I made a major commitment recently…a commitment to watching all seven seasons of the Canadian young adult horse-rescue ranch TV drama series ‘Heartland’. What led me to this viewing choice, some might ask – knowing that I am not a young adult, don’t have any teenagers in the house and don’t live on a horse ranch – oh, and I’m not Canadian either. I have been completely enthralled by this show and have stayed with it for the long haul, due to the likeable characters, storylines and picturesque scenery. But what drew me to this show in the first place came straight from my childhood – a childhood steeped in horse lore.
Many girls go through a ‘horse stage’. There seems to be a magnetic attraction between young women and horses, even when the young women concerned have barely had any contact with actual horses. In fact one genre off-shoot of the horsey novel is that of the city girl who comes to the country, has some sort of epiphany and learns to ride a horse and face life issues plot line. Anyone who has read a children’s or young adult horse novel will also know that there is a particular sub-genre concerned with rescuing, training and re-homing unwanted, abused or elderly horses. I still have a lot of my childhood horse novels on my bookshelf, although my mother did persuade me to part with some. When I look at Follyfoot, Monica Dickens’ tales of a British ‘Rest Home for Retired Horses’, I see many similar themes between the core of that series and Heartland: issues of fair treatment of animals, understanding the psychology of animals and people and issues of morality and justice. Other horse books show people bonding with one another over their love of horses (Jo Furminger’s Blackbirds series), or girls developing a close bond with their horses (Christine Pullein Thompson’s Phantom Horse series, Patricia Leitch’s Jinny books or Sharon Wagner’s Gypsy series).
What is it particularly about horses and girls? One thing about riding horses is children gaining technical competency: learning the art of riding and learning to care for a horse and horse tack. In a world where western children are very protected, gaining practical skills sometimes reserved for adults, can be empowering. Coupled with this there is a sense of freedom about riding – it’s safer than walking alone and you can gallop away from danger (apparently – unless there are guns!). Then there is the enticing wild spirit of the horse, seen in a series like Elyne Mitchell’s Brumbies. It’s hard to forget visual scenes like the one at the end of the first ‘The Man from Snowy River’ movie where dozens of the mountain horses gallop down what looks like a sheer cliff. One of the first non-fiction books I ever owned was a big glossy book called ‘A world of horses’ by Anne Charlish. It contains big double-page spreads of horses galloping, hoofs pounding, mud or water spraying out, manes flying, heads proudly lifted high. The noble steed!
Then there is horse trivia. Another book I had was a little yellow fact book and I had the horse one from this series. From this book I learnt words like ‘palomino’, ‘skewbald’ and ‘piebald’. The colour or breed of a horse finds its way into the heart of many tales, from Black Beauty to Ghost Horse. And horse sculptures – I’ve got a shelf of them. When my grandparents went to China they brought me back a miniature reproduction ceramic entombed warriors horse, which sat alongside my brass horse and the green horse head cologne bottle I probably picked up at an op shop. When I went to Denmark, I brought back two signature red and white wooden horses. About eight horse sculptures from different countries or traditions trotted along my book shelves together.
In the midst of my childhood horsey time, I did actually have some riding lessons. I remember learning how to hold the reins and mastering the rising trot. I didn’t have the lessons for very long though and since then I’ve only been on the occasional trail ride, but some vestige of the mystique of horses has stayed with me.
In ‘Heartland’, young Amy Fleming trains horses with problems, gaining their trust and mending their ways. Along the way she often heals the traumas of their riders, who sometimes have more of an issue than the horses. Amy’s bond and gentleness with the horses is magnetic, as well as the way she stands up for the animals, who can’t voice their own concerns, fears or troubles. She trains the horses in the context of a loving, but often dysfunctional, family ranch. The relationships between the humans, including various romances, are as interesting as their bonds with the horses. In the end I see the themes of freedom, love and justice in this series, as I’ve seen them in many of the horse tales that have gone before them. I think seeing the germs of these themes in my youthful equine phase has drawn me back again to the world of the horse. As well as freedom, love, and justice, I see great hope in ‘Heartland’ – hope for wounded horses to heal and hope for hurting and broken people to change. Watching people and animals change and grow, although it may sound sappy, helps give me hope that as people we really can change and grow in ourselves and to keep holding out this hope for ourselves and for others.
This has been today’s personal Baggage Check – brought to you by the many beloved ponies who had their manes plaited, and who carried their young riders over jumps, through gymkhanas and dressage competitions on the pages of young adult novels, before galloping off along the beach into the sunset.