About nine years ago, D, my boyfriend at the time, introduced me to BDSM. We were falling in love, and I wanted to try everything. I fell for it just as hard as I fell for him.

For a couple of years, we explored in the privacy of our bedroom, taking turns restraining each other and mixing pain and pleasure. And then, another lover of mine (D and I were in an open relationship) brought us into a whole community of BDSM aficionados. With D, it was all about intensifying sex and bonding together; with the community, it became one of the main ways that I grew and developed as a person. Through strap-ons and cross-dressing, floggers and knives, I explored the depths of my gender and the limits of my body.

I discovered pony play seven years ago, at one of my very first BDSM events – a private play party at a community member’s home. People were being spanked, hot wax was being poured on bare skin, a man was walking around with heavy weights hung from his balls. Anything was possible. So it didn’t shock me when a woman with a soft voice and a soft face pulled out a leather horse bridle and told me that she liked putting it on other people and steering them around.

Everything about her was tall and full, from her riding boots to her cascading brown hair. She trained real horses, she explained. This was an extension of her interest in equines. I was intrigued. I wanted to know what it would feel like to have this soft-spoken woman in control of me.

Her bridle was heavy. Blinders narrowed my field of vision. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her movements through the reins she held behind me. She made a clicking noise with her tongue to prompt me to move.

Wearing a form-fitting cocktail dress, high heels, and the bridle, I walked, straight backed, slowly from one room to another, enjoying the eyes I’d see on me before they disappeared past the blinders. This was the part I was most comfortable with – the exhibition. Elsewhere, I might be a freak; here, I knew, I was accepted and admired.

When I moved and stopped at her command, she’d say, ‘Good girl!’ in the high-pitched tone we reserve for children and animals. I enjoyed pleasing her, but at the same time, I wondered if I really wanted to be treated like an actual animal.

Empowerment has been my guiding principal as I’ve explored BDSM. Especially when I’m being submissive, I only agree to play with someone I know sees me as an equal. I want to leave scenes feeling proud of what I withstood or having probed fears or desires I didn’t know I had.

I didn’t feel empowered by my small pony play scene. Yes, the experience turned me on, but it also made me uncomfortable. I stayed away from pony play for years after that.

But in the BDSM community, you learn to reserve judgment and approach things you don’t understand with curiosity and an open mind. And so, inevitably, I was tempted to try it again.

At a recent kink-themed conference, I attended day-long workshops on things like power dynamics and creative uses for strap-ons. But there were also two presenters who were nationally-renowned pony play experts – one a gruff cowboy, the other a petite and lively woman. The cowboy, who trained both real horses (known as bio horses) and role-playing ponies, was almost a caricature, with spurs on his boots and a deep Southern drawl. He was a stereotypical Dom, too: loud and gleefully sadistic. She was much harder to define. She acted as both a pony and a trainer when role-playing. She was a submissive, but nothing about her was meek. She held her small fit frame with perfect posture and exuded a strong aura of confidence and grace. Let’s call her Grace.

They agreed to teach me how to be a pony. I wondered, Could it be empowering this time? Less dehumanising? But also: What kind of pony might I want to be?

Some ponies simply enjoy dressing up and the elaborate fetish wear that can go along with it. Others enjoy being groomed. Some pull carts while others like to be ridden. Then, there are competitions involving jumping or simulated fox hunts or showmanship involving trots and gallops and Spanish walks. There are perhaps a dozen competitions around the country that might attract anywhere from 20 to 50 people, a small but committed group of fetishists. Both Cowboy and Grace had won national competition titles.

In the evening, the conference set up a makeshift dungeon – a designated play space with equipment to act out our kinks. There were large wooden frames for rope suspensions, massage benches, and X-shaped wooden structures known as Saint Andrew’s crosses for tying people up and flogging them. That night, I would be led through the dungeon as a pony.

I stripped down to a bra and panties, and Cowboy fitted me in a leather body harness with an attached tail and a head piece with a mane. The head piece had a bridle with small metal rings that clipped to a set of reigns and a metal mouthpiece called a bit. I admit that I felt sexy as this pony-human hybrid. I matched Cowboy, complete with his Western hat and boots. He didn’t need to transform into anything else.

