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I don’t talk about my Horse Girl era much.

Maybe it’s because of the assumptions I fear people will make about me based on the cultural stereotype. Maybe it’s because I feel other childhood obsessions — sled dogs, Greek mythology, the Redwall series, various Nintendo franchises — had a more formative impact on the adult I became. Maybe it’s because my time as a Horse Girl felt so brief and casual compared to the denim-jacketed diehards that define said stereotype; as if I was merely a pony poseur, not a true Horse Girl. 

But I cannot deny that from the ages of roughly 7 to 10, I was fully, unapologetically, a Horse Girl. 

Here’s what I remember: Listening to the audiobook (back when they truly were “books on tape”) of Misty of Chincoteague on a family road trip. The trail ride in Estes Park, Colorado when I was 7 — probably the happiest day of my life. The sirenic allure of the bright pink and blue Grand Champions collectible boxes. The thick Dorling Kindersley breed guide I read over and over again, cover to cover, memorizing every detail; I could tell you the difference between a Russian Don and a Budyonny, although I definitely couldn’t today. The one summer I attempted a riding camp, with the mustiness, the satisfaction of cleaning the muck from a hoof, and Coley, the small, curmudgeonly black mare who kicked if you didn’t approach her right and who I loved with every fiber of my head-in-the-clouds being. 

Over the past several years, there’s been plenty of writing exploring our cultural obsession with the idea of the Horse Girl. This identity holds so much — in examinations of Horse Girls, we find odes to untamed femininity, searing indictments of insularity and privilege, and a swinging pendulum between romantic nostalgia and reality. She is both the awkward and O-M-G-relatable Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers and a stirring voice in the poetry of Ada Limón. In 2021, Electric Literature executive editor Halimah Marcus edited a collection of essays reclaiming and recasting the stereotype; two pieces from that collection are included on this list, along with some other favorites that explore the idea of the Horse Girl and the bond at its center. So saddle up and enjoy.

An Autistic Girl’s Guide to Horses (Katie Rose Pryal, Catapult, December 2022)

Katie Rose Pryal was diagnosed with autism in 2020, at the age of 44. Upon receiving her diagnosis, she writes, much of her childhood “came into focus,” particularly her special interest in horses. Around the same time as she recognized her autism, she was learning how to ride again, with her horse, Leroy. Her bond with Leroy intertwines with her further understanding of her own self and experiences. The resulting reflection is introspective and healing. 

For an autistic person, to be able to communicate, to touch, to care, all without fear, is a gift. Too often, our words, our very actualities, are rejected. With Leroy, I could share all of my secrets, spoken or unspoken, and he would listen with one fuzzy ear cocked in my direction. I could drape my body across his back and rest my head on his side, listening to the slow beat of his heart, steady as the dirt beneath our feet. Even when his coat was glossy, I could brush him, aligning each tiny red hair across his flank.

Black Californians Have Long Celebrated Cowboy Culture. We’re Just Catching Up. (Tyrone Beason, Los Angeles Times, December 2022) 

Beason profiles riders of all genders for this gorgeous feature for the Times’ “My Country” series, so I’m choosing to count it for this list. This piece takes readers on a journey from the bucking thrill of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, an event celebrating Black cowboys and cowgirls, to a peaceful morning at the end of a trail ride on a Northern California farm —  a painful past being reclaimed to the celebratory current zeitgeist of Lil Nas X and Beyonce. Come for the stories of Black joy and community; stay for Jason Armond’s stunning photos. 

It originated as an epithet used to demean Black cattle drivers and ranch hands, who made up as much as a quarter of all such workers in the Southwest in the late 1800s, says Boyd-Pates. When Black men call themselves ‘cowboys’ and Black women refer to themselves as ‘cowgirls,’ Boyd-Pates says, they take pride in being able to transform a painful history into something they can glorify.

