“The Horse Whisperer”: Soothing the Wounds of Horses and Women

by Herbert H. Stein

The Horse Whisperer begins with trauma for both the film’s protagonists and for its audience, which is forced to watch a particularly disturbing accident. The rest of the film is devoted to healing that trauma and the traumata of the unconscious fantasies it represents.

A 13 year old girl, Grace Maclean, goes out for a morning horseback ride in the snow with her best friend, Judith. The girls are laughing and singing and having fun when Judith’s horse loses his footing on an incline and slides back into a roadway, throwing Judith off the horse, but keeping her tangled in the stirrup. Just then, a truck is coming up the road. Grace tries to get Judith’s horse to move, the truck driver tries to stop; but the horse will not move and the truck goes into a skid, running right over Judith. Grace’s horse, Pilgrim, throws her and rears up, taking the direct impact of the oncoming truck.

Judith is dead. Grace loses a leg. Pilgrim has deep lacerations. Both Grace and her horse are psychologically wounded. Pilgrim is so unmanageable that the veterinarian and those assisting her in trying to remove him from the site agree that he should be “put down.”  Grace is depressed and hopeless, with a biting sarcasm directed at her mother’s attempts to motivate her.

I have seen people physically react while watching the accident. The audience has been shocked by the terrible visual imagery and the ferocious damage to the joyful innocence that preceded the accident. We can easily empathize with Grace and her parents, Robert and Annie, because we, too, have suffered a shock. Like them, we welcome the healing process as Annie, Grace and Pilgrim come into contact with the therapeutic Tom Booker, the “horse whisperer” of the title.

Faced with pressure to destroy Pilgrim, Annie refuses to put him down, instead researching the subject and finding Tom, who, in his own words, works with “horses with people problems.” Tom will not come East to look at Pilgrim; and when Grace tells Annie that both she and Pilgrim should be “put down,” Annie decides, over her husband’s and the vet’s advice, to drive to Montana with Grace and Pilgrim to get Tom’s help.

Tom is a natural psychological healer. Although not officially a psychotherapist except, perhaps, for the horse, he behaves therapeutically with all three of his patients, Pilgrim, Grace, and Annie. He is patiently empathic, communicating with Pilgrim through body language. He allows Pilgrim to heal his psychological wounds at his own pace, at one point sitting in a field for the better part of a day waiting for Pilgrim to come to him after a scare.

Tom applies the same principles to his other two patients, sensing their moods and intentions, giving them time to build trust, and allowing them to make changes with gentle prodding and patient waiting. Eventually, Grace can confide in him about the details of the accident and can accept his supportive and empathic words about her guilt, anger, and fear. Tom tells her about a boy he once knew who was paralyzed in a diving accident and “disappeared” into his anger. She tells him that she knows where he went, and Tom replies, “I know you do,” urging her not to disappear. Tom gets Annie to go horseback riding, something she had given up long ago, and allows her to unwind in the broad expanse and simple life of Montana. Eventually, they fall in love, and this forces Annie to come to terms with her life and her relationships.

The audience is also being comforted by the film’s gentle style. This is the only film I can recall in which no on-screen character can be in any way described as mean or malevolent. This is a world of good people. Just in case we don’t sense it fully, we are told it as well.

“Frank’s a good man.” (Annie about Tom’s brother)

“Oh, they don’t come better.” (Diane, Frank’s wife’s reply)

“He’s a good man.”  (Diane, about Tom)

“He’s a good man, Annie.”  (Tom, about Annie’s husband, Robert)

“I never said he wasn’t.” (Annie’s reply)

They are all good men, and, indeed, they each prove to be kind and considerate to the end.

The terrible tragic accident that we have witnessed is reason enough for us to accept and even need this soothing message, but the film gives us an an additional, seemingly superfluous explanation. It is read aloud to us by Annie as she researches the subject of horses and their psychology. “A million years before man, they grazed the vast and empty plains. They first came to know man as the hunted knows the hunter. Long before he used horses for his labors, he killed them for meat. The alliance with man would forever be fragile. [In the visual we see Pilgim, fading into Grace, lying in her bed, then to Annie reading.] For the fear he’d struck into their hearts was too deep to be dislodged.  Since that neolithic moment when a horse was first haltered, there were those among men who understood this. They could see into the creature’s soul, and soothe the wounds they found there, the secrets uttered softly into troubled ears. These men were known as the whisperers.” [We see a picture from a magazine of Tom Booker with a horse.]

