Sonora Webster, or Gabrielle Anwar playing the real-life Sonora Webster Carver in the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, is so hot. That’s how it feels when I’m a kid. I’m a kid in a room with a TV, right up close to the screen, and kid me doesn’t know she’s gay yet. She loves Sonora especially when she scissors off her own hair, and even more when Sonora jumps on her horse, Lightning, in a field, bareback, no tack. No fear. She falls, of course. She doesn’t get good until later in the movie.
When I am twenty-nine years old, I, too, mount a horse in my girlfriend’s backyard. That horse — Hank — did not look unlike Lightning. No tack, a few drinks in me. He looked so kind, so ready for it. Of course, I fall. Sometimes to build a connection is to build a cliché. Hank didn’t throw me, it was a tree. There were other horses in that backyard paddock, and those horses chased Hank into the woods. I had no reins; a tree branch caught me in the head; wipe out. But the details don’t matter, I don’t matter. I am just another horse accident.
Riding accident, I told people after, when they asked about my neck brace.
They heard writing accident. A neighbor asked how I split my head on a desk.
No, I ride.
And then, the usual: But what is riding really / I mean it’s not actually a sport not like a football sport / I used to ride as a kid / I rode once no I don’t remember English or Western / Don’t you just kind of hold on and steer / Doesn’t the horse do all the work?
The fall was my fault. I was drunk, remember. It was all very boring, but now it’s a story. There was something so Sonora about it — something Gabrielle Anwar playing Sonora in a Disney movie about it — that makes the whole crash, now, feel mighty, feel Wild Girl. I’ve tried to write about horses so many times. But the thing about a horse is, it’s never about the horse.
Everyone has a horse story. Horse people know this.
The moment you announce yourself, bring your old show days or horse anecdote or writing accident into a room, you’ll get The Horse Story. Someone was thrown by a Bad Horse, once. They never got on again. Another horse tore across a field — he was crazy! Like a mustang! — but the storyteller held on heroically. Another woman, one you meet at a wedding, says she used to groom horses at summer camp and still misses those “big, fluffy paws” they had. That horse trusted her, she said. Intuition — the pawed horse could feel her goodness.
Did you bleed the first time? she asks. Like, down there?
Horse as pawed, intuitive being becomes the Hymen-Breaking Horse.
Then comes another story, from someone else.
Well, that sounds special, is how it goes.
Here’s something horse people do: there is always The Age at which you first got on, gripped a saddle horn or a mane. By the time I could walk, or, ever since my first pony ride. My mom tells it that I was two, which is about standard as far as The Age goes. A trail ride in North Carolina — the smile on my face — everybody knew. But I don’t remember joy as much as I remember balance, twitching ears, the boniness of withers, the power of steering. How, with those reins in my hands, I was not being led by a stroller, a tug at the arm, the clutch of an adult.
I dreamed as a child of screwing up that steering, all that responsibility, jerking my reins more to one side than the other; I couldn’t control those yanks. A bent horse neck, never centered. Then, a fall right over the horse’s body. I lived in a storm of a household and developed early obsessive- compulsive disorder, ritualizing symmetry.
Horses will help, everybody said. Everyone knows horses are therapy.
I jerked and jerked in those dreams. Every fall more brutal. Trampled.
I keep soft hands these days. Barely touch the reins. One of my favorite exercises, still, is arms out, no steering. It was one of the first things my wife ever noticed about me. But that was later, thirteen years after never again, when I finally got back on.
Horses, they’re so goddamn American. A man is made sexy in proximity to his horse, his seat atop a beating-hearted animal. Wealth, status, that shining coat of power, a beast “broken” by its master. Broken. Saddle broke. To break green. Green broke. Those are the terms for a horse tamed, bettered, accepting this new weight on its back.
I turn on the television. A bay, lunged by a small, pigtailed brat. The brat knows what she’s doing, shows the horse who’s boss in this relationship. The horse whinnies to no one, just to announce its horseness. Of course it does. There’s always the announcement, the stock sound.
