Sadistic attacks on horses, often involving sexual mutilation, have been reported with alarming frequency in southern England since the mid-Eighties; several dozen mares, stallions and geldings have been savaged. Stallions have been slashed or castrated, and broom handles thrust inside mares. Special police action has been taken to counter this ‘horse-ripping’, as it is evocatively called, and horse-owners have formed vigilante Horse-watch movements. But since the perpetrators have not yet been identified, imagination runs amok: what sort of a person would want to do such a thing?

Why do we find it particularly shocking to learn that horses have been sexually mutilated? Why does it shock us more than similar crimes perpetrated on sheep and cows? As a card-carrying mythologist and horsewoman, I think it is because horses have a strikingly ambivalent hold on our unconscious, and can become symbols of sex, politics and religion. And this mare’s nest of emotions is precisely what drives the people who commit crimes on horses; what makes us recoil is what makes them strike. Hippophilia and hippophobia are two sides of the same coin; they make us crazy about horses, one way or another.

Some newspaper articles on the recent mutilations have suggested that the practice of horse-ripping is very old and widespread, dating back to Roman or medieval times. This is not true; to my knowledge, there is no evidence for the clandestine mutilation of the genitals of other people’s horses until quite recent times. But as long as people have had horses, which is to say from the dawn of Indo-European history several millennia BCE, they have done violent things to horses of a sexual, political or religious nature.

A celebrated case at the turn of the century involved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After eight months of horse-ripping in Staffordshire, a series of anonymous letters directed police suspicion to a young Anglican clergyman named George Edalji, who was the son of a Hindu. Edalji was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour. Sir Arthur, insisting that demons or ‘demonically-obsessed perverts’ had done it, accused the police of acting from racist motives and campaigned successfully for Edalji’s release. The trinity of equine symbolism is there, in nuce, in the Edalji case: sex (‘perverts’), politics (anti-Hindu racism) and religion (‘demons’ or ‘demonically-obsessed perverts’). The participants were drawing on a rich body of equine mythology.

In Indo-European folklore fairy women ride mortals whose dead bodies are found the next day; they put bridles in the mouths of sleeping men, though a cunning man may in retaliation capture an equine witch by flinging a bridle over her head and forcing the bit between her teeth. A man may also subdue a mare demon by having her shod: when she returns to human form, she has horseshoes on her hands and feet. With stories like this coursing through his Indo-European blood (or Indo-European unconscious, or even Indo-European conscious), a sexually troubled man in Hampshire might well mutilate a mare.

There are also gentler, more muted texts in European literature that associate the mistreatment of horses with the mistreatment of women. The scene in Anna Karenina in which Vronsky breaks the back of his mare directly prefigures the fatal blow he is about to deal to his human mistress, Anna. And in the film The Misfits, the breaking of wild horses serves as a metaphor for what has broken the quintessential female (Marilyn Monroe) and male (Clark Gable) – who ultimately set free the horses they have caught.

It has been suggested that the ripper might be projecting onto horses the impulses that drove Jack the Ripper (or the Yorkshire Ripper) to rape women. But horses aren’t women – or are they? In the Indo-European world, the horse is a symbol of lawless animal passion. City children usually catch their first glimpse of the mating game when they see dogs doing it, and urban adults cannot understand the mentality of the horse-ripper. But farm children see horses mating, and no one who has seen horses mating ever forgets it: unlike cows and bulls, who go about it in a relatively calm and businesslike manner, mares and stallions are ferocious in their foreplay, and the size, prominence, and animation of their sexual organs burn into the retina of the witness’s unconscious.

Real horses may come in both male and female forms, but symbolic horses are usually one thing or the other. We use the word for the male animal, ‘horse’ to designate the breed in general, stallions, mares and geldings (just as, contrariwise, we use the word for the female, ‘cow’, to indicate a field full of cows, bulls and steers). The stallion, a large, powerful, impulsive and aggressive animal which bites and tramples, symbolises macho sexuality. But mares bite and trample too, thereby running head-on into stereotypes of gender that make the horse a problematic female symbol: if the horse is essentially male, the mare is somehow unnatural, a kind of category error; if the horse as a genus is fierce and male, and if women as a gender should be gentle and female, the stallion is ‘right’, the good animal, while the mare is wrong, and evil.

