My Little Ponies, Breyer Horses, “The Saddle Club,” 4-H, private lessons, there’s a good chance you know a “horse girl.” Perhaps you yourself were deemed “horse crazy,” like I was, as a prepubescent kid, who begged to muck out stalls for free just to be near horses.
For “Horse Girls: Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond,” editor and writer Halimah Marcus assembles a superstar list of writers — both emerging and established — to reassess the recognizable bond between girls and horses. Through a vast range of literary voices, “Horse Girls” (Harper Perennial) interrogates stereotypes, preconceptions, and misconceptions, as well as long-standing tropes, ranging from the pseudo-Freudian (a love of horses is misplaced erotic desire) to the heteronormative and misogynistic (horses are a phase that girls will grow out of once they discover boys).
Far beyond the trite image of girls mooning over Quarter Horses like boy band posters, the book suggests that horses are a path to empowerment, self-knowledge, and personal and spiritual growth. Horses are also one of the more socially acceptable ways for girls to express competitiveness, ambition, and the desire to win. Beyond that horses connect us to a world within and outside of ourselves.
In Marcus’ introduction, she reveals how her girlhood passion for riding arose again in adulthood. First though she must contend with “horse girl” clichés, twinges of shame, and nostalgia for a road not taken. Like many girls privileged enough to grow up with horses and riding as a sport, she gave up show jumping when she went away to college. Her choice came down to riding competitively or becoming a writer. Doing both seemed prohibitive. After her parents sold her horse, due to the high cost of boarding, she attempted to leave her “horse girl” years behind. She writes, “I played indie music on the college radio station, dressed in vintage clothes, and wrote moody short stories…” anything to avoid being seen as an “unfashionable, out of touch, unsophisticated” equine fanatic.
As a young woman in her twenties, Marcus admits to a boyfriend that she misses riding, and another layer of what it means to be a horse girl is peeled back like an onion. Living in New York City while in an MFA program, her boyfriend gifts her a lesson for her birthday. But he shows visible disappointment when she shows up wearing regular clothes. He wants to see “those tan leggings and tall boots.” After Marcus realizes that he only wants to fetishize her, and then mock her for her intertest behind her back, readers understand how difficult it is for horse girls to get out from under the male gaze.
It takes a message spray painted on a rock for Marcus to remember why she first loved riding: “When we ride a horse we borrow its freedom.”
“Freedom, yes,” Marcus thinks, the sensation of galloping that “[p]eople can’t help but compare it to flying.”
It’s all too easy to conjure what a “horse girl” might look like: tall, slender, blond, and white. Unparalleled in expense, horses exist within a realm of privilege that other extracurricular interests can’t touch. In her essay “Playing Safe” Courtney Maum talks about quarantining in the beautiful seascape of Careyes, Mexico. She learns about a young oil heiress, who has been receiving polo lessons despite pandemic restrictions. She learns that the oil baron is worried about what people say if they find out that the wealthiest individuals aren’t sheltering in place. In order to please his daughter, he buys two polo horses and flies them via seaplane back to the family home, where he builds an arena so his daughter can continue to practice her passion. It’s a telling detail that reveals some truth to the image of the blue-blooded horse girl, who’s afforded all that she desires.
“Horse Girls” includes essays from writers who face racial and gender discrimination alongside financial barriers that make riding and horse ownership forbidden or nearly so. In one of my favorite essays, “A Racer Without a Pedigree,” Sarah Enelow-Snyder, writes about growing up as a Black barrel racer in Texas. She writes movingly about how much her father wants her to be able to have a horse and experience the thrill of riding. For a few hundred dollars, he buys her a horse named Leo, and Leo becomes her “friend and teammate.” Her early days of showing Leo at 4-H competitions don’t go so well.
“By the time the judge came to us, I was standing tall with perfect posture, but Leo’s head hung almost in the dirt. He was falling asleep, his back hoof cocked in relaxation, swatting flies with this tail… to no one’s surprise, we didn’t even place in that event.”
Enelow-Snyder badly wants to please her father, who attends every competition. One of her early losses ends in tears, and he chides her by pointing out a young Mexican girl, who handles her failures with aplomb:
“I didn’t know this girl, but I’d been noticing her all day. She had thick, dark hair stuffed under a cowboy hat. Her distracted horse stepped out of line, tossed his head high, whinnied loudly, and otherwise threw every event. She placed dead last in everything. The girl couldn’t stop smiling.”
Enelow-Snyder points out that starting in 1902, 4-H clubs were segregated by both race and gender. Segregation was outlawed in 1964 after the passage of The Civil Rights Act. However “by the time [she] joined 4-H, it had been integrated for only thirty years.” As recently as 2019, lawsuits have been filed against 4-H for racist practices.
Essays like Enelow-Snyder’s give “Horse Girls” grit and heart. Dipping into broadened narratives is what makes the book a pleasure to read. Nur Nasreen Ibrahim’s essay “The Shrinking Mountain,” has a cinematic quality, depicting her childhood spent riding horses in Nathiagali, a vacation spot in the mountains of Pakistan. Born into a wealthy family, she grows to understand the difference between her life summering in Nathiagali compared to the year-round existence of the horse owners, who supply visitors with horses a few months out of the year, living on almost nothing the rest of the time.
A horseman named Shakoor shows up at the family’s summer home the moment they arrive, bearing horses like colorful gifts: “They had bells, colorful beads, and ornaments dangling from their bridles and around their mouths and ears. Pink, yellow, orange, and blue balls of woolen string hung under the horses’ heads like fat dandelions twining around their long necks.”
Some essays in the collection are not this strong. In fact, a few read as if the writer was responding to a generic prompt: write about horses. Unfortunately, Marcus puts the weakest essay at the beginning, so after the first few pages I worried all of the collection would be half-baked ideas about horses and girlhood. Thankfully, I kept reading and discovered essays worth their weight in gold towards the middle and end of the volume. Essays such as “Turnout” by C. Morgan Babst and “For the Roses” by Allie Rowbottom, were transcendent for how they expanded a subject into a story, with so much detail and emotion, I couldn’t, even for a second, take my eyes off the page.
“Horses are free in ways humans can only sample,” Marcus writes.
And after spending what feels like an eternity at home, unable to travel, thousands of miles from family and friends, I positively needed this book to transport me to woodland trails, dusty arenas, and the beautiful landscapes such as Mexico, Pakistan, and Iceland. For this form of vicarious travel alone, I’d recommend “Horse Girls” to horse lovers from all walks of life.
Recovering, Aspiring, and Devoted Riders Redefine the Iconic Bond
By Halimah Marcus
Harper Perennial, 304 pages, $17