With the bit between my teeth, communication was difficult. Cowboy placed a leather hood over my eyes, and I could only see the ground just in front of me. To him, pony play was all about the power dynamic: the pony relinquishing control and offering him – the trainer – complete trust.

He gave me commands by pressing on my back, telling me to switch between a high-kneed walk and a trot. By pulling on the reigns, I knew when to stop or turn, and I could understand what he wanted even when we ventured into the dungeon where EDM was pumping at high volume. All around me, I knew people were being bound and beaten. Somewhere, Doms were running special gloves or floggers lit on fire over people’s bodies – these were the scenes I was most worried about running into. But I was brave enough to be led blind through a crowd and strong enough to submit to the unknown.

As soon as we got back from the dungeon, we ran into Grace, and I switched to her bridle and bit to test out being a beast with her.

Grace told me I could only communicate with her as a pony. She neighed, and I neighed back. If something was wrong, she told me to stamp my foot. I tried it out. I liked this physical language. With a neigh, I couldn’t elaborate, ‘I’m enjoying this, but I don’t know why. I wonder if I look pretty. Are you pleased with my performance?’ A neigh is just a positive affirmation. Stamping my foot, a negative one. Not speaking is a way of letting go, a way of further submitting.

Other ponies I’ve spoken to say that when they role play, they cease being themselves. They’re an object, an animal. It’s about the experience of being free, wild, or ‘other.’ I haven’t yet reached that headspace. Even when I’ve acted in musicals and operas or done other role play with lovers, I’m always aware of myself playing a part. Are other people simply better at transforming into someone or something else? Maybe. Maybe something in me is afraid to let go and be someone or something else. Maybe I simply like being me.

But then, I met K. I’d heard that he was one of the only active ponies in my city, so I reached out to him after the conference. I told him that I’d be at the members-only dungeon I belong to on Saturday night if he was interested in meeting me. He showed up wearing a black latex suit, boots shaped like horse hooves, and a leather horse mask.

For K, being a pony is transformative. Rather than the shy and quiet person he claims to be otherwise, as a pony, he’s a strong stallion, the center of attention. His insecurities disappear. He’s slim and dark. Loud and funny.

So he changed the subject and asked if I was hungry. We left to get tacos. Then we got drinks at a gay bar where he could still wear his tail. With his permission, I picked it up and played with the end. It made him blush and stare at me with a grin. We kissed, and nuzzled each other’s necks. Kind of like ponies.

He asked me about what kind of headspace I was looking for. In BDSM, your mind can go – intentionally or otherwise – anywhere. Imagine where your mind goes when you’re on a roller coaster, or during sex, or watching a scary movie, or meditating. During a kinky scene, you can feel so many things: turned on, ecstatic, hyper aware, strong, angry, amused, supercharged, or blissfully zoned out. I didn’t yet know how I wanted pony play to make me feel. I admitted my fear of disappearing, of ceasing to be me. I didn’t know if I wanted that or could even get there.

In the past, when people asked me if pony play was a sexual thing, I told them I didn’t think so. I was worried what it would mean to be sexualised as an animal. Was it akin to bestiality? Did consent disappear?

And yet, that night, when K and I slept together, I gave myself permission to dig into the primal part of myself. I imagined two strong horses and their instincts to breed. Two animals attracted to each other, simply going at it.

I bit his lip and he groaned. Primal. He fucked me from behind. Animal. We nuzzled and touched foreheads, and the animal parts of us and the human parts of us blended together. He was a stallion, and I was a mare, and I wondered what I had been so worried about. Sex – good sex – activates us on so many levels. It can be sweet, intimate, and raw all at the same time.

The next day, we went to see a movie. Afterwards, sharing chicken fingers at a bar, talking about jobs and families, he asked, ‘Do you want to be my mare?’

I asked him what that would look like, and he shrugged and grinned. ‘I think we have a lot we can learn from each other,’ he said. I wasn’t yet ready to sign on, but I, too, was curious what we could learn from each other. So instead of an answer, I nuzzled his neck, and he whinnied back.

Via Marie Claire US