OF GODS AND HORSES
Alannah Mewes (University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia)
When I was a little girl, my mother would take me to the beach. We lived on a farm, or what my mother not-so-fondly termed the ‘zoo’: horses, ducks, cows, chickens, dogs, cats, guinea pigs. I know my mother loved our place, but she used to say that some days the ocean ‘called to her’. So, on these days, my mother would pack me into the car, and we would drive to the beach, a little less than an hour away. It could be any time of day, any sort of weather. We would sit on the sand and watch the waves roll in, and bring our toes to the edge of the water and gasp with delight when we correctly guessed where each wave would reach. I would marvel at the way the waves would gather, great swells, pulled from the depths, to hurtle and race toward the sand we sat on – only to trickle in on little tails of white foam that wound sink into the sand.
‘Where do the big waves go? Why are they so small when they reach us?’ I would ask. My mother’s answer was always the same.
Because each of those waves are full of horses. They gallop from the depths, racing for land. When the wave reaches us, and is small again, you know it’s because all the horses that were in it have run free.
For me, growing up, I loved horses like my mother loved the beach. She needed the ocean. I needed horses.
But I wasn’t as good at seeing the horses in the waves as my mother. I often had to follow the line of her finger as she pointed them out, defining their white, foamy manes and tails, closing my eyes to listen to the thundering of hooves that crashed onto the sand.
‘But how can there be horses in the sea?’
Horses were made from the sea, by a great sea god.
I would often frown at this, and my mother would smile, pulling me into her lap, nuzzling my hair. To me, horses were towering brown beings with dusty hair and big square teeth and stones for feet. I couldn’t understand how horses could come from the sea. In my mind, horses weren’t really synonymous with the ocean. But I loved to hear my mother tell me stories about the horses in the sea, and the god that made them. She would say that Poseidon, most well known for being the god of the sea, is also the god of earthquakes, and of horses. The myth goes that Poseidon created the horse for the affection of the goddess Demeter, who was also his sister. In exchange for her love, Demeter asked Poseidon to create the most beautiful creature on earth. Poseidon laboured for many years, centuries even, struggling to gift Demeter such a being. After many failed attempts, Poseidon decided to craft them in such likeness of his kingdom, capturing the wildness of the ocean in animal form. He fashioned the curves of their backs and the arches of their necks against the crests and rolls of the waves as they rose, racing for the shores. Their flowing manes and tails were the ribbons of white foam that fluttered across the surface as they sank below again, gathering for the next surge. Their hoofbeats were an echo; the pounding of waves against sand, a joining of two elements. Their formation was a battle between two merciless life givers and life takers: earth and ocean. Their emergence from the waves is a reverberation through the air, across the sand, small in tremors, loud in murmurs.
When this perfect creature was finally birthed, Poseidon found he no longer lusted for Demeter. How could he? He needn’t lust over a simple goddess anymore. He had created the horse, the most beautiful being in the world. Entranced by the beauty of these creatures, Poseidon crafted more, sending them again and again forward onto the earth, from beneath the depths, to spread their beauty around the world. With each wave brings a new herd of Poseidon’s horses, some gentle, some devious, or mischievous; most wild – free.
When my mother described the genesis of horses like this, I could glimpse, as if through a shallow pool, this embodiment of the ocean. It was the saltwater given form in the fluid, liquid movements of the horse. But these creatures were also almost the perfect expression of land , of grass and an open field. They filled my mind with thoughts of endless running, endless earth. Sweet breath that smelt of pastures. Horses were not as capricious as the ocean, as ungraspable. Horses were steady. Grounded. Unwavering.
So why was Poseidon, I would ask in my own childlike way, god of the waves and the wavering earth, the grounded and fluid, the ever moving, also god of the horse?
Because he has domain over that which cannot really be controlled, because the sea and earthquakes and horses are really the same.
‘But horses can be controlled.’
Can they? Or do we just like to pretend that we can control them, like we pretend that we can bridle the ocean too?
These questions were possibly too large for a five-year-old, but my mother was always a little different like that. She liked to think about things that other people didn’t want to.
I decided early that the horses in the waves my mother spoke of were surely not the same kind of horses as the ones we had at home; they were too different, the wild, carefree creations of Poseidon and the steadfast horses I knew. There must’ve been land horses and sea horses. I would say this, and my mother would laugh, a cascade of bubbles that would break the water’s surface.
You’ll see, one day , she’d say.
As I grew up, maybe I forgot about these questions and the stories of Poseidon, but I would always look at the waves rolling in and think, ah – horses, as I noted the foaming white trails that met the sand. Nothing more than a passing thought, a brief flickering of movement just beyond sight. It was something that gradually happened less and less over the next twelve years as our trips to the beach together dwindled, my spare time now taken up with teenage riding lessons on school afternoons and equestrian events on weekends.
There is not a day of living with horses that you aren’t sweating, bleeding, blistering, or crying. It’s empowering, at least for a teenage girl, to feel that swelling of power beneath her, to make an animal dance with a few taps of her fingertips, her heels. I loved feeling them move, seeing the sweat gathering like seafoam on their shoulders and necks, between their thighs. It was a signal of their strength, their power.
I used to think that when I rode in an arena, I felt stronger than I ever felt on my own two legs. Almost like I was bridling a storm. I would still end each of these days covered in sand and salt water, hearing the thunder of hooves in my head. But it was a steady beat, always the same.
But life changes, and people grow up. The tides of enchantment receded.
Riding became about winning. About discipline. About direction. I still loved horses, immensely, soul deeply. But I struggled to find the spark that drew me to them in the first place, that sensation and wonder. I stopped competitive riding, as most horse girls do eventually. I hung up the reins.
