“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” –William Faulkner
Last Sunday my son and I watched the animated movie Spirit, stallion of the Cimarron. Now, if you haven’t seen the movie, it is about a young mustang stallion who sets on an near impossible quest to save his freedom and his homeland. It’s a tear jerker to say the least. My son and I were both sobbing at several occasions. Mind you, we are talking about an animated movie so there are no real horses involved. But that doesn’t mean the real issues we have with horses are not present.
The scene where Spirit is captured for the first time is brutal. Here is this beautiful, strong and wild stallion with ropes around his neck and people pulling and jerking left and right in the attempt to control him. My son covered his eyes in anguish.
“Mom, what are they doing!” he cried out.
In lack of a better expression, I said “They are breaking him.” Because isn’t that what they were doing, breaking his spirit? Interestingly enough in English the term “to break a horse” refers to the training he is given by humans. When you look this term up in the dictionary the definition says: “to tame or make obedient with force”. Exactly.
“What does that mean, they are breaking him?” My son was distressed as he watched the horse fight the humans with all his might, kicking, biting and whirling around trying to free himself from the ropes.
“Well, that’s that they call it in English.” I reverted to Finnish, my native language and said: “It means they are trying to train him.”
My son looked over at me, his eyes streaming with tears. “But mom, that’s not training!”
Oh no, it wasn’t training, it was breaking. And yes, perhaps DreamWorks had exaggerated the process for the sake of movie making and storytelling, but the essence of that act was there, nevertheless. It was breaking; the people were breaking the spirit of the horse.
In the course of the movie Spirit befriends a young Native American man, who falls in love with this beautiful animal. The two of them end up connected through life and death situations and fight for their freedom together. In the end, the boy understands that although they can be friends, he can’t own the stallion, nor does he want to. He sets his own, faithful mare free so she can choose to follow Spirit to wherever he takes her, down the mountain and over the hills.
Perhaps this movie is just a creation of someone’s imagination, but the message in it rings true: to love someone, is to let them go free. I cried, and not just because of the touching scenes, but because of the pain I have in my heart for what we have done to the horses in this world, what we continue doing.
Spirit, the movie, might be about a wild mustang captured by humans in the Wild West, but the story goes on and on today, in my backyard and yours. I’m not saying we need to set all horses free and let them roam the land like they did for millions of years before humans came along. I don’t believe that scenario would be realistic in the world we live in. But perhaps we can look at how we treat these animals and why we do the things we do with them. For example, it is definitely convenient for us humans to keep horses living in a box, but is this in the best interest of a horse? How does it mentally affect any animal to be caged up, separated from their peers?
I find it ironic that we watch movies like Spirit, where a horse is fighting against humans, and we are rooting for the horse, not the human. If the humans had succeeded in “taming” Spirit, what would have Spirit's life been like? Let's see... He would have been living in a stall, separated from his heard, gotten used to a saddle and a bridle and been ridden by a soldier. Doesn’t sound much different than the life of an average horse today, does it?
Isn't it interesting that in movies, we are on the horse’s side, but in real life, we really aren’t. We like the idea of a free horse, but we don’t actually like free horses.
In the end of the movie, when I watched the two animated horses canter into freedom, my heart ached. Not because the movie was sad (it had a happy ending after all!), but because it made me think of Little Love who lives isolated in her square box and only gets to go outside when the weather is good and the pastures are dry enough. Today, it has been 10 days since the horses at the nearby barn where she lives have been outside. 10 days. And they are lucky horses. There are horses in this world that never get to run free in a pasture. NEVER. It is shocking, but true.
Next time you are watching a horse movie and you feel yourself choke up, ask yourself a question: why am I moved? Am I moved because the movie is sad or am I moved because life is sad and the contrast between the two is too much to bear?
“The story that I want to tell you cannot be found in a book. They say that the history of the west was written from the saddle of a horse, but it's never been told from the heart of one. Not till now. I was born here, in this place that would come to be called the Old West. But, to my kind, the land was ageless. It had no beginning and no end, no boundary between earth and sky. Like the wind and the buffalo, we belonged here, we would always belong here. They say the mustang is the spirit of the West. Whether that west was won or lost in the end, you'll have to decide for yourself, but the story I want to tell you is true. I was there and I remember. I remember the sun, the sky, and the wind calling my name in a time when we ran free. I'll never forget the sound and the feeling of running together. The hoof beats were many, but our hearts were one." - beginning of the movie Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron