On a recent Saturday afternoon in a chilly Sheraton Suites conference room in Fort Lauderdale, Carolina Lainez is about to become a new pony.
She has never met the cowboy at the front of the room, but there's something about him. Maybe it's the way he parts and braids his gray beard, or the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that have deepened from decades of smiling. Maybe it's the full cowboy getup -- brown suede hat with the metal rim, black buttonup with cow-skull designs and a preacher collar, spurred boots. Anyway, there's something about this man that must be saying trust me.
Lainez has only a vague idea of what it means to become a pony. She can see the tack on the table -- the made-for-human bridles, the deerskin thongs with real ponytails, the hoofed gloves. And there is that other woman parading around in knee-high boots, a ponytail thong, and a black leather corset.
For Lainez this is all part of the attraction. Maybe a little walk on the wild side will help her see the world, and her own sexuality, in a new way.
So when the cowboy asks for a volunteer, Lainez shrugs and raises a hand.
But she'll have to wait. Another woman is first in the corral: Sharon Davis. Or at least that was the woman's name, right up to the moment the cowboy lowers the bridle over her head. As she clenches the bit in her teeth, Sharon Davis becomes ... Firefox.
This is ponyplay -- a boundary-stretching variation on conventional fetishes, with its own bizarre paraphernalia and terminology, substituting bridles and riding crops for the usual manacles and whips -- which just might be going on in a hotel conference room or back yard near you. This particular workshop -- part of the Fetish Factory's 12-Year Anniversary Fetish Weekend -- is run by a middle-age couple who come with modified ranch trappings and a homespun cowboy philosophy. They are Foxy Davis, the self-professed "original cracker cowboy"; and his girlfriend of ten years, Sharon, who goes by Sherifox, a combination of her real name and her pony name.
Right now, though, she's neither Sharon nor Sherifox but Firefox, a combustible little show pony who needs the firm hand of an experienced horseman.
She shakes her head and stomps. She whinnies. The cowboy takes the reins, attached to either side of Firefox's bit. He picks up his riding crop and taps her hindquarters. Eyes wide, teeth bared, Firefox begins to walk. She's on just two legs walking upright, but her steps are graceful and elongated, like, well, a horse's. The room is silent except for the tinkling of small golden bells laced to Firefox's boots. The cowboy leads Firefox around and between two rows of chairs as about twenty rapt pupils turn their heads like so many kittens following a string.
For his next trick, the cowboy attaches Firefox to a lead line and runs her through orange cones. He makes her trot. He makes her gallop. She goes fast! She runs into a door. Ouch.
But she is okay!
When the cowboy drops the reins for a second, Firefox neighs defiantly and then trots to the other side of the room. When the cowboy ignores her, she slinks back over to him.
"The glue factory is not too far away," he says with twinkly-eyed nonchalance. It is fortunate a pony cannot understand taunts, for this cowboy is prone to them. He also enjoys grooming the pony -- shampooing it, brushing it, and spritzing it with safe-for-humans fly spray. But he doesn't groom Firefox now because of time constraints.
In fact he didn't take any of the usual steps in converting her to "pony head space." Those he will demonstrate on Carolina Lainez.
A taxidermist by trade, Foxy can often be heard saying things like "You snuff 'em, we stuff him." He is native to rural Florida and confesses a penchant for shootin' bears and an allegiance to a Southern value system. Property rights, the right to bear arms, and support for local farms: They are Foxy's priorities. And this cracker didn't get the memo about calling people African-Americans; he prefers darkies.
With her broad shoulders and thick, auburn mane, Sherifox actually has an equine quality to her. High cheekbones and square jaw hint at her Nez Perce Indian roots, and her tan, muscular upper thighs and arms could belong to a body aged 30 years, not 52. She's got a raspy Texas lilt that comes from years of Capri cigarettes and hard living as a cheerleader, a stripper, a helicopter painter, a pipe-fitter's assistant, a reserve deputy sheriff, a wrangler, an equine midwife, a party girl, and the occasional guardian of Twiggy, the touring skiing squirrel. Sherifox would like to be living a quieter life, but with the discovery of ponyplay, the party won't stop.