Finland’s Hobbyhorse Girls, Once a Secret Society, Now Prance in Public (Ellen Barry, New York Times, April 2019) 

Barry’s dispatch from Helsinki is not the first exploration of the community around hobbyhorsing, a sport in which adolescent girls trot, hurdle, and race astride wooden toy horses. The hobbyhorse girls of Finland have been the subject of viral videos, documentaries, and trend pieces — both praised as unique confidence-builders, and derided for being too childish, or worse, cringe

What happens when the hobbyhorse girl grows up, though? One of the key voices in Barry’s exploration is Alisa Aarniomaki, a spokeswoman for the sport who is now in her early twenties. Through profiling those who have stuck with the hobby, even as they grow into teenagers and young adults, Barry highlights the importance of the community to its members and how we may all need a space to safely rekindle our sense of childlike joy. Cringe is dead, the earth above it tamped by thousands of imagined hoofbeats. Long live the earnest pursuit of wonder. 

Once, she was invited to a party in France where adult guests were given hobbyhorses, provided as a way, she said, ‘to run away from your boring and maybe exhausting normal life.’ The one thing that drives her crazy, she added, is when people describe her hobbyhorse pursuit as playing. ‘If someone says we are playing, it strips away everything we made, it strips away the reality.’

Horse Girl (Heather Radtke, The Believer, February 2019)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one is a Horse Girl, one must have a favored Horse Girl book or series. These are often pillars of the genre, standalones like Black Beauty or series like The Saddle Club, Pony Pals, or Thoroughbred

As a former Marguerite Henry girlie (if you were also a big King of the Wind fan as a child, know that I see you and I love you), I was thrilled to see a dispatch from the famed Chincoteague Island Pony Swim, an event that has captured the imaginations of Horse Girls ever since its appearance in the iconic Horse Girl novel Misty of Chincoteague

In its encapsulation of the wild, murky, and sometimes uncomfortable space between two ideas, Radtke’s reflection on her visit to Chincoteague feels like the pony swim itself. As the horses make their perilous journey between islands, we find ourselves in the messy middle space between hazy nostalgia and harsh reality, wonder and horror, the desire for something to exist in our imaginations as both unclaimable and wild, and as an accepting friend. 

Watching the scene asked me to hold two truths at once. The ponies are wild creatures that, like deer or raccoons, need to be managed. But in the mythology of the swim, the ponies are also presented as transcendent companions, animals who might offer up their manes for braiding and their backs for riding. Here, the ponies were both docile pets and feral beasts, animals that need to be convinced to swim so they might be ridden by little girls.

Horse Girl: An Inquiry (Carmen Maria Machado, excerpted for Them from Horse Girls, edited by Halimah Marcus, August 2021)

The Horse Girl stereotype is associated with privilege — whiteness, wealth, thinness, hyper-femininity — despite, as Carmen Maria Machado points out, a multitude of non-white riding cultures and traditions. Typically, when thinking of Horse Girls, we project our collective assumptions about what a Horse Girl is or isn’t, and mix in our own desires or insecurities. 

Machado’s contribution to Marcus’s anthology explores identities and desire — those we cultivate, like the author’s wish to be around horses and burgeoning queerness, and those projected onto us as an assumption, fetishization, or other intrusion. (In one section, she notes she is “exasperated” that this essay includes, among other things, inappropriate comments from older men and sexual innuendo.) In a stunning personal inquiry, Machado tracks that desire, from a covert moment with a coveted toy horse to briefly revisiting riding as an out queer adult. 

There are so many moments that will stick with me from reading this that it’s hard to pick just one, but a particularly intriguing parallel she makes is between horses having barn names and show names and the magic people find in names for drag or roller derby.

Are Unicorns Horses? Unicorns are horses that can only be ridden by virgins. 

Are Horses Unicorns? Horses don’t care what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you.

What Are Horses? A species of odd-toed, ungulate mammal, primarily domesticated, belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae. Useful, expensive, dangerous. Beautiful.