The mounting of horses for riding purposes provides a natural metaphor for the mounting of people for sexual purposes. Indo-European ideas of male dominance led to a preference for the missionary position in intercourse (in ancient India the position with the woman on top was called ‘upside-down’ or ‘perverse’), and the image of the woman astride became assimilated to the image of the mare herself: it was wrong, or perverse. Thus women riders supplied the unconscious imagery for the medieval witch, who may appear as a horse, transform a man into a horse and ride him, become a man-eating mare, or ride her phallic broomstick to a bestial orgy with Satan. The nightmare, though etymologically unrelated to the word for female horses, takes on explicit equine overtones from an early period in European mythology, in which the nightmare is a female monster closely related to the succubus; she lies down on top of a sleeping man, producing a feeling of suffocation or forcing him to have intercourse with her.

There is another reason, a historical and biological reason, why the mare came to epitomise everything that human males perceived as dangerous in human females. Mares in the wild breed with far greater success than mares in captivity, who tend to have a relatively low level of fertility, thus requiring multiple matings that waste a lot of stallion power. Worse still, mares tend to be testy and capricious when in heat, and have an unfortunate tendency to kick the stallions who try to mount them, often inflicting permanent damage or impotence. This may have something to do with the transition from life on the steppes, when horses and cows mated freely, to the intensive breeding and reproductive management which the Indo-Europeans adopted when they migrated to Italy, Ireland and India. Mares fared badly in these new conditions, while cows did well, and this observed contrast led to the mythology of evil mares (whores) and good cows (mothers). The mare, in this myth, thus comes to represent desirable beauty and speed, purchased at the price of danger (to the male) and infertility, compounded by her alarming tendency to run away after she has sucked you dry.

And the stallions? In recent rippings, they, too, have been ‘interfered with’. Historically, stallions have been interfered with both by those mares whose equicidal tendencies during mating would dampen the enthusiasm of the most passionate stud, and by the same culturally-imposed breeding conditions that rendered mares unsatisfactory sexual partners. This, then, is the naturalistic basis for the myth of the voracious mare that encouraged impotent men to attribute their problems to spells cast by (equine) witches; for sexually troubled men must have known and commiserated with their equine counterparts – the ‘dud studs’, as breeders call them.

Horses often behave as if they think of themselves as deer, but some humans think of them as lions. Indeed, there are many myths in which horses devour people, though the devouring equine mouth is a projection onto the horse of the violence that we inflict in taming it, through the use of the bit, in the mouth. The horse is thus seen as simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, fragile and powerful, frightened and angry. This is a perfect combination to inspire, particularly in those who perceive themselves as vulnerable, fragile and frightened, the urge to dominate an animal perceived as dangerous, powerful and angry; or to inspire in those who perceive themselves as dangerous, powerful and angry, the urge to dominate an animal perceived as vulnerable, fragile and frightened. This urge to dominate may be simultaneously sexual and political. Think of the tormented horses in Picasso’s Guernica.

Acts of aggression against the horse may of course be displacements of the wish to hurt a person. In Bleak House, a woman takes vengeance by hamstringing the horse of the man she hates. And in The Godfather, when milder threats are ignored, the Mafia cut off the head of an enemy’s prize racehorse and place it in his bed. In a more general way, a crime against a horse may be the expression of the desire to hurt not an individual but an entire class of people who have horses. The horse is an expensive and élite, though not necessarily an aristocratic, animal. One might argue that it used to be less élite, in the days when milkmen, cabbies, draymen, farmers and cowboys owned them; or that it is less élite now, when people of all classes may save their pennies to buy ponies for their children. But by and large, horses have remained a luxury in most cultures because they are costly to keep and do many tasks less efficiently than other animals. Most Europeans do not like to eat horses (the French are a notorious exception), and horses don’t pull or plough as well as bullocks do, or give milk like cows. The horse has all the glamour and pathos of the room when it is observed by the child outside, pressing his nose against the windowpane. And such a child, grown older, might well want to mutilate other people’s horses.