Foxy and Sherifox believe that ponyplay could catch on and that their business could take off, so they've been traveling all over the nation in an attempt to rope in the masses.
As long as there have been beasts of burden, there has been ponyplay.
An Assyrian frieze from 2000 B.C. depicts human ponies pulling chariots. The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses a 1510 woodcut of a whip-wielding woman, Phyllis, riding a bridled Aristotle around the garden. Both are nude. In her book Deviant Desires: Incredibly Strange Sex, Katherine Gates describes the peculiar ponyplay fetish of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century upper-class British colonials.
Ponyplayers have thrived in the theater: Jean Genet's The Balcony has a "pony girl" to satisfy the lewd desires of the rich and powerful, and Peter Shaffer's Equus involves a disturbed main character who often rides bareback, naked, and attempts intercourse (with a woman) in a barn. The intimate relationship between horse and child, particularly when it's a girl involved, has long been a staple of children's literature. Books like Black Beauty, National Velvet, and My Friend Flicka, all of which have been turned into popular movies, describe the instinctive, subtly erotic connection between horses and kids.
It's all about primitive autoerotic desires or maybe penis envy (a desire to master the horse), psychologist Anna Freud once contended.
But horseplay can also be as innocent as a father bouncing his daughter on his knee or children jumping on each other's backs and shouting "Giddyup."
As a BDSM fetish, organized into chapters with rules and catalogues of paraphernalia, ponyplay traces back to the early 1990s. It began as an underground fetish among those who owned or grew up around horses, but in recent years many ponies have come out of the barn, so to speak. The fetish has become increasingly popular on the Internet and at BDSM conventions among people who have never interacted with real horses.
The rise of ponyplay prompted the 2005 documentary Born in a Barn, which explored the lives of a few human ponies, and an episode of the HBO series Real Sex featuring ponyplay. It has also seeped into pop culture; Foxy and Sherifox credit Madonna and her 2006 Confessions Tour (with dancers in pony gear) with catapulting it into the mainstream. They're eager to show video evidence.
The couple lives in Ocklawaha, a Central Florida farm town, population: 9250, where they own six bio horses. ("Bio horse" is the community's name for real horses, as opposed to the two-legged kind.) That's where they've been hand-making human tack for two years and have started a company, Native American Exotics. They lug their product all over the nation, holding workshops on how to look, behave, and feel like a horse. They've got trainees (referred to as pony boys and pony girls) from Miami to France who can't get enough of the reverse anthropomorphism.
The ponies aren't all in it for the same thing. Some like to pull carts. Some give rides. Some are just for show. Some jump. Some whinny. Some stomp and rebel at every opportunity. Some wear saddles with stirrups over their clothes. Some put on leather boots, headstalls, corsets, and thongs with ponytails. Some prefer butt-plug ponytails (which, unfortunately, have a habit of falling out). Some say they go into a trance as soon as the bit enters the mouth.
"Whatever trips your trigger," Foxy likes to say.
Foxy is dressed in a brown cowboy hat, brown leather boots with spurs, Wrangler jeans, and a gray Henley-style T-shirt that reads "Pony Oats." That's the name of Florida's Yahoo! ponyplay group. Foxy and Sherifox each had one of these shirts made, because they like to look coordinated and professional. He explains this on a walk across the six acres he and Sherifox share with horses, goats, turkeys, chickens, and hogs, as well as Foxy's nine-year-old son, Colt Lee. The cowboy has big plans for the property. He carries a brown plastic mug big enough for a giant and filled with his favorite drink -- unsweetened tea. Curled around the enormous handle, his fingers and nails are deeply caked with dirt that won't wash off, even if Foxy wanted it to, which he doesn't.
He has spent his life intentionally getting his hands dirty. Over the past ten years, he built his family a house. He erected all the fences on the property. And now he's going to build a barn with stalls and a bunkhouse. Also a dungeon.
Currently the dungeon is merely a ten-foot hole, but Foxy has begun laying the concrete floor. What will happen in there?
"Whatever we want to have happen in there," he says. "Safe, sane, and consensual. Other than that, no rules."
