mentally worth just as much as the other pedigrees, though some people do not think so.
I can be happy at least knowing that the gentling and training of adopted mustangs no longer consists of “breaking” the horse, but rather showing it that you as a human can coexist with it, learn from and with it, and teach it many things. You can build a partnership and a relationship of mutual understand and kindness as you grow and learn together. I wish I had been treated with as much courtesy as a teenager when I came out. I wish the world could see all queer people that way, as people who, yes, are different, but are also worthy of friendship, trust, and existing just as we are.
In the last five years that I have been working with horses, they have helped me see the anger and pain that still resides in me. They have helped me work through my emotions, sometimes with snotty tears (mine) and sometimes with smiles (ours) and gentle noses (theirs) whiffling in my hair. Horses are great therapists when you learn to be friends with them. I think now, I hope, that I am ready. I still have so much pain in me but I am also full of love and gentleness, and the knowing of just letting things be.
I am ready to share this knowing, to help as I have been helped, and am looking to adopt a mustang out of holding so that I may remind it of the gentleness of existence. So that I can offer it partnership and the calm, knowing hand of a person who sympathizes with and understands what it is like to be forced out of herd and home, and into the
Ashley B. is an alumnus of the Kansas City Art Institute. She is a freelance illustrator, writer, and part-time ranch hand working with horse breeders. Ashley’s work can be seen in the Center Spiral Magazine and on Instagram @blackfeathrart. Ashley is a butch lesbian who goes by she/her/they pronouns.