If we combine the visuals with the words, we have a capsule summary of the film. Pilgrim, Grace, and Annie will be healed by Tom, the man who understands their fear and the fragility of their alliance with man. But, in a dramatic way, fear and distrust have been linked to something other than a terrible accident of fate; rather, they are connected to a more intentional injury. Pilgrim’s wariness is linked to the psychology of the hunted and the hunter; and, if Pilgrim has a fragile alliance with man, an inborn fear of the hunter, what of Grace and Annie? As psychoanalysts, we know well to pay special attention to the seemingly superfluous meaning or motive.

To begin to comprehend this second understanding of fear, it is important to recognize the identity created between Grace, Pilgrim and Annie in the film’s opening sequence. The film opens into a dream. We see a beautiful dark horse, Pilgrim, riding freely, with obvious strength, over dunes of white sand. It is an arresting image. The horse is powerful and graceful, and we can vicariously enjoy a sense of freedom. Just before the dream ends, we see a pair of child’s legs in jeans and socks astride the horse as he gallops, and we hear a girl’s laughter. We then “wake up” into Grace’s bedroom in the country house. She smilingly gets out of bed, dresses for riding, and goes out, peeking in at her sleeping father, to meet Judith for their fateful ride.

The dream sequence gives us an indelible sense of an identity between Grace and Pilgrim. Whatever sense of freedom, strength and sensuality she feels in the dream is felt first in an identification with the horse. At the end of the dream, she openly shares the ride with him. It is very clear to us that there is an unconscious blurring of the boundaries between girl and horse. Pilgrim is a stallion, and may represent for her and for us her masculine side, certain urges and identifications that she and we may identify as male, although I would prefer to be more vague about the allusion at this point. The identity of girl and horse will carry through the film, never so strongly as when she tells her mother that they both should be “put down.”

In that same opening sequence, Grace dresses, puts on her riding boots and starts to run out the door; but, instead of riding boots in the snow, we see sneakers running on blacktop. After a momentary confusion, we see that we are now looking at Annie. Through this mini-montage, horse, daughter, and mother have been linked in an identity that will be strengthened as the film develops. At first, Annie and Grace diverge. Grace is all smiles as she hugs her friend and greets Pilgrim in the stable. Annie’s day, after her jog, starts with the exclamation, “That shit!” as she finds a newspaper article claiming her magazine is falsifying its circulation figures. Annie is as tense and intense as Grace is smiling and relaxed. Their moods will meet after the accident.

Through its visual imagery, the film gives a particular meaning to the image of hunter and hunted. Before the accident, Grace and Judith are giggling and talking about a boy that Judith has met. There is a sense of simple pleasure and innocence. Later, Grace will tell Tom that she never even learned the boy’s name. There is no sign of fear or awareness of danger. Then Judith’s horse slides back on a little hill in the snow, setting the tragic accident in motion. As the truck skids into the girls and their horses, Pilgrim rears up at the oncoming truck and is hit directly in the underside and groin. With a little imagination, helped by the identity created between girl and horse, we can see in the rearing horse a woman being violently penetrated by the oncoming phallic truck. The accident gives us a visual metaphor of violent intercourse.

Our first view of Pilgrim after the accident comes through the eyes of the veterinarian who finds him under a bridge.  As she approaches him, the veterinarian exclaims, “Jesus!” shocked at what she has seen. We then see what has shocked her. Momentarily, the camera focuses on a vaginally shaped gouge between his forelegs, with a flap of skin hanging loose. Cognitively, we know that he is a horse with forelegs that correspond anatomically to our arms, but the momentary visual image is of a pair of legs with a red, open wound between them. If these were a man’s legs, he would appear to be castrated, with an open feminine wound. Moments later, the vet recommends that the horse cannot be saved. When Grace goes to see Pilgrim for the first time after the accident, she first approaches the horse hopefully, but her eyes grow wide with fear when he turns his head and she sees a similar wound below his eye. When Tom first inspects Pilgrim, his gaze is arrested by the site of the scar between the horse’s forelegs as he squints and frowns at the stitches that hold the flap of skin back in place. These injuries appear to have a special impact on the film’s protagonists.

Pilgrim has a gouge between his legs.  Grace has lost a leg. It is from this point that Grace and Pilgrim share Annie’s tension and distrust. Pilgrim flees from the vet who wants to put him down, just as Grace fends off the early offers of help. In its imagery and symbolism, the film is leading us to feel that it is the violence of intercourse and resultant castration that is the source of woman’s deep distrust of man, a distrust that, at least in this film, must be overcome through gentleness, patience, and empathy.