Foxy plans to rent out the barn to people vacationing with horses, and the bunkhouse to hunters in the summer. "They don't have to know about the hidden dungeon," he says.
No, the dungeon will be reserved for Sherifox and her good friend Belle, a fleshy, redheaded corrections officer who at this moment is draping herself in pony gear; and Fayth, a 26-year-old fetish model who is smoking a Marlboro Lights cigarette. Fayth is the cover model on the most recent issue of Equus Eroticus, a bimonthly magazine dedicated solely to ponyplay and based near Dallas.
M.J., Mickey, and Renegade (all bio horses belonging to an out-of-town neighbor whose barn Foxy and Sherifox are borrowing for a good photo background) poke their heads out of their stalls to watch as Sherifox and Belle strip naked and then slip their red toenails into black knee-high boots. They fasten their matching metallic purple and black deerskin thongs at either hip and then lace up each other's corsets. Finally Foxy arrives and helps the women into their identical headstalls. Their red Mohawks resemble those of Roman warhorses. As the bits enter their mouths, the women become Firefox and Vinefox. Their mission: to pull the cart.
Foxy slips the hoofed gloves over their hands and then backs Vinefox and Firefox between the handles of the cart. It looks like a large two-wheeled barrow with a bench instead of a basin and has a metal representation of a Confederate flag welded to the back.
As Firefox slips the cart handles into her hoofed gloves, Foxy clips her reins to the O-rings at either side of Vinefox's bit. Then he pulls Vinefox's reins over her head and back toward his lavender seat cushion. Firefox whinnies, stomps, and shakes her head. Foxy gives the reins a tug, and they are off.
As the women pull Foxy up and down the barn, their boots make the same clip-clop that bio horses' hooves do. "I require my ponies in a cart to have a high step," says Foxy, pointing out how the thighs are raised parallel to the ground. Soon he's turning them 180 degrees, directing them out of the shaded barn and beneath the sweltering sun.
"Ponies have to be in shape," he says, and shakes the reins. Actually, getting in shape is a reason Sherifox cites for her interest in ponyplay. She longs to stay fit and young-spirited -- two qualities she associates with pretending to be a horse.
Everybody's got a reason. Belle, the corrections officer, likes to play the submissive once in a while. It gives her sexual satisfaction to be ordered around and treated like an animal. Fayth, the model, is strictly a show pony, and for her, it is not sexual; she simply loves the attention. Some ponies see horsy rides as a nonsexual, fun way of reclaiming a joy of childhood. Almost all ponies talk about wanting to escape the anxieties and pressures of being human.
It's different for the trainers, though. Foxy, who "doesn't have a submissive bone in his body," likes being in control and getting an up-close view of female flesh in pony gear.
He's got a front-row seat behind Firefox and Vinefox in their matching thongs as they trot out into the field, raising their knees high. The horses in the barn watch with curiosity as the cart gets smaller and smaller.
When it returns, Sherifox is panting, and both ponies are dripping with sweat. Foxy helps them remove the tack, and Sherifox disappears behind the barn to throw up. She hasn't been feeling well all morning.
When she returns, she seems embarrassed. "It's just not my day," she says. "Normally I can high-step. Jump jumps. Parade, trot, gallop."
Sherifox needs cheering up. Cue the Madonna video.
Foxy bought a pirated copy of the Confessions Tour DVD off eBay last year, and as he fumbles with it, there's time to study the d'cor of his home -- a museum of animals skulls, vestiges of the Old West, and relics of the Nez Perce Indian tribe.
The house itself has been a work in progress for ten years, Sherifox explains. Every plate, utensil, and pantry item is visible, as the kitchen cupboards await doors. The front-door window, through which Confederate and American flags can be seen undulating in the breeze, is also still under construction. Foxy promises air conditioning this summer, but for now fans cool the house.
At the moment Sherifox is splayed on the couch, her red, tasseled shirt hiked up, her legs straddling either side of a fan. She's not wearing underpants, and it's impossible to miss the glint of her clit ring, bearing the image of Betty Page in tack.