There is the white horse. The black stallion. The biblical horse and the horses of war. The girl who learns to love again because Horse! and the gruff man who softens, heals, in the presence of all that Horse Majesty. There’s the underdog horse and the horse who brings the family together in unexpected ways; a child, free with gladness, atop their first rocking horse. There’s the Horse to the Rescue and the horse that knows exactly which way to go. The horse that falls off the cliff; horses, our saviors, collapsed in battle. What they don’t tell you about are the trip wires that made the shots.
Recently, someone brings up National Velvet, the horse.
The horse wasn’t Velvet, I say. Elizabeth Taylor was.
The horse was Pie.
I don’t love horses. But of course I do. I did as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult, and especially now. Sometimes it feels as if I was meant to love them, and I am possessive in that love. When I am in the presence of the basic Horse Story a rage thickens in me. You don’t deserve that story, I think. You don’t even know. But, of course, my love, too, is the problem. How many times were my horses there to deliver me to a dream, a goal, a peace. Everybody knew. I’m a teacher these days, and I tell students often: if there’s a problem, write into the problem.
I was a hunter jumper first. Then, one summer barrel-racing. Then, a few years training to be a jockey. There were so many outfits, personas. So many shows. Numbers strapped to my back, embroidered saddle pads, custom chaps, helmet silks — new equipment for every new discipline. I still wear the gold nameplate leather bracelet with the name of my first pony, Cloud 9, stamped in. He’s a symbol now, too. He saved my life, I tell people. I could tell the weather by the temperature of his nose, I say. My first best friend, I wrote in the acknowledgments of my first book. We never made it big. There was no hero’s journey. My parents gave him away, and I never asked after him, simply because I grew up, and I took things for granted (that pigtailed brat), and I think I was afraid of where he went because it meant he was no longer mine.
I reunited with him when I was twenty-five and he was thirty-two, for one day, and I like to think he remembered me, though this, too, could be romantic thinking. He died soon after. I waited for his horseshoes in the mail, but they never came.
Nicky was his barn name. A Welsh pony who was always hungry, with the markings of a heart on his rump. He was so stubborn and so good. He knew how to give hugs by curling his neck around you. He loved apple pie and, once, he threw me so he could run to the show ground hot dog stand.
I want to write about the horses, not just the rider. I want to find where the two break.
Gabrielle Anwar playing Sonora Webster strokes her horse Lightning in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken almost erotically. She’s lost her sight by this part of the movie, by this point in her life — detached retinas from an open-eyed dive — so she’s feeling around, getting a grip of it all, as music thumps in the background of the scene, a storm brewing — cue lightning flash!
Lightning, a gelding in the movie, will deliver Sonora to her destination of morality, growth, glory, a standing ovation. Good boy.
What the Disney movie leaves out is how the real life Lightning, a mare, was later forced to dive into the Pacific Ocean, instead of a water tank, for a California diving show. Confused by the currents, the pier, the rough breakers, the horse swam out into the open sea. Kept swimming until no one could reach her. Until her drowned body was towed back to shore by a single rope.
Sonora wasn’t even there.
"Luhi ‘u’a i ka ‘ai a ka lio" is a Hawaiian proverb translated by Mary Kawena Pukui as “wasted time and labor getting food for the horse.” The rough breakdown of its meaning goes like this: if a person works hard, wins big, and brings in money and rewards to share with friends, those friends will use it up, take it all, and then move on to the next person who might be so generous, a person who has more to give. I’ve read this proverb many times, at first thinking the horse was a stand-in for the greedy friends, endlessly fed. Then I read the reversal: the horse as the subject, the one who gives and brings it all, sacrifices it all. And we take take take take, of course we do. But maybe the horse is not the hard worker, or the friend. Maybe the horse is simply the horse, the prop, the superfluous detail used to make the point.
I had another horse. Bidster, my old chestnut Thoroughbred, and he’s still alive. I was there when he was born, when I was around seven years old, but my memory of that night is spotty. Slimed webs of membrane, all legs, a damp barn lit by orange light. I called him Glitter Man when he was born like that — wet and glowing for the world — which is still his show name. He felt like mine.
