Equus

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Horses Symbol Icon
The horse is the primary symbol in Equus, and at a glance, it represents everything we might expect a horse to represent: power, freedom, animal desire. Indeed, Alan Strang’s worship of the horse-god Equus emphasizes the pure physicality of the horse. His love of stroking horses and riding them naked attests to the sense of emotional, spiritual, and sexual freedom he feels around these animals. However, over the course of the play the horse comes to symbolize the exact opposite. When Alan calls Equus a “Godslave,” he means that the horse is powerful, yet cannot control itself. Its speed and force imply great freedom, and yet the saddle and bit that it wears is painfully constricting. In this way, Shaffer draws a parallel between horses and human beings. As humans, we have the capacity to be free and individual; yet the conditions into which we are born immediately limit this capacity. The society we are born into, our economic class, our religious restrictions—so many factors actually control the way that we live in our world. The horse becomes a symbol for our paradoxical position: we are simultaneously powerful and free and helplessly limited.

Horses Quotes in Equus

The Equus quotes below all refer to the symbol of Horses. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Passion Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Equus published in 1984.
Act 1 Quotes

You see, I’m wearing that horse’s head myself. That’s the feeling. All reined up in old language and old assumptions, straining to jump clean-hoofed on to a whole new track of being I only suspect is there. I can’t see it, because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle. I can’t jump because the bit forbids it, and my own basic force—my horsepower, if you like—is too little. The only thing I know for sure is this: a horse’s head is finally unknowable to me.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this opening passage, the psychiatrist Martin Dysart is musing about his dissatisfaction with his life. Dysart believes that there is a "whole new track of being" somewhere, but he cannot live that way because he is shackled by the language and assumptions of his culture that dictate the way he lives. Dysart compares himself to a horse in that he believes he is naturally free, but bound (metaphorically) by a bit and reins, which represent the ways in which social expectations and assumptions limit the possibilities available to him. This is a surprising opening monologue from a psychiatrist, as it indicates his fundamental mistrust of the forces that define whether someone is normal or abnormal. Typically, a psychiatrist's job is to hew to a socially agreed-upon definition of normal and treat patients' abnormalities until they can be considered normal. This passage indicates that Dysart sees himself as potentially "abnormal" (clinically speaking), in that he lives a normal life but it's not the life he wants.

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I was pushed forward on the horse. There was sweat on my legs from his neck. The fellow held me tight, and let me turn the horse which way I wanted. All that power going any way you wanted…. It was always the same, after that. Every time I heard one clop by, I had to run and see…. I can’t remember when it started. Mum reading to me about Prince who no one could ride, except one boy. Or the white horse in Revelations. ‘He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True. His eyes were as flames of fire, and he had a name written that no man knew but himself’…. No one understands! …Except cowboys. They do. I wish I was a cowboy. They’re free. They just swing up and then it’s miles of grass…I bet all cowboys are orphans! …I bet they are!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker), Dora Strang, Young Horseman
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alan describes to Dysart his first experience of riding a horse as a child. Alan's narration shows his powerful association of horses with freedom. In light of his controlling father, it makes sense that riding the horse would have given him a feeling of freedom and control for the first time in his life. The description is also evocative of a sexual experience, as Alan describes the physical feeling of being on the horse, particularly the sweat from the horse rubbing off on his legs. In addition to associating this experience with freedom and sex, Alan brings up imagery from the Book of Revelations, which ties horses in with Alan's interest in religion. Clearly, the experience of being on a horse evoked in Alan all of the things about which he cares the most, and also the things which he is denied forcefully by his father--no wonder the experience was powerful. Dysart senses, rightfully, that this experience was formative in Alan's development.