How Horses Helped My Ancestors Evade Colonizers, & Helped Me Find Myself (Braudie Blais-Billie, excerpted for Bustle from Horse Girls, edited by Halimah Marcus, July 2021)

Braudie Blais-Billie’s connection to horses derives from both sides of her family: She describes the thrill of watching barrel racing at the Seminole rodeo with her paternal grandmother and feeding apples to her maternal grandparents’ horses at their home in rural Québec. Her great-grandfather, she learns, was a prominent Seminole cattleman. 

In addition to reflecting on her family’s deep connection to horses and how it shaped her identity, Blais-Billie digs deeper into the history of Seminole resistance to colonization, and the role that the shared knowledge of horses and cattle husbandry played in their survival. It’s a reminder that the bond between humans and horses has been about more than childhood fantasy as displayed on Trapper-Keeper stickers — it’s been a means of resistance and resilience, of deep connection to one’s history, culture, and community. (Also, at a time of attempts to repress teaching histories of non-white and other marginalized peoples in the U.S., it’s a reminder of the power that comes in keeping those histories and stories accessible.) 

Tia and I have settled on the loose term ‘Seminole horse girl.’ It seems simple, but the specificity allows just enough space for the intricacies of our biracial identity. Like the Seminole peoples, ‘Seminole horse girls’ originates from a conglomeration of cultures adapting to their environment; sometimes not belonging to one group exclusively can be empowering. I’ve found that, in our family, horseback riding is more than show titles and prestigious stables — horses are how we survive.

I Entered the World’s Longest, Loneliest Horse Race on a Whim, and I Won (Lara Prior-Palmer, Longreads, May 2019)

The Mongol Derby is a test of will for even the most experienced rider, a grueling 1000-kilometer (621-mile) run recreating the messenger route of Genghis Khan through a variety of terrain on semi-wild horses. Riders change horses every 40 km, which means less exhaustion for the horses but an even greater challenge for the riders, who switch horses just as they’ve grown accustomed to the quarter-ton beast under them. In 2013, British equestrian Lara Prior-Palmer became the first woman to win this equine gauntlet, which she writes about in her memoir, Rough Magic, excerpted here for Longreads.

Those looking for the visceral awe of the race itself will have to read Prior-Palmer’s memoir in its entirety, but what makes this section so engrossing is the strong sense of place. We’re with her as she finds herself lost in the “concrete nowheres” of London, then in the green expanse outside Ulaanbaatar, and inside her mind as she longs for the adventure and freedom so often romanticized within the Horse Girl canon. As she trains by riding bareback through a field of ragwort — at full gallop, gripping the horse with all her strength — it’s hard not to feel that dangerous thrill, that reminder of why these animals have such a chokehold on our imaginations. 

I was expecting quite the holiday — a green steppe stuffed full of feisty ponies, with hunky riders from all over the world. One to trump the sightseeing and sunbathing holidays I was used to… By the time I applied for the Derby, I was no longer keen on touring the world’s buildings with awestruck stares. My thighs were strong and my heart was raw, yearning for my own motion.

My Little Pony Broke All of the ‘Girl Toy’ Rules (Seanan McGuire, Polygon, November 2020)

As there is for all the semi-universal phenomena of millennial and Gen-Z childhoods, there’s a TikTok about this. In a clip that has been seen more than 1.5 million times, user @funkyfrogbait compares how people think girls play with toys (bubbly, idle chat about shopping) with how they actually play with toys, wherein wide-eyed plastic critters become players in a harrowing trial before a shadowy council. The comments are full of affirmations, memories of Barbies in divorce court, Polly Pocket murder mysteries, and even re-enacting the sinking of the Titanic with Littlest Pet Shop toys. 

