The Furry Canon: Equus

Equus, Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, features a cast of humans and horses. The horses, of course, are humans dressed as horses. They are intentionally abstracted, usually wearing nothing equine beyond minimalist horse heads and tack that never obstruct their human faces. The horse costumes are the extent of bodily anthropomorphism in the play. The horses’ actors and actresses move like horses; they do not speak. Why do I render my verdict, then, that Equus belongs in the Furry Canon?

[EDIT: After warranted critique, I’ve decided to reverse my verdict. While Equus should not be part of the Furry Canon, I think it addresses matters relevant to the furry experience, albeit torqued by mental illness. Read on for my reasons.]

In a comment on JM’s review of Animal Farm, Scale wondered “whether a good serious novel/movie starring furry fans and fursuiters, dealing with social and identity issues related to the fandom, and perhaps including an escapist furry nested narrative, could qualify as a furry classic.” While Equus predates the furry fandom, it pointedly explores these very issues1.

Ready, then? Let’s begin.

Alan Strang, a reclusive teenager, has just blinded six horses with a metal spike. No one knows why; he had always loved horses. As it stands, though, psychologist Martin Dysart is Alan’s only hope to avoid incarceration. As Dysart meets with Alan, Alan’s parents, and others involved in the case and gathers bits and pieces of Alan’s past, he tries desperately to figure out what motivated the heinous crime. These pieces form an image of a personal religion Alan has elaborated since he was very young that focuses on becoming one with “Equus,” the “God-Slave” embodied in all horses. This religion’s sacrament is a clandestine, sexually charged midnight ride every three weeks in a field beside the stable where Alan volunteers his free time. When Equus’s demands prove too much for Alan, he lashes out in violence against his god.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dysart is deeply unhappy with his place in life, continually dreams of ancient Greece, of a “primal” age of sacrifices and pantheons to lend life significance through ritual. His encounter with Alan throws his mundane life into sharp relief: here is someone who has summoned a personal god and worships Him regularly, casting off the monotonous, empty grind of capitalist productivity. But the plea of the judge who sent Alan to Dr. Dysart was that the psychologist relieve the boy’s pain. Dysart fears that doing his societal duty–dissecting Alan to extract Equus–would leave behind a hollow man, a cog in the machine: a husk like himself.

Equus is strongest when it comes to questioning the medicalization of abnormality, the idea that deviation from the culturally acceptable must be diagnosed as a disease and cured. This Dysart attributes to the reign of the tyrant god “Normal,” whose throne is that of expediency and efficiency, founded on health and happiness. (Recall how “sick” has come to be a synonym of “degenerate.”) His edicts include allaying all pain and slaking appetites at minimal marginal cost.

In contrast, Dysart dreams of a world of “thousands of local gods” to ground the experience of the diversity of humanity, a world in which the ancient Aegean and Alan equally partake, but Dysart cannot. Allowing individual geniuses to flourish could inject wonder and worship into the monochrome of life.

Of course, Dysart ignores that Alan was, indeed, in pain; that we should be loath to romanticize mental illnesses, which are real; and that the solitude of individual worship can not only tear the worshiper apart, but harm others. Alan’s isolation and secrecy permit no outlet for his anxieties or joys besides his trysts with Equus; when a tryst cannot satisfy a perceived need, he gouges out six horses’ eyes. Few accept violence as the cost of worship, and for those who do… well, I know a couple dozen national security apparatuses that want to meet them.

Equus is, without a doubt, “serious.” But what does this dark tale have to do with furries whose drama, while much ballyhooed, to my knowledge has never culminated in murder? Quite a bit.

First–and this was what stood out to me when I read the script years back–Equus is the story of a boy who has an abnormal relationship with animals. Those around him confusedly report his affection for talking animal stories, his nighttime reenactment (in his room) of donning a bit and whipping himself, and of never wanting to ride the horses he worked with, only to care for them. Indeed, he actively despises the trappings of upper-class English riding. Alan’s fixation on horses fits none of the typical patterns.

To furries, this is old hat. A Twitter friend of mine—a horse, to boot—commented he had difficulty taking Equus as seriously as his non-furry classmates because Alan’s relationship with horses, though incomprehensible to them, was quotidian to him. The familiarity of it all dulled the play’s drama. But in outline, this is a major indictment sometimes leveled against furries: that they love animals in an inappropriate or inordinate way, whether that be adults clinging to something branded infantile or someone having disapproved sexual preferences2.

