Plato saw them as the motor of the soul, and we still measure our speed by their power. But, as Ruth Padel reveals, our attitude to horses depends largely on where we were born
They are the animals of luck and dream. From mares in the night to white waves thundering off into every horizon, horses stand for imagination and freedom. One friend of mine used to gaze at the lightbulb till the filament burned a lucky horse-shoe into her brain; my daughter lists dreamily all the names of bits ("Pelham, Kimblewick, Snaffle, Bradoon"); Plato saw them as the motor of the soul. They are, or were, the flesh of communication, how we get news from Ghent to Aix; we still measure our speed by their power. This autumn has been showcasing horses two ways, both American and European. After the British Horse of the Year Show came Monty Roberts the American horse whisperer, touring England while a leading American ballerina made his work into choreography. And now Vienna's white stallions are coming to Manchester, Birmingham and Wembley.

Horses are herd animals. They live by physical contact and simultaneous movement. When one steeple-chaser takes off for a jump, the one behind rises with it. Monty Roberts learned horse body-language from watching wild herds: he calls it "Equus". In half an hour, he can get a wild horse to glue itself to his heel like a numbingly faithful spaniel, and accept saddle, bridle and rider. Roberts works from the horse's desire "to join up, be part of the team". A wild horse runs when he sees you, but follows if you demonstrate dominance and leadership by squaring up to him, then walk away. He'll approach and want you, as in the getting-to-know-you scene from The Black Stallion. A horse's creed is also, oddly enough, the basis of human ballet: bodies belong together. The ballerina-choreographer Antonia Franceschi based a recent dance on Roberts's work. The male and female dancer enacted a wild horse tamed by man. Her movements evoked the horse's grace of body, plus panic at man's approach. When the man turned away, she came after him. Their final pas de deux was the harmony of horse and rider: her wildness disciplined by being with him, his limitations vanishing through contact with her. Body partnered impeccably by soul.

Franceschi was one of Balanchine's top dancers and knows all about disciplined bodies. She was in Grease with John Travolta at 16 and Alan Parker's Fame at 17, but Balanchine never knew of her film work ("I'd have gotten crucified"), for he was the archetypal body-dictator, sculpting his dancers' bodies and movements. He made thinness obligatory. One muffin lasted Franceschi all day; she would nibble one edge at the fourth subway stop, the next at coffee break. When chosen for a role, you had to stay the way you were - to the milli-ounce. Sleeping and waking, your body did what Balanchine wanted. You couldn't even read; your imagination was part of your body, therefore in thrall to him.

Now Franceschi has left New York to showcase American dance throughout Europe; particularly in London, which has never really accepted the freer vision created (paradoxically) by Balanchine's iron rule: perhaps because European and American understanding of bodies in partnership (human or equine) is utterly different. America goes for vitality and freedom, Britain and Europe for tradition and control; America has mustangs in its soul - Monty Roberts may psychoanalyse the Queen's horses now, but he started off in rodeos; Europe has chivalry, hunter trials, dressage.

The world centres of high dressage are in France and Austria: the Cadre Noir at Saumur, the Spanische Reiteschule in Vienna. They do classical dressage and dance steps, the piaffe, passage or pirouette (performed in Vienna to Mozart and Strauss), but are most famous for their "Airs Above the Ground": the levade, when the horse rears (man on back), and holds the pose like a dancer on points; the courbette, a series of forward jumps in levade position, without putting the front hooves down; and the capriole, when the horse leaps up, hangs motionless in the air - an arc of frozen strength - then kicks out with all legs at the top of the leap.

There are no politically correct origins of anything in Europe. These miracles of body and spirit are supposedly based on movements the colt does at play. Kicking, rearing. bucking, prancing. But they were also 16th-century battle manoeuvres. Their original purpose was death, mainly of lower orders such as foot soldiers. In Europe, the horse has meant war. "We owe victory to the horses," wrote the Conquistadors in 1525. In all the best war-horses, snowy fetlocks once were scarlet: "White stallions with red shins", as an ancient epic, Gereint, Son of Erbin, puts it.

Founded in 1572 to train horses and noblemen for war, the Spanish School is aristocratic to its hoof-tips. It uses only its own breed: Europe's oldest pure-bred horse, the Lippizaner, descended from Spanish horses (hence the name of the school), whose ancestors came from Arabia in 800AD. Lippizaner bloodlines are older than most royalty. Their history is a European tale of empire, elitism, and blood.

Franceschi and Roberts's body-discipline is based, like Balanchine's, on a dream of wildness. The American dream-horse is wild, part of a shatteringly un-European history and geography, linked to the culture America all but destroyed and now calls "Native America", and to the partnership fetishised in cowboy song and summed up in the opening shot of Oklahoma. American imagination gallops across a limitless, violent continent; British horse- dreams are smaller-scale. Horses as dreams of freedom, yes, but only for a moment: a Stubbs group of horses suddenly frisky at sunset. Our native horses are ponies (Exmoor, Dale) while the thoroughbred, like the Lippizaner, is the product of breeding and enclosure. We confine our dreams to paddock, stable, gymkhana: the body controlled, not body free.

Ireland (plus a few areas of wilder Europe) has an ambiguous role here between America and Britain. Of course, Ireland does expert breeding and training, but still has more wildness and freedom in its horse-dreams; which are linked, as in America, with wilder, apparently freer people. The Claddagh Gypsies of Galway say "Gypsy gold does not glitter; it gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark." City boys today keep horses throughout Dublin. In a recent Irish film, kids on a housing estate cherish a white horse, Tir na og, named for the legendary western paradise - until things get impossible and they light out for the west, for freedom. In Ireland and America, horses are democratic ("I've as good a right as you to ride"), part of the freedom dream. As in the French film, Crin Blanc, where a boy's passion for a Camargue stallion leads him to the ambiguous freedom of death. Pursued by men on horseback (embodiments of ownership and power), horse and boy swim out to sea, heading for "a place where they will always be free", and drown. The wild horse is freedom, the individual's right to roam.

But in most of Europe, horses have been an aristocratic image. No prairies for us. Horses shout nostalgia for a pastoral past alight with class distinction. Plough-horses under the elms, oat-fed hunters under top-hats, Betjeman girls entangled in their martingales, Hackney carriages, Sir Lancelot. Europe's way of dreaming horses is absolutely opposite to the mustangs flowing through American heads.

But sex brings Europe and America a little closer. In both continents the horse-rider duo is a sexual metaphor which fortifies male dreams: a pas de deux between alien species (men are from Mars, women speak "Equus"), in which the wild, shy, beautiful one is born to serve the other. As in Edwin Muir's poem "Horses":

They were strange to us

As fabulous steeds set on ancient shield

Or illustrations in a book of knights.

We did not dare go near them, yet they waited,

Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent

By an old command to find our whereabouts

And that long-lost archaic companionship.

In the first moment we never had a thought

That they were creatures to be owned and used...

Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads. But that free servitude still can change our hearts.

Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

"Horsemanship" is a man-made sexual image everywhere. Horse and woman need man. Luckily, man has needs, too. Needs to shed limitations, to get in touch with power different from his own, to get someone to work for him. Enter woman, all nature and impulse: the body beautiful, waiting for his controlling intelligence and purpose.

This is bollocks, of course, as far as reality goes. But the metaphor resonates back to Plato's theory of the soul, and energises a load of man-made theories, marriages, and art from horsemanship to ballet. It has a lot of mileage in it, dammit, yet

The Spanish Riding School is in Manchester, today and tomorrow; Birmingham, 13-16 November; London, 20-23 November. For bookings, telephone 0171-976- 7711. The International Horse Show is at Olympia, London W14, December 18-22. Booking: 0171-373 3113.