Bidster belonged to a man named Frank, a battle-worn jockey who’d been rail pinned and trampled on the track, leaving him with a limp. I worked for Frank and his wife in the summers, helping them tack up for trail rides, mucking stalls. When Bidster was born, Frank said we were the winning ticket. His way back to the tracks. So we broke him together. We found open fields and construction sites in Seven Devils, North Carolina — the dead maw of open cranes, towers of bricks — land, I’d learn later, that did not belong to me. Cherokee land. Burial land. Which, back then, to kid me, carried a spooky importance. When I think about breaking a racehorse, tightening the girth, smacking that crop, on land that felt so much like ours, there is only shame there. The me of now would tell kid me this: there are always more important stories beneath your stories. Nothing is yours.
I wore a helmet with green-and-white jockey silks over it, and Frank threw dirt from behind us: I want your hands at his ears, that’s how far forward. It is true that we were good together.
Frank moved to Florida and into our house so we could train every day. We watched what felt like every race ever raced on my father’s big-screen TV. We went to Gulfstream. We studied stats, and I learned how to read them. Frank and his newspaper hands, blackened at the fingertips. I was good, he said. Everybody said it.
Then, my body bulged. Puberty. Et cetera. You know this story.
When we failed as a racing pair, Frank and I took Bid to a show in Yadkinville, North Carolina. This time, a Jumper division. He spooked; he refused; he hated crowds; we didn’t clear a single fence; my posture curled like burning wood; we were pinned dead last. I never showed again.
Glitter Man is a “pony horse” now, meaning he escorts the star jockeys and mounts to the gates at Belmont. I went to see him not long ago and, you know, I’d like to think he remembered me.
Just last month, Frank called to tell me Bid’s owner was looking to give him away.
Doesn’t the horse do all the work?
Gabrielle’s Sonora wears a paper bag over her head after that haircut, after her aunt (in real life, her mother) suggests she ought to be ashamed of her ugliness. Sonora leaves the house anyways, stomps the paper bag into the ground. I’ve never worn a bag over my head, although, on several occasions, I have wanted to. Real Sonora let her boss, Doc Carver, tell her what to do with her hair and how to dress for the rest of her life, even after he died. To be a diving girl, you must play the role.
In the final movie dive, Gabrielle Anwar’s Sonora Webster reaches her hands out for Lightning and listens to every amplified stomp of those hooves up the ramp; the audience gets that slow-motion listening, too. Gabrielle’s Sonora has been practicing for this moment; she’s trained and ready; we are all in on it. We all get the applause.
Real Sonora always wore a helmet after her accident; it was custom-made with a special shield to protect her eyes, just in case any future medical advancements could restore her vision. Real Sonora did not practice. Her first go at diving without sight happened because the other diving girl canceled. She pulled on her special helmet and waited at the top of the ramp, only to realize the helmet made it impossible for her to hear. There was no stomping, no dramatic countdown. It was more amazing than that, more amazing than the movie. She reached her hands out and just, quite simply, knew.
When the fabled, stand-in, whinnying horse needs more impact, horses are anthropomorphized. The high-pitched voiceover in Black Beauty. Mister Ed, with a thread in his mouth to cue the movements of his talking.
Beauty, played by Docs Keepin Time in the 1994 film, is mercilessly abused, disfigured, sold, repeatedly forgotten. The voice-over narrates, tells us just how bad it is. In the Entertainment Weekly review of Black Beauty, Lisa Schwarzbaum writes, “Girls will inevitably love all this. Boys will torment those girls by saying ‘oats, oats, oats!’ in twitty voices that make their sisters cry.”
There were two Mister Eds. One: the acting horse, a gelding named Bamboo Harvester. Another palomino named Punkin was used only for photographs and press. The former horse was, according to some accounts, accidentally murdered by “inadvertent tranquilizer.” The horses became interchangeable, one replaced the other, and still there is only a single grave marker, shared by them both. The granite tombstone does not feature either horse’s name; it reads, simply, “Mister Ed.”
