On Horse-Training and Feminism


Shortly after I bought my horses, an elderly man in my life shoved his hands in his polyester pockets, sucked his teeth, and said, “I’ve never understood why women like horses so much.” I don't suppose he would have liked my answer, if he had really wanted an answer: Because you can swing up on them and get the hell out of Dodge.

Every minute that I live, it becomes more and more apparent to me that a woman has to take what she wants. Nobody but nobody is going to give it to her, not without expectation, and not unless the object of her desire falls safely enough within the proper bounds.

Men take fishing trips and sports excursions for the pure pleasure of them; women take recovery. From my experience, "Girls Night Out" is always an act of desperation. And babies big or small—no matter how much they scream they want their independence—can hardly bear for their mother's attention to be turned away. (Try taking five straight minutes to write a blog, for example.) They light out into their own adult lives, and still her countenance is supposed to be watching every time they turn.

The collective message is subtle and complex. Societal machinations are humming in the white noise of a woman's world, every waking minute from birth. With every step she takes away from expectations, the tuneless screeching of violins grows louder, and words clarify themselves within the drone: You are so selfish. How dare you?

This is old news for women, a rehashing of the old blah-blah-blah—we fight it, think about it in our most exhausted, over-used moments, and too often fail to take what we need out of guilt. But there's another side we might not think about so much. That is, not just what to grab for ourselves—but what not to.

My horses are on a short list of the big things I have grabbed in my lifetime, for myself, without permission, and without apology. So it came as a surprise to me, that giving one of the horses away was as important to the effort as getting them in the first place. Because it's easy to forget: The fabric of your life—whatever threads you find yourself studying at the end, turning over and softly rubbing between your thumbs and fingers—the quality is as much about the material you leave out as what you weave in. And it takes as much strength to stand up for what not to accept.

I'll not go into too much detail, but the mare was aggressive to the point of being deadly, different from other Problem Horses™ in that she commenced full-frontal attacks seemingly without provocation. The first decision I made was between putting her down (because I would not have handed off a killer) and having a trainer with more experience than I work with her. I chose the latter.

Two weeks later, the trainer and I met for an assessment, beginning with whether this was what in the old days was called "a bad animal." No, he said, just a very, very alpha one, a dominant leader of the herd, with no small number of issues. "I think this can be done," he said. "Are you ready to work hard?"

Ask a woman if she's ready to work hard? How, pray tell, is she supposed to answer that? I blinked at him silently, thinking, well, but, that's not the idea. Not that particular kind of "hard." I'm planning ahead for my golden years here!

The training was helpful, and at length I rode the mare on a number of occasions, quite proud that I still had it, I could still keep this headstrong 1000-pound female under relative control. The internal arguments began then in earnest. All the ones closely related to what you might expect from a mother trying not to give up on her difficult child, alongside all the ones that said I've already done this before.

As a teenager I lied to my father for a year about how wild my gelding was, knowing he would sell him if he knew; that gelding and I eventually claimed a 1978 All-Around High Point Horse trophy in Texas that is still displayed in my living room. During that time, I only met one horse I never got a full handle on, and if we hadn't gone down in soft Texas sand when she reared over on me, I'd be dead. Good enough for near-death experiences; what do I have to prove now?

In the end, it came down to this: the mare was off-mission. I found I had to stand up for the decision to give her away, repeatedly. My trainer, my family, my own heart fought to see the effort with this mare through. It was hard, first because, in a qualified way, I was fond of her. She is a beauty, and I continued to want to hold onto that beauty. But also because, once I'd said "damn the torpedoes" and brought my little herd home, the societal drone changed, inside and outside of my head. The subtle and complex message: OK, you did this. Now accept your responsibility.

“Martyrdom” is something I’ve worked hard not to allow in my household of five women. No one was allowed to say “no fair” as they were growing up. So first I accepted the responsibility of a horse, and yes, I turned and handed it off to someone else. A perfect match, incidentally, after $2,000 of training.

How dare I.

Judy Bracher Carmichael is a writer and editor living in Virginia, and the mother of four grown, fabulous feminist daughters. She first pierced her nose in 2004, when her oldest, twins, were 16, and her hair has been ALL of the colors. She's rocking the gray now, and considers the People's Climate March of September 2014 in New York City a high mark of this stage of her life. She especially appreciates a fine bottle of blue Gatorade in the morning, when a hangover calls for liquids-STAT.

This essay was originally published on Judy's blog.