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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

Women and horses share sensitive traits of bonding

Review of "She flies Without Wings" by Mary D. Midkiff
reprinted from The Denver Post, May 6, 2001

By Cate Terwilliger, Staff Writer

Sunday, May 06, 2001 - BOULDER - Framed in Mary D. Midkiff's office is an old photograph of a little girl caught in midfantasy. Wide-eyed and smiling in patent leather shoes and her best dress, she's clutching a sterling trophy bowl, surrounded by the world to which she almost belongs - the horse aristocracy of Kentucky.

Some 35 years later, the author, who lives high in the foothills outside of town, recalls sitting the rails and haunting the periphery of the Lexington Junior League Horse Show, hoping she'd be allowed to step in if one of the designated trophy girls failed to materialize. It was then her only route to the spotlight; though respected horse people, Midkiff's family lacked the wealth required for admission to the Bluegrass State's equine elite.

But that night, she could pretend, and her moment came when the world's grand champion five-gaited horse - a dazzling red mare named My-My - was announced. Shutters clicked, flashbulbs fired, and the photo that would adorn the grown woman's study was secure.

"When I look at it, I savor again its deliciousness, but also taste bitter with the sweet," Midkiff writes in "She Flies Without Wings: How Horses Touch a Woman's Soul" (Delacorte Press, $23.95 hardcover). "I was, after all, just the stand-in - good enough to hand out a prize if the "right' person failed to show but not qualified to compete or to be chosen as presenter for my own merits."

Midkiff long ago left behind outsider status. These days, she is firmly at home in the world of horses and humans, having made a career of cultivating a bond between the two species. Her new book is a literary extension of the Women & Horses workshops Midkiff has taught across the country for 10 years. An earlier volume, "Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian," detailed the ideas undergirding that program.

"Women and horses have always been drawn to one another," Midkiff writes in the new book's introduction. "They rode together in Greek myth and Celtic poem, Native American legend and Wild West folktales.

"In any suburban library today, the children's and young adult's sections are literally stuffed with horse stories, most of them written for girls. ... Women and horses emerge in life and literature as a huge tribe of spiritual sisters."

Contrast to male tradition

Drawing from her lifelong experience and that of other female equestrians, Midkiff's book traces how horses engage women body, heart and soul. That's a profound contrast to the traditional male relationship with the animals, which - with the exception of a few horse whisperers and men from Snowy River - has been largely functional.

"Horses come from such a strong male tradition, a work and war ethic," notes Midkiff, 45. Similarly, the interspecies relationship has been ruled by a paradigm that stresses domination and brute force - an approach that has not come naturally to women, who make up 80 percent of the contemporary horsey set in America.

""Power you into submission' has been the male paradigm, but more horses are not responding to traditional training," says Joyce Leake, an animal communicator in Kiowa. "Women ... were told to do it that way, but a portion of those women has never liked it, has always felt there was something amiss or awry about that."

Midkiff's equestrian philosophy relies instead on a more egalitarian, intuitive relationship - familiar ground for horses and women alike.

"Women have developed a talent for reading nonverbal cues," she writes.

"Horsewomen often compare riding a horse to learning a foreign language, the difference being that it is a language learned through observation and touch rather than sound and speech.

"Horses have a way of polishing this instinctive knack to a high art. ... (They) compel us to develop alternative ways of reading one another and, in the process, give us an additional language we can use effectively in the world of our human relationships."

A relationship with a horse tends to bring out qualities that resonate with or attract women, Midkiff says: sensuality, commitment, creativity, danger, power, nurturance, compassion, spirituality, acceptance, seasonal cycles and freedom.

"When I think back over my own life with horses and talk to women who share the same sense of connection, what emerges is that our relationships with horses are taking us to new levels of personal confidence and power, teaching us compassion and acceptance, and showing us more natural ways to resolve problems in our daily lives," the author writes.

For the author, the woman-horse bond is particularly strong with mares, whose monthly estrus cycles and hormonal fluctuations contribute to an emotional complexity many women share. Over the years, her own animals - including Theo, the thoroughbred she currently owns - have all been mares.

But male horses can also offer women an experience Midkiff describes as "restorative."

"You show up at the barn after work, after school ... and there's a power there that completely cleanses you and restores you to who you are as an animal and a soul," she says.

"And sitting on top of a 16-hand (64-inch) horse that can run 35 to 40 mph has to be one of the most uplifting experiences. Plus, it puts you in a place where (human) strength doesn't matter. ... Whatever is depleted or missing in us, a horse replaces."

Gone for the moment are worries that weight many women - shame over less-than-perfect personal appearance, anxiety about bills and providing for children, concerns about physical safety, and other pitfalls perpetuated by a larger society that degrades and devalues the feminine.

"Feel OK about yourself'

Cultivating a relationship with such a powerful, graceful animal allows women to instead tap into the sensuality, freedom and possibility they felt as girls. "It makes you feel OK about yourself, even though times are rough," Midkiff says. "The horse accepts you for who you are."

She has always felt that equine embrace, always found a home among horses - even as a little girl whose own species relegated her to the periphery of the show ring.

"Whenever I was left out of human crowds, I fled, seeking solace among horses," she recalls in the book. "Horses know nothing of money, status, beauty or accomplishment. ... Horses see only our hearts, and they accept or reject us based on what they find within. ... In short, horses do naturally what humans can pass a lifetime without ever mastering."

All contents Copyright 2001 The Denver Post

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