When Al Carver, the real Sonora Webster’s husband, was questioned by the S.P.C.A., pausing their diving act, Al loaded one of their horses onto the bed of a truck with a sign that read I’m being taken to jail for jumping in a tank of water! He drove that truck all over town. He then brought Lightning to the courthouse and made the judge walk outside, take a look at this poor, beautiful girl, useless without her job, and just like that, they were back in business. Doesn’t the horse do all the work?
There is thrill in trying to recreate history, and I am troubled when my body halts that recreation. I try to fit into the old clothes — of course not. I order the same blue ProStretch tool to stretch my calves by rocking, readying myself for the saddle. The tool worked then, but nothing now. Overdeveloped hamstrings, no give, taut mess of muscles. Still, the blue of it in the corner of my room offers a comfort.
My velvet helmet, too, was laughed down when I showed up to ride in it thirteen years after I quit. Not up to snuff, that thin pathetic shell, phased out years ago by new safety standards. My once-gleaming show helmet, the blackest of black, had marooned in the sun. It sits on a bookshelf now. Funny. Decorative.
The question comes up sometimes, still. Why did you stop? But that answer is simple. I’m more interested in why I started again.
My wife says I’m one of the only riders she knows who still rides with joy. By that, I think she means I’m not as burdened by what it all means — the barns, the aspiring show girls applying glue to the insides of their boots, the privileged elitism, the horse doping, the abusers, all the horses that are “given away,” disappeared. The undocumented grooms — braiding those manes, polishing leather, offering a leg up to the next pigtailed brat — who, after horse show sweeps, also disappear. I got out of the industry early enough, perhaps, to ride past that.
I am still riding for the horse of it. Or, I am trying to.
Sonora, I think, tried, too. “The drop from the tower down to the tank is a pleasure totally lacking in psychological or philosophical meaning. It’s the sheer exhilaration of being entirely free of the earth as well as everything human; to me no other physical sensation can be so acute, so deeply intoxicating,” she wrote.
Free of the earth. But for whom?
No, I’ve always said, of course the horse doesn’t do all the work. The rider does plenty. It’s the rider memorizing the course, the surroundings, the footing; the rider directing; the rider working her body just as hard to apply pressure and then to release; the rider is counting, the rider is steering; the rider has shined her boots, she’s been practicing, she knows enough to know when Lightning is right there without seeing or hearing. The rider has done so much to win.
Hank has died by now. Nicky has died by now. They are both buried in backyards, where other horses roam. I tell Frank I’ll take Bidster in, my old retiree, because I’d rather pay his medical bills than have him disappear to who knows where. My other ponies disappeared to who knows where; I never asked. I’d left those ponies out of the story.
I still have the halter, bright pink with puffy paint, of my miniature horse named Tulip. The puffy paint is that of my own, shaky child hand. Tulip, it says, with drawings of not-Tulip flowers. Decorative now, too. Hanging in the guest bedroom, with my spurs, just for show.
I have one photograph of my bay pony, who my mother and I saved at auction for $200. She was always sick and couldn’t quite recover, and the photograph shows it — swollen eyes, a wet nose, emaciated. I broke her, but didn’t have her long. Her name was not Pie. I named her Velvet.
Maybe I ride with joy because I’m able to imitate some of my own Horse Stories, and all the others out there. Because I’m Sonora and I’m Velvet. Because I’m still me, the kid, who once loved horses before I swore I didn’t and then I did again. Who once thought an animal could be broken, owned, mine. Now I want so badly not to love them, to step out of the problem. If I’m not the brat in pigtails perhaps I could be a Noble Horsewoman, reclaiming something by dropping the reins, letting go.
