A Short History of Arm Horses

Aquifer, sculpture by Adrian Arleo

From Adrian Arleo’s sculpture, Aquifer, pictured above

A WOMAN wakes from a dream of horses
With horses for arms. She can’t explain why
This would happen to her. She loves horses
But has never wanted to be a horse.

Not in whole or part. Yet, she is part horse
After trading her human arms for wild
Horses and her loyal thumbs for horses
Who follow their own will. These arm-horses

Refuse the bit and bridle. These horses
Obey horse instinct and coarse whim. These wild
Horses rub her neck. She thinks these horses
Are amorous men disguised as horses

Or horses who think they’re better horses
Or better men. Of course she wonders why
She would associate men with horses.
If she’s a woman, then her arm-horses

Must be women. The God of Arm-Horses
Must be a woman as well, or else why
Would God, with equine wisdom, give horses
To her? She kneels in the Church of Horse

But how well can she pray with these horses
Pulling her away? How can she clasp wild
Horses together like hands? Arm-horses
Are profane! After all, if these horses

Had replaced her breasts, then breast-horses
Could have filled her children with wilderness.
If her legs had been transformed into horses,
Then she could have run with other horses

And raced into a kingdom of horses.
As it is, she doesn’t understand why
She is haunted by horses, why horses
Decide what she holds onto, why horses

Choose what she releases. With arm-horses,
She can’t dress herself, so she walks out wild
And naked among humans and horses
Who can’t tell if she is human or horse.

At first, she frightens the real horses,
But cowboys desire to break her wild
Horses, though they all hope her arm-horses
Are female, as they want her horses

In a sexual way. Her arm-horses
Are beautiful. Then scholars ask her, “Why
Don’t you guest-lecture about your horses,
About the meaning of all arm-horses,

About Indians living in the horse
Culture, and their relation to the Wild
West in general, and to your horses
In particular?” But her arm-horses

Must be white, she thinks, because the horses’
Skin is white, and because her skin is white.
She doesn’t know Indians or horses
Who think they’re Indian. “Not all horses

Are Indian!” she screams. “My arm-horses
Could be Black Irish! Or they might be White
Russian!” The pressure to name her horses
Is tremendous. The Feds want her horses

To be naturalized. “Those arm-horses
Are alien,” they say, “foreign and wild.
They could be terrorists, so your horses
Must be interrogated.” Her horses

Buck and bolt with fear. She loves her horses
And is surprised by that love. She asks why
A woman like her loves these arm-horses
More than she loves her arms, why these horses

Have grown to love her back? Her arm-horses
Pull her toward freedom in the wilderness.
But she screams at them to stop. These horses
Must go alone, so she gnaws her horses

Loose with her sharp teeth. She knows these horses
Must leave her body and live in the wild.
The horses understand, because horses
Know the differences between horses

And humans, between the dreams of horses
And the dreams of women. Into the wild,
The arm-horses run free. Free of horses,
She falls into sleep and dreams about arms.

– Sherman Alexie