2016-06-30
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When the theater audience began enthusiastically cheering for the race horse in the movie "Dreamer," I was delighted, but not really surprised. Even skeptical intellects find their imaginations taking flight as the beautiful filly Soñador strives valiantly to carry a young girl's dreams--and ours--to the finish line. I knew it would happen because, like so many audiences before them, something within them resonated with an ancient story that has been inspiring humanity for over 5,000 years.

Partnerships between humans and horses transformed civilization. Because the horse's strength and speed was greater than ours, with its help, humans achieved the ability to travel farther and faster than we could go on our own. As horses carried their bodies, so too ancient peoples allowed horses to carry their imaginations, hopes, and prayers. Few other animals were so enshrined in the myths and legends of ancient cultures. A Bedouin legend says:

When Allah willed to create the horse, he said to the South Wind, "I will that a creature should proceed from thee. Condense thyself." And the South Wind said: "Lord, do Thou so." Then Allah took a handful of the South Wind and breathed thereon, creating the horse and saying: "I have preferred thee above all other animals, and have made thy master thy friend." Then Allah signed his forehead with a star and said, "All the blessings of the world shall be placed between thine eyes, and thou shalt fly without wings."

As Catholics might light candles to represent prayers, Tibetans hang brightly colored prayer flags, most of which bear the image of a horse. The snapping of the flags in the wind evokes the sound of galloping hooves. Tibetans imagine Lung-tha--the "Wind Horse"--speeding tirelessly through the heavens, riding the breezes and carrying the prayers of the world to benefit all beings.

Although we no longer rely on horses for transportation, horse-human partnerships continue to transform human lives, as the movie "Dreamer" illustrates. A horse trainer (Kurt Russell) has fallen on hard times and is finding it difficult to keep his dreams alive. He has shut his life down and pushes his family away. When Soñador, the horse he is assigned to train, breaks a leg, all seems lost. But at the urging of his daughter (Dakota Fanning), he takes in the horse. The clarity of her dream for her father's restored dignity, sustained and mirrored in her bond with Soñador, carry them all the way to the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championship. Just as they allowed ancient humans to travel farther, horses seem to help us dream bigger dreams.

The most straightforward expression of this archetypal tale is illustrated in the movie "Dreamer"--as it was in "Seabiscuit" and scores of other horse movies about a quest for victory in an athletic challenge. Seabiscuit's real life quest was to win the "Big Cap," the Santa Anita Handicap. In "Archer's Adventure," Archer walks more than 550 miles across Australia to enter the 1861 Melbourne Cup (Australia's version of the Kentucky Derby). For "Sylvester" it's the Rolex 3-Day Event, a challenging and dangerous horse triathlon. For "National Velvet" it was the Grand National steeplechase. The mustang "Hidalgo" faced the Ocean of Fire, a 3,000-mile desert endurance race. And for Soñador in "Dreamer," it was the Breeders Cup World Thoroughbred Championship.

All these tales have The Great Contest as their destination and climax, but it's the journey to get there that gives us the real story. The quest against impossible odds faced by the horse mirrors the life challenges faced by the horse's human partners. Seabiscuit's rags-to-riches story mirrored the challenges faced by Depression-era America, which is why his racing career inspired the nation in the late 1930s. And in "Dreamer," we see a family broken by failure and a horse broken by injury, the former struggling to win back their pride and the latter fighting for racing glory.

Real-life equine inspiration
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  • These stories may at first seem to be all the same story. But it doesn't matter, because the ancient archetype resonates with us time and time again. And it isn't only fiction. The movie "Dreamer" is based on a real horse named Mariah's Storm, who did indeed recover from a life-threatening leg injury to compete in the Breeders Cup Distaff. The real Breeders Cup is a source of such inspiration nearly every year. When Saint Liam won this year's Breeders Cup Classic, trainer Rick Dutrow tearfully recalled how hard the horse had to work to achieve the victory, mirroring his own struggle to turn his life around from a time when he slept in the barn because he couldn't afford a room. In his autobiography, Saint Liam's rider, Jerry Bailey, drew a parallel between striving to win the race and striving to overcome alcoholism. The ancient story keeps showing up in movies because it is real.

    Horses inspire us because we see ourselves in them. Being something of a blank slate, they allow us to project our own challenges onto them, as if we are still asking them to help us achieve more than we could do alone. In "The Horse Whisperer," Pilgrim, a beautiful but badly injured horse, must learn to trust again. As he does, he carries his traumatized young owner and her mother through their own healing journey.

    Horses also teach us that relationships are a source of strength. At the heart of most horse stories is a horse-human partnership of transformative power. In the most beautiful horse movie ever made, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Black Stallion," boy and horse, marooned together on a desert island, slowly and wordlessly form a deep bond of trust that will carry them to unimagined heights. In the Australian children's classic "The Silver Brumby" and its American cousin, "Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron," we learn to respect this proud creature, beautiful, strong and free, and about the destruction we cause when we seek possession instead of partnership. Nowhere is this more touchingly illustrated than in "Black Beauty," as the horse experiences the range of human kindness and cruelty.

    When Smarty Jones contested the Triple Crown in 2004, his quest inspired over one million fan letters in three months--more than any human sports celebrity ever received in the same length of time. A collection of children's letters to Smarty Jones illustrate how he inspired them: "Dear Smarty, you never gave up. I think that is the best." "Dear Smarty, I am very sorry you have one bad eye. I do too. But that makes it even better that you won the Kentucky Derby." "Dear Smarty, you have inspired others to make their dreams come true."

    We allow horses to carry our dreams, and when they prevail, we allow ourselves to believe that we, too, can conquer our own life challenges.

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