Frank: He took a piece of string out of his pocket. Made up into a noose. And put it in his mouth. And then with his other hand he picked up a coat hanger. A wooden coat hanger, and—and—
Dysart: Began to beat himself?
Frank: You see why I couldn’t tell his mother…Religion. Religion’s at the bottom of all this!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Frank Strang (speaker), Alan Strang, Dora Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Frank comes to Dysart in secret to inform him of a few things he knows about Alan that he does not wish his wife to know. One of these things is that Frank witnessed Alan performing a secret ritual in his room, with Alan imitating a horse being ridden. Alan's imitation of a horse, though, also has clear parallels to the violent religious imagery Alan was so drawn to. The whip a rider uses on a horse, for instance, is evocative of the extreme Christian practice of self-flagellation, in which a believer tries to physically understand the pain of Christ. Frank believes, then, that religion is to blame for his son's bizarre behavior. By this point in the play, though, it is beginning to become clear that it is Frank's strict insistence that Alan not pursue his passion for religion that causes Alan to worship in secret and develop more and more bizarre practices. We also get the sense here that Frank has something to hide, too, since he is coming to Dysart in secret. This passage begins to get at the dangers of living in the kind of society in which natural interests and passions cannot be expressed.

Alan [ritually]: Equus—son of Fleckwus—son of Neckwus—Walk.
Here we go. The King rides out on Equus, mightiest of horses. Only I can ride him. He lets me turn him this way and that. His neck comes out of my body. It lifts in the dark. Equus, my Godslave! …Now the King commands you. Tonight, we ride against them all.
Dysart: Who’s all?
Alan: My foes and His.
Dysart: Who are your foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe!
Dysart: Who are His foes?
Alan: The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dysart hypnotizes Alan and then convinces him to perform the ritual that he practices with the horses at night. What Alan then reveals is that he strips down in the middle of the night and rides the horses, whom he believes embody Equus, Alan's god. It's significant that Alan calls Equus his "Godslave" and that he compares himself to Equus by wearing his "manbit." This is Alan's acknowledgement that Equus, in some ways, is a way for Alan to make sense of himself. Alan feels within himself the possibility of being free, which means, to him, being true to himself, but Alan also powerfully feels the constricting morals and norms of the society he lives in that limit him and even torture him. Alan feels constricted and insulted by brand-names, which represent the homogenizing force of contemporary culture, and Equus, similarly, feels constricted and insulted by equestrians who subvert and control Equus's true nature in order to stroke their own vanity. This passage gives an idea of the morality Alan has constructed for himself. 

I’m raw! Raw!
Feel me on you! On you! On you! On you!
I want to be in you!
I want to BE you forever and ever! –
Equus, I love you!
Now! –
Bear me away!
Make us One Person!

Related Characters: Alan Strang (speaker)
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, part of Alan's re-enactment of his religious rituals under hypnosis, shows the ways in which violence, sexuality, and religion remain intertwined for Alan, and lie at the heart of his troubles and passion. Alan's ride on the horse is shown to be both painful and pleasurable, and his seeming need to be in pain in order to experience pleasure gestures towards a shame that Alan feels surrounding his sexuality. This also shows Alan's intertwining of religion and sexuality, as his way of worshipping Equus is to avow his love for Equus and his desire to be both in and one with Equus, which is physically manifested as sexual arousal. The ritual leaves little doubt that Alan has created a religion for himself that combines the passions and curiosities from which Alan was most forcefully dissuaded at home: religion, violence, and sexuality. This is further evidence that, as Dysart suspects, diverting somebody from their true self through social pressure or psychiatry might just intensify their need for an outlet and take them further from what is socially acceptable. 

Act 2 Quotes

Hesther: I mean he’s in pain, Martin. He’s been in pain for most of his life. That much, at least, you know.
Dysart: Possibly.
Hesther: Possibly?! …That cut-off little figure you just described must have been in pain for years.
Dysart [doggedly]: Possibly.
Hesther: And you can take it away.
Dysart: Still—possibly.