It’s difficult for a child of the ’80s or later to imagine this kind of narrative-heavy pretend play, full of high fantasy and even higher stakes, as being out of reach. My own childhood memories are spotted with dramatic courtroom scenes with stuffed animals and battlefield epics with Beanie Babies. But in this essay for Polygon’s “Horse Girl Canon” package, Seanan McGuire explores how My Little Pony, a fantasy-focused toy line “for girls,” shaped the way we still play today. It’s a fascinating look at the cultural significance of the toys, and their evolution from a realistic companion for horse girls with aspirations of stables to juggernaut — a rainbow-tinted powerhouse that sparked imaginations at a time when only “boy toys” were centered on this kind of fantastical play. (Of course, as McGuire correctly notes, the American toy industry still enforces a rigid gender binary, but kids of all genders have always enjoyed “girl toys” like My Little Pony.)

The 1980s were a time of fantasy adventures for children, with little attention paid by the censors to anything that had been preemptively dismissed as an attempt to sell toys… Death was generally off-screen, but it was present, and dangers were both real and manifest in the worlds we were told our toys and imaginary friends inhabited. But at the time of My Little Pony’s launch, all the grand, sweeping adventure was reserved for the blue side of the toy aisle, intended for the male** audience. Toys aimed at girls were much more likely to be domestic in nature, filled with baby dolls and pretend kitchens — in other words, training them for adulthood.

People Ask Me to Write About Horses (Adrienne Celt, Tin House, June 2018)

Author Adrienne Celt achieved what most Horse Girls only manifest in fantastical notebook scribblings: owning a real live horse. But like most things romanticized from afar, reality can be bumpy — horse ownership is messy, expensive, and can be heartbreaking. Celt tenderly reflects on what draws “rational adults” to horses, and on her emboldening bond and uncertain future with her own horse, Lady. 

Celt admits that reflecting on the pain points of horse ownership sounds like #ChampagneProblems, but it’s, as always, about more than that. It’s an essay on horses and their romanticization, but also an essay about seeking and pursuing joy, digging your heels in and spurring it on, chasing it cantering into the wind. 

Of course, when I say that horses are romantic, I mean for people who don’t spend much time with them. To most actual horse people, the animals lose their mystique rather quickly. On farms and ranches they’re beasts of burden, livestock of the same order as cows or pigs or dogs or goats. To a pleasure rider like me, they’re funny and corporeal: they fart in your face when you try to pick their back feet, and get scared when they see things out of the corners of their eyes, thinking that any abandoned truck tire or garden hose is about to kill them.

Who Gets To Be an Equestrian? (Rita Omokha, Elle, October 2020) 

As millions of people took to the streets following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, so began a reckoning over anti-Black racism in many sectors and communities, including equestrians. In June 2020, teen equestrian Sophie Gochman wrote an essay for The Chronicle of the Horse, calling out the race and class privilege of the community; a white trainer responded in the same publication with defensiveness and condescension while quoting MLK. Rita Omokha continues this necessary conversation, speaking with Black women equestrians about the discrimination they face — both overt and systemic — and how they are working to make the sport more welcoming. 

Omokha’s thoughtful profile of Black equestrians serves as a reminder that should undergird conversations about representation in any community or sport. Behind this discourse, you’ll find real people with real passion and expertise, paying a real human cost (be it financial, emotional, or otherwise) that they should never have had to pay. Omokha takes care to discuss the struggle of being “one of the few,” and the conflict between excelling in the world you love, and, as equestrian Shaquilla Blake puts it, “whitewashing [yourself]” to do so. 

Under the shade, the air thick with the scent of manure, they take a moment to catch their breath before the day’s trail rides begin. As Blake cools off, she feels a tug at her dreadlocks. “Can you feel that?” a giddy voice says from behind her. It belongs to a 13-year-old girl whose profile matches what Blake calls “your typical equestrian”—namely, wealthy and white. Can I feel that?? Of course I can! You just yanked the hell out of my dreads!

Lindsay Eanet is a Chicago-based writer, editor & performer. Her writing has been featured at Polygon, Longreads, Serious Eats, Block Club Chicago & others. But enough about her, let’s talk about you. 

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy-editor: Peter Rubin