A gutted nine-foot alligator lies supine on the living room floor. Foxy has mounted it on cardboard and is in the process of fastening brown and khaki felt to the perimeter. When finished, it'll wind up on a wall in Pennsylvania.
Leading up to the fireplace that Foxy hauled in from Texas are paw prints from some dog that stumbled over the apricot-color tiles as they dried in the Mexican sun. Colt Lee and Sherifox took special care to line up the tiles to preserve the prints as they occurred.
Elk antlers are everywhere. They serve as the base for gun racks, chandeliers, and lighting fixtures throughout the house. Sherifox constructed a lamp stand of elk hooves and another of moose hooves. These lamps require three legs, sawed off at the shin and secured back to back to back. The hooves are polished and cold to the touch.
On display around the TV set is a variety of skulls collected over the years, including a bobcat, horse, bear, and llama. An enormous Texas longhorn skull hangs over a sidewall. Chief Joseph, the famous Nez Perce Indian whom Sherifox claims was her great-grandfather, stares out from his portrait on the opposite wall. Above him dangle a beaver hat and a wolf hat. Sherifox used to wear them in Montana, along with her beaver-lined bra.
"My tits used to get cold," she says with a shrug.
When the DVD player snaps to life, so does Sherifox. "You've got to pay attention," she instructs.
The concert begins with Madonna's image on a large screen, complete with English riding hat and whip. As the music begins, she beckons, "Forget your problems/Put aside your pride/Would you like to try?"
Madonna's dancers spill onto the stage in black leather pony getups. The screen displays wild, galloping horses, and a shimmering disco ball descends from the ceiling. Out steps Madonna in trainer attire. The ponies cower before her, and she yanks the reins of a few. Eventually she mounts a saddle connected to a stripper pole.
"She did it in a way that she could get away with it," Sherifox explains, referring to the taboo nature of ponyplay. Most Madonna fans are probably ignorant of the cultural phenomenon behind the costumes and the dance steps. But those into ponyplay know differently, and they are flattered.
After a few minutes, Sherifox springs up and begins to dance along. As she mimics the movements of Madonna's pony boys, high-stepping and jutting her fists out in time with the beat, she displays an unbridled cheerleader's enthusiasm and a seasoned stripper's grace.
Foxy first encountered this fiery redhead in the wilderness of Montana, where she was living and he was guiding elk hunters. "He lassoed me in," she says.
They had both been married previously. Foxy has three children. Sherifox has two. She had spent five years in a bad, BDSM-less marriage, so the first question she asked Foxy was: "Will you tie up my toes and suck them?"
Yes, he would do that.
Since then, it's been ten years of tying Sherifox up and exploring each other's fetishes and fantasies. They say they are monogamous.
Foxy calls Carolina Lainez to the stage, and the buxom Chilean audience member doesn't shy from the challenge. She rises from her seat and then asks if she should remove her jean jacket. The answer is yes.
In a strappy black tank top and flowing flowered skirt, she takes her place at the front of the conference room. Foxy fastens a leather collar around her neck, links two long ropes to that collar, and then calls for two volunteers (two chatty women in the front jump up) to hold the ropes at either side of Lainez. This is called a cross-tie. It's what's done to horses to prepare for the ride. Lainez lowers her eyes and looks at her yellow socks.
Foxy takes down Lainez's hair and smoothes it behind her shoulders. He then lowers over her head a black mask with no eyeholes.
"We're losing the human," he explains. They're also losing the clothes.
Foxy removes Lainez's tank top and then her bra. In the cold conference room, her large brown nipples slowly emerge. Foxy clumsily unzips her skirt -- it seems to be stuck -- then finally pulls it to the ground and leaves it around her tiny feet. Lainez wears no underpants.
All that remains is her thin red belly chain, and even that is soon covered by one of the deerskin harnesses that Foxy fastens at Lainez's hips. He replaces her mask with a bridle and gingerly secures the buckles. He then takes the brown tail and gently swats the backs of Lainez's thighs. She responds by shaking her butt back and forth a little and then runs her own fingers through the tail. He smacks her butt with a whip, and she laughs. A few chuckles rise from the audience as well.
