When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.
I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.
Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.
THE DOMESTICATION OF WILD HORSES
First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.
Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.
Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.
Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:
- Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
- They are herd animals who don’t mind company
- Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)
Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.
RIDING CREATURES THAT FLY
Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.
WHERE RIDING GETS WEIRD
The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.
The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:
Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.Wikipedia
It is surprisingly easy to find old illustrations of humans and other animals riding fish and fish-people.
The flippers on the horse in the illustration below are a particularly resonant detail.
Looking at art as a corpus, it seems modern audiences no longer look at a fish and imagine riding it, like, at all. Maybe sometimes, in something absurdist. But the illustrations below make me think that in pre-aeroplane times, people were just as likely to imagine fish as birds when conceiving of a flight contraption.
THE ‘SIDE SADDLE’ VERSION OF RIDING ANIMALS
Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.Wikipedia
The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.
None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.
THE RELATED TROPE OF THE RIDING BITCH
This trope describes the situation in which a female character rides on a bike (motorised or otherwise) while a man steers.
Growing up in the 80s, my bike was different from my brothers’ bikes. My top bar was heavily angled. When I asked why, my father told me it was so I could get onto the bike wearing a skirt, which seems ridiculous even for the 80s, except I was required to wear full school uniform to school all through the 90s, so I mostly was trying to pull down my summer tunic as the wind caught it, and constantly trying to keep my winter kilt out from the back wheel. (I didn’t succeed.) Honestly, the nuisance of a horizontal top bar would’ve been the least of my concerns.
Inverse examples of the riding bitch in children’s stories are rare. However, you will occasionally find them, in which case the female character is coded deliberately as a ‘take charge’ sort of girl.
Are women’s bikes still built differently? Yes, but in a way that accommodates for average differences in build rather than from some outdated idea that women are still mostly riding skirts on bikes, and are incapable of mounting bicycles featuring horizontal top bars.
Honestly, if women are athletically capable enough to ride a male top bar like pig Josephine below, we have always been sufficiently capable of riding a bike as it was meant to be ridden — using an actual damn seat.
There’s a good reason why female characters rarely give male characters rides like this. If you’ve ever tried it you’ll know that it’s very difficult and requires a substantial differential in size and strength. Girls are simply smaller.
The illustration below disturbs me, as it is meant to. We see acts of violence meted out to people of all genders, of course, but there’s something utterly vulnerable about the violence meted out in this one, in which the riding bitch trope intersects with male violence against a woman. The torture (rather than the finality) of the event is given primacy. The image is even more disturbing if you’ve studied the history of the witch craze.
Images of tortured Jesus are also disturbing, though perhaps rendered less so because of the ubiquity of Jesus on the cross. We rarely see Jesus from this angle. A near ‘upskirt’ angle is specific to femme characters. Notice how even on her way to hell, this tortured witch does not ride astride a horse. She’s still some dude’s riding bitch.
Header illustration: Early-twentieth century illustrations by Artuš Scheiner (1863 – 1938) riding horse underwater