At nineteen, I received a message from a girl I had once ridden with as a child. She had heard of a trail down near the beach where the track workers took the racehorses to break up their runs. She asked in passing if I would ever want to come with her, to take our own horses out for something different.
I told my mother about the offer, and she smiled at me, laughing.
I think you should go. You might see some seahorses.
I rolled my eyes at my mother, but replied to my friend with a simple ‘yes’.
I hadn’t ridden in years, but my retired competition horse was happy enough to be caught and loaded onto the trailer, following the bends of the road, watching through the window, and lifting his nose to the air when the foreign smell of saltwater reached him.
As I unloaded him, he brought his head up high, craning his neck around, listening, looking. I could hear the crashing of the waves in the distance, see his ears flickering towards the sound.
He called out suddenly, a deep, rippling sound that carried across the grass we were standing on towards the sea hidden just beyond the small hills. He stepped forward, as if excited, waiting for an answer.
‘Never seen the ocean before, has he?’ my friend asked.
‘No, he hasn’t.’
‘Well enjoy the moment – not all horses like the waves. Makes some act like yearlings again. This fella seems like he might!’
We saddled up and mounted, my friend leading the way down the trail to the sand. I could tell when the beach was drawing closer, as my horse began to surge forward, knocking into the rump of the horse in front, drawing back, and surging forward again, as if he was being pulled, like the tide.
When finally we crested the last hill and the waves became visible, my horse knickered, taking deep, hurried breaths as he watched the water galloping in.
I nudged him forward cautiously, careful of startling him. But his skin shivered with awareness, blowing hot puffs of air at the shoreline as we reached it. When we reached the edge of the sand where the waves would meet us, I gathered the reins firmly in my hands as the water barrelled forward. I tensed, as the wave thundered, expecting him to jump back as the water touched his hooves.
Instead, he let it run over him, his feet sinking slightly in the wet sand as the wave pulled back. At its departure he knickered again, taking a step after the wave, towards the sea. I tried to turn him back towards my friend, but he fought my hands, eyes trained on the receding water. He began to trot along the shore, following it.
Poseidon crafted the wildness of the ocean in animal form.
My friend called out from behind me, ‘let him run!’
As if her words alone were enough to spur him on, he gathered beneath me. I loosened my fingers, and he sprang.
He fashioned the curves of their backs and arches of their necks against the crests and rolls of the waves as they rise, racing for the shores.
Riding the rolling gait of the waves, the gentle rolling lope of the sea is a lot like the back of a horse. My horse was a tempest that reared to life among the most hot-blooded of sea storms, a great swell of power that could not be stopped, not with my fragile human hands. It is the same tempest that crushes ships and scatters the wind, whipping the waves and spurring its depths until it writhes with spirit. A sprit that cannot be checked.
Their flowing manes and tails were the ribbons of white foam that fluttered across the surface as they sank below again, gathering for the next surge.
No. It would only take a god to stop the thundering hooves of horses, the white-crested waves from crashing against the sand, the earth from trembling and crumbling beneath our feet.
With this Poseidon had created the horse, the most beautiful being in the world.
My horse runs across the sand like it is nothing, open air, open water.
The earth still shakes beneath us.
Or is it my heart, thundering at a gallop in my chest?
Their hoofbeats are an echo; the pounding of waves against sand, a joining of two elements.
There is enough of me left in this moment to remember to draw a breath, to feel the water streaming from my eyes, but not enough strength to reach for my face to wipe away the salt stinging my cheeks. No, I know if I lose focus for a second, a fraction of that, I will be lost.
I am already lost.
Their formation is a battle between two merciless life givers, life takers: ocean and earth.
In what world did we think that a few strips of leather and bended metal would stop the might of Poseidon, of such a creation? If the ocean has its own will then so does the horse, and I am lucky to be left alive in the wake of it.
I am brimming with life; storm-tossed.
Soaked to the skin with it.
The mighty deep is the ocean, but it’s also where you find yourself confronted with the reality of the horse. The might within their skin, their feet and legs, lungs and throats, heads and hearts. I am, for this small, endless moment, touching on what it is to be horse.
It is not a steady calming beat of a human heart but a crashing. An erosion against the rocks of what I was.
The depth of emotion I am feeling is abyssal.
The sand covers his legs, his hooves, the waves reaching the tideline are splashing up and over us, beckoning him in, beckoning him back.
He begins to slow, his strides no longer clearing the earth but meeting it.
Maybe it unlocked something in him, too, this moment.
Is this the first time he has ever been able to run, to truly run?
To feel the freedom that he was born for?
I ache for him.
What might his life have been, had he really been part of the sea?
I have taken it for granted, these years; the might of the horse.
The privilege he awards me.
The gift he offers me.
Perhaps at the cost of his own.
As he reaches a halt I slide from his back, my feet meeting the ground, shifting in the sand. The salt of our combined sweat catches on my arms, my neck, my face, my mouth. It stings a little; a prickling, skittering across my skin.
I am back in the shallows, but the salt of memory lingers.
Will linger forever.
I swipe my tongue across my lips, relishing the burn. I fill my lungs with air.
I turn to the water.
Their emergence from the waves is a reverberation through the air, across the sand; small in tremors, loud in murmurs.
I can see clearly, for the first time.
A herd of horses rise toward us.
Alannah Mewes is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her PhD thesis, titled ‘Horses and Heroines: human and equine agency in ecofeminist fiction’ focuses on the intersections between creative writing craft and human animal studies, forging new ways of storytelling and giving nonhuman animals a more distinct role and voice in narrative. She has had her creative work published in Social Alternatives magazine and spoke at the Equine History Collective conference hosted by Purdue University in 2022.