For people who do not have horses, the taming carried out by those who do may look like exploitation; the relationship between horse-having people and horse have-nots may also look like exploitation. For a long time Irish Catholics were forbidden to own a horse worth more than five pounds; this was done in part to humble them, and in part to keep them from owning a valuable weapon for insurrection. It is surely no coincidence that, during the Troubles, the horses of the occupying British forces were sometimes secretly mutilated. There are more violent political associations, too: the Cossacks riding down the Jews in pogroms, mounted police riding down striking workers (an image uncomfortably echoed in newsfilm of mounted police in London riding into and injuring the crowds demonstrating against Mrs Thatcher’s poll-tax). Horse-lovers know that horses hate to ride over people (if only because they are afraid of losing their own fragile balance), and have to be trained hard, by human beings, to do so. But such niceties are not likely to occur to anyone facing the terrible hooves.

On one side are the horse-haters, often uncomfortably and illogically allied with the animal-lovers (the anti-blood sports people); these are the people who toot their horns when they see riders on the roads, hoping the horse will jump and, presumably, throw and kill the rider. (I was once chased over three miles of trail in a forest outside Chicago by a gang of boys on a motorcycle.) I have always felt that such people were grasping a rare opportunity to exert power over those they cannot otherwise hurt: the sorts of snob who own horses. (The expression ‘Get off your high horse’ preserves this association of horses with economic and social privilege.) On the other side are the British drivers whose car stickers proclaim: ‘I slow down for horses.’ In the film of International Velvet a group of boys in a car chased the heroine (Tatum O’Neal) and her horse over roads and fields until the car turned over and blew up, killing all the boys: at this point the audience (only a horsey audience would go to such a film) cheered with vengeful delight. I was once riding with Penelope Betjeman when a lorry-driver got into an altercation with her and grabbed her horse (an Egyptian Arabian) by the bridle, causing it to rear up. She whipped him across the face and he let go.

Mutilating other people’s horses is politics; mutilating your own is religion. Several commentators have suggested a religious motive in the present horse-rippings. They invoke two radically different sorts of religion: a religion of sacrifice, in which horses are killed because they are good and pleasing to the gods; and a kind of anti-religion in which they are evil demons or devils who possess others or they are themselves possessed by demons. Such writers conjure up a ritual world of pagan feasts and full-moon orgies, of black magic or witchcraft.

What, if anything, do horse sacrifice, the exorcism of demonic horses, witchcraft or the full moon have to do with horse-ripping? Not much. Rituals involving horses, particularly the killing of a white stallion, existed throughout the Indo-European world. In some, a queen or king pantomimes copulation with a stallion (or, as the case may be, a mare). The worship of a white horse in pre-Roman England is dramatically attested by the colossal outlines carved into the chalk hills. I vividly recall riding, again with Penelope Betjeman, up to the White Horse Hill on the Berkshire Downs near Uffington at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve; we dismounted, and stood on the eye, and each made a wish. Perhaps, in an older, crueller century, we would have slaughtered our horses instead of riding them home through the sleeping villages.

If the contemporary rippers were themselves witches, they would use the horses, not destroy them. If they believed that the horses were witches, or the property of witches, presumably they would destroy them, not mutilate them. But a more diffuse sort of religious feeling about evil and suffering may well be at work. In Peter Schaffer’s Equus, based on the true story of a boy who blinded 26 horses, a disturbed adolescent stable-boy gouges out the eyes of six horses with an iron spike; in his fantasies he confuses the tortured mouth of the horse-god that he rides naked in sexual ecstasy with the tortured head of Christ bridled in his crown of thorns. He blinds the horses because they have witnessed his sexual impotence.

A wish to destroy what is sexually vibrant, politically luxurious, and religiously beautiful is the last resort of someone who has been driven mad by the inability to win a share in that trio of human goods. The image of the horse gives shape and intensity to those dark forces that are the shadows of the happier human qualities which make us love horses.

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Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993

Wendy Doniger’s Diary (LRB, 23 September) argued her thesis most persuasively, but like so many other Eurocentric (forgive the odious but unavoidable term) perspectives, it translates poorly into the New World. The horse as a symbol of sex, politics and religion can be forced to fit the American West, past and present, only by the most ruthless procrustean surgery. In locations where the horse was neither a toy nor the plaything of mythologists but, instead, a guarantor of survival, anyone who sexually or otherwise mutilated a living horse could very easily find himself deballed or, at the least, strung up.

In Ms Doniger’s examples the American Indian is a deal more likely replacement for the horse, anyway on this side of the Mississippi River. And treated as more repellent by far than witches were those white men and women who succumbed to the sexual prowess (presumed) of Indians of either gender.

Robert Ostermann
Albuquerque, New Mexico

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