Do you think you know the “Horse Girls”? These writers would like a word

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On the bookshelf

Horse Girls: recovering, budding and dedicated riders redefine the iconic bond

Edited by Halimah Marcus
Harper: 304 pages, $ 17

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Before reading the exceptional anthology “Horse Girls”, edited by Halimah Marcus, I had always been perplexed about my time with horses in rural Alabama. From 5 to 10 years old, I had cut kudzu trails with Brownie, the smallest of my neighbor’s equine rescue animals. To break, Mrs. Cook and I rode bareback without helmets, just a few pointers (heels down, back straight). I didn’t know enough to be afraid. Someday, I thought, I would ride Mrs. Cook’s biggest horse, Cinnamon, which shone with opinions and attitudes, qualities I was accused of having too much of myself.

I never had my chance with Cinnamon. When I was 10, I moved to the suburbs of Chicago where only the richest of my friends were taking lessons in city stables with real English saddles. Like many of the contributors to “Horse Girls”, I have found my equestrian activities hampered by my family’s modest income. I quickly forgot about horses and have only ridden a handful of times since. Why then, decades later, are those golden afternoons with Brownie still some of the most vivid and carefree memories of my life?

The riders are grappling with stereotypes, evoking “heterosexuality, independence, whiteness, femininity”, as Carmen Maria Machado puts it in her striking contribution. In his introduction, Marcus presents his own list: “an overzealous misfit; a girl with her head in the pasture; a princess devoted to ponies and privileges; a dominatrix with high boots and a riding crop. What makes “Horse Girls” such a moving read is that it often blows up these ingrained ideas. Horse girls can be queer, non-binary, Asian or black, or Latin or multiracial. They can be middle class (like me) or poor. Even when a date looks like an 80s Ralph Lauren commercial, there is always more to tell.

After reading “Horse Girls”, I see my stay in Alabama as a wild education in femininity and equines, inextricably linked. In her essay “For the Roses”, Allie Rowbottom writes that “like it or not, our bodies define what we are considered capable of. The incarnation is a burden, a story, we cannot escape it; horses, valued or abandoned for their body depending on the situation and cultural mood, remind us of ourselves.

Halimah Marcus is the editor of the new anthology, “Horse Girls”.

(Bryan Derballa)

To consider the treatment of horses is to grapple with a world that wants to both consecrate and break women. Are women witches or servile tools of procreation? Are horses powerhouses that could crush us all at once, or are they slaves to industry, war, and other human whims? The heartbreaking answer is, of course, both. Has any creature borne the burden of this historical dichotomy as long and painfully as the horse? Has anyone looked at these power dynamics any closer than a horsewoman?

Horses are symbols and stories, some banal, others sublime. T Kira Madden, who was trained as a hunt jumper, barrel racer and jockey, has no patience for cocktail horse stories.

“When I am in the presence of the basic horse story, a rage thickens within me,” writes Madden in his loaded and confrontational essay, “I Don’t Like Horses.” “You don’t deserve this story, I think. You don’t even know.But Madden, whose wife is a horse trainer, also understands that stories are never that simple – a horse is never just a horse. this she writes in her possessive love for horses, which brought her back to horseback riding after quitting at age 13.

The sport of horseback riding often involves sacrifices; one of the themes of the collection is to reckon with the costs. C. Morgan Babst’s astonishing “Turnout” is one of the few essays that discusses eating disorders alongside show riding. Babst is the daughter of a serious horsewoman who has won awards by modestly riding an Amazon – and other times appearing in drag as a man. “Beauty comes at a price – it was clear – but you had to be beautiful to win,” Babst’s mother taught her as she glued the girl’s ears together before a performance. What a relief when, as an adult, Babst takes the tight-fitting tailored boots she wore as a hungry teenager and cuts “the pretty hand-sewn stitches with a knife,” [setting] my free body. The outing was so triumphant that I almost got up in bed and clapped.

In “Hungry and Carefree” Alex Marzano-Lesnevich recovers a 1928 lesbian classic, “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, as a tale of trans freedom, one of the many cultural texts that help to illuminate their time with their beloved childhood horse. , Carefree. Despite “the pleasure of forgetting my body when it was running”, Marzano-Lesnevich resists the impulse to define their horse history as that of the liberation of genres. Instead, Carefree and the author are bound by whatever has been left behind.

“The girl that I was is as much an artifact of history as anyone I can discover in a book,” writes Marzano-Lesnevich. “Equally mysterious to me. Just like gone. In his place, I imagine Carefree. We do with animals what we do with the past: project our hopes, our human feelings and our failures onto them.

In “Unconquered”, one of the many attempts to rightly reset the horse’s relationship with groups outside the white elite, Braudie Blais-Billie, born to a Seminole father and a Quebec mother, rethinks to the love of horses that she shared with her white grandparents. Their family walks were a balm for “the wound that their relaxed otherness has left.” As an adult, she learns that she descends from a Seminole equestrian dynasty, building a bridge to her late father, who painfully self-destructed on the Rez.

Blue cover of "Horse Girls: recovering, budding and dedicated riders redefine the iconic bond" with a gold horseshoe

In recent years, American culture has become fascinated by black cowboys and cowgirls, who have shown up at the Black Lives Matter protests and in the Lil Nas X video “Old Town Road”. Sarah Enelow-Snyder grew up in a barrel race in Texas, competing in 4-H club competitions that would not have allowed him to race against white girls just 30 years ago. Subject to the racism of her classmates, she opted for home schooling. As an adult, she was devastated by the Instagram accounts Outdoor Afro and Cowgirls of Color. “I wondered what my childhood would have been like if… I could have seen girls on horses that didn’t look or perform like archetypal rodeo queens,” she writes.

Many essays in “Horse Girls”, such as Courtney Maum’s memorable “Playing Safe”, which takes place in Mexico during the pandemic, involve adults rediscovering horseback riding after a long absence. It’s amazing to imagine Jane Smiley, mother of all horse writers, taking a 25-year hiatus to return to 43 with three young children and eight books to her name, and she writes affectionately on several as if they were his children.

For Smiley, it is an intimate emotional bond with the animal. We should all be so lucky to know something, or anyone, so well.

What makes an adult woman return to horses? The trap of adulthood – embodied in Maum’s depression or Smiley’s outright over-engagement – often requires simplification, a great deal of scrutiny. In these moments, we ride again for the feeling, and nothing more. I was last on horseback about eight years ago in Big Sur. I was humbled to see how terrifying it was to be on top of a massive animal, at its mercy. I cherished the experience, but thought I never wanted to repeat it – until I read this book. Now, I can’t wait to regain that freedom and that fear.

Wappler is a writer in Los Angeles.


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