Viewed in this way, Grace’s hopelessness is not only a response to the very real loss of a leg, but also a response to the symbolic castration that she and the horse have endured. Except for Annie, everyone is hopeless about the horse, and Grace links this hopelessness to herself, saying to her mother, “I’ve decided about Pilgrim.  I think we should put him down. It’s not fair to let him suffer,” and adds before Annie can reply, “Maybe you should put me down, too. I’m not any use any more.”

Tom challenges that hopelessness. Before agreeing to treat Pilgrim, he tells Grace and Annie that he can help only if Grace will be involved. He addresses his questions to Grace and won’t accept Annie’s attempts to interrupt.  “She’s the one that ‘s gonna be ridin’ him. Am I right? Right? . . .  I don’t know if I can do anything but I’m prepared to give it a go if you’ll help. What, do you have a problem with that?” “Isn’t it like obvious?” Grace replies.  “Not to me. Either you want to or you don’t.” Later, he gets her working on the ranch and, in one scene, gets her to drive a pick-up along one of the ranch’s roads. He makes it clear that he does not see her as hopelessly damaged.

Annie, though shaken, also maintains hope. Annie’s refusal to have Pilgrim put down and her insistence on pushing Grace to function seem to come not out of a disbelief in the fantasy of castration, but out of a persistent defense against it. She is a tough, tense, ambitious woman, who will not be pushed around by anyone. We cannot help admiring her grit, determination and confidence in her beliefs. But we also see enormous tension, a drivenness. Tom cuts to the core of it when he observes her leg swinging nervously as she sits, asking if she ever sits still for just a minute. He has sensed that she is compulsively active. We might go further and say that she fears passivity. It is made evident in scenes in which everyone is sitting quietly watching Tom work with Pilgrim except for Annie who asks questions and appears restless.

We sense this conflict in her attitude towards men. Early in the film, she asks a male co-worker and rival, “You’re not going soft on me?” At her first dinner with the Booker family, the conversation turns to cattle. Annie says, “It seems to me that the bulls have the best of the time, just laying around the fields waiting for somebody to come along and ask them to do their work.” Tom answers, “You get born a bull, you got a 90% chance of getting castrated, served up as hamburger or so on. On balance, I recommend you choose being a cow.” Ever therapeutic, he is implicitly telling her to enjoy being who she is, while also letting us know that it is not only women who fear and feel castration. In a later scene, when Tom laughingly accuses her of trying to take control of both ends of the conversation, she gives the rationale for her need for control: “It’s a man’s world, Mr. Booker; most women have to.” We can understand better her hard edge, her ever-present tension, and her need to avoid passivity if we take into account the film’s hidden fantasy of female castration.

Although the traumatic castration appears to be inflicted by the male, in intercourse, and men are feared “as the hunted fears the hunter,” the anger over it is directed primarily not at father, but at mother. Even before the accident, we sense some distance or tension between Grace and Annie. She has a much less problematic relationship with her father. After the accident, it is all out war. Grace is sarcastic at every turn towards her mother, finally driving Annie to tears when they stop at the Little Big Horn battlefield.

But the evidence suggests that this anger is directed at mother not because Grace blames her for her castration, as Freud’s original theory suggests, but, rather in reaction to Annie’s defensive phallic orientation and the perfectionist expectations she has placed upon her daughter. In her frustration with Grace’s sarcasm, Annie complains, “Whatever I do is wrong. Everything I say is wrong.” Grace answers, “Well now you know how it feels.” She later confesses that she used to pray every night that Annie and her Dad would have another child so she wouldn’t have to be so special, so perfect (so uncastrated?).

It is only when they break down to one another and confess their frailties and needs that they can draw close again. When Grace can finally open her feelings to her mother, she expresses her fears about both her real and symbolic injury, crying, “Who’s ever gonna want me like this?” Annie hugs her. Grace repeats it, “Nobody will”.

Annie’s answer is instructive: “I know it sometimes doesn’t seem this way, but I do understand what you’re feeling.” She is implicitly acknowledging her awareness of feelings of castration. “When I was your age, when my Dad died, I felt like I’d lost everything and I’d be all alone, and now I’ve got you.” In a very understated way, we are being told of the replacement of a penis first with father’s love and then with a child.