Hesther: Then that’s enough. That simply has to be enough for you, surely?
Dysart: No!
Hesther: Why not?
Dysart: Because it’s his.
Hesther: I don’t understand.
Dysart: His pain. His own. He made it.
[Pause.]
[Earnestly.] Look…to go through life and call it yours—your life—you first have to get your own pain. Pain that’s unique to you…. He’s done that. All right, he’s sick. He’s full of misery and fear…. But that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have ƒelt in any second of my life. And let me tell you something: I envy it.
Hesther: You can’t.
Dysart [vehemently]: Don’t you see? That’s the Accusation! That’s what his stare has been saying to me all this time. ‘At least I galloped! When did you?’ …[Simply.] I’m jealous, Hesther. Jealous of Alan Strang.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Hesther Salomon (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange between Hesther and Dysart is one of the most morally complex of the book, because it delineates two opposed moral positions that both have compelling ideas to support them. Hesther, who represents the prevailing ideas of psychiatry and social norms, believes that it is morally imperative to treat Alan until he no longer worships Equus, because that is the only way to relieve his pain. Obviously, Alan has tremendous pain that has become, for him, wrapped up in his worship, so Hesther's position is reasonable. On the other hand, Dysart's position is that Alan's pain is what makes him an individual, and a way to take control over one's life is to claim pain that is uniquely yours and grapple with it yourself instead of being told what kinds of pain are acceptable. Dysart explains that Alan's pain enables him to have a passion unlike anything Dysart has seen before, and that it would be cruel to take that away under any circumstances. Here, we see the interweaving of pain and pleasure again, and this time Dysart posits that it is pain and pleasure that make a person who he or she truly is, so it's often unwise to untangle them at all. Society then becomes equated with the flattening of pain and pleasure, which certainly reduces suffering, but also reduces joy.

And now for me it never stops: that voice of Equus out of the cave—‘Why me? …Why me? …Account for me!’ …All right—I surrender! I say it! …In an ultimate sense I cannot know what I do in this place—yet I do ultimate things. Essentially I cannot know what I do—yet I do essential things. Irreversible, terminal things. I stand in the dark with a pick in my hand, striking at heads!

I need—more desperately than my children need me—a way of seeing in the dark. What way is this? …What dark is this? …I cannot call it ordained of God: I can’t get that far. I will however pay it so much homage. There is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.

Related Characters: Martin Dysart (speaker), Alan Strang
Related Symbols: Horses, Hoof-pick
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is the last one of the play, and it is one of doubt, despair, and hopelessness. Dysart is confessing his greatest uncertainties, and even his fear that he is doing evil. Dysart acknowledges his inability to know the meaning of his life or the morality of what he does, and he feels deeply that it is wrong, in light of his own unknowing, to tell anyone else (particularly in a way that is irreversible) who or what they should be. In this sense, he compares his own work to the crime for which he treated Alan: standing in the dark, blinding people violently (with a horse "pick," no less), irreversibly mutilating them by estranging them from themselves. Dysart ends the play by hoping for "a way to see in the dark" but acknowledging that, instead, he is guided through the dark by the bit in his mouth, which represents the social norms and pressures that dictate his life. It's an ending that leaves little hope for Dysart, or anyone else, to find their way to the "whole new track of being" that Dysart described at the outset.

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Horses Symbol Timeline in Equus