Fortunately for Lainez, this is an audience of consenting, open-minded, and wholly unshockable adults.
Pherell and her master, James, are practically in each other's laps at the back of the room. Pherell is a BDSM 24 lifestylist, meaning she submits to James, who sounds like a eunuch, at all times. She wears a thick silver collar with a silver fox charm and is never allowed to take it off. "It's better than a wedding ring," Pherell says. "It makes me feel safe, like I have a place in the world."
There is a collared man with a bullring through his nostrils crouched down in the aisle at the feet of his purple-haired dominatrix. A bad boy, he doesn't deserve a seat.
An effusive fortysomething woman in a camouflage T-shirt keeps shouting things out at the front, and her blond friend in polka dots is equally vocal. A twentysomething Boca Raton couple is seated in the second row. She's a wavy-haired English major at Florida Atlantic University. He's a quiet electrician. There doesn't appear to be anything creepy about either of them.
Sherifox is now standing in a corner of the room, eyes trained on Lainez. Her head is high, arms behind her back, expression blank.
"As a trainer, I like the aesthetics," Foxy tells the audience. "I like the female flesh."
No one blinks as Foxy begins tapping Lainez's belly with the whip, and her skin pulsates beneath it. He is trying to give her the signal to walk, but she's not picking up on it. Either that or she wants the tapping to continue.
"She's liking it," Sherifox suggests.
Finally Lainez walks toward the audience. She moves as if discovering her ability to walk. As a pony, she is extremely passive, and Foxy declares her pony name to be "Buttercup."
Foxy tickles Buttercup with the whip, and she bursts into giggles. Tickling, Foxy likes to say, is just a mild form of torture. He keeps tickle-torturing Buttercup but gets interrupted.
Keiki, director of the Lifestyle Alternative Center, has come to inform Foxy and Sherifox they have only five minutes before they lose the room to the next class -- impact play with a sadistic twist.
In a flash, Lainez is cross-tied again, undressed, redressed, and set free. She walks slowly back to her seat with a dazed expression.
Temporarily stunned and unable to put the experience into words, she gives New Times a rain check and a phone number and walks off with her Colombian boyfriend, Javier.
The next day, the 35-year-old landscaper says that at first she had some difficulty breathing through the mask and was afraid because she couldn't see. But then she thought, Maybe it's better I don't see.
Because of her experiences with tantra classes (she met her boyfriend, while both were naked, at one of these) and Native American sex workshops called Chuluaqui Quodoushka, she was not embarrassed to be stripped and put into pony gear in a roomful of strangers. "Nobody was there to see somebody naked," she says. "Nobody was a pervert. I felt a lot of respect from the trainer and his wife."
Lainez plans to tell her mother and sisters she had "a beautiful experience."
"It made me think a lot," she says. "With little things like that, you can grow a lot. Your mind. Your heart. How you take your sexuality. Everything."
There may be something to be said for open-mindedness, but truth be told, Sherifox is a little tired of fetish parties. On a picturesque Ocklawaha morning, she betrays a longing for the quiet farm life.
The days here begin with an avian symphony of crowing roosters, plaintive chirps of baby turkeys, their parents' sporadic gobbling, and the high-pitch chatter of wild birds. Glancing across the yard, one can just barely make out the silhouettes of horses, their necks extended toward the dewy grass. Their bodies have been obscured by the smoke blowing in from the Georgia fires.
An hour before Foxy and Sherifox rise, nine-year-old Colt Lee emerges from his bedroom in a long red bathrobe. (Colt Lee got his name before his father ever heard of training human ponies.)
Cherubic with cerulean eyes and a head of thick, corn-blond hair, Colt Lee starts the coffeemaker, shuffles to the living room, and sinks into a khaki recliner, seeming at least four times his age. There's a sleepy melancholy about him, a world-weariness that might have something to do with his mother, Foxy's ex-girlfriend.
She's also a drug addict. Colt Lee lived with her for his first eight years, skipping school and eating anything he wanted. Like any kid feasting on unlimited ice cream, he became accustomed to his freedom. And he gained weight.