But, there is a caveat that comes with this fantasy. It is a fantasy about women, but that does not necessarily mean that it is a woman’s fantasy. In fact, the novel on which the film is based was written by a man, the film’s director is a man, the film’s two screen writers are men, and the author of this review is a man. Is it a universal fantasy? Is it a woman’s fantasy? Or is it a fantasy that men have about women?

The difference is interesting. As a woman’s fantasy it has to do with fear and distrust, as well as sadness and a sense of loss. Annie must be reassured of the men’s good intentions and of her own power as a woman. The treatment fits the diagnosis. From the outset, Tom presents himself as firm, but reluctant, at times passive. When Annie first calls him, he refuses to get involved, at one point responding to her persistence, “Does ‘no’ in Nevada mean ‘yes’ where you are?” He approaches Grace the same way. When he first meets Grace in a motel room where she and her mother have camped while waiting for him to see Pilgrim, she lets him know she does not want to be involved. Wisely, he tells Annie that it would probably be better if Grace didn’t come along to look at the horse, enlisting her obstinacy in the service of getting her to follow them. It is only after that movement on her part that he insists on her involvement. If he is a hunter, he deliberately does not act like one.

As a male fantasy, the woman’s castration involves fear, guilt, and relief: the man’s fear of a fate that could await him, perhaps in retribution; guilt over the wounds he has inflicted, symbolically; and, relief that he has escaped this castration. The men in the film seem to be driven by an understanding of the “wound” that women have endured and the source of their distrust. Realizing that his wife is in love with Tom and the life she has found in Montana, Robert urges Annie to take time to decide before coming home. Referring to the preceding scene in which Tom got Pilgrim to lie down so that Grace could get up on him, he says, “I stood there looking at that horse and I swear I felt like the same thing was happening to me. And I have two choices, I can fight the way things are or accept them. You see, I always knew I loved you more. It didn’t bother me.  I guess I felt kind of lucky, a little amazed that a woman like you would want to be with a man like me.” He accepts a more passive, “feminine” identification with Pilgrim in order to meet Annie’s needs.

The men are forced to suppress their own aggressiveness.  They restrain themselves, become more passive, not necessarily out of fear of rivalry, but to allow them to be the “good men” who can overcome distrust and fear. Tom has been wounded in love before, giving up his marriage because his life’s dream and his wife’s were incompatible. Now, falling in love with Annie, but sensing that she can’t, and probably shouldn’t leave her family to share this life with him, he pleads with her, “I’m trying real hard not to get lost in this.” Inevitably, he will be hurt, more subtly than in the novel, which ends, I am told, with his death beneath the hooves of stampeding horses.

In the male perspective of this fantasy, the men are outwardly heroes, healing the woman’s wounds through kindness; but they are also responding with guilt and fear of retribution for what they and their kind have caused. To cope with that, they inhibit their aggression, and partially identify with the victim of the fantasy, the woman. Robert and Tom passively leave their fate to Annie. Robert heads back to New York with Grace, not knowing if Annie will rejoin him. She waits behind to say goodbye to Tom, but ends the meeting by asking for one last ride with him and then leaving while he saddles the horses. The scene carries some of the gratification and pain of the termination of a long, intense psychotherapy. The film ends with Tom sitting on his horse watching down from a hilltop as Annie drives away.

I don’t think the film, alone, can answer for us whose fantasy this is, but it does point out that whether it is seen through the eyes of the man or the woman, this castration fantasy can create a serious tension in the relationship between the sexes, a relationship marked by fear, guilt, and distrust, with a fearful hunted and, at best, a guilty hunter.

Published in the PANY Bulletin Summer, 1999 and in Double Feature: Discovering our Hidden Fantasies in Film by Herbert H. Stein, M.D.

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One Comment on ““The Horse Whisperer”: Soothing the Wounds of Horses and Women”

  1. Alpha Mare Says:

    This entire theory of the movie’s symbolism and themes is nullified by the fact Pilgrim is a gelding, not a stallion. He was castrated before the movie began. Thirteen year old girls do not ride stallions, it is dangerous. It is, in fact, illegal in every state for a person under eighteen to handle stallions.

    In the book, Tom does not meet his death “beneath the hooves of a stampeding horse.” He willingly sacrifices himself to save Grace from an aggressing wild stallion. Horses stampede in panic, not aggression. Tom becomes a Christ figure.

    Just a little knowledge of horses and horsemanship changes everything.

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