Even though it has been a considerably long time since I wrote my first essay for college, it is only now that I have time to talk about it. The assignment was a 1,000-1,500 word essay on representations. Our essay had to be connected to an article that we read in class, In Our Glory, by Bell Hooks; but other then that, we were given a lot of freedom on what exactly we wanted to write about. I chose to connect the article to representations of horses. It seemed only fitting that my very first college assignment should be about horses; the creatures who have made my life whole for as long as I can remember.
Representations of the Horse: A Misguided Understanding
Horses have always fascinated me. For as long as I can remember, their immense strength and incomparable beauty has held me captivated. Elegant bodies and powerful muscles, long flowing manes and streaming tails give them a dramatic, awe-inspiring appearance. All of these I love; I am forever enraptured by them. The picture above is no exception to showcasing these attributes that hold me mesmerized. Or so it would seem.
Bell Hooks states that control over the camera gives people the ability to create empowering images of themselves, and to disprove representations: “The camera was the central instrument by which” people “could disprove representations” (59). However, this is not always the case. If the one who is being photographed does not have control over the finished image, then it can do exactly the opposite. The person, or animal, being photographed now becomes subject to the photographer, giving up their authority over themselves, and their control over their representation; allowing the artist to turn their subject into whatever “creature” or being he wishes, which results in an endless cycle of distorted realities. Misrepresentation of images can lead the general public to believe that these depictions are accurate, and even acceptable.
The horse in the above picture, indeed, every horse in every representation has no control over what the finished image or sculpture will be. They cannot tell the artist how they wish to be portrayed, how they should be portrayed. They can only fall subject to the artist’s vision. The above picture is one such image. It is a piece of digital art by Paul Miners, titled Pura Spanish Elegance. It was drawn to showcase horse’s dramatic elegance. The foreboding lighting, the wind in the horse’s mane, the elegant leather work intricately carved, and added to this dramatic image is the horse’s body. Perhaps you, the reader, did not notice that the horse’s head is being pulled back by his rider, that his chin is almost touching his chest. His lips are drawn back, showing his teeth in a snarl. His eye looks pained and dull, lifeless, submissive. He has fallen subject to the artist. Perhaps you did not notice these things, or even if you did, were you disturbed by them? Possibly not, because these types of representations have become more prevalent than their counterparts, horses being ridden correctly.
Horses are one of the many subjects in this day who are victims of misrepresentation. The control over the appearance of images, sculptures, and even toys greatly affects how the public expects to see horses. The necks of horses depicted in paintings and photos are twisted grotesquely and hyper flexed; the mouths on sculptures and toys are gaping and open, teeth bared, with flashing, angry eyes. These common representations have led some people to believe that it is all right for horses in real life to have their mouths gaping open, or for their necks to be pulled back, forcing their bodies into an unnatural shape that it was never meant to be in. Representations are an extremely powerful way to communicate to the public, and in this case they are used to justify, to make acceptable a form of riding which can only be classified as abuse.
Photographs of this abusive style of riding have become so prevalent, and so accepted that artists are now intentionally painting horses depicted in these painful positions. Beautiful paintings are now turned into an array of unsettling illustrations. Artists seem to somehow portray the distressed soul of the horse right onto the canvas, for all people to see, and to assume as acceptable, even beautiful. When something has become “normal”, people lose the ability to perceive the signs an animal exhibits when uncomfortable. People become insensitive to these signs, and fail to recognize what they mean. While Bell Hooks says that “the camera became . . . a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentation” (60), this is not always the case. Sometimes, the camera became the very instrument to start misrepresentations allowing everyone to see these images, and to think of them as normal.
Children are even encountering these misrepresentations in items as conspicuous as their toys. Carousel horses, bouncy horses, and even stuffed toys are portrayed in this light. Carousel horses, despite their brightly decorated appearance, with vibrant flowers, silken ribbons, and gold armor, have a distressing aspect about them. Their jaws are gaping, and a blood red tongue can be seen between the snapping teeth, the ears are pinned, with the final touch being a frightfully terrified expression. When a child myself, I remember having a beloved bouncy horse. I loved that toy, and played with, and looked at it every day. Like many horse toys, it too was portrayed with a permanent snarl on its lips, its eyes were red, and its ears were pinned back in annoyance. This toy, this image that I saw every day brought me to the conclusion that it was perfectly fine for horses in real life to look like this. It was not until I started riding horses and focused on learning about their biomechanical structures that I learned this was not the case. Something as seemingly insignificant as how a toy is portrayed can have a significant influence upon children, and consequently the adults of this world. Horses being represented in this way does them a great disservice, we dishonor them, and enable people to abuse them, because if children’s toys look like this, then surely it is acceptable.
A creature as noble, as kind, and as generous as a horse surely deserves better. This incredible animal, so wild, so free, and so powerful, who still allows humans to interact with them, should be given every honor that they deserve, and no less. These uncommonly kind animals give humans so much; if only we treat them as they deserve. They give us courage where we lack, strength when we are weak, and wings when we cannot walk. To paraphrase Anatole France, “Until one has loved a” horse, “a part of one’s soul remains un-awakened.” A creature so generous as to share their secrets with us deserves to be portrayed in the light that they truly are, courageous, hard-working, loyal, and above all, kind. They could kill us with a single kick, but instead choose to obey, they could run us over in a second, but instead choose patience; they could become angry at the way humans mistreat them, but they instead choose submission, becoming sorrowful rather than filled with hate and distrust. A more noble creature I have not met.
Horses do not need to be depicted in the cruel way that they frequently are. It requires no more skill, no more effort to paint or sculpt a horse with a soft eye, a gentle expression, and a closed mouth, than with a gaping one or an angry face. One could just as easily paint a horse being ridden in a biomechanically correct head and neck position as an incorrect, but unfortunately very common, over arched neck position with the chin almost touching the chest. Horses deserve to be depicted as they really are. For everything they do for us, this is least we can do for them.
The current representations of horses, depicted in many different forms, do not need to stay the way they are. These representations can change to illustrate horses as they really are; to change and rebuild people’s current misconceptions about them, and to give back feeling and sensitivity where it is lost; to remind people to care for and understand the creatures we have stewardship over. Bell Hooks gives us hope, by bringing this to a single summary: “The word remember (re-member) evokes the coming together of severed parts, fragments becoming a whole” (64).
“A Quote by Anatole France.” Goodreads. Goodreads Inc., n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.
Hooks, Bell. In Our Glory : Photography and Black Life. The New York Press, 1995. Print.
Miners, Paul. Pura Spanish Elegance. Digital image. Fine Art America. Fineartamerica, 4 July 2012. Web. 5 Oct. 2016.