Speaking at the 2011 Melbourne Writers’ Festival, Gillian Mears spoke of the yearning she felt to once more be astride a horse. Mears, who is no longer able to horse ride due to advanced multiple sclerosis, said this yearning was so strong that often she could smell a horse in a cup of black tea.

Throughout human history and across the world, horses have been a marked and celebrated cultural entity. In Australia, they are the brumbies. They are the stock horses disappearing into clouds of red dust. They are the thoroughbreds kicking dirt up on the pretty frocks and dapper suits at the Melbourne Cup, the warmbloods and Clydesdales and ponies at the various agricultural shows around the country. Horses have become part of our cultural identity.

I spent a majority of my childhood planning to get a pony. Somehow. When I was twelve years old, my mother bought me a very old chestnut mare – tired, I suspect, of me weeping uncontrollably whenever I saw a horse, regardless of whether it was a dot in a distant paddock or a poor pencil drawing. I couldn’t stop crying and then collected up her stray hair in a big mucky ball that I thought was appropriate to show to visitors. Every moment spent away from her felt wasted. I drove my friends crazy just saying Kirsty, over and over again.

Horses have become the realm of the wealthy and the rural. In urban regions, they are no longer in paddocks dotted throughout the suburbs; they are no longer pulling milk carts or being ridden to school. Through this absence comes a sense of the surreal and the otherworldly. A horse in a novel – a short story, a memoir – lends a unique twist of otherness.

Working as an equine therapist, where horses are used in therapy sessions, I am focused on the connection between human and horse: it’s my job. More than a physical or cognitive connection, I am focused on the emotional and psychological. I am watching the body language of the person. Are they comfortable? Are they safe? I am watching the horse; watching for signs of unrest or discomfort, a head held high, hooves unsettled on the ground. I am hoping for signs of connection: a rested back leg, a lowered head, a softened eye.

More than anything, I am watching for the moment when horse and human meet, where they unite. When footsteps are matched around an arena, where long breaths are shared and gazes are locked. These are the moments when the healing happens.

Horses connect to people, there is research that suggests that when a person is leading or riding a horse and their heart rate increases, the horse’s does, too. Studies have found that the connection between horse and human has a positive effect on depression, anxiety, trauma, autism, substance abuse, attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder and eating disorders, among a myriad of other things.

This connection is often romanticised, but it comes down to three main things: horses are flight animals – which means they’re sensitive to stimuli; they’re domestic – which means they’re sensitive to humans; and they’re herd animals – which means they’re sensitive to non-verbal cues. These three things cumulate into a connection that falls easily into feeling vaguely otherworldly.

This connection is explored, again and again, in Australian novels. On my bookshelf, the Australian books with horses are pressed together. Banjo Patterson, Elyne Mitchell, Lizzie Spender, Gillian Mears, Jeri Kroll and Eva Martyn.

In Mears’ Foals Bread, horses seem to encompass a whole tapestry of emotion, of existence. They encompass both the gritty realities of life – the heartache, the dirt, the poverty, the discontent – and freedom, dreaming, strength.

In an equine therapy session, or even just going for a meandering ride around an arena, the biggest emotions – fear, joy, sadness – can be communicated in the smallest of ways. The dash of a tail, the stomping of a hoof.

Writing about horses brings its own power. Sometimes I find myself typing to the rhythm of a gallop or a trot as I’m working. Often, when I write, the horses in a story will be the most vivid part of it. The pale dust on a hand drawn from a dark, shining neck. The spray of sand as a hoof lands and leaves the earth in a canter. A warm puff of breath in the cold air.

Writing about horses gives you leave to explore the world using a whole new language. For me, horses in fiction seem to communicate yearning. For strength, for freedom, for calm. The therapeutic, revitalising qualities that horses have in the flesh are, in the hands of a skilled writer such as Mears, transferred to the pages of a book.

And as I type to the beat of a gallop, I am often pulled back to Mears’ Foal’s Bread, and to her other works, which explore the horse/human relationship with equal nuance. I think of a puff of breath in cold air, and of catching the whiff of a horse in a cup of black tea.

Image credit: Bill Stilwell