" So the question is, What are horses doing in Westerns? Their presence seems natural to us, but for most of the nineteenth century horses figured very little in popular fiction. Their gradual appearance, first in dime novels, then in major best-sellers and in films at the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the disappearance of horses from daily life, where they were used as work animals and as a means of transportation. This suggests that horses fulfill a longing for a different kind of existence. Anti-modern, anti-urban and anti-technological, they stand for an existence without cars and telephones and electricity. But could you have narratives set on farms or in small towns that embraced the simple life without filling them full of horses? Why horses in particular? And why only in certain forms? It isn't the farm horse primarily that we associate with Westerns, or the horse as a show animal; it is horses ridden by men, charging into town, charging out of town, outlined on high mesas looking into the distance, coming at you at a gallop pulling a fleeing stagecoach, riding herd on the dogies as they move into the draw, or running free and wild.
Horses reach back to something in the past, in the 1870s, '80s and '90s after the Civil War. But what they reach back for is not just some generalized notion of human existence. Horses are something people have close physical contact with, something they touch, press against their bodies. Something that is alive, first of all, something big, powerful, and fast-moving. Something not human but not beyond human control, dangerous, even potentially lethal, but ductile to the human will.
The key to what horses represent in Westerns is something very simple. It is the fact that the body of the horse stands beneath the body of the rider, between the human being and the earth. Horses express a need for a connection to nature, to the wild. But it is nature in a particular form. Not songbirds or running brooks or violets by mossy stones, but power, motion, size, strength, brought under human control and in touch with the human body. It is the physical existence of horses above all that makes them indispensable in Westerns. Their dynamic, material presence, their energy and corporeality call out to the bodies of the viewers, to our bodies. Film after film begins with the tiny figure of horsemen outlined against the horizon, growing larger as they move nearer the camera, until finally you can hear their hoofbeats, see the whites of their eyes, be excited by their mass and their motion. Right up to the camera they come so we can vicariously be in contact with their flesh, feel their breath, sense their strength and stamina, absorb the flow of force. Horses are there to galvanize us. More than any other single element in the genre, they simbolize the desire to recuperate some lost connection to life.'(pp.93-94)