A SENSE OF MOUNTING EXCITEMENT
Rebecca Nicolson is thrilled that at last
the English are beginning to learn about the true nature of the horse and its attractions
NEXT YEAR should be the year of the horse. For the first time, in England at least, horses are now being seen in their true light. Until recently, a love of them has been a passion thought suitable only for teenage girls, silly women and unedu- cated, brutish men. But over the past 12 months there has been an increasing appetite for any serious book or film about these animals.
The growing craze for horses is in one sense just another phase of the Americani- sation of our culture. This time, however, it is not Disneyfication, but a closer under- standing of the natural world. The Ameri- cans, especially in the west, have always been able to understand and describe without embarrassment the poetic beauty of the equine world. Until now, the liter- ate English have seen horses only as ridiculous or as the symbol of a philistine, upper-class world of rural idiocy.
The horse fad is exemplified by the slow-burning but eventually overwhelming triumph of Cormac McCarthy's bestseller, All The Pretty Horses. By the time McCarthy's book was published in Britain, it had sold 200,000 copies in America — 'I'm going to refer you to a specialist.' but it was a book about dobbins, not a sub- ject that appealed to British literary types. The initial response here to McCarthy's rites-of-passage pony tale was close to non- existent.
But by the end of the year this American novel became the most recommended book of the Christmas lists. A few months ago, the signs of the growing obsession with horses became increasingly evident when Nick Evans, an obscure freelance English television producer, sold the film rights to his unfinished novel, The Horse Whisperer, to Robert Redford for $3 million. Evans's book, like McCarthy's, is set in the Ameri- can west and is based on the idea of an inti- mate and revealing communication between man and beast. This unsentimen- tal and openly literary approach to horses comes as a complete break with the Dick Francis school of horse-writing.
Most of the English associate the love of horses with both an absence of education and a lack of sophistication. Gulliver accu- rately described the English attitude to these animals when he explained to the Houyhnhnms:
Horses were the most generous and comely animals we had . . . they were treated with much kindness and care, till they fell into dis- eases, or became foundered in the feet and then they were sold and used to all kind of drudgery till they died.
That is the core of the English attitude: the brutal combination of sentiment and disrespect. The opposite is the case in America where, in the west, there is a tra- dition of writing about nature which is almost inaccessible here. Our fashionable modern novelists are almost exclusively urban; in America the most applauded novelists, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Tom McGuane, are overwhelmingly concerned with nature and the landscape.
For both men and women there has always been a sexual undertow to the love of horses. As the historian Sir Keith Thomas said, in the 18th century racehorse owners gave their mares flirtingly erotic names: Sweet Lips, Miss Hip, Lady Thigh, Venus and Darling. In England this tradi- tion has descended into a prudish giggli- ness. Few can stop themselves entering the territory of snide schoolboy jokes.
My own experiences are probably famil- iar to many others: as a child the endless car journeys were spent in dreaded antici- pation of one of my siblings making loud neighing sounds at anything resembling a pony or a horse; there was also the humili- ation of finding all my show jumping rosettes tampered with: the 'J' had been changed to an 'H'. Show humping? I didn't know what they were on about.
The standard modern non-horsy percep- tion of a horse's sexiness is either connect- ed to the shape of their bottoms: 'From behind, with squinted eyes, they look like Charlotte Ramplings in high heels'; or to the strength of their taut, rippling muscles. Reread comments about All the Pretty Horses: one critic was made `saddlesore after 4.00 pages', another said, 'It is a book that makes you glad to be alive.' But ask an Englishwoman who has ridden from a young age, myself included, if their attrac- tion to horses has hidden sexual under- tones and they will instantly protest, 'I loved their soft velvety noses,' or 'I used to enjoy the Pony Club, it was better than skipping round in a tu-tu.'
Evelyn Waugh described the sexual power of horses over women in a letter to Penelope Betjeman:
Many months ago I wrote to ask your help with the hippoerastic passages of my life of Helena. The Tablet had the fruits of my unaided invention. I should welcome detailed criticism. The Empress loses her interest in such things when she is married. I describe her hunting in the morning after the wedding night feeling the saddle com- forting her wounded maidenhead. Is that OK? After that she has no interest in sex.
If there is an American openness which we are beginning to admire it can some- times go a bit too far. In Susan Crosland's description of a bareback ride at the age of 11, she writes:
When the shallows closed around us, I for- got about my cousin: it was just me and this beast in this unpeopled place. Steam rose from his flanks: the smell grew pungent. Suddenly the shallows fell off, he lost his footing, and convulsive thrashing began, unlike any sensation I had felt before.
Kate Millet, another American writer, describes her obsession with Big Jim in rather more fulsome tones:
Horse, animal, beast, other life, existence, intelligence, sensibility, sensuality. Your great cock, that surely is a fascination. When you first arrived and we toasted you in cham- pagne next to the pond, you let it down for us, a show of force, your great black cock outlined against the blue of the barn, the gaiety of your white stockings on the green grass, and then this cock.
If this is the horsy tone of the future, we are in for an exciting ride in 1995.
Rebecca Nicolson is features editor of The Spectator.