Wendy Doniger

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.

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