Although Colt Lee spent some weekends with his father and Sherifox, his mother always made things as difficult as possible, Foxy says.
So that her son's visits would have to be cut short, she would pack his bags with bathing suits in the winter and down jackets in the summer. "I sent him with plenty of clothes," Foxy remembers her telling the judge.
A year and a half ago, she dropped the boy off at Foxy's on her way to jail. Since then, Colt Lee has been living with Foxy and Sherifox. He goes to school every day and was accepted into the gifted program. Under Sherifox's culinary supervision, he has lost 25 pounds. They have their disagreements, mostly rooted in Colt Lee's habit of doing whatever he wants and Sherifox's dominance over the household. (She's a switch, she explains, meaning she plays the alpha female in so much of her life that during ponyplay, she longs to give up her power.)
They also have their tender moments. For Mother's Day, Colt Lee made Sherifox a card and tucked a colorful portrait of a bird and a red carnation inside. He gave it to her along with a hug. "This is beautiful," she said, opening the card gently.
In fact, for much of their daily lives, the Davises -- Foxy, Sherifox, and Colt -- could be the Cleavers of rural Central Florida.
Colt Lee likes his life at Foxy and Sherifox's, though he misses his mom and his dog. He's aware that Foxy makes leather products in the small room dominated by a nude picture of Sherifox in her twenties; he doesn't think too much about it. He's focused on bass fishing and racecars.
As for other family members who are aware of Foxy and Sherifox's off-kilter hobbies, some disapprove. Sherifox's sister and mother, who are extremely religious, no longer accept her lifestyle or her paganism, she says. Foxy's sister in Connecticut and her children no longer speak to them either. "I accept them for their differences, and it hurts that they can't accept me," Sherifox says.
Some neighbors are similarly skeptical.
"They do that right across the street from my house?" one asks after hearing a brief explanation of ponyplay over the phone. "I did not know Foxy was doing that weird stuff. I'm not kidding. I know he has horses. I knew he was doing those sex toys. But he's gotten weirder and weirder. Now he's into dressing up like a goddamn horse?"
Another neighbor finds it comical. "Hey, whatever floats anybody's bubble," he says. "I don't care, but I don't play them kinda games."
Social rejection isn't the only trouble with the ponyplay lifestyle.
On a horseback ride through Ocala National Forest, around a lake, and to the prairie, Sherifox talks about friends whom she's lost to drugs and about the stresses of promoting a fetish while trying to live a normal life.
When Foxy began designing ponyplay accessories and selling them at events a couple of years ago, their popularity quickly grew. So, too, did the demand for the couple's presence at the events, because pony gear sells better with a face attached, especially Sherifox's.
The truth is, though, Sherifox isn't big on exhibitionism anymore. Her days as a stripper cured her of it, and now she prefers the camaraderie of people who know her best. She can get on just fine without the BDSM youngsters, but she can see Foxy takes an interest in them. Curious about their lives, Foxy has no problem approaching the strangest-looking person in a room -- the girl with piercings all over her face and black hair spiked to the ceiling. And everybody loves the original cracker cowboy, Sherifox says.
She has always been slightly unsure of herself, she says. In high school she was head cheerleader and dated a popular football player, but she never believed she was pretty. She wishes she could be more like Foxy, she says as she guides her horse toward a pond. He's got true confidence. He doesn't seem to care what anybody thinks of him.
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Sherifox and Foxy made a pact that if the fetish community's events ever came between them or got somebody jealous, they would drop out. They have an agreement that at every event, Foxy will play with Sherifox before he plays with anyone else, and he has always honored that. They make an effort to go out and do normal things during the fetish-party weekends, like visiting museums and stopping for picnic lunches. These activities remind Sherifox when she's on the road that the fetish stuff is just for kicks. A game. A fantasy.
Their reality, of course, is here in Ocklawaha.
"We're just like anybody -- a normal couple," Sherifox insists. "We get up and drink our coffee. We work hard. We walk to the barn holding hands." Its all about primitive autoerotic desires or maybe penis envy, Anna Freud contended.
Hes gotten weirder and weirder. Now hes into dressing up like a goddamn horse?