She Had Some Horses

by Joy Foster

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Complexity of Native American Identity

“She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo (born Joy Foster), was published in a collection of poems of the same name in 1983. It is a collection whose themes involve the nuances of Native American identity and womanhood. Foster does not attempt to paint a broad, overarching picture of what it means to be a Native American, or even what it means to be human. Instead, she describes the variety of human nature by portraying a variety of different realities. Some of the horses have a connection to the earth and the land—something that Native American cultures are well-known for—yet this is not the only trait allotted. Modernity and cultural tradition coincide and perhaps even clash in the text of “She Had Some Horses.” The differences in human nature, physicality, personality, and experience cannot be fenced in. This is something that Foster’s poem is well aware of: it leaves no clear, universal truths other than the unifying umbrella term of horses. 

Horses as People

As the title suggests, horses are a major theme in this collection. Foster personally has a close connection to horses, as they have been constantly present throughout her life. Additionally, they are inextricably linked to her experience as a Native American, as her ancestry has been closely linked to horses for several generations. In the titular poem, the speaker repeats "she had horses" at the beginning of each line, with each stanza interjected with the phrase "she had some horses." Within this refrain, she continues with examples of horses performing various anthropomorphized behaviors (e.g., "she had some horses who whispered in the dark," "she had some horses who were afraid to speak," and "she had some horses who got down on their knees for any savior"). Foster concludes the poem with:

She had some horses that she loved.

She had some horses that she hated.

These were the same horses.

The conflict felt by the speaker of this poem in part represents her experience living as a Native American in modern America. The varied experience of each horse represents the myriad of ways to exist as a person, particularly with the conflict between traditional and modern ways of life in mind. The closing lines affirm this coexistence. There are people that we dislike, and there are people that we love: we are all people nonetheless. Like wild horses, people cannot be fenced in for long without breaking barriers.

The Feminine Experience

Additionally, "She Had Some Horses" could also suggest that the horse is representative of the female experience; women feel pulled in many different directions and live multifaceted existences. Foster’s speaker seems to be elaborating upon the hopelessness or exhaustion that stems from being a woman in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, this means that women (or in the poem, horses) can feel silenced or afraid to be themselves freely. It also means that sometimes, terrible things happen to women for reasons outside of their control. In particular, the idea of silencing women’s voices—especially in regard to circumstances such as sexual assault or mistreatment—comes up in the poem. As a result of such hurt, women learn to “keep their voices secret” in wait for destruction or resurrection. It is difficult to be silenced for merely existing, and Foster’s poem reveals the many ways women have learned to respond to pain and trauma.

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