Cowgirl narratives often depict women and horses building a trusting relationship. But though they're about collaboration and trust, in these stories women almost always employ traditional horsemanship techniques that are grounded in domination and submission. So while these narratives are important in that they show women exercising freedom and agency, they still retain some elements of patriarchy. Control of horses and nature parallels the control of women.
Recently though, some depictions of natural horsemanship—an approach to working with horses that is more gentle and holistic than traditional techniques—have inched into film and television. Natural horsemanship is, I would argue, a more feminist approach to training horses. Its depiction in media is a more accurate portrayal of the real-life nuances that exist in the relationships between woman and horse.
The most notable media image of natural horsemanship is the Canadian television show Heartland. Not only does the show have a diverse cast and present a family structure that includes strong women and fictive kin, but the female protagonist—a young horse-trainer specializing in horses other have given up on—uses natural horsemanship techniques. Her connection with horses is never portrayed as some innate talent. Instead, hers is skillful horsemanship. On the show, there is an emphasis on awareness of the horse as an autonomous being with its own needs, and respect for the great risk involved in riding.
Another example of natural horsemanship in media, predating Heartland, is the film, The Horse Whisperer (1998). After a serious horse-riding accident leaving both Grace (Scarlett Johansson) and her horse injured and traumatized, she is taken to work with Tom Booker (Robert Redford). He is known to have a nearly mystical quality in his communication with horses, an ability to speak to them, hence the name. But in reality, he is simply practicing natural horsemanship techniques. The film even consulted natural horsemanship trainer, Buck Brannaman, for it's portrayals of the approach.
So while in The Horse Whisperer it is a man teaching these natural horsemanship skills, it is Grace who benefits from them. This is true in real-life as well. Male trainers reflect the roots in male-dominated cowboy disciplines, but with more women owning and riding horses, they are the ones filling the clinics, creating not only a community of women working together, but opportunities for apprenticeships and work as trainers themselves.
Natural horsemanship emphasizes working with the horse's instincts, unlike traditional approaches that rely on fear, punishment, whips, and chains. Working with the horse's instincts involves being clear on intent and paying close attention to the energy you are putting out. Horses bite, kick, and neigh, but building a partnership with your horse creates a confidence and trust that isn't possible using traditional approaches. To be effective, you must simultaneously be gentle and assertive, sensitive and bold.
On the drive home from a natural horsemanship clinic in Arizona, crossing the wide desert, a friend and I discussed how challenging it is to actually put natural horsemanship techniques into practice. I told her about my struggles with being assertive both in and out of the saddle.
I could see her considering this as she drove, before finally saying what we both understood: as women, we are expected to be quiet and friendly, not assertive and stridently clear about what we want. But no matter what happens in our lives, when we work with our horses we practice being assertive and big.
This can be a challenge for many horsewomen who are expected to be wholly feminine outside of the arena and are punished when they deviate. We've seen the way larger society treats powerful women who don't let people ignore their boundaries. I've been to horsemanship clinics with all kinds of women of all ages: lawyers, teachers, camera-women, park rangers, mothers. Each of us has struggled in some way with this concept of getting "big" and being really confident.
As she spoke I nodded along, understanding exactly what she meant. I had experienced it. This ability to be confidently assertive is what continues to attract me to horses. It is the only space I've found where I am rewarded for being firm and confident and able to develop a partnership that leaves me feeling capable, at home in my own body, closer to myself and closer to another living thing. It's a power dynamic we rarely see outside of the arena.
Read the rest of the Reverse Cowgirl series on women and horses.