When I sold my first book, I saved a small portion of the advance money to buy myself a saddle. I returned to the HITS show grounds to pick one out; it was used and soft, my first adult saddle. Second stop: I walked to the trailer selling gold-plated horse ID bracelets and I gave them Nicky’s show name, Cloud 9, so I could wear a replica of the one I once wore for him. My first best friend. It looked exactly the same as my old bracelet, though this one was shiny and stiff, no mold or softness or scratches to the plate.
Soon after, I visited my mother’s house in Long Island, and woke up in the morning to see my bracelet aged overnight. Delusional thinking, I thought. Impossible.
But my mother had saved my old bracelet, had it out on my nightstand all along, though I’d never noticed it. Decorative.
I’d swapped them by accident — at some point, I did. Fastened the old bracelet on without even knowing.
I’m not sure which one I wear now.
My wife was a show kid and a groom and a champion and a professional trainer. Yes, I met her through horses; when I came back to them, she was my trainer. She’s all movie-version Sonora. All guts. But there is nothing she hates more than the horse show industry.
When my father died, she wrapped my legs in polos because I didn’t own boots or half chaps anymore, gave me a leg up on Hank. We rode through the mountains of upstate New York with no numbers strapped to our backs. We just rode. Everyone knows horses are therapy.
It was. They are. Sometimes, even for those who don’t deserve it, they are.
Sonora did not attribute her peerless diving abilities to other senses strengthening. She attributed her skills to an obsessive attention to detail, to memory. She knew when her husband Al was boiling potatoes because the big pan carried “a deeper voice than the others.” She knew the “dull metallic” of the potato smasher hitting counter. She even knew when someone was checking the time because of the rustle of a shirt sleeve, the ticking of a clock drawing nearer then more muffled in the pocket.
“All a person had to say was ‘red,’” Sonora wrote, “and immediately the color flashed across my mind; like Mother’s cannas along the back-yard fence; red like the ribbons we tied on Christmas packages; red like the dress I bought when I was sixteen which was supposed to make me wicked.
“All description is based on comparisons,” she continued, “and I had the basis for comparisons.”
Real Sonora kept diving those horses with no vision for eleven years, but couldn’t eat soup. That was what broke her wild heart, what surprised her most. She couldn’t level a soup spoon blind. It was simple like that.
I quit riding horses at thirteen, after an accident. I’d stopped showing and my horses and ponies were sold, gone, but my school had a riding program, so I exercised other rich peoples’ horses for them.
One day, after school, I was asked to work a horse named Sprout. The owner told me Sprout had behavioral problems, and I mounted as I always did. I jumped one course and tried for another. Sprout was bad; Sprout fell and I fell and the jump fell, too, and he dragged me by a stirrup; he crushed my ribs in the fall, he bucked like a maniac, but these sentences are in the wrong order; they carry the wrong active subject. He didn’t do anything I didn’t direct him to do. Sprout was lame, injured; I rode him anyway. He had the wrong bit. I pushed him at the fences. I kicked and spurred and smacked with my crop. I jerked the reins all wrong, and too soon.
"Aia ke ola I ka waha; aia ka make i ka waha" is another Pukui Hawaiian proverb. It means, “life is in the mouth; death is in the mouth.”
And another: "Aia ke ola i ka ihu o ka lio," or, “one’s life is where the horse’s nose points.”
There is one video I’ve found on the internet of Real Sonora and her high-diving horses. Someone has edited the footage so Neil Sedaka sings the ballad “You” over the flickering tape, and it’s not one graceful motion the way it looks in the movie.
Lightning actually stops at the top of the pier, drags her front legs over the edge in painful slow motion. I cannot hear the audience cheer but I know they are cheering, and Lightning resists, looking stunningly terrified. “You showed me how to live again,” sings Sedaka, “You gave me strength when I was falling.” Sonora in her helmet pushes forward until Lightning not exactly dives, but slides off the ledge and into that pool, neck twisted, hooves digging at air.
Yes, is the true answer. The only answer I can find. The horse does all the work.
“I Don’t Love Horses” Copyright © 2021 by T Kira Madden
Excerpted from HORSE GIRLS. Copyright © 2021 by Halimah Marcus
Reprinted here with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers