She Had Some Horses

by Joy Foster

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Joy Harjo, born Joy Foster, is a Native American poet and writer. She is also a member of the Creek nation based in Oklahoma: she changed her last name to reflect her heritage. Her poetry often reflects this affiliation in its concern with the oppression faced by Native communities, as well as that faced by women. In this poem, "She Had Some Horses," we can identify clear associations with Native American history, culture, and community in the language and imagery Foster uses, even as she is also dealing with issues pertaining to all women.

The structure and form of the poem rely upon anaphora and repetition for cohesion, rather than rhyme or regular meter. The refrain, "She had some horses," and the repeated "she had horses who" give the poem the feel of a chant. We can imagine the thunderous approach of the horses and the way their hooves encounter the "splintered red cliff" in the repetitions of these words. Foster connects the "horses"—which are evidently metaphorical rather than literal—to the earth: they are "maps drawn of blood," "skins of ocean water," "the blue air of sky." Her language here suggests wide open spaces and desert places, but the reference to maps made in blood creates a haunting undercurrent. If the horses are the protagonist's many issues, then some of these are founded in the history of the Native American people, whose lands were taken from them through slaughter and warfare.

Through clear personification, Foster makes it evident that the horses are not really horses—they "laughed," "licked razor blades," and "danced in their mothers' arms." The horses are horses only in name, which is something else she interrogates in the poem. She notes that some horses chose to define themselves as horses, while others called themselves "spirit" instead. There is an interplay between speaking and keeping quiet, revealing the role of secrecy. These are all elements that suggest the silence imposed upon women and the difficulty of defining oneself as a woman, but also the same oppression placed upon Native American voices. Some Native Americans, like Foster, choose to define themselves as part of a nation; others do not fit well with this definition, and for all of them, the weight of history is heavy.

The horses in this poem are certainly afraid. Their quietude, their "silence" and "whispered" words, combine with images of self-defense—knives, prayer, and anticipated destruction—to emphasize this. At the end of the poem, the speaker says that the hated horses and the loved ones were "the same horses." It is never made clear exactly who or what these horses are, or how they relate to the speaker, but part of this confusion and lack of clarity is surely deliberate. The speaker is not sure how she relates to the world, or should relate to it; the horses represent the many complex elements of womanhood, of being part of an oppressed class, and of trying to navigate the world in that way. Sometimes, we do things we love because of our history and our characteristics. Sometimes we do things we hate because of the exact same reasons. Human existence is complex.

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