Joy Harjo is well-known for her connection to Native American culture, having been born to Creek Indian and Cherokee French parents. She Had Some Horses comes from her collection of the same name and captures her attempts to identify herself within her surroundings, locally and globally.
Harjo uses the poem to express feelings that any woman may encounter; a woman conflicted and searching for a sense of self, free from constraints, whatever their origin. By finding herself, she suggests that a woman can begin to experience a sense of freedom, a release from expectations. However, a woman, the poem suggests, struggles with her internal emotions; glad that she can explore but also, sometimes, unable to be completely free. Her words, "She had some horses she loved./ She had some horses she hated," indicates the inner conflict as she ends the poem with, "These were the same horse."
Harjo drew on her own experiences, culture and surroundings and how she feels as a woman in the modern era but with strong ties to her background. Using the image of a horse to express her message, Harjo conjures a visual picture of freedom itself as a horse can cover great distances, has an eternal elegance about it and has an enduring quality. Throughout history, horses have provided people, amongst other things, with a means of transport, allowing them to explore vast terrain and therefore, freedom that would otherwise be beyond their grasp. Horses are also loyal and hard-working.
The reader sees transience and the temporary quality of life in the first verse as Harjo captures a sense of the surroundings and even the harshness of nature with "horses who were fur and teeth." In the second verse, the physical world is ever present. Next, there is a nurturing and possibly romantic element as "horses danced in their mothers' arms." Culture effects the way a person interacts with the world and this is evident in the fourth verse as horses like "Creek Stomp Dance songs," for example. There are many different kinds of "horses" as there are people in terms of "horses who had no names," and "horses who had books of names." This also suggests that whether a person has a rich heritage or not, they experience the same emotions, one of which is fear and its debilitating effects.
Harjo goes on to mention religion and finally that inner conflict. Harjo uses this poem to help its readers understand that there are many ways to approach life and the future and many elements that make up a complex human being.