Girls love horses, while guys play football. It's a timeless (if not-totally-accurate) pop culture stereotype, and Finnish photographer Wilma Hurskainen was one of these pony club girls. As a grown-up, her approach to the topic is way more mature and diverse. Her new book, The Woman Who Married a Horse, shines a light on the magic connection between humans and horses—a friendship based in mutual respect.
We talked to the 37-year-old artist, whose photos have been displayed in Asia and Europe, about her fascination towards these animals, the appeal of tiny ponies, and how the love between women and horses became such a cliché.
Broadly: How do you think the relationships between women and a horses differ from the relationships between men and horses?
Wilma Hurskainen: I'm not sure if there necessarily is a huge difference. Both men and women can definitely have very close relationships with a horse. On one hand there is the iconic, lonely cowboy whose trusted companion is the horse, and on the other we have young girls who at a certain age might feel that the only one who understands them is a beloved pony. Having grown up with three little sisters, I have always photographed girls and women, and now, in this work, the women share their bizarre world with these other living creatures.
Do you have a personal relationship to the topic?
I dreamt of horses and riding as a child, but wasn't allowed to. As an adult I learned horseback riding and got (quite literally) carried away. I started wondering about the horse as a symbol in art, reading folk stories that have horses in them, and finally became interested in questions, such as the possibility of communicating between two species, agreements between humans and horses, and the strong presence of animals in contemporary art. The animal seems to have served as a mirror in which humans see a reflection of themselves, a reflection they have no other access to. Yet, the more instrumental the human being's attitude towards the animal is, the more muddled his mirror becomes.
Are the pictures showing women with their real horses or did you work with models?
I posed in the earliest images myself, but that was very, very unpractical, so I started looking for women who had spent a lot of time with horses and were very familiar with them. A lot of the material was shot in the United States, and I met amazing young women, like girls who had learnt horseback riding as toddlers before they could even walk. It's a very different situation and attitude to most of the equestrians I know in Finland; we don't work with the horses, but they serve as a hobby. Anyway, I came across such close, mutually respecting relationships between women (and men) and horses who have grown up together or somehow learned important things from each other, so it's hard to describe them.
Does the small white pony that's pictured on a couch actually live in a house?
She was taken inside for the photograph. She was a Falabella, a miniature horse, but on top of that, a dwarf. Very tiny! Most of the horses in my images are just any horses I came across, but for a few images, I was lucky to work with trained horses who could lie down on command.
It's kind of a cliché that girls are crazy for horses, and on your website it says that you borrowed stories from girls' books. What do you think young girls see in horses?
It is a cliché, and sometimes I think it's almost offensive how girls' friendships with horses are interpreted as a juvenile phase before they become interested in boys or encounter their sexuality. There is so much more to it. Horses can be very accepting and their physical presence can be soothing. But then other horses need the human to be calm and in charge. It might be a way to discover determination and leadership in oneself. And by doing things together with this huge creature of different species, one can sometimes come close to experiencing the world in a different way, the way a horse does.