Jill Greenberg, 2013

My obsession with horses began at the early age of six. What is it that makes young girls project so much onto these gorgeous animals? I drew them, painted them, sculpted them, collected plastic models of them, read stories about them, and rode them. When I saw the same happening with my young daughter, I decided it was time to return to my primary muse. It had been more than thirty-five years since my first attempts to capture the grace and musculature of these animals, and I finally had a black beauty in the studio and the skill to render him completely. Just to see the magnificent creature standing outside his trailer was beyond exciting. Those of us who live in cities easily forget the scale and power of large animals.

The horse project is not only an homage to the physique of these sexy beasts but also an exploration of the paradoxical gender identities cast onto this unique animal. We see them as masculine, strong, muscular, even phallic. Yet they have been made subservient, so their position in the world relates to the role women continue to occupy. Horses are both masculine and feminine, dominant and submissive, mastered and wild. Their raw power and their innate sexual energy are harnessed by both men and women. My photographs focus on the animal’s body; on cut, striated muscles under shiny, cropped hair; on crimped manes and windswept forelocks; on the strong shoulders and hindquarters of Baroque breeds like the Friesian and the Andalusian. The colors I digitally hand-painted are associated with the feminine, yet the formal approach and strength portrayed is decidedly masculine. 

But the horse’s rich history of ownership and usefulness to humankind comes out of an equally long history of forced submission. Horses must submit to the bit. Until quite recently, it was universally accepted that horses needed to be “broken” by their owners. The bit is a piece—or multiple pieces—of metal that interface with the tongue and mouth. An aggressive rider will yank the reins, which pulls the bit deeper into the mouth, gagging the animal. Items of tack called martingales, which tie the head down and force it to stay low, with the neck arched, are used to win points in dressage tournaments. This is called rollkur, or hyperflexion. Several images in this book show rollkur, but the position had been prompted by no tools save a carrot to encourage and direct the horse’s head. There are special bridles for jumping events that even shut horses’ mouths completely. The bits and bridles are used to control and manipulate raw, natural power, much in the same way that women’s movement-restricting apparel, supporting undergarments, and especially high-heeled shoes can be painful and limiting. I photographed bits, which, when taken out of context, suggest the appearance of sadomasochistic bondage gear. Which is, in fact, what they are.

My research into the harsh practices of equestrian oppression led me to discover a similar tool for use on women dating to the 1600s, called a scold’s bridle, designed to punish and silence mouthy women. The bridle was equipped with not only a serrated piece of metal to be inserted into a woman’s mouth but also, at times, with large ears so that the woman resembled an animal, to further the victim’s humiliation as she was paraded around on a lead in public.

British scholar Gavin Robinson has written about the horse as central to power in past cultures: 

"Some punishments were very heavily gendered. The scold’s bridle symbolized the idea that women were like animals, because horses were made to wear bits and bridles. But there was also the practical effect that the bridle stopped a woman from speaking. Speech was said to be one of the main things that set humans apart from all other animals. By taking away her power of speech the bridle made a woman more bestial in practice as well as in theory."

Ultimately, I uncovered an historical incident that both signifies and transcends: a moment that has become a locus in my work to spotlight the intense emotion associated with the continued failure of feminism. The account is that of Emily Wilding Davison, a highly educated British suffragist. In 1913 she walked onto the Epsom Derby racetrack in the midst of a horse race in an attempt to pin a symbolic suffragist flag on a horse, but collided with and was trampled by Anmer, King George V’s horse.

In that one visceral moment, the idea of the horse and the idea of feminism manifested itself for posterity, in a woman’s failed effort to halt the forward motion of the animal of the most powerful man in the land—his surrogate, his racehorse. Recent work has led me to sketches for a sculpture to commemorate this event. A monument to the failure of Feminism. Interestingly, a life-size statue commemorating Emily Wilding Davison would also serve to remind us that, in the United States, only one in eight statues celebrate a woman’s achievements (Harper’s Index May 2011).

But more on the form of the horse. Their heads and necks are remarkably phallic, and I have chosen to exploit this in my photographs. I have long been concerned with “exposing the phallus” in a playful, mocking way. The horse’s neck is presented as a confrontational image. In general, the shapes and features in the photographs are not manipulated at all. The extent of the digital imaging work that I do varies, but it is primarily concerned with changing color, shading, and shine. These animals were photographed in makeshift studios set up in the ring at stables in and around California and outside Vancouver, as well as running free outside their barns. I used a camera better suited for studio portraiture so as to capture the highest-quality image possible. Chasing untrained horses with multiple, flashing strobe lights popping wasn’t the safest way to take photographs, but I survived, and it was worth it.