The timeline below shows where the symbol Horses appears in Equus. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Passion Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...with a dim light on the central square. In the spotlight, Alan Strang caresses a horse named Nugget. Lights come up on the outer circle, and we see Martin Dysart, a... (full context)
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...audience, expresses confusion about his purpose in life. In fact, he himself feels like a horse, trapped by his own bit, “[a]ll reined up in old language and old assumptions.” He... (full context)
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
Hesther proceeds to tell Dysart that Alan Strang, age 17, blinded six horses with a hoof-pick one night in a stable where he worked on weekends. Hesther remarks... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
...Dora is still incredulous that Alan could do such a thing, especially since he loves horses. Dora tells Dysart that Alan has a photograph of a horse hung up in his... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
...returns home, and Dora resumes talking. She says that the Strangs have always been a “horsey” family. Her grandfather would ride every morning “all dressed up in bowler hat and jodhpurs.”... (full context)
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...with Alan until the boy begins to speak openly about his first memory of a horse. At first Alan throws a tantrum, but as he realizes that Dysart will continue to... (full context)
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...The man then offers to give Alan a ride. He lifts the boy onto the horse—the actor simulates this by lifting Alan onto his shoulders—and they ride together along the beach,... (full context)
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...coolly responds that Alan was perfectly safe. Frank tells his son to get off the horse, but Alan refuses. Furious, Frank pulls Alan from the Horseman’s shoulders and the boy falls... (full context)
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...thanks Alan for sharing the memory and comments that he has never been on a horse before, and Alan says that after his experience with the Horseman, he never rode again.... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
...evening, Dora visits Dysart’s office; she wants to tell the doctor something important about the horse photograph Alan has in his room. She reveals that this photograph actually took the place... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
...extremely diligent worker, but reveals his suspicions about Alan’s claim that he never rode the horses. Dalton discloses that he noticed some strange things about the horses after Alan began working... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...“plays” the recorded message. In the message, Alan resumes talking about his experience with the horse on the beach. Alan describes the sweat on his legs from the horse’s neck and... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Alan continues to describe the erotic feel of horses, claiming that his mother would never understand. Dora likes the showiness of horseback riding, Alan... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
...it out onstage. First, Frank heard the sound of chanting—Alan reciting a fictitious genealogy of horses, including Prince, the horse Dora told him stories about. Then Frank saw Alan standing in... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...there is one more thing Dysart should know: on the night that Alan blinded the horses in the stable, he had been out with a girl. Dysart asks Frank how he... (full context)
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
...overwhelmed by the chaos. Jill enters, and asks Alan for a clipping machine to shear horses. Alan recognizes her as the girl who works at Dalton’s stable, while Jill also recognizes... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Scene 16. We hear the “exultant humming” of the Equus Noise, and the sound of horses’ hooves. Alan stands in the middle of the square, which is now Dalton’s stable. Immersed... (full context)
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
Alan touches Nugget’s shoulder, then slowly feels the horse’s neck and back. He smells his palm, drinking in Nugget’s scent. Dysart begins to interrogate... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...to answer all of his questions. He tells Alan to remember his experience with the horse on the beach, particularly the moment when he asked the horse if his bit hurt.... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
...night, and Alan confirms Dysart’s suspicion. He tells the psychiatrist that he would ride the horses in secret every three weeks. Dysart now tells Alan to imagine that he is actually... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...to explain the midnight ritual, Alan performs it onstage. The audience sees him select the horse Nugget and put a bit in his mouth. He slips the bridle onto the horse... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
...his mouth. He feeds Nugget a lump of sugar, his “Last Supper,” then mounts the horse, shouting, “Take me!” He cries out as the horse’s coat rubs painfully against his naked... (full context)
Act 2
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...now “alone with Equus.” Dysart tells the audience that he can hear Equus’s voice: the horse-god mockingly asks him, “Do you really imagine you can account for Me?” Dysart acknowledges that... (full context)
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
...is his eyes. She asks Alan if he also finds eyes interesting—“Or is it only horses’ eyes?” Jill tells him that she saw him gazing into Nugget’s eyes “for ages” one... (full context)
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Modern Society and Normality Theme Icon
Jill tells Alan that she loves horses’ eyes. “D’you find them sexy?” she asks Alan. Shocked, Alan leaps away from the girl.... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...extremely uncomfortable, and tells Jill that it is because they are so close to the horses. Jill says they can just shut the door of the barn so that they don’t... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
...a hoof-pick and drops it quickly. Upstage, he continues, there is a door with six horses behind it. Dysart instructs him to continue the scene. (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...but a “faint trampling” startles Alan. Despite his uneasiness, Jill continues to seduce him. The horses stamp the ground again, and Alan breaks away , but Jill approaches him and “gently”... (full context)
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...“never do it again.” Dysart asks Alan what Equus says in response. Alan whispers the horse-god’s words: “I see you. I see you. Always! Everywhere! Forever!” Dysart then channels the voice... (full context)
Passion Theme Icon
Religion and Worship Theme Icon
Psychiatry, Repression, and Madness Theme Icon
...more, Equus.” Alan picks up the hoof-pick and walks slowly to Nugget. He strokes the horse, talking to him gently, before stabbing out his eyes. The theater is filled with screams... (full context)