On that note, as with media coverage of furries, Shaffer focuses on the sensational–meaning, of course, the sexual. For instance, Alan considers his first experience of riding a horse to have been “sexy” and—in innuendoes I did not understand as a teenager—the play describes horse heads as phallic. Alan’s midnight rides are explicitly sexual, though the union is a mystical one, horse and human merging to create the centaur (quite apropos: at once teacher and raucous destroyer in Greek myth). Alan loses his mind when a new sexual desire conflicts with his desire for midnight runs with Equus.

Now we come to my major gripe with the play: in Equus, sex is either the prototype or the paragon of all human pleasures and relationships. Dr. Dysart and Alan’s parents are not having sex with their spouses regularly; therefore, they are unhappy. Alan has a sexual experience with Equus every three weeks; he is fulfilled.

This obsession with sex sidelines necessary non-sexual elements of the human (and extrahuman) experience. To use C.S. Lewis’s terminology: when Venus rules with such an iron fist, Eros quails while brotherly love (philia) and affection (storge) flee. Alan’s trauma, which Shaffer casts as a psychosexual drama, is as much due to his intense paucity of experience with the variety of human relationships as it is about the difficulty of actualizing the range of his pleasures. He has no friends; he reads no books; he does not, apparently, attend school. Friends and family who treat him with basic respect as a soon-to-be adult are absent from his life. In this extreme social isolation, his outlets are reduced to sexual fulfillment alone–he gets stuck in a rut–and any competition for his sexual feelings becomes an existential crisis.

Indeed, Alan might be considered a particularly devoted paleofur–one of that cadre who came of age before the internet. His escapades were lonely ones, without a rational animal to keep him company. Nowadays, a computer terminal can connect us to others around the world, no matter how niche our interests. And while niche communities can become insular and harmful, I would venture that even an imperfect community is better than none at all. To paraphrase God in Genesis, it is not good for human to be alone3.

And as religion—no matter what some may say—is about more than micromanaging bodily pleasures and pains, so is furry. The anthropomorphic subculture is about constructing personal and social systems of meaning, based in images of nonhuman animal life, and building the worlds these symbols delineate. In our interactions, online and off, we instantiate these imagined worlds in the flesh, binding ourselves together as dialogue partners, friends, patrons and artists, fans, and so forth.

If only Alan Strang had lived in the times of the internet. Furry is infinitely richer than Shaffer’s constricted, impoverished vision of humanity in Equus. With such a community of peers available, Alan may have learned that others spoke his metaphorical language and, able to speak with them, could have expressed his otherwise inexpressible troubles and joys.

While it has significant blind spots, and even if it is not well-known to furries, I would still believe Equus to be highly relevant to the furry experience and would recommend it for inclusion in the [a][s] Furry Canon.

1 Indeed, when I first read the play, I did so because it was about horses. I was not expecting to find a character who, like me, lent to them significance that differed both in quantity and quality from the average. This year I was able, for the first time, to see it onstage. My observations are based on both the text and the production.
2 Both are major points made against furries with varying degrees of inaccuracy.
3 Note, too, that the first companions God creates for Adam are “every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air.”

The Furry Canon, recommended, at the time of publication:
Black Beauty

About Toledo

Toledo is best known until now as an amateur artist—you may have seen his photomanipulations—he's a religion nerd. Thoroughly equine, though not for the reasons popular in the fandom.

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4 thoughts on “The Furry Canon: Equus

  1. Oh dear. I’m quite familiar with the play, have seen several productions of it and read it repeatedly. In spite of all that, and being a horse furry, and keeping horses myself, I cannot see it as “furry” material except in the most peripheral of ways. Alan’s paraphilia and religious obsession bear some slight resemblance to furry fanaticism or perhaps to zoophilia (note that I do not use the term “fandom” here.) However, There is nothing anthropomorphic in the play as I see it. The horses do not speak or exhibit any rational behavior. Alan’s deified notion of Equus does not actually appear, speak, or communicate in writing, but only in the boy’s own clearly unstable mind.

    The play is a massive tragedy, for the horses and for the boy. It is often interpreted as you have done here, an indication that the pain of people like Alan Strang should be relieved, and apparently by “normalizing” them. This way lies disaster, in the same form as that which is perpetrated by those who would “counsel” gays and lesbians to make them “straight.” It will not work.

    But taking a laissez faire position as Dysart does also cannot work. Persons with vastly aberrant viewpoints and values do need help. That help requires bringing them to self-acceptance (something which Alan does not find, but rather directs into self-flagellation and hatred, and which eventually brings about the terrible ending of the tale.) They need to find a place for themselves in which they can both be at peace and compatible with society. This does not mean “normalizing” their thoughts and behavior, but rather giving them a wider understanding and scale of values.

    None of that, so far as I can see, has much to do with furry fandom.

    1. I’m a little puzzled by your comment, because I feel that I have either addressed or made most of your points in my review. To wit:

      1. In the first paragraph I point out that anthropomorphism as usually encountered (bipedal, talking animals) is peripheral to the play. I would push back, however, on the absence of talking animals: Alan is obsessed from childhood with the voices of horses, whether performed (by his mother) or imagined (by himself). I don’t think Alan’s mental instability makes according speech to horses less anthropomorphic.

      2. I have not interpreted the play as you say I have–that Alan should be “normalized.” (Indeed, if I believed that as a universal life principle, I wouldn’t be hanging out at [adjective][species]!) Instead, I take special care to note that “Equus is strongest when it comes to questioning the medicalization of abnormality, the idea that deviation from the culturally acceptable must be diagnosed as a disease and cured” /and/ that Dysart’s laissez-faire approach ignores Alan’s very real pain.

      3. My thought is that had Alan come of age in the Internet age, he might have found a healthier outlet for his fascination with horses through furry fandom. (Of course, he would likely still have mental illness, but at least his equine devotions wouldn’t be a total secret from every other human soul.) And that is specifically because, as I note, the furry fandom engages a broader range of values than the impoverished set Alan is exposed to (namely, economic productivity and sexual pleasure).

  2. I haven’t seen the play or movie yet, but based on the article I have to agree with Altivo above that guy’s situation as described in the article is a bit too extreme to be something the furry community could (or should) be involved with. The identity and self acceptance problems which can be alleviated by participating in the furry community are usually simpler even though they are subjectively huge deals for the people directly involved. The case presented seems on a different level. I mean, zoophilia goes against many social and cultural norms but from a biological point of view it falls well within the scope of expected human behavior… self isolation with sublimated zoophilia as the only emotional release and obvious empathy issues even with animals, not so much. That sounds like legitimate mental illness. Whether typical psychologists are equipped to handle this kind of problems is up for debate, but a community like furry certainly isn’t.

    Further comments and reflections only after I’ve at least seen the movie (I hope it’s faithful to the original play since I hate reading plays on paper).

    1. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts once you see the play or see the film! (I haven’t seen the film and cannot vouch for its quality.)

      Unlike Altivo, I don’t think that Alan Strang could quite be described as a zoophile; what seems to arouse him is less horses in se than the idea of becoming one with horses by controlling them: he has a fascination with bits, bridles, and riding (but not of the English sort). Definitely a paraphilia, though.

      Nevertheless, I think your phrase–“self isolation with sublimated [sexuality] as the only emotional release and obvious empathy issues even with animals”–accurately describes his situation. I think his violence stems his “empathy issues,” but in a subtler way: his mental model of horses is not of the animals themselves, but is from the beginning conditioned by violent imagery (domination, Christ’s torture) and high drama (gods and slavery) and is thus conducive to actions appropriate to that model.

      Of course, that is another way in which Alan’s experience is somewhat like some furries’: their experience of animals they do not derive from personal experience with animals but from pre-anthropomorphized ideas of them. How many fox, otter, or snow leopard furries have interacted with their species enough to model their identification off the animals’ actual behaviors? Not many. Similarly, Alan derives Equus from children’s stories, the Book of Job, and Westerns, and interacts with horses accordingly (and mistakenly, to tragic results).

      You’re right, though: unlike most furries, Alan is mentally ill. However, even if that places his experiences on the extreme end of the spectrum, I don’t think it negates the “furry” elements thereof, and I think we can productively